Tracing time’s arrow

Janice Pariat | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Spoken words do not just measure time, but give us an impression of what time “feels” like. To read, to recite a line aloud, to begin, eventually to come to an end. And begin again.

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Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat

With the beginning of each new year — and each new book — we realise that all literature, inevitably, is time

At the end of the year, there is perceptible preoccupation with time.

How did the months pass so quickly? Each year seems to go by faster. Or rather its loss. It ‘flies’. In Latin tempus fugit. A phrase considered to spring from Virgil’s poem ‘Georgica’ (29 BC): “But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.” Horace expresses a similar sentiment in ‘Carmina’ (23 BC): “While we are speaking, envious time will have fled: seize the present day.”

Much literature speaks of time’s swift, inevitable passing.

Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ places the promises of forever love against time’s steady march. As does Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Mirabeau Bridge’ (“The night is a clock chiming/ The days go by not I”). In his ‘The Imitations of Horace’, Alexander Pope wrote about the loss of youth and more: “Years following years steal something ev’ry day. At last they steal us from ourselves away”. In Sonnet XIX, Shakespeare is bolder, throwing the gauntlet, as it were, in time’s face. “Do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time/ To the wide world and all her fading sweets” but he forbids it from tainting his love’s face with age. Ending with a defiant “My love shall in my verse ever live young.”

But time and text converse also in several other ways.

One may imagine a work of literature involving disparate, and potentially quite separate, time frames. As elaborated on ‘Exactly What is Time’, a website that seeks to answer just that, this could include the time at which the work was originally written, or “author time”. Also “narrator time” or the time at which the protagonist experiences or narrates the story, and “plot time” when the action depicted actually takes place. And finally, “reader time” when a reader reads the work or sees it performed. These time zones may lie close together, or be jostled apart. Consider reading in 2016, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A novel published in 1928, whose narrator is born in Elizabethan England (between 1558-63), and whose storyline continues for more than 300 years.

Storytelling technique also involves the manipulation of time. Standard chronological plot may cover a person’s life, or a segment of, or centuries or millennia. Time may be compressed (think Edward Rutherfurd’s London) or expanded (Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which describes Raskolnikov’s reflections in such minute detail that the plot actually unfolds over a period shorter than the average reader takes to read it). There are those works that ignore the constraints of linear time. In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the past and present constantly intermingle. Mystery or detective novels often invert time. They usually start with the violent crime or a murder, and work backwards in order to uncover the reasons why the present turns out as it is. Some, like the Hitchcock Zoom (where the camera both zooms in and is moved further away from its subject), treats time as duality. Running forward and back. In Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the protagonist is born as a 70-year-old man who ages backwards; that is, he ‘regresses’, and becomes younger until he vanishes into oblivion.

Some books are about the absence of time.

One of our earliest surviving works of literature, the Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh (2100 BC) involves a quest for the secret to eternal life. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels we encounter “struldbrugs”, a race of immortals, who, like Tithonus, do not have the gift of eternal youth. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the immortal elves view the mortality of men as a gift — albeit one they don’t understand or appreciate — while they are doomed to accumulate an infinite lifetime of tragedy. Immortality as a literary theme allows a writer to examine and confront our deepest fears about dying, and also to explore to what extent mortality defines us. Our time matters — we matter — precisely because it ends.

“All literature is time,” claims J Hillis Miller in his essay Time in Literature. And he is right in that all literary works present in one way or another the human experience of lived time. Yet, what calls me is his idea that literature is also a non-spatial way to measure time. Book Nine of St Augustine’s The Confessions, considered one of the earliest great reflections on the mystery of human temporality, culminates in a reflection on what happens as he repeats a psalm he knows by heart — “at first expecting the whole, then gradually, as he repeats more and more of its words, moving them one by one back into the past, into his memory of having said them.”

For Augustine, human time is experienced and measured through the sequential syllables of a sacred poem, the psalm that he already knows before he begins reciting it. Spoken words do not just measure time, but give us an impression of what time “feels” like. To read, to recite a line aloud, to begin, eventually to come to an end. And begin again.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse; @janicepariat

Published on December 30, 2016
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