Time for some writing

29 May

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking rather hard about time.

I don’t mean linear time. I try not to be worried by time’s passing. Last week was the past; next week is the future. In three years I’ll have more freckles and different glasses, probably, but aside from vague generalisations and glib aphorisms, I can’t really predict what time will do to me.

I do occasionally stop and wonder how I got to be nearly twenty three; apparently irremediably single, still living at home, lacking a strong sense of direction, few meaningful accolades to my name. I had a conversation with my dad recently during which I bemoaned my complete lack of progression along what some might call the path of adulthood. It went like this:

Me: I can’t believe I’m nearly 23. I haven’t done anything with my life!

My dad: Well, let’s see now. When I was your age – I’d met your mum. Oh, and I had a house, and a mortgage. The house only cost about six grand, but I still needed one. And I think – had I started that company? Yes – I think I’d started that one, and then the other one. Oh, and I had a car.

Me: Waaaaaugh!

So, as I said, I try not to think about linear time. My beef here is with the concept of time generally and how weird it is. This is partly inspired by the book I’m reading at the moment (Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson, if you’re interested) and by my own understanding of time according to Greeks and Romans. Specifically I’m talking about (sort-of) Golden Age Latin literature (especially Catullus, Propertius, Horace and Ovid) and Herodotus. Oh, and Doctor Who. Obviously.

This timey-wimey stuff, then, is kind of crazy. Say you describe Time as a sphere. You can divide it with a straight line between two points and get a plane surface. This is linear time – time between points. Isolate any spot along that line and you have a second, a minute, an hour, a day – you get the picture. Taken in isolation, what does that mean? It isn’t the passage of time anymore. It’s just a moment. All lines are made up of moments like this. What is it that turns a dot into a trajectory? Where’s the motion that propels us from one moment to the next? What if there is no motion, only friction? What if the only energy that drives us forward is the sparks we create as Time brushes against us?

Say, like Winterson does, that Time is only something we experience. We don’t move through time, it moves through us, aging us and breaking us. We crumble from the pressure that Time exerts on our perishable frames, like rocks eroded away by a constant stream of water. Think of Shakespeare – rosy lips and cheeks/within Time’s bending sickle’s compass come [Sonnet 116].  Love’s not Time’s fool, because Love and Time are two abstracts that run through us and destroy us, not the other way round.

Say, like Herodotus, in his intro to his Histories: I will tell you about cities that were once great but are now nothing, and about cities that rose from nothing to become great. I will speak equally about both, he adds, because I know that human happiness never stays in the same place (1.5). Time affects all the trappings of humanity as well as humanity itself – our physical existence and the extensions of it into houses, temples, cities and even art and poetry. Horace says ‘exegi monumentum aere perennius’ – I have built a monument in everlasting bronze – but if his works had been lost like so many others, what then? Time crushes everything eventually. Except, for Time, there is no ‘eventually’. Time just *is*.

Say you describe Time as the air, and the linear trajectory of a person’s life (or a city’s life, or a poem’s life, or a mouse’s life) is a sunbeam. When that sunbeam shines through a window, it picks up all the motes of dust and pollen and everything-else-ness that are in all of the air – but of course, we can only see the illuminated section. And we say that the sunbeam has a starting point and an ending point, and that the bit in between is a line or a trajectory that can be measured and fitted into a scale. We can only see Time through the guiding light of the sunbeam, so that’s how we explain Time to ourselves and to others, even though we know the sunbeam isn’t everything.

Say, then, that we only experience one moment at any point along our ‘timeline’. Say that Time goes through us; we do not go through time, and that the same goes for all perishable things, from bacteria to buffalo to Beowulf. Finally, say that we choose to understand Time as linear because that is what we see when we look back, and we are curiously reluctant as a species to believe in disjointed events. Say all these things. What do they, in turn, say?

I think they say that Time either is – everywhen, if phrases like that float your boat – or is not. Time must be all or nothing. Timelines are just mappable flightpaths or well-worn ruts in the mud. If we can get away from the idea that Time is a line, a series of events, a whole host of interesting possibilities open up before us. There are so many ‘now’s to be lived. There are no closed doors. There are no ends. There is only an infinite number of moments, dancing in the light cast by our attention. Whichever way we turn, we will see them.

Time can be troubling conceptually, but it’s also beautiful.

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