On American Time: Mythopoesis and the Marketplace

Article excerpt

Literary characterizations of time as a thief or a cheat are common to most if not all Western literatures. Poetical and fictional treatments of time in continental and British fiction and poetry are generally expressed in four fashions: as elegies or laments for the lost years; as attempts to relive the past; as expressions of carpe diem; as desires to escape from time altogether--i.e., the Romantic longing for the infinite. In American literature and culture we most often find an obsession with the fourth, or characteristically Romantic, attitude toward time. As we will see, however, a particular longing for the infinite also exists which appears to be characteristic of American consumer culture, wherein the notion of a "perpetual now" takes palpable form in the "perpetually new" products of mass advertising.

In my view the enduring and familiar American passion for the new is really a symptom of a deeper collective urge: the desire to escape time altogether. In early American fiction, Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle represents the best-known characterization of this transcendent desire for states of timelessness, but there are many others. Kay S. House has noticed, for instance, how the men on Huckleberry Finn's raft are "typically American," because they are "chillingly alone:" "[t]hey are strangers," she adds, "having no histories, no futures, no loyalties, no names..." (194). In short, rain's riverbound lowlifes exist outside of time; consequently they are, for Twain, literally nobodies.

In twentieth-century American fiction, Jay Gatsby is the best known exemplar of the deracinated American who, in Harry Levin's memorable phrase, is perpetually caught in "a state of suspense between wanderlust and nostalgia"(4):

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He new that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (Fitzgerald 112)

Gatsby hesitates because the instant Daisy blossoms for him "like a flower," they both tumble into post-lapsarian time.

Gatsby thinks he wants to repeat the pre-lapsarian past, to recapture the "now" that existed while he listened to "the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star"; what he really desires, however, as the metaphysical language of this passage makes clear, is to banish time from experience, or, as Ihab Hassan puts it, to achieve "the [American] timeless vision" (325).

There is, of course, a certain grandeur about Gatsby's dream. But for Fitzgerald and for other American novelists like William Faulkner, the timeless vision also constitutes the nearest American equivalent to original sin. For different reasons, Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury struggles with an impulse which is similar to Gatsby's. On the day of his suicide in Cambridge, Quentin pulls the hands off his watch, as if he could stop time altogether. In Bernard Malamud's The Natural, published 23 years after The Sound and the Fury, Roy Hobbs carries no timepiece at all. His denial of time even extends to the home runs he hits into stadium clocks: "the clock spattered minutes all over the place, and after that the Dodgers never knew what time it was" (162). When Hobbs' lover tells him she is a grandmother, he turns away from her, as from a corrupting odor of mortality. Faulkner's and Malamud's fictional characters are both dehumanized by their desire to escape time.

Symptoms of chronophobia in the American past may also be found in the very processes of mythopoesis. As David Brion Davis has written,

In our mythology, the cowboy era is timeless. The ranch may own a modern station wagon, but the distinguishing attributes of cowboy and environment remain. …