'A Desire for Eternity.' (Time in Literature)
Cioranescu, Alexandre, UNESCO Courier
Of all the familiar features of our daily lives, time is the one we know least about. We shall never fully understand its mysteries, still less isolate and tame it.
Yet time is not a distant, indifferent truth, like a star which we know to be inaccessible. We are totally dependent upon it. Time makes and unmakes us, obliges us to exist and yet not know what will become of us. Our pact with time is both metaphysical and make-believe. Yet though it leaves a permanent and indelible mark, its presence escapes us.
The important place time holds in literature and the arts is revealing, for not only does it have an impact on our lives and our thinking, it also weighs like an obsession on our imagination and on our feelings.
The old man with the scythe Although no specific image is attached to it, the concept of time is omnipresent in the plastic arts. It has been portrayed countless times allegorically or symbolically, in terms of its attributes and of the traces it leaves behind.
First of all, time is seen as responsible for physical decline and death. Thus it has been identified with the figure of Death, traditionally portrayed in Western art as an image of old age and decrepitude and sometimes even as a corpse. Generally speaking, however, Time is depicted in medieval and Renaissance art in the shape of a skeletal old man with a long white beard. He holds a great scythe, the symbol of collective death, and carries a lantern, indicating that a life is about to be extinguished. This allegory is used to portray both Time and Death.
Some painters have evoked the passing of time by showing the contrast between old age and childhood or between the ages of man. The succession of the generations may be represented as a peaceful guarantee of continuity. It can also be portrayed as the violent irruption of the young who eliminate the old, the classic example being that of the Greek god Chronos (the Roman Saturn), who toppled his father from the throne only to be toppled in his turn by his own son Zeus (the Roman jupiter). The notion of time is also evident in the theme of decomposition, as seen in sculptures of the dead and in certain paintings, the most eloquent of which is the Spanish artist Juan de Valde's Leal's famous work Finis Glort'ae Mundi (1672). Another form of reflection on the theme of the passing of time can be seen in the studies of ruins which were fashionable in the painting, poetry and garden design of the late eighteenth century.
Novelists who conjure
In literature, obsession with time is even more central. There are many ways in which the dread of time enters the process of literary creation, for literature more than painting lends itself to the evocation of time. In literature an image of time can be created which, if not more exact, is at least more intelligible and closer to our phantasms.
Literature has always drawn its inspiration from real life, from the mysteries of the inner life or the problems of human relationships. It is not surprising, therefore, that time should be so important in the structure of literary works, especially in epic or narrative literature. Time punctuates the novelist's thoughts. As the French critic Albert Thibaudet (1874-1936) once remarked, temporality is the key to the composition of the novel.
As in the theatre and in the epic poem (a genre that today has disappeared), the content of the traditional novel-its plot-is a voyage through time that mimics what happens in life. The episodes unfold in chronological order. It is rather like what happens in the theatre, where no actor would venture on stage before receiving his cue.
Logical and easy to follow, this type of narrative been used in imaginative literature for over 2,000 years. It also allows a writer to take certain liberties. From time to time a classic author may suddenly say "I forgot to say that..." as a pretext for departing from a strict chronological framework in order to recount an episode which it would have been difficult to describe in its proper time sequence. Some novelists make excessive use of this subterfuge just for the pleasure of playing with time. In Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759) the sequence of the story returns so often to the past that the action seems to go backwards rather than forwards.
With the Romantics, playing with time became current practice in narrative literature. The simplest method was to use a kind of conjuring trick as the American author Washington Irving did in his famous tale Rip Van Winkle, the hero of which falls asleep for twenty years, perhaps to escape from his shrewish wife, whom he allows enough time to die.
Roaming through the centuries The European Romantics gave a new importance to the recapturing of the past through memory. In the words of George Sand's Lili'a (1833), "The main occupation of my life was constantly to turn back to lost joys". In the twentieth century, Marcel Proust's novel A la recherche du temps perdu is dominated by the narrator's search for "lost time". But "the remembrance of things past" is a difficult process because of what Proust calls the heart's intermissions-when feeling and memory do not go hand in hand. Memory only lights up the past in fits and starts. It is through an involuntary memory, not true remembrance, that time is regained.
Other writers have gone much further back in time. The great nineteenth-century Romanian poet Mihail Eminescu made his Poor Dents travel back to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Ravage, by the contemporary French author Rene Barjavel, is a novel of paradox: his traveller into the past finds himself unable to return to the present.
Novelists move about just as freely in the future. Anticipatory novels already have a long and glorious history stretching from the seventeenth century to the present day. One of the earliest was the seventeenth-century writer Abbe de Pure's Epigone. H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), is a classic of time exploration which has inspired many modern works. Louis Sebastien Mercier's visitation of Paris in The Year 2440 (1771) is another notable example of the genre.
There is another form of literature that delights in breaking the rules of time. Superficially it appears to respect chronological order but actually it scorns the notion of life-span, of real" time, and, like the Wandering jew, its characters roam across the centuries. The hero of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) is sixteen years old at the start of the novel and thirty-six when it ends. This would be a perfectly normal period were it not for the fact that, in the meantime, 342 years have elapsed, during which the hero has assumed a variety of characters of both sexes. In Borges' story The Inmortal, a twentleth century antique dealer rubs shoulders with the great figures of Antiquity.
Many modern writers have no scruples about chronology and refuse to see time as a narrative constraint. The novel ceases to be action and becomes stasis", or a contraction of time. In Alain Robbe-Grillet's "film/novel" Last Year in Marienbad (1961) the universe becomes "a perpetual present, which makes all recourse to memory impossible". Chronological telescoping and banality of action are the hallmarks of the works of Claude Simon. In William Faulkner's writing chronological disorder is so marked that to his Absalom, Absalom! (1936), an exploration across time which pays no attention to the chronological sequence of events, he felt it necessary to add a chronology indicating the time and place at which each episode occurred.
Seizing the moment This deliberate attempt to banish temporality from literature is liable to be seen purely as an exercise in virtuosity. Is it not, perhaps, more apparent than real? Even when the attention is not drawn to it, the sense of time remains indelibly in the background. To pretend to forget time is to wish to eliminate the precarious, ephemeral nature of all that is touched by time. It is not time that the writer seeks to suppress but the fragility that time imposes on all things. Here the absence of time implies not a void, but a desire for eternity.
The mind is troubled by the eternal, the desire to endure-the dread of history is only a passing anxiety. Anguish comes from the cruel knowledge that eternity can only be attained within the void of the after-life. It is felt by all writers and poets. This is what William Blake was thinking of when he wrote that it was his duty to "open up eternal worlds".
How can this challenge be met? Some valiant attempts have been made to identify the point at which the contradictions of time disappear. For Dante, these contradictions are resolved in a present that he finds in God. For Shelley, in a concomitant vision of past, present and future. For Novalls, time is a condensation into a spiritual present which identifies past and future by merging one with the other. If all these intuitions are no more than subterfuges of the imagination, they are nevertheless ways of giving permanence to time.
One much-used way of achieving this concretion is to make time stand still at a given moment. jean-jacques Rousseau relates how, on the island of Saint-Pierre, he experienced moments of happiness in which time ceased to exist and the present seemed to be eternal.
According to Proust, "a minute freed from the order of time has recreated in us, so that we can feel it, a man freed from the order of time"it liberates us from what we have called the dread of history. In Finnegans Wake (1939), james joyce condenses (or expands) the content of a moment's experience into 600 pages. The experience, however, is frustrating, since the time it takes to read the book dilates and dispels its time frame.
Writers have other ways of dispelling the dread of history. One of them is to create an artificial paradise. For Baudelaire, intoxication by wine or hashish is one way of obliterating time. Suicide, apologia for which are to be found in the works of Schopenhauer and in john Donne's Biathanatos, is another. Any method is valid if we accept Baltasar Gracian's proposition that living is a way of dying every day". Yet it is a hollow victory to defeat death by dying.
What, then, is time in terms of the writer, the time experienced by the creator at work? Writing is a way of arresting time or escaping from it. Mircea Eliade wrote of "liturgical time", which vitrifies the present, links all such vitrified moments outside real time, and thus gives us a glimpse of eternity. Whether in literature, the visual arts, or scientific research, the creator is enmeshed in an imaginary present which, like mystic meditation or the contemplation of an artificial paradise, obliterates awareness of other times.
What does time mean for the reader? My own view is that the possibility of eluding the dread of history by escaping into what is permanent, if not eternal, has a counterpart in the free space of time spent reading. Readers are also creators in their fashion, since they rebuild in their imagination images which would otherwise remain lifeless and inert. At the same time they are immersed in the fixed time of reading. They may feel anguish but it will be a cathartic anguish that will affect their own present.
Reading, too, is a kind of liturgy. Perhaps Cortazar's "dear reader" was right in, feeling, as he read, that everything had been decided from the beginning". n…
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Publication information: Article title: 'A Desire for Eternity.' (Time in Literature). Contributors: Cioranescu, Alexandre - Author. Magazine title: UNESCO Courier. Publication date: April 1991. Page number: 37+. © 1984 UNESCO. COPYRIGHT 1991 Gale Group.
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