'A Desire for Eternity.' (Time in Literature)

By Cioranescu, Alexandre | UNESCO Courier, April 1991 | Go to article overview
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'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

with time

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.

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