Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Humanities and the Experiences of Time

George H. Ford

Summary The study of time is is sometimes assumed to be an exclusive preserve that must be restricted to disciplines such as physics or mathematics. According to this interpretation, people committed to humanistic disciplines, such as literary criticism and history, would be misfits in the ISST. In contrast to this view, I will show that the study of literature is as involved with understanding time as the study of physics is. For evidence, this paper cites literary works that embody a variety of life-time experiences, as in novels of Sterne and Tolstoy and also as in poems of Marvell and T. S. Eliot whose Four Quartets links birth and death into a unit: "In my beginning is my end."

Misunderstanding of how literature can contribute to time studies occurs when humanists are required to define time or to theorize about it instead of being allowed to do what they can do well, which is to report on what living in time is like. Instead of categorization they offer concrete experiences. For example, what the Dutch psychologist John Michon has categorized as subjective duration can be fleshed out by "epiphany scenes" (as James Joyce calls them). A good example occurs in a novel by Margaret Laurence when the heroine's attitudes toward life and death are radically altered by her brief encounter with a great blue heron by a lakeshore in the Canadian wilderness. A second example is a passage from a sermon by John Donne in which he portrays the timeless quality of eternity. A third example, Yeats "Lapis Lazuli," is a poem dramatizing how art enables us to confront a "tragic scene" with a kind of joyful gaiety. Although Yeats's poem is set in China, the experience it records is a universal one rather than one restricted to the cultures of East or West.

The conclusion reached is that because of the special insights into the experiences of time offered by literature, humanists are indeed qualified to contribute to the deliberations of our ISST.

There is an observation in Dickens's first novel, Pickwick Papers, made by a character named Roker, a guard in a London debtor's prison, who is fond of reminiscing about past events and recalling them to a person called Neddy. "You remember Tom Martin, Neddy?" says Roker on this occasion. And, yes, Neddy remembers Tom Martin, a fistfighter who had once, many years ago, got into a dispute at a tavern in which he had "whopped" a coal heaver, and Mr. Roker evokes that event of the distant past:

"Bless my dear eyes!" said Mr. Roker, shaking his head slowly from side to side, and gazing abstractedly out of the grated windows before him, as if here fondly recalling some peaceful scene of his early youth; "it seems but yesterday that [Tom] whopped the coal-heaver. . . . I think I can see him now, a coming up the Strand between the two streetkeepers, a little sobered by the bruising, with a patch o' winegar and brown paper over his right eyelid, and that'ere lovely bulldog, as pinned the little boy afterwards, a following at his heels. What a rum thing Time is, ain't it, Neddy?"1

This delightful passage about time's rumminess is one that I should like to lay claim to having discovered myself, but it had been noticed by T. S. Eliot, who more than forty years ago considered using Dickens's passage as an epigraph to his great collection of lyrics, TheFour Quartets

-141-

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