Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context

Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context

Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context

Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context

Excerpt

In his 1991 novel Time's Arrow, the British writer Martin Amis, playing a postmodern “narrative game with time” (as Paul Ricoeur would say) explored the implications of a very simple narrative twist for our historical and moral perception. How would some key twentiethcentury historical event, an event as ineluctable as the Nazi seizure of power and the unfolding of Nazi genocide, appear from a radically different temporal perspective? And what might this perspective shift tell us about the way our historical and moral judgments carry along with them, enfolded into their conclusions, assumptions about the relation of time and its nature to the meaning of history? To what extent are we obligated, ontologically and morally, to yield to the necessities of time and to what extent is it legitimate to give time over to a play of fictions and interpretations? It is on this dangerous, but consequential borderline between freedom and necessity, between guilt and evasion, between responsibility and play that Amis's novel plays out its thought-experiment.

The novel raises a seemingly absurd question, but one fraught with psychological and cultural symbolism, conjuring the various evasions and denials, collective and individual, that this critical moment in contemporary history has provoked. It asks: how would the life of the concentration camp doctor Odilo Unverdorben, who has fled atonement and punishment, changing his identity and emigrating under this cover to the United States, look if it were narrated backwards, with the arrow of time reversed? Regressing backwards in time, the “normal” surgical labors of the post-war American physician appears to Amis's “third-person” narrator like horrifying violence and torture: wounds are opened in patients, sutures are removed and blood flows out of bandages and sponges, recovery becomes disease. Whereas in contrast, those “exceptional” perversions of medicine in the concentrations camps now appear as miraculous acts of mercy . . .

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