by Anders Cullhed*
What is time?
Time is one of the main problems of Western philosophy and literature. Ever since the thinkers of classical Greece tried to understand the swiftness of our seconds, minutes and hours – the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice – the problem of time has haunted our imagination. It is even more than a problem, it is a mystery.
“What is time? It is a secret – lacking in substance and yet almighty.” Those are the words of the German Nobel Laureate in Literature, Thomas Mann, in his great novel The Magic Mountain (1924). Mann was a very modern writer, and yet his definition of time was more or less the same as the one provided by the Roman Church Father Saint Augustine in his famous autobiography, Confessions, more than fifteen hundred years earlier:
What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.
In ancient Greece, people generally conceived of time as a circle. Hesiod, the famous Greek historian from the 8th century B.C., described five ages of mankind, beginning with the golden age in a remote past, where human beings lived in peace with each other and in harmony with nature, down to the miserable contemporary age of iron, characterized by dispute and warfare.
Two hundred years later, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras depicted history as one Great Year (in Latin: Magnus Annus). When such a world historical cycle came to an end, the sun, the moon and all other planets would return to their original positions. Exactly the same people would return to earth, all that had happened would happen once again. These so called eternal recurrences have been of great interest to modern writers, such as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and they have inspired the Irish Nobel Prize winner in Literature, William Butler Yeats, to some of his great poems: the old city of Troy, famous from Homer’s Iliad, will burn once again, and Jason, the mythical hero, will board his ship Argo once again, in quest of the golden fleece:
And then did all the Muses sing
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.
Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
Cyclical and mythical
The concept of cyclical time, though, reaches far beyond ancient Greece. It is quite common in the Pre-Columbian civilizations of South and Central America, where it appears in the old Indian cultures of the Maya and Aztec peoples. The Aztecs made use of a calendar carved in a huge circular stone, the Sun stone, which nowadays is one of the main attractions of the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City.
This mythical and cyclic depiction of time has exerted a great influence on quite a few of the most prominent Latin American writers of our own century. It is clearly perceivable in the most famous novel by the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). At the end of the novel, the younger Aureliano (the last descendant of an old family) realizes that the mysterious parchment he is trying to decipher is, in fact, the story of himself, of his family and of his village, Macondo: a piece of writing very much reminiscent of the novel which the reader is about to close. García Márquez, then, construes time as a cyclic text, as a novel where the end hides the germ of the beginning, much as the serpent of old Indian mythology bites its own tail.
The next Latin American Nobel Laureate in Literature and – the last one until now – was the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who made his international name as an author with the remarkable poem Piedra de sol (Sun Stone) 1957. The subject of this poem is precisely time, or rather the prison of time. Paz gives us a negative version of human history, vaguely reminiscent of Hesiod, caught in endless cycles of wars, outrage and injustice. The very structure of Sun Stone reproduces this pessimistic vision of circular time. The final line of the poem continues with the beginning of it: the grim tale will have to be repeated once again. The only escapes from time are provided by love and, perhaps, by poetry itself. The main scene of the poem takes place during the bombing of Madrid in the Spanish civil war 1937, when a boy and a girl undress and make love in order to defend
our portion of the Eternal,
our ratio of time and paradise,
to touch our root and recover,
recover our heritage, stolen
by thieves of life centuries ago …
These famous lines express an old dream of Paz, the transcendence of time, a dream which is deeply rooted in Western literature. It is certainly present in Nietzsche when he states that “all desire yearns for eternity.” It is also the central theme of the Nobel Laureate in Literature 1948, the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot, who in his early poem Gerontion, written in the aftermath of World War I, presented just as negative a version of human time as we have seen in Paz: “Think now / History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities.” Later on, in his Four Quartets, Eliot too would conceive of a paradoxical timeless present, “the still point of the turning world.” In his case, this eternal moment is more obviously related to the great tradition of Christian mysticism.
Nevertheless, throughout medieval and modern Western history time has generally been presented not as a circle but as a line or, more exactly, an irreversible process with a unique beginning and a unique end. It is probably Saint Augustine, more than anyone else, who is responsible for this enormously influential concept of time. It derives its origin from old Jewish tradition, and the early Christian philosophers had already applied it to their new religion: God had created the world out of nothing once and for all, history had culminated in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and would quite soon reach its inexorable end with the Last Judgement.
In his main work, City of God, Saint Augustine argued strongly in favour of this linear concept of time, condemning ancient Greek cyclic time as a superstition. The Christian idea of time as an irrevocable process from Creation to Judgement has been surprisingly adaptable to different intellectual and artistic periods of European history. In its orthodox version, it has inspired some of the greatest works of pre-modern Western literature, such as the Christian epics of the medieval Italian poet Dante, The Divine Comedy, and of his English successor from the 17th century, John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost.
Nevertheless, the very same idea could be updated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, who created our modern, secularized version of time. From now on, time is generally conceived of as an endless process, without beginning and without end, a neutral course of events, theoretically released from its old connections with the planets and the seasons of the year, possible to cut up into an infinite number of temporal fractions. This scientific idea of time depends on the breakthrough of mechanical watches during the early modern period. Even more importantly: writers, philosophers and scientists have long been able to reconcile it with another great modern idea, that of progress.
The philosophical systems of German 19th century idealists such as Hegel, Charles Darwin’s thesis of the development of life from simple organisms to the human brain according to the law of the survival of the fittest, both modern capitalism and the revolutionary thinking of the political Left – they all presuppose the idea of time as progress, in the long run (and in spite of occasional back-lashes) bound for a brighter future.
Still, many of the most influential 20th century writers have lost their faith in this optimistic interpretation of time. Few have expressed their doubts and anguish concerning human history stronger than the North American William Faulkner, Nobel Prize winner in Literature 1949. His great novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) describes the decline and dissolution of a once affluent family in the southern United States. The first-born son (Quentin) commits suicide, his youngest brother is mentally retarded, and their much-beloved sister is driven into promiscuity. During the last day of his life, Quentin, a Harvard student, remembers the words of his father, who had said that “clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” So Quentin tries to elude this “mechanical progression” all day long, and he smashes his wristwatch – inherited from his father, to be sure – to pieces, but his efforts are all in vain. Everything on this sunny day, June 2, 1910, reminds him of time: the rapid-flowing water of a river, the church bells, the whistle from a factory. Quentin realizes that there even “was a clock, high up in the sun,” relentlessly ticking its way to twilight and (as the reader has already guessed) to death.
The time has come to sum up. On the one hand, modern literature seeks constant innovation and lends itself to continuous experiments. Change is, so to speak, its breath of life. On the other hand, it criticizes and shuns the modern idea of “mechanical progression” just as assiduously as Faulkner’s Quentin. That is probably one of the main and most fascinating paradoxes of modern literature, and it is well mirrored in the poetry and prose of some of the most famous Nobel Laureates in Literature.
* Anders Cullhed (b. 1951) is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Stockholm. He wrote his thesis Tiden söker sin röst (The age is seeking its voice, 1982) on the Swedish modernist writer Erik Lindegren’s wartime book of poetry mannen utan väg (The man without a way), with a particular interest in the poems’ relation to French and English modernism, to literary tradition and to the contemporary ideological collapse, provoked by World War II. The essays in his next book, Solens flykt (The flight of the sun, 1993), are dedicated to the problem of time as it is construed in literature, with examples from the Baroque (Torquato Tasso, Luis de Góngora), 19th century poetry (Charles Baudelaire) and modernism (Fernando Pessoa, Hermann Broch, Luis Cernuda, Octavio Paz). He treats the same subject on a larger scale in his monograph on the Spanish Baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo, Diktens tidrymd (Moments of poetry, 1995), and it appears occasionally in his second book of essays, Minnesord (Commemorative words, 1998). Cullhed has also been active as a literary critic in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, and his efforts as a translator, mainly from the Spanish language, has resulted in Swedish versions of Octavio Paz’ The Children of the mire and of the Spanish poets of the “Generation 27”, Federico García Lorca, Pedro Salinas and others.
First published 28 August 2001