Reading Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time led me to further consider the nature of time. What is time? Does the question have any meaning? Physicists have given considerable thought to fundamental nature of time as reflected, for example, in the Big Bang Theory and Theory of Relativity. And students of other disciplines (e.g. astronomy, religion and philosophy) have considered its nature. So have a few novelists.
Christopher Wilkins in The Measure of Love is an example. His novel could just as easily have been called The Measure of Time. Robert Garrett is a mathematical prodigy who has long been studying the measure of time who, when he meets a young woman, Elizabeth, “makes time for him stand still.”
Soon after their marriage Elizabeth succumbs to a serious illness that leads to her death three years later. In her memory, Robert sets about to build a mechanical watch that will be the most accurate timepiece ever created. Throughout this tragic tale Robert meditates on the woman he loved while also pondering the history of timekeeping and the nature of time and memory.
The novel begins with this passage: “Time is memory. Simple as that. Without memory, there can be no time. No before and after, no sooner or later, no now and then. After all, how do we detect what we call the passage of time except by perceiving change? But without memory, all change would be imperceptible. We see the leaves in the forest are turning brown and we think, “autumn already. How time flies.” But that is because we remember how the forest looks in summer. The forest alone, denied our memories could not bear witness to the passage of time.”
Later we learn that St. Augustine’s view of time was “roughly speaking, that the present is the only thing that is real, that exists, and that both the past and the future exist only in the present. The past is a memory, which happens in the present, and the future is anticipation, which also happens in the present. As he puts it, there are three times, “a present of things past, a present of things present and a present of things future. The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight and the present of things future is expectation.”
This echoes the opening stanza of Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
In one other lengthy passage from The Measure of Love, Wilkins writes, “It is remarkable how often we use the word “time” in everyday conversation. We talk about having time or of not having enough time or of needing more time, much as we talk about money or food. We say it was a long time or it was a short time in the same way we refer to a sentence or a rope. We can have a good time or we can have a bad time and we can make time or find time. We have no time for those we despise, yet a lot of time for those we love. We can mark time and we can beat time…we can waste time and we can save time. If we are lucky our bodies will not suffer the ravages of time, but if we are unlucky we may serve time or even die before our time. Events like birthdays happen to different people at different times while the occurrence of a sunspot eruption happens to us all at the same time. We speak of the pressure of time as though referring to some gaseous or aqueous matter; we find ourselves up against time as thought preparing for a fight. Time is the enemy, time will tell, time is the great physician and the wisest of counselors…We talk of time lags, time warps and time bombs…We take time out, work overtime and make up for lost time, gain time, buy time and it is high time we recognized that we are talking about something which we do not, any more than did St. Augustine, begin to understand. Time after time and time again we refer to this thing called time without giving it a second’s thought and doubtless we shall continue to do so until the last syllable of it has been recorded and all life has ceased.”
I found that passage remarkable. How often (39 times, if you will, in the paragraph as written in the book) we apply the word “time” whose fundamental nature remains so elusive. Think about it the next time you use the word “time.” What does it denote? Time to stop.