Time Must Have A Stop

(x-posted to The Valve)

At least three ABD students, myself included, are currently working on James Joyce at UC Irvine; all of them are working on Joyce’s representations of time, particularly the tension in his novels between diachronic (linear) time, the usual sort, and synchronic (simultaneous) time.

I expected, of course, that when I arrived at graduate school I would find a lot of interest in the philosophy of time, both because of its consistent fascination for thinkers in the 20th Century, and because of the games that fictions play with it. But despite the many ways of cognizing time, simultaneous perceptions get all the limelight: why? Why should it be that Walter Benjamin’s description of history “shot through with chips of Messianic time” now strikes so many critics so forcefully? In my last post, I asked readers for examples of vast alien intelligences, and maybe half of all the passages recommended to me dealt specifically with simultaneity (for example, “Story of Your Life” and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).


I am reminded, looking back, that Marcel Proust’s revelations of simultaneity hold little interest for us, however much we enjoy their poignancy and the intimacy of their truth. Work is not being done, at least not in the non-Le Clezio reading world, on his madeleine or his overlapping cathedrals. We look instead to Benjamin’s 1939 piece, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” written after the rise of Fascism in Europe, only a year before Benjamin was driven to suicide while fleeing the Nazis. Or we might look at Claude Levi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology, from which I derive my terms “diachronic” and “synchronic,” published in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. These are views of time as it applies to all of society at once, and they were born out of past periods when the whole society felt itself under threat, each moment brought into bas-relief by war.

It is strange that we should feel so comfortable discussing simultaneity when we rarely, if ever, experience such a thing. The Blakes and Rilkes of the world are always in a tiny minority, and most of us know time in the plain, old-fashioned way, as something like a rope knotted around one ankle, pulling us along. As late as 1986, when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons produced Watchmen, the imminent threat was fairly easy to discern: a nuclear war with Russia that produces Messianic time. “Dr. Manhattan,” of course, is the name of the god who announces that “There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” Now, with the post-Spider-Man film of Watchmen due to arrive next year, circumstances have changed. It is not so much that we can picture the end of the world as that we feel terribly blind, and that this blindness coincides with the happy arrival of the Internet as a storehouse of knowledge, an infinite archive — not only in the literal sense of online text, but in the (perhaps more significant) linkages it creates between researchers and research facilities all over the world.

Eternity is a comfort. It is relaxing to think of narratives repeating themselves across time, to imagine, as Levi-Strauss hungered to do, the structural webs that could make sense of contraries and bring them to peace. But the old homologies, the sparkle of humanistic erudition that unites Derrida with Plato or Shakespeare with Agamben is now a pose, a front for a deeper anxiety that something terrible is coming and that it will take us unawares. Think of all those scenes in the movies where somebody tries to unscramble a coded message, or copy a computer file, or do other kinds of information work while their friend struggles to barricade the door against monsters: that is the real terror underneath these continual re-discoveries of the beautiful fact that time is simultaneous, eternal, unmoving, its truths waiting to be collected, like laundry hanging on the line.

It’s as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea […] That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil, No need to talk to me about it, it’s a disaster, yes a disaster […] Faltering, as if his lack of sight had weakened his memory, the blind man gave his address, then he said, I have no words to thank you, and the other replied, Now then, don’t give it another thought, today it’s your turn, tomorrow it will be mine, we never know what might lie in store for us, You’re right, who would have thought, when I left the house this morning, that something as dreadful as this was about to happen. He was puzzled that they should be at a standstill. Why aren’t we moving, he asked, The light is on red, replied the other. From now on he would no longer know when the light was red.

-José Saramago