Friday, December 2, 2011

"No Man Feels Time"

        “NO MAN FEELS TIME” greeted me as I approached the steps of the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin this summer. The quotation from the Roman poet Lucretius, part of an international art exhibit, struck me as prophetic as I stepped onto the bridge. Built in 1816, it was the first iron bridge in Ireland and for more than a century (until 1919) cost a half-penny to cross. Its famous cast iron railings and ornamental lamps are themselves relics of the past. I crossed the River Liffey and stepped through Merchants Arch, then on into Crown Alley and the cobblestone streets of the area known today as Temple Bar on the site of an 8th century Viking settlement.

          No one may in fact feel time, but we can all-too-often see its ravages. Places have a “then” and a “now”, so do people, as aging reminds us. And we can surely feel its effects, as when we’re overtired or when traveling across time zones, gaining or losing five hours on a flight between New York and Ireland, for example. Still, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of time itself. Some will claim that we can hear time in the tick of a clock or in the ageless rhythm of the waves. But silence, I think, is the real sound of time. Always present, ever changing, always now/always then, its passage occurs unobtrusively, ceaselessly, soundlessly. Even the ticking of a clock fades away into white noise at times, and we no longer hear it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to lose track of time, to be unaware of its passing.

Down through the ages people have attempted to measure time by the position of the sun or the moon; with sundials and clocks; in nanoseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days; or weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries; even eras, eons, and onward to infinity.  For several decades now, young people have grown up with a different conception of time than their parents had. Growing up in a "digital" world where "the time" is flashed to them on the LED displays of digital watches, clocks, and now phones, many can't "tell time" on an analog clock--they simply never learned to decipher time that way.  I wonder if this is altering their sense of "time" itself as they're more inclined to perceive time as the single moment that is announcing its LED presence to them at any given instant, and are less likely to grasp the sense of past and future time that reading an analog clockface affords.

However we "tell" time, we like to speak of it in linear terms, even think of it that way, in the sense of time past, time present, and time yet to come, like Scrooge’s fearsome visions of the three Christmas Spirits. I prefer to think of time, however, as a more circular pattern—not so much like the movement of the hands on an analog clock, but rather like a looping of time backward and forward upon itself. This is evident in the perennial cycle of the seasons, or in history so often repeating itself, or even in the recurrence of family resemblances and behaviors across generations. But suppose time is just another dimension, after all. Suppose all times exist simultaneously, here and now, then and forever. In fusing space and time in his idea of the spacetime continuum, Albert Einstein discovered that our conception of time as past, present, and future is a mere illusion. Perhaps that is, in part, why I find the idea of an afterlife so appealing: I see it as merely another dimension, the hereafter, though I hardly think that’s what Einstein had in mind. Yet I’m reminded once again of Faulkner’s line, "The past is never dead. It's not even past,” and note how prophetic it seems to me now. 

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