In time

[detail from Henry G. Abbott's The watch factories of America, past and present. A complete history of watchmaking in America, from 1809 to 1888 inclusive, 1888]

I've been immersed in fiction -- breathing the air of tall pines, dreaming of Polish forests where wild bison nibble buttercups, feeling my nose alternate between frostbitten and sunburnt, finding myself, surprisingly, back in a sanatorium, blanket-wrapped and resting on my cure porch -- I discovered the writing of Andrea Barrett.

I've read Servants of the Map, Ship Fever, and The Air We Breathe and my favorite stories thus far have been "Two Rivers" and "The Cure," and my favorite characters are Nora, Miriam and Grace. I've traced out my own genealogical chart -- trying to untangle the generations, continents, and histories which intertwine and grow faint as characters are separated by time and place.

I've written before about the special sort of time in Magic Mountain -- about how time becomes a tangible thing, it becomes uncontrollable, inconsistent, and maddening. [We used a lovely phrase to describe this: the 'short-while-y-ness' or 'long-while-y-ness' of a long span of time]. Barrett addresses that same problem in her novel The Air We Breathe. Irene, the X-ray technician is speaking to the patients at Tamarack State Sanatorium about Einstein's work:

This man, she said, had changed our conception of time and shown that what had once been thought to be absolute was really relative. What could be more important? Here at Tamarack State, where time passed so slowly that is sometimes seemed to stop entirely, but outside, she said -- outside, where men in trenches were dying daily -- clocks were ticking relentlessly and time was speeding down a giant hole.

We could feel this, she said -- that time did not flow at the same speed for all of us, nor did it flow consistently -- but until Einstein formulated his theory of relativity no one had articulated what that meant.

I wrote the following paragraphs about 2 years ago, in response to the problem of time in Magic Mountain.

To live within rules, like the rules of a sanatorium lifestyle, means to live within boundaries or constraints, or within a defined and inelastic space. If this space is never compromised, broken or changed, you grow accustomed to the defining boundaries and ceases to question their presence. You actually alter your own behaviors to better fit into the defined area, developing habits or adaptations to the space. These habits are the attempt of the individual to fill in the area prescribed by inelastic rules or boundaries.

While filling up the area within the boundaries or guidelines, your habits, as a result of their perpetual nature, will create a sense of monotony or emptiness. While they seem to fill space, they are only filling that space with additional empty space, or squaring the space which is empty. The habits’ lack of meaning or substance makes the area which they are meant to fill only resoundingly more empty.

What follows is the knowledge that the habits you've developed, with the intention of creating an occupation, have only resulted in an increased or intensified feeling of emptiness. There is a sense of futility that accompanies this knowledge, a realization that even the longest stretches of time or space will never be satisfactorily filled and are thus contracted. Since those long spaces of time are incapable of being filled or lived within, they must be empty, and in being empty, they become fleeting spaces of time, as a lived experience, they are contracted to a momentary unit of time.

The acceptance of the ‘short-while-y-ness’ of these long stretches of time is an acceptance of the contracted nature of time. It is also an acceptance of the fact that your efforts to fill time have been futile; they have resulted only in time remaining empty yet increasing its pace. You've lost the ability to live within time and are simply being swept along time’s swift-moving course.

Once you realize you've lost some or all of your lived experience of time or your ability to live within time, you become apathetic. How else could you feel after accepting the futility of trying to impose a life that has weight and meaning on the elusive, pneumatic, and quickly-passing course of time? What is the purpose of making such a vain and wasted effort?

You realize that while you may be alive, you're not necessarily living. And then comes the terrifying and dizzying feeling of utter hopelessness.

People commonly fall into the trap of believing that monotony and emptiness, or the space which is filled by habit, are interminable and have a lengthening effect on time. They think that boredom, or long-while-y-ness, is the result of the stretching of time caused by the lack of something to fill it. This is, in fact, only true for short periods of time. We can only experience boredom or long-while-y-ness fleetingly, before the expanse of time jumps ahead and we are lost to its speed. In other words, boredom is relinquished and time is allowed to gallop ahead while we are passively pulled along.

I have also been reading Valery's Eupalinos, a wonderful dialogue between the shades of Socrates and Phaedrus on the topic of art and beauty -- I keep meaning to write about Valery, but I keep reading more, and in doing so, postponing my writing ...