Several years ago I read Stephen Hawking’s brilliant book, A Brief History of Time, and marveled at his ability to make the Theory of Relativity exciting to troglodytes like me who never braved a science course after high school. Hawking discusses how Relativity shows that time is actually subjective, based on the observer’s relation to gravity. But he then asserts that time is an arrow, always moving in one direction: “Our subjective sense of the direction of time, the psychological arrow of time, is therefore determined within our brain by the thermodynamic arrow of time.”
I think writers operate with an entirely different notion of time. Our idea of time is based more on emotion. In Einstein’s vision of space, the shortest distance between Point A and Point B is not a straight line as it appears on a ruler, but a line tugged and stretched by the gravity of nearby bodies. So the time between Moment A and Moment B is, for the writer, not a simple stopwatch calculation. For the writer, the proximity of an event in time has more to do with its emotional and symbolic power for the person affected by it. The day of my mother’s death, for instance, though it occurred over forty years ago, is far closer to me and easier to recall than the work meetings I attended last week. My first day of kindergarten fifty-five years ago is more vivid to me than my commute this past Thursday.
For the writer, the nearness of the past has more to do with its emotional and symbolic mass than with its place in the linear parade of time. But this applies not only to the past, but to the future. Just as past events constantly erupt in our present consciousness, events from the future that have a traumatic or symbolic power seem to ripple into the present. This happens most often in our dreams, where we are most sensitive to the curvature of time, but it also sprouts up in our waking life. How many times has each of us dreamed some detail only to see it occur a few hours later the next day? Of course we all shrug off all such events as coincidence. But let’s not forget that for centuries scientists dismissed the slight miscalculations that Newtonian physics produced, before the Theory of Relativity revealed that this margin of error pushed open the door to understanding the nature of space.
For the writer, the curvature of time has always been of the utmost importance. Tragedy as a literary genre is obsessed with foretelling the hero’s future fall. Think of the Weird Sisters’ prediction that Macbeth will meet his doom when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and at the hand of a man “not of woman born.” The mechanics of how this prophecy plays out are a huge part of what makes Macbeth’s fate interesting, not the fact that he died after a certain string of events. In Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, the story is told out of sequence altogether, the jumbled way one person would actually recount it to another, in a burst dam of emotions. Wordsworth’s daffodils and Proust’s madeleine are those writers’ proofs of the formula that the nearness of the past is proportional to its emotional or symbolic mass.
So I have to quibble with the physicists’ idea that time is an arrow. As a writer, I see time as being just as oxbowed as space, with emotion and symbolic gravity as the equivalent of the physical force of gravity in stretching the elastic of temporal material.
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