Overweening Generalist

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Five Brief Riffs on the Oddity of Time

Writing about time travel in a whimsical fashion yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about "time" today; some of it was not daydream-like, though. Rather: intrusive thoughts on the weirdness of being caught in a system of seeming cause-effect/one thing follows another and so we have "time." And how many of my favorite writers and thinkers have sought to escape from "time" or to brilliantly recontextualize it so that we may incorporate some newness into our cognitions about "time."

1.) "Time is money." We hear this far too often. In the extremely fascinating book Metaphors We Live By, from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, they note how there's a semantic unconsciousness in modern Western culture about the metaphorical aspect of "time" in our everyday lives. We all have goals, aspirations, desires. We also know there is some sort of upper limit that circumscribes when all that ends, presumably in death. Therefore, "time" is valuable in our culture. If time is money, then smaller chunks of time must come at some expense, and indeed, look at your phone bill. If time is money, then we can "save" time, and "spend" time. And indeed, we all say this stuff. But "time" does not = money. It's a metaphor! Its ubiquity in our everyday phrasing and thinking strongly suggests that time is a valuable commodity to us. The authors give many examples to ponder: "You're wasting my time." "This gadget will save you hours." "I've invested a lot of time in her." "Do you have much time left?" "You don't use your time profitably." "Thank you for your time."

One of my favorite poets, Ed Sanders, writes in his book 1968:
                                                  Why not waste time
                                                   for is not time itself
                                                  the biggest waster of them all?

2.) I love David Lynch's films. In one I've seen about nine times, Lost Highway, which Lynch co-wrote with the novelist Barry Gifford, there is a scene very early on in this (quite bizarre/surrealistic) film in which a husband and wife have called Los Angeles police detectives to their house to discuss eerie video recordings of themselves, in their own house, and they have no way to explain them, because they did not record themselves. Someone is leaving on their front steps an envelope with a videocassette of Fred and Renee on it. Could a burglar be doing it? Who knows? It's very disturbing stuff, it doesn't make much sense, and the cops ask the couple a series of questions, and this brief sequence always gets me:

Detective named Al, addressing his question to the wife, named Renee: Do you own a video camera?

Renee: No. Fred hates them.

[Both detectives look at Fred]

Fred: I...like to remember things my own way.

Al: What do you mean by that?

Fred: How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

Fred (played by Bill Pullman), seems almost apologetic in giving this admission. He's an avant-garde jazz saxophonist, so we know he's an artiste who's pretty out-there, but he also seems "normal" enough to us. And the first time I saw this film I noted this odd bit of dialogue, which suggests Lynch himself. And I am also that way, in many ways. I've given a transcription of the dialogue, because I once wrote it down on a note card. So I am not remembering those lines the way "I remembered them," but in our everyday lives, most of us operate by default in a way that has us remembering things in the way we need, or want, or are merely able to store them. But how many of us actively seek to remember things the way we remember them, and "not necessarily the way they happened"?

Furthermore, research shows that memories shift imperceptibly over time. Our memories are incredibly fallible! ("But your honor! I am an eyewitness!!! I saw it with my own two eyes!" Yea, yea, yea...) But few of us are aware of it. I think that consciously saying, "I want to remember it my own way," is both liberating and true to neurobiological "facts." It also acknowledges the difference between our memories and the way others might remember an event, and besides, it's sorta trippy.

I will only address my best understanding of the issue of Recovered Memory Therapy if anyone requests it. If you're interested, I consider Elizabeth Loftus the go-to gal here...

3.) In Mary Roach's hilarious study of sex, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she notes studies that show the brain has an altered sense of "time" in the discrete state of orgasm. It's as if there is some "lost time." And I think all sorts of non-ordinary and ecstatic states invite warped senses of time, because we are usually in our ordinary time, embodied beings with all kinds of biological "clocks" that are unconscious but govern sleeping/waking, digestion, alertness, blood sugar levels that need to be attended to, etc. An unseasonable truth is that, let's face it: much of our waking lives is fairly robotic. The quest is to have less robotic time and more non-ordinary time.

So when we're doing something we enjoy for intrinsic reasons - gardening, knitting, playing a musical instrument, reading, riding a bicycle, listening to music, watching movies, etc:  time seems to "flow," and we lose "track" of time. When we're "in" (which suggests space) the new state we must re-orient ourselves. Orient means a certain direction, which also addresses time's other aspect of space.  (And space's other aspect is time, of course.) And this altered experience of "time" is almost always related to enjoyment. So: do as much of those things that allow you to "flow" and get outside your "normal" time!

                                                                Ezra Pound

4.) Ezra Pound would be one of those writers (among many) that I love who seem to see "time" as an obstacle, and sought to remake perception of time into something more suitable to a poetic vision both for himself and his readers. Pound scholar Peter Makin notes that Daniel Perelman's 1969 book Barb of Time has remained influential in "arguing that The Cantos set up a duality of mechanical time and of escape from that into a mystical timelessness." In Canto LXXIV:
                                           Time is not, Time is the evil, beloved

In Canto CXV, near the end of Pound's life, when he feels he has hurt everyone he loved with his stupid antisemitism:
                                          When one's friends hate each other
                                                    how can there be peace in the world?
                                           Their asperities diverted me in my green time.
                                           A blown husk that is finished
                                                       but the light sings eternal
                                            a pale flare over marshes
                                                            where the salt hay whispers to tide's change

                                            Time, space,
                                                    neither life nor death is the answer.

When the younger poet Donald Hall was hanging out with the 75 year old Pound, he told Hall, "All the time - I feel the hands of the clock - moving." And this was in a time of Pound's life when he rarely spoke...Pound's ideogrammic method is a way of retrieving things that are separate in ordinary, chronological time, and rearranging them so that they are brought together in the mind's sense of appropriate juxtapositions. I like this passage from Pound scholar Guy Davenport, on Pound's sense of time:

"To have closed the gap between mythology and botany is but one movement of the process; one way to read The Cantos is to go through noting the restorations of relationships now thought to be discrete - the ideogrammic method was invented for just this purpose. In Pound's spatial sense of time the past is here, now; its invisibility is our blindness, not its absence. The nineteenth century had put everything against the scale of time and discovered that all behavior within time's monolinear progress was evolutionary. The past was a graveyard, a museum. It was Pound's determination to obliterate such a configuration of time and history, to treat what had become a world of ghosts as a world eternally present."
-from The Geography of Imagination

5.) It is now thought by neurobiologists that the obvious warping of memory among smokers of the cannabis flowers is reflected in the endogenous cannabinoids we make in our own nervous systems. Marijuana only "works" because the THC and other psychoactive molecules in the plant mimic the structure of receptor sites and our body's own neurochemicals that we have evolved with over multitudes of millennia. And it's often thought that forgetting is a mental error, but it's a crucial biophysical action that must happen; we need to forget! We do not want to remember every little detail of every day. It would be too scattering! We need to be able to edit down the vast whirling mass of data our nervous systems encounter every single moment of waking life. Our intentionality must be given some space to work, it seems. And pot allows us to amplify the ordinary sensation, and with this non-ordinary state, our sense of time becomes altered. It's more complex than this, if we get to the neurochemistry of smoking pot and the phenomenology of being stoned, but because of pot's ability to mimic our natural chemicals that allow us to forget, it allows us to concentrate in a certain way on the ordinary so that it seems extraordinary. It's yet another way to get yourself "unstuck" in "time." (And if it "seems" extraordinary, we may as well say it "is" that way, for us, then, eh?)

Aye, even a glass of tap water tastes magnificent to me on pot. Music is even BETTER! And I love it just fine when I'm not stoned. Similar things could be said for sex, perception of paintings, having a conversation (which is filled with curlicues of meanderings and forgetting what your point was, but still: fun!), and for some, writing.

I have heard it said that stoned bloggers write posts that are too long, but I have no proof of this, do you?

Thanks for your "time."


ARW23 said...

Time? Timeless subject!

Excellent thought provoking/self-referencing article.

"Time and space are fragments of the infinite for the use of finite creatures." - Henry Frederic Amiel; _ Journal_ (1864)

michael said...

Yes, timeless. The latest word out of cosmology - that I recall - is that, contrary to a previous theory of the Big Bang --> expanding universe -->matter becomes too diffuse to hold things together --->collapsing universe --Big Crunch (in which Hawking once hypothesized that things would run backward, a reversal of thermodynamics, like running a film strip backward, spilled milk goes back into the glass, then the container, then the supermarket, then the truck, then the farm, then the cow, then the cow's birth, etc...it probably doesn't work like that.

And yet: Aldous Huxley has a novel (1944), Time Must Have A Stop. Like most of his novel titles, it's taken from Billy Shakes: "But thought's the slave of life, and life's time's fool, And time, that takes survey of all the world, Must have a stop."

So...stay tuned.

ARW23 said...

That was a very trippy rewinding milky image up there.

I find the line, you quote from the film Lost Highway when Fred says: "I...like to remember things my own way"' a very honest one. I think RAW says it in his "The Illuminatus! Trilogy": "The reality is not a one-level affair". Therefore, how we perceive and remember things is a multi-level affair. There could be 23,000 people at Pink Floyd concert and for most of them the time will seem to "flow" (especially at Pink Floyd's) but at 'the same time' most people will perceive and remember the concert in their own different ways. Or so it seems to me.

michael said...

Yes, the idea that there "really was" the One True, Idealized Pink Floyd concert, and each of the 23000 people only participated in some limited aspect of it is Platonic bullshit. Even the guys in Pink Floyd experienced the concert in different ways.

Plato had a wonderfully artistic idea with his World of Ideas, but the idea has been used by too many pretentious and non-ironic people (most, it seems, w/o much of a sense of humor, either); the One True Reality thing is a trippy idea, but a disaster when people drink it with mother's milk, grow up with it and assume only themselves and their fellow ideologues Know the One True Reality.

Besides, the evidence is fantastically and overwhelmingly against the idea. I see no good rational argument for it, much less any empirical ones...But we must admit, given our reading of history that the One True Reality is a "sticky" idea. We must give Plato his due. Or not?