Passing Time

“Clocks slay time. Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

I was enjoying Colin McGinn’s review of Oliver Sacks’ new book on music and the brain, but then came the evolutionary just-so story about musical ability being a mating display for sexual selection. Admitting the existence of human characteristics not entirely explained by their evolutionary usefulness does not mean surrendering to the young-earth creationists. Why not regard our consciousness as a complex system from which new patterns and structures of preference can emerge, incidental to the guiding process of Darwinian selection?

For instance, my own pet theory about music and our fascination with it doesn’t require a social prehistory in which the best gourd-thumper in the village gets to pass on his genes. If William Faulkner, quoted above, is correct, then the time-slaying impulse may be the best explanation for music’s hold on our consciousness.

Evolution has blessed us with some extraordinarily keen senses, like the ability to detect chemicals in minute concentration or assess the comparative distance between two far-off objects. We are conspicuously ill-equipped, however, to comprehend the passing of time.

This is something we all acknowledge as an intuitive part of human nature: seeing someone after a long absence usually evokes some self-conscious comments about how it feels like either more or less time than it “should.” Every child knows that upon meeting an adult friend of the family after a long interval, the next few tedious comments will all be about the grownup’s cognitive dissonance over “how you’ve grown!” On the other hand, if your friend, upon approaching you down a long hallway, always marveled over how far or how short the walk to one another seemed, you’d suggest he get himself checked out.

Fortunately, we have both nature and our own intelligence to help us address this innate chronological disorientation. The directionality of time is no problem: hunger, age, decay, gravity; all these things are like trees along the riverbank, reminding us which way time flows. The problem comes with the rate of time’s passage. The way time expands or contracts according to our preoccupation or idleness is inherently unsettling, and we build ourselves tools to tick off time’s flow – to dip a toe in the water and feel the current. This is why rhythm and melody hold such appeal.

The need to mark time also explains, I think, the psychological appeal of tobacco and its association with menial, boring labor. A cigarette, to further strain the inevitable maritime metaphor, is like a log line tossed over the side and recovered astern to measure a ship’s speed. Looking at the clock too often makes a long, slow shift seem even longer, but to steadily and viscerally consume a standardized unit of time, one regulated by the most explicit form of entropy available, proves that time is moving and moving at appropriate pace.

Of course, everyone perceives time and memory differently, and I may be more hung up than most on my own temporal drift. My memories, for example, are sometimes barely distinguishable from past imaginings, and are certainly not sorted in chronological sequence. I know I’m not the only one, though, when I read the following:

Another Spring
Kenneth Rexroth

The seasons revolve and the years change
With no assistance or supervision.
The moon, without taking thought,
Moves in its cycle, full, crescent, and full.

The white moon enters the heart of the river;
The air is drugged with azalea blossoms;
Deep in the night a pine cone falls;
Our campfire dies out in the empty mountains.

The sharp stars flicker in the tremulous branches;
The lake is black, bottomless in the crystalline night;
High in the sky the Northern Crown
Is cut in half by the dim summit of a snow peak.

O heart, heart, so singularly
Intransigent and corruptible,
Here we lie entranced by the starlit water,
And moments that should each last forever

Slide unconsciously by us like water.