Mythic time

It is evening, and the falling darkness makes the world look smaller and closer in every direction. Time, however, seems vaster than before. Or rather it moves more slowly and therefore seems longer. I am disappointed to find myself checking the time very often. You have no appointments!  Why does this habit cling?

A Hindu philosopher remarked that the clock was a Christian invention. Time is running out, the end is coming, there is no recurrence. (The hour-glass, I think, would be a better symbol of this kind of awareness, because the clock repeats itself forever.) The prospect of eternal recurrence is terrifying for Hindus; and so, the way to shock them into deep realization is to threaten them with just that. Christians, he said, are shocked in the opposite way: by the prospect of not recurring – by the once-for-all quality of life. This, the philosopher claimed, turns Christians into the minute ­minders that they are.

It is true, we have often regarded time in the manner of misers, hating the loss of the years. Yet we also go to great lengths to waste time. We want it both ways: we want to squander and dissipate our treasure and yet, impossibly, we do not want it to diminish.  If our time is us (as it is), then confusion about time is confusion about ourselves. We are afraid to live, yet we want to live forever.

I have found that I am never more conscious of the clock than when I have forgotten for a while the meaning of my life and have given way to dissipation. When one fails to understand something there is an urge to measure it. It seems that when other structures of meaning fall away, the forward march of the minutes is the only structure left.

In William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury, Quentin is about to commit suicide, when he takes his watch and breaks the glass, then pulls off the hands. "The watch ticked on. I turned the face up, the blank dial with little wheels clicking and clicking behind it, not knowing any better." The destruction of even this final structure symbolises the loss of all meaning. "I could hear it, ticking away inside my pocket, even though nobody could see it, even though it could tell nothing if anyone could." There is no past and no future: no history and no adventures. Not only Quentin's own life but every event in history has lost its meaning: "Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels."

In other stories by Faulkner there is a reaching towards a different kind of time, called 'mythic time': the perpetual present of ritual. When ritual is performed, the past event becomes present again. This kind of time is not linear like clock-time; it is recurrent, ­even cyclical if the myth is related to the seasons or other natural processes. William Barrett related this to the primeval sense of time in Homer's epics. "The audience knew the story in advance; it was only a question what episode they might desire to hear.... The myth is thus perpetually present with them, renewed when­ever the bard might appear. The siege of Troy takes place again and again, and Achilles will pursue Hector around the walls of Troy forever."

Homer's world seems a long way from here and now, yet it was from listening to the storytellers on the Blaskets that George Thomson found the key to 'the Homeric question'. With his own eyes he saw what an oral tradition looked like when it was written down for the first time. He compared those two worlds, so distant from each other in time and place, and saw how each produced a literature that retained all the signs of a long oral tradition; the two kinds of storytelling, oral and written, were intertwined in a wholly distinctive way.

So many thoughts, books, writers filing past the mind….They are like thoughtful visitors; and part of their thoughtfulness is that they know when to leave. But they have left behind them an atmosphere of peace and deep restfulness; perhaps this is what 'mythic time' feels like.

Mythic time: somewhere along here lies the answer to too much nostalgia. And somewhere along here there opens a path to contemplation.

From Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on Time and Place, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin 1990, 2nd ed. 2013)

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