On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

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