Time, Trace and Art
This summer, I gave a paper at the triennial conference of the International Society for the Study of Time, in Crete, where the theme was “Time and Trace.” The conference was unusually heavy with artists of all kinds. Nine years ago, this journal published an essay of mine on time in the arts, based, in part, on another conference, on Memory, in Cambridge, England. I had forgotten one of the most exciting papers there, on the persistence of musical memory in advanced cases of Alzheimer’s disease. I had forgotten that my essay had speculated on the memory-traces we still retain from earlier experiences. Traces of traces of traces: is not this experience central to making art?
Wordsworth called poetry “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and every painter paints from memory, since the act of painting must always follow the act of seeing. When we make art or experience art, we are diving into—or perhaps mining—the great mystery of the past. Two of the papers at this year’s conference dealt with what Freud called Nachträglichkeit, the way in which a memory can be deeply altered by a much earlier unconscious memory that provides meaning and emotion to what we do remember. It is almost as if there were a labyrinthine underworld beneath the calm, clear surface of the present.
But if we can dive into or mine the past—if the present is only the surface of an ocean or of the deep ground beneath us—then the past has not passed, it is not dead and gone. Maybe it is difficult to obtain access to the past—we must dive or dig—but it is still there, in some senses at least. When we remember, we are simply knowing again; when we dream about a past incident or dead friend, we actually experience them again. Perhaps the dream-memories are distorted. But when we experienced the event or person the first time, we did so in a way that was itself distorted by our hopes and prejudices at the time. Perhaps, in some ways, the memory or dream image may be a more accurate version of the event, corrected by our later experiences.
When we experience anything “now,” we are really experiencing the past, since it takes the light from the face we are looking at a tiny fraction of a picosecond to reach our eyes and about a thirtieth of a second to be interpreted by the retina and visual cortex, and register in the neurons that mediate consciousness. And the light that comes to us from a distant star is as fresh and new as when it started out forty years ago. Indeed, Einstein tells us that, for some distant parts of the universe, the information that constituted what we were forty years ago is only now falling upon the sensors of whatever civilization might be observing us now. Our past is their present. And the light from the origin of the universe 13.7 billion years ago is even now falling upon our sensors, unchanged from when it set out. Our present is its past.
One of the things that is becoming clear in the study of time—and that was treated in many ways at the Crete conference—is that we are probably going to have to change our basic ideas about the very geometry of time. The calendar, the clock and the T-axis in scientific diagrams all represent time as a line, with the implication that time resembles a line in having a simple description, being divisible into equal segments and being in theory reversible. None of these characteristics are true of time.
If we try to cling to the metaphor of the timeline or Cartesian T-axis, we get into terrible tangles. If we are moving along a time-line, how fast are we going? How many hours per…hour? Is the second “hour” in this phrase a different kind of time? Do we move along that time-line?—at how many “whats” per what? Timelines multiply. Imagine a Cartesian graph in which the T-axis begins to wiggle and split into alternative metrical systems as a result of what is happening in the phenomenon the graph is representing. Worse, the represented is altered by the representations, and the graph on which one might try to represent the wiggle and split is in turn subject to a corresponding wiggle and split in its own T-axis. Further, imagine whole individuated broods of such graphs emergent from the splits, competing and cooperating in the effort to include, represent and engulf each other—and so survive in their own terms.
This picture might seem to be wildly confusing, nullifying the purpose of any graph or map designed to make the complex more understandable. But this is only because we are clinging onto the line metaphor and trying to correct for its errors.
If we are going to include in our description of time such facts as that the same cause can have many different and conflicting effects, that the same effect can result from many different causes, the line metaphor will not hold up. Cause and effect is not a chain but a branching tree in both temporal directions. Since, eventually, everything affects everything else and we measure time always after the event we measure, the event itself has had a chance to subtly alter the equipment or assumptions we use to measure it. Later conditions alter the very metric by which time can be measured. When the universe was only a few thousand years old, it was too hot for matter to exist. When matter eventually crystallized out of pure energy, it could then measure time in a different way than before. Later ways by which temporality is experienced and used emerge through crisis and conflict from earlier ones but cannot be reduced to them, as later living species branch out from earlier ones but possess emergent evolutionary features. Fins, legs, wings, eyes and ears evolve with their attendant neural systems of remembering, acting or anticipating: structures whose genetic blueprints are new, and cannot be rescinded. The world becomes a place to move about in, to be seen or heard, to be altered or predicted.
The greatest insight of J.T. Fraser, the founder of the International Society for the Study of Time, was to draw the time metaphor from the entity or organism itself that we are trying to understand, the organism that is experiencing and enacting its own time. Every entity experiences and acts in its own time, its own “temporal umwelt,” as Fraser put it. To understand time is to understand a whole ecology of different interacting temporalities.
Thus, if to remember the past is, for us, to be diving or digging with some difficulty into a mass whose surface is the present, then let us take that metaphor as a partly true representation of our own human temporality. What are we delving for? The lost dead? How do we track or trace what we are seeking? Here the word trace—an etymologically related group of words and concepts in the Indo-European family of the Latin trahere—becomes very useful. And here it abuts directly upon the meaning of the arts—painting, sculpture, music, storytelling, theater, poetry.
All of the past remains. Though it is, as Proust put it, lost (“perdu”), it can be found again (“recherché”). How do we retrace it? By a process that perhaps is best explained by following the etymology of the word trace. Like all other human languages, the Indo-European languages seem to think, using their speakers as neurons and the metaphorical improvisations of their speakers as the synaptic communications between them. When we follow the cognates of some ancient Indo-European root, we can see the human race thinking out its abstract meanings and its plan of the world.
The past is the trace of what was before, and in memory we retrace our steps. We seek a track that we can trace into the future, we decide which path or “trace” or trail we shall make or follow into unexplored territory (in the sense of the Osage Trace, the Spanish Trace, the Chisholm Trail, the paths made by the American western pioneers).
To dig or dive into the past is difficult. The wisdom of language becomes obvious when we look at other cognates of the word trace—drag, draw, traction, trail, track, draught, trace, in the sense of a draught animal’s harness. To trace is always laborious, to some extent, even if the toil is a mere trace. The word always carries notions of mechanical difficulty and the relation of objects moving, being moved or moving themselves through a resistant medium.
What is “time-consuming” is what offers resistance or difficulty or opacity: what is quick and momentary is what is slick or slippery or light and transparent, and thus slips by or is passed through without complications. The paradox arises, that for a self-moving entity to move along, it must get purchase on its environment, and purchase is afforded only by a resistant medium. To swim we must push against the very water that allows our passage. We walk by pressing against the ground that brakes our inertial passage across it. “Only through time time is conquered,” says T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets.
One important form of slickness or difficulty is cognitive—it is easy and quick to get through or see through something that is known, and hard and slow to get through or see through something that is unknown. Problems that are heavy and thick (“schwer,” “lourd,” “dense”) take up time; clear solutions to lightweight problems are a “foregone conclusion.” When we dig into the past, we must do so with a spade that we have made from metal already mined from the past.
But a trace is also a mark that an artist makes on a canvas, the stroke of the chisel on the sculptor’s block of stone. It is what we leave behind, our wake or trail, the path we make that others may follow, even if it is as transient as the breadcrumbs in the story of Hansel and Gretel.
Metaphors create new language for us to think in. The old Scottish Ballad of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer—almost a mini-epic in itself—gives a very clear picture of how this works. He is sitting under a tree at a crossroads— perhaps a crossroads in his life, like Dante’s dark wood at the beginning of the Divine Comedy—and the queen of fairyland rides by. Mistaking her for the queen of Heaven (Mary), he kneels to her, but she corrects him and offers a kiss, with the proviso that the kiss will make him her slave. Of course, he kisses her, and is taken up behind her on her magic white horse. They come to another crossroads, a place where three roads branch off: one is the steep rocky path to heaven, one is the broad, pleasant, well-trodden path to Hell, but the third is something else:
‘And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.’
The road to Elfland is explicitly not the legalistic road of moral salvation or damnation, but one that is aesthetic or artistic (“bonny”)—one that is essentially free, though it requires specific disciplines and, like the Yellow Brick Road, is winding and tortuous. Thomas, like Tamino and Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute, is enjoined to silence in the magic realm. They ride across a river full of the blood of the dead, and through a dawnless darkness, like the darkness Gilgamesh endures in his search for his dead friend Enkidu. Finally, they come to a delightful garden, where Thomas serves his mistress. At the end of his indentured servitude, she gives him an apple from the tree in the center of the garden, as his reward, implying that he cannot leave unless he eats it, and telling him that, if he does so, he must tell the truth always thenceforth. Thomas cavils at this:
‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye!’—
‘Now haud thy peace, Thomas,’ she said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’
‘My tongue is my ain,’ true Thomas he said;
‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I might be.
With some humor, the poet points out that if he must always tell the truth he will be at a great disadvantage trying to humor the powerful, chat up a lady or drive a bargain in the marketplace. But such is the fate of poets. When Thomas is in fairyland, he is not permitted to speak—but when he returns, he is given the great, and embarrassing, power to tell the truth always. And he does it in rhyme, and so he gets his other name as well, Thomas the Rhymer. Rhyming is hard to do. When he returns, even if it seems to him that he has spent but a single night or a single week in fairyland (depending on which version of the ballad one reads), seven or seventy long years have passed. It takes a while to learn the craft, to make an enduring trace.
In the ancient Greek story, Orpheus the poet goes down to the underworld and is able to return. The mysterious prohibition this time is that he must not look back to check to see if his dead wife, Eurydice, is following him—he must not seek perfect certain knowledge here, for this is outside the realm of the provable. When he does look back, he loses his wife forever. This myth may derive in part from the oldest extant poem in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh goes to the underworld to bring back his dead friend Enkidu and find the secret of immortality. He also breaks one of those arbitrary rules (thou shalt not sleep), and comes back empty-handed—but with the gift of new knowledge and enduring words.
Virgil describes the passage between the present and the underworld of the past in the Aeneid:
facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
In Dryden’s translation:
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
The hero Aeneas’ key to the underworld is the plucking of the golden bough, which resists his action—the word Virgil uses for its reluctance to yield, its difficulty, is cunctatem, “delaying.” It is Aeneas’ labor, his difficulty, dragging or drawing it from the tree in the forest of Avernus, that enables him to go down into the land of the dead and return. He has blazed the trail, and traced our way.
The artists—painters, sculptors, poets, composers, filmmakers—responded to this rich philosophical, poetic and scientific material in different ways, but with a common feeling of excitement and incipient inspiration. Artists who had previously attempted to break new ground began to realize that the most remarkable “new ground” lay right beneath their feet—the past, both their own and also that of their culture and species. One talk in particular, on the labyrinth of Knossos—given by Paul Harris, the Society’s outgoing president—seemed to captivate the visual and musical artists. The past is an underground labyrinth with, at its center, a bull-headed giant man, perhaps a symbol of our own original nature. The work of art is the clue, the ball of string given Theseus by the witch Ariadne. This image captivated the Dutch poet Annemarie Estor. She is also a visual artist, and her drawings, as she worked at them in the honey-gold light of Crete, under the azure sky, began to take on the serpentine forms of the underworld journey through which we must all, in one way or another, retrace our steps.