I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.”
— Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.
— Marilyn Monroe
The Clock is a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay in which each and every minute of a day is represented in one or more scenes from old movies. The exact time of any particular minute is either spoken by a character, seen in a close-up of a clock or watch, or simply glimpsed on a clock or digital display in the background as the camera pans across a room or street. For some particularly notable minutes, such as high noon, The Clock might draw from five or six different films over the course of 60 seconds. For less significant minutes, sometimes only one scene was found by the team of researchers, who spent two years viewing thousands of films in search of lost time. And for a surprisingly small number of minutes in the wee hours of the morning, a generic “middle-of-the-night” scene had to be employed (often from film noir).
The video is run by a computer program which goes to whatever the local time is when “play” is pressed, so the work itself functions as a reliable timepiece. When I watched it, in one sitting, in the theater of the Los Angeles County Art Museum two years ago, it started at noon on Saturday and finished at noon the next day. It was a memorable and vastly entertaining journey. I was especially struck by the degree to which our lives are organized by the mechanized measurement of time. Sure, we all know that, but to see scene after scene of alarms going off, children heading for school, lunch breaks, quitting time, dinners served, and so on, made the point in a way that could be a little unsettling. How free are we, really?
For me, the most unique part of that marathon viewing experience was the act of consciously noticing every single minute of a 24-hour period (except when I dozed briefly a few times, plus three quick bathroom breaks, hoping I wouldn’t miss much). Now it’s noon, now it’s 12:01, now it’s 12:02 … I didn’t need an extraordinary degree of mindfulness. It was actually quite effortless to stay focused on the screen. The diversity of the selected scenes was the perfect stimulant. When I watched Andy Warhol’s 8-hour film of a man sleeping in the 1960s, my mind wandered far and wide during that interminable screening of sameness. But The Clock kept me watching by showing a great many things, not just one big thing. Curiosity alone was enough to keep me paying attention. What will the next minute contain?
New Year’s Eve is, for a brief time, like viewing Marclay’s video. Tonight, the majority of the human race will pay close attention, minute by minute, to the passing of time in the countdown of hours, minutes and seconds to 2016.
Of course, there is no universal Now when everyone will shout or kiss in unison. As Einstein taught us, what time it is depends on where in the universe you are standing. Whether anything is past, present, or future varies with the location of the observer. At our house, we will bang the drum, strike the wind gong, and blow the train whistle in synchronization with a reality already in the past: the ball drop 3 hours earlier in Times Square.
Even further back, in 1949, Einstein’s friend Kurt Godël offered a mathematical proof for time travel. If time has a spatial quality allowing us to move backward and forward in it, then time in the sense of irreversible passing does not exist. Past and future become places we can (theoretically) go. And if this is so, then we are close to the old theological image of all times being simultaneous to God. As William Blake put it,
I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once
Be that as it may, who among us actually lives above time’s flow, as though there is neither past nor present nor future? Who does not feel, particularly at turnings, transitions, and departures, what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt?” We live on the knife edge between old and new, memory and regret, loss and hope. When we dance tonight at midnight, may it prove just wide enough for our wild steps.
Would you have it any other way, this life of falling and rising, losing and finding? Virginia Woolf’s Orlando describes an alternative existence: the protagonist is free from the dictates of time, living on from century to century while everyone else is passing away. But not being wedded to any particular generation or era has a price. “Her loves are wild with passion, but seem to leave no trace, and by the novel’s end she is left occasionally wounded, but always without the pleasure of a scar.”[i]
It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.
There is much more to be said about all this, but the sun is low in the sky, and it’s high time to prepare a welcome for the New Year, which I pray will be full of wonder, delight, illumination, and meaningful change for you, dear reader, and everyone you love.
In the meantime, I leave you with this lovely praise of temporality from D. H. Lawrence:
Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation…
Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal … Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the now… Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing to the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick….[ii]
Related post: The Angel of Possibility
[i] Colin Dickey, “Reelin’ in the Years”, Lapham’s Quarterly VII:4, Fall 2014, p. 221
[ii] ibid., 117 (from D. H. Lawrence, the preface to New Poems, 1920)