The Arrow of Time
Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.
— House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski
Sometimes, on clear, starry nights, I like to get up on my roof and stare out at the sky. More than anything, it is an exercise in humility. Instead of looking inward, I gaze out, at the infinite expanse of the sky and revel in the absolute insignificance of my own being.
At first, the simple fact that I am looking into the past was difficult to comprehend. But eventually, I made peace with the arrow of time. In the end, all time is relative. In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, the narrator reading from a letter says, “He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” And now, in the 21st century, we still grapple with time as we did then. European, African and Asian time—they are all different, in velocities, speeds and intensities. By incorporating culture and geography, human and non-human, biology and geology, time goes from becoming static and fixed to all-round relative. This is not the macroscopic Einsteinian relativity of time but more of a perceptual understanding. We exist at different speeds, even you and I. Despite the fact that our synchronised watches might mark out the same length of time, our experience of a minute is purely subjective.
But these are all local understandings of time. When I look out at the universe, time dilates. It is no longer in the space of the earth that time resides but outward, toward the vast reaches of galaxies that are only just being formed and the stars that have disintegrated into black holes, from which nothing escapes, not even time. I believe this is similar to the experience that many who meditate describe. But this too is too vast to comprehend. It raises questions that require an understanding of physics and astrophysics and the minute workings of the stars and quantum particles to understand. No, that is not where my mind should go, despite the fact that it does so anyway. Either times lives within the mind or the mind lives within time. Which is which, I cannot say, for each seems equally valid. When I am late for a meeting with someone and they tap their watch with a grimace of disapproval, it seems I am moving within time. And when I am the one waiting for someone and they arrive on time but because I have been waiting, the minutes seem to stretch before me. And then, it seems time is within the mind.
When it comes to time, there always seems to be a sense of loss. Invariably, time is change. Without things changing, we would never realise the passage of time. If the sun stayed in the same position all day every day, how would we ever tell what time it is? If the hands on a clock did not change their positions, how would we ever tell what it is? And with change comes loss. The loss of space, of landscapes, of people. Time takes its toll and it is always heavy. Nothing weighs on the soul as much as the burden of time. The waste of time is almost a sin because it is an unrelenting arrow and there is never any going back. Time lost is time irrevocable.
Nothing impresses this burden of time more stridently than age. Birthdays are celebrated not because they are happy occasions but because they are an unconsciously nervous manner of staving off death. A year older is another notch on the wall, marking the slow, inevitable march towards that which awaits all living things. Time is a burden because there is death at the end. There is an exhortation to make use of every minute because the time we have is finite. Because it ends, it runs out and it never stops. The ticking of the clock reverberates throughout life like the beating of the infernal heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Until you can’t take it anymore and you throw open the floorboards of your heart, screaming and mad. Time becomes an obsession and it is only in times like these, when gazing away with no real object, that time’s fetters are lifted. Then, and in dreams.
Clocks are unreadable in dreams. Time is only a memory when you are asleep. It passes, doubles and passes again. You sleep and despite the rhythmic rise and fall of your chest that traces out a pattern in time, seconds, minutes and hours, when in dreams, are irrelevant. A five-minute nap can lead through a labyrinthine maze of people, memories and events, each one bleeding into the next. It seems like it is only in dreams that we are free of the tyranny of time. It is a much-needed respite, without which we might not survive. There are days when going without sleep causes time to drag on and movement feels as if wading through molasses. Maybe lack of sleep for days could cause time to stop abruptly. But would this freedom be transcendent or immanent? Would we rise above time like stars or become indistinguishable from its passage?
Maybe out in the farthest reaches of the universe is life that is not beholden to time. That is, if linear time is a human construction. Regardless, as of now, the arrow of time continues to fly and all we can do is follow along, tracing its movements from location to location, noting its changes in space so that we can mark off the time that has passed. Only to arrive at the end, old, frail and wondering how time is never time enough.
Published on The Kathmandu Post, July 27, 2013