Thursday, April 11, 2019

Streams of Time

I was going to begin this blog post with the words: "Time is endlessly fascinating to me." But then I thought: Isn't time fascinating to everybody? Indeed, even to write on the subject of time, at an abstract level, is to risk cliché. There have been so many poems, films, songs, and other meditations on the subject of time that it might seem a theme best avoided.

However, in this blog post I am thinking about one particular aspect of time I've never seen addressed anywhere else.

I'm talking about the phenomenology of time, the way we experience time.

It seems to me that we experience time in different streams, which run concurrently but at different speeds. And the awareness of these different streams of time, and the contrast between them, has brought a great deal of poetic delight into my life. The silent music of time is bewitching.

Wherever you are, or whatever you are thinking about, you find yourself embedded in a different "stream" of time-- although you may experience more than one at the same time.

The best way I can explain this is by giving examples from my own life. I thought about going from the slowest stream of time to the fastest, or perhaps from the fastest to the slowest. But then I decided that would be a little too methodical for my liking. It would also give the impression that these are all simply points on a scale, and that's not the case. They are all subtly different, and not only in how slow or fast they are.

I will list them at random, as they occur to me. I have mentioned some of them before in previous posts.

Here's the first one that comes to mind. When I was in my late teens, my mother spent a while working as a cleaning lady for a particular family. She would always come home with a bag of goodies, which often included banana bread and Black Forest gateaux. It would also include a bag of recent newspapers. I developed a rather strange habit of reading this bundle of newspapers in the bath (yes, in the bath), by candlelight.

It was a delicious sensation, reading about controversies and news stories which had just passed out of public attention. It was like hearing a hubbub from a public meeting or a football game, but muffled by distance. I loved the unique combination of excitement and calm.

(This is pretty much the same atmosphere I enjoy when reading old periodicals or collections of newspaper columns, though it is obviously even more distanced in that case.)

The next example that occurs to me is that of a painting in an art gallery. Here the "stream of time" seems to have frozen, and we seem to have entered the realm of the timeless. 

And yet, it's not quite so, because the painting still inhabits time. Unless the painting is a still life or an abstract work, there is probably a sort of time inside the painting; something is happening, even if it's just cows grazing on a field.

But even if it is a still life or an abstract work, the painting doesn't really exist outside time-- not even in the phenomenological sense I'm talking about here. Because we are aware that is occupies a particular place in the history of art, or the history of culture. We are in that "stream" as we look at it. As well as this, the painting occupies physical space in the gallery, and the hushed tones and slow paces of the gallery visitors creates its own "stream of time".

The mention of timelessness brings me to an important point-- just as there are different "streams" of time, there are different "flavours" of timelessness. A photograph, a scene within a snow globe, a Greek myth, and a classic episode of some nineteen-eighties TV sit-com could all legitimately be called "timeless". But how differently we experience these various example of "timelessness"!

In truth, I think there is no absolute difference between "streams of time" and instances of "timelessness".

Another example occurs to me-- parliamentary history. This is obviously very relevant today, with all the upheaval about Brexit. And this example shows how delicate and subtle these "streams of time" are. I remember being very struck, during the coverage of the 1997 General Election in the UK, when one political commentator pointed out that Tony Blair had become the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1807. So, on the one hand, the election coverage was feverish and moment-by-moment, but it also opened out onto the long galleries of Westminster history.

Another example (and somewhat similar) is the "stream of time" we enter when something of world-historical (or even national-historical) significance occurs. Most of my readers will remember this from 9/11, and many of my readers will remember it from the fall of the Soviet Union. At such moments, the whole world seems to have entered into a very definite "stream of time", and everything takes on a different aspect; grander, more monumental. The other great moments of history seem nearer they did the day before.

At the opposite end to such huge and world-shaking events are the private, enclosed "streams of time" that we enter into when it comes to board games, card games, and computer games. Reader, have you ever found yourself absorbed in game after game of Scrabble, or Gin Rummy, or some other game, and found that you are now living, not hour to hour, but minute to minute, and second to second? Indeed, the flow of time in the world outside seems to have been suspended, while you are lost in the game. This ad for Lucozade, from just before the new millennium, evokes this atmosphere very well.

Is there a "stream of time" for that interesting abstraction, "daily life"? I don't think so-- at least, not a single one. Every environment, pursuit, atmosphere, and frame of mind has its own "stream of time".

I suppose this is one of my stranger posts. In truth, such posts are the ones I enjoy writing the most. I hope somebody out there recognizes their own experience in it, or even that it articulates something that you have found yourself half-thinking once or twice. That, for me, is one of the great joys of reading, and of writing.


  1. (apologies if this comment came through already, got cut off while pressing 'publish' so not sure)
    I just wanted to mention that this touches on what, for me, is one of the best literary moments ever- Wilde' s two or so mentions of time and the clock as Dorian Gray blackmailed Alan Campbell "the ticking clock on the mantlepiece seemed to him to be dividing time into separate atoms of agony"
    So well put

    1. I love moments like that in fiction; little grace notes. In fact, I could probably go through various books composing a mini-anthology of literary scenes or passages which illustrate this post!