Tuesday, June 1st, 2004
We know that the past doesn’t really exist, at least in our ability to experience it as we do “presentness.” Look for it. It’s in the artifacts. The things we make and that “remind.” Can one, by looking at the desert, infer a sense of time? But when we meet an old junker in the woods, something that looks like a Ford, is time set on its course then, created in this situation by an interrupted landscape?
Neha on her old blogger blog had an interesting quote from Saint Augustine and his thoughts on time. The quote comes from The Confessions, Book 11. Augustine writes:
17. There was no time, therefore, when thou [God] hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself. And there are no times that are coeternal with thee, because thou dost abide forever; but if times should abide, they would not be times.
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who can even comprehend it in thought or put the answer into words? Yet is it not true that in conversation we refer to nothing more familiarly or knowingly than time? And surely we understand it when we speak of it; we understand it also when we hear another speak of it.
What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time.
But, then, how is it that there are the two times, past and future, when even the past is now no longer and the future is now not yet? But if the present were always present, and did not pass into past time, it obviously would not be time but eternity. If, then, time present–if it be time–comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be? Thus, can we not truly say that time is only as it tends toward nonbeing?
Subtly, it seems to me that Augustine links time to space. I don’t mean this in Einstein’s sense of mathematical spime, but in the negotiation of the abstract with spatial surround. Time, whose nature isn’t described as having its own body, its own physicality in other words, is “moving,” “passing,” all qualities of physical bodies. If time passes, it has to pass “somewhere” or through some thing: could be the ether, could be jello. Either that or time “is” simply some aspect of physicality itself, some necessary quality of space, or the material world. For Augustine, time has existence, it’s created, it has different aspects (past time, future time) but that doesn’t explain what it “is” as a phenomenon.
The past is either a physical object (a photograph, a fossil, a building) or it’s created in the form of story, recalled and told. I can tell a story about my grandparents (I’d have to make a lot of it up) but most likely that story will involve journey and struggle. I’ll want to tell where “my people” came from. How we got “here.” The tale is about moving through time. Myth space.