On the Malleability of Time

11 March 2004

We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance. — Marcel Proust

I was in a car crash a couple of years ago.

It took only five or ten seconds for the tractor trailer to sideswipe my Geo Storm; for my car to lurch into the air and then to veer to one side and slam headlong into the guard rail at fifty-five miles per hour; for the airbag to deploy (so quickly that I didn’t even realize it had happened until I came to my senses) and pop me in the nose; for the car to spin around and around; for me to gaze about the cabin, marveling at the surreal quality of the dusty air (the airbag is packed with a powdery substance); for the car to stall and come to a halt on the shoulder of the south Wilsonville overpass.

It took only five or ten seconds for all of this to occur, yet it seemed much longer. The moment the car lurched into the air, jarring me from my early morning stupor, Time altered.

Five or ten seconds seemed to take five or ten minutes.

When it was all finished, my memory seemed incomplete. I had the memories one might be expected to have of a five or ten second event, one in which the sensory overload made it impossible to grasp everything. Yet, my mind seemed to understand that five or ten minutes had elapsed. My inability to reconcile these two perceptions of Time caused me anxiety, and does to this day.


Writers understand the malleability of Time. They’re taught to use the notion to their advantage.

When something traumatic happens quickly — like a car crash — the writer focuses on the details. Seconds of action can take pages to describe.

Conversely, long and tedious events are shown only briefly. Days of waiting for a letter might be represented by a single sentence.


Some days Time seems to ooze.

I look at the clock and it’s 8:12. I spend what seems like hours on quotes and orders and surfing the net, and when I look up, it’s 8:32. Twenty minutes have passed. I could have sworn two hours had elapsed.

Other days Time seems to flow uncontrollably, gushing through holes in a dike.

I try to stop the holes, but to no avail. It’s 9:37. I do one quote. It’s 9:57. I do another quote. It’s 10:12. I enter orders. It’s 10:42. An hour has rushed through the dike, though it seems to have been only minutes.

What we are doing is making our way back to life, shattering with all our force the ice of the habitual and the rational which instantly congeals over reality and keeps us from ever seeing it, finding a passage back into the open sea. — Marcel Proust

When I was a boy, I was impatient. Each minute I did nothing seemed like an hour. It tore me up to sit still, idle, waiting. I fidgeted. I fussed.

Now that I am approaching mid-life, waiting doesn’t bother me. I can sit waiting for hours. My internal thought-world is rich, so that it is no imposition to be forced to pass the Time. To do so merely gives me an opportunity to examine some heretofore unexplored path of thought.


If I am experiencing something rare and pleasurable — a delicious meal, a fascinating conversation, an encounter with a beautiful woman, an instance of intense intellectual stimulation — and I have the presence to realize I am experiencing something rare and pleasurable, I make an effort to force myself to consciously elongate Time.

I don’t mean that I try to prolong the experience in an objective sense, stretching actual seconds into minutes — though sometimes this is true — I mean that I try to force myself into a heightened state of awareness, one in which I note every detail of my environment, I savor every nuance, so that the subjective passage of Time seems greater. Then, when reliving those moments, they seem longer than they were.

In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with Time in one’s life. — Marcel Proust

Proust makes the study of Time the central theme in his seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. The final volume of his novel is actually called Time Regained (or, in some translations, The Past Recaptured).

Proust’s meditation on Time, filled as it is with a sea of dependent clauses, proves too daunting for most people, which is unfortunate because it contains so many sharp insights not only on the passage of Time, but also on truth, beauty, freedom, and love.


I am convinced that I have “absolute Time sense”. As long as I’m at least vaguely aware of the passage of Time, I can usually tell you the actual Time (or something close to it).


Despite my learned ability to alter the subjective shape of Time, there are instances in which I cannot alter its flow in my favor. These are those excruciating moments of embarrassment, or of oppression in the face of a boor, or of anxious panic. During these moments, Time seems incorrigible, beyond my grasp, a cruel and capricious tyrant. A half hour trapped in a car with a person I find offensive seems to take hours, or days. In these instances, when Time has shaken itself from my grasp, I feel helpless.


Sometimes when I’m programming, or playing a computer game, I lose my sense of Time. I may begin playing a game at ten in the morning, and the next time I’m aware of my surroundings, night has fallen. Kris has gone to bed. I’ve squandered hours on world conquest or on redesigning a web site. For some reason, when programming or playing computer games, my mind has a tendency to enter a sort of fugue state in which all that exists is the program or the game. Everything else is peripheral. Time no longer exists. I don’t eat. I don’t go the bathroom. I don’t hear the phone (or my wife). Only the computer world exists.

I’m not sure I like this state.


It is cliché to speak of a man’s life flashing before his eyes as he lays dying. Yet, I hope this will be the case with me.

I hope to have the presence of mind, the ability, the strength to force myself to relive my life, in real-time if possible, as my body fails in those waning seconds. Better still would be a recursive loop, one in which at the end of this relived life, as my viewed self lies upon his death bed, he forces himself to relive his life.

In this way it might be possible to live forever.

Comments

On 11 March 2004 (09:36 AM),
Dana said:

JD: Only the computer world exists.

I experience this state, but not when you do. I experience it when I’m buried in an engrossing book, or when I’m programming, or when I’m drawing, or when I’m working on math problems.

I don’t do that last one very often anymore.

I really quite like the sensation of being that deep inside my own mind, but unfortunately it seems to require a lot of time to truly experience, and subjectively it always seems like a short period of time has elapsed.

On 11 March 2004 (10:12 AM),
Tammy said:

There’s something odd about the computer. Nowhere does time slide by quicker than when I’m on the internet. And… there is no single pursuit of mine that makes me feel worse than when I’ve lost time by being on the computer. I don’t know why but I always have a vague feeling of not really experiencing life if I’ve spent too much time on this machine. I get done with my day an there’s no feeling of accomplishment and pride in my days acheivements. I can’t say why this is I only know that it is.

On 11 March 2004 (11:11 AM),
Amanda said:

Great entry today.

On 11 March 2004 (11:33 AM),
J.D. said:

Tammy, I, too, feel dirty when I spend too much time at the computer. Yet, like an addict, I find it difficult to tear myself away. I’ve tried to do so in the past, but I cannot. I’m hooked. And the computer world is not wholly bad, to be sure. If I were more prone to moderation, it might be something I could overlook. I am not prone to moderation. I am prone to excess, and to addiction, and so I spend too much time on the computer in various endeavors. It makes me feel dirty.

Thanks, Amanda. I should share the source of inspiration for today’s entry. I’m currently reading the science fiction novel Hyperion by Dan Simmons. One of its central themes is Time, and the way in which we perceive it. Simmons plays with this concept in several ways.

First of all, there are the mysterious Time Tombs, ancient artifacts which emanate a “temporal tide”. They disrupt the flow of Time around them, and the extent of this disruption varies in its radius, ebbing and flowing like a tide.

Around these tombs roams a creature called The Shrike. Among other qualities, The Shrike is unbound by Time. It seems to move freely through Time. In particular, it has the ability to remove itself from Time, performing any number of things in a fraction of a second. Simmons takes care not to represent this as superhuman speed or as the ability to stop Time; instead, he portrays it as some third option, as if The Shrike were somehow immune to Time.

Hyperion borrows its structure from The Cantebury Tales. In the novel, a group of pilgrims is traveling to The Time Tombs. As they travel, they tell their stories. These stories are amazing, sometimes poignant. My favorite, so far, is all about Time:

Sol and his wife have a daughter, Rachel. She is an angelic child. She grows up to be an angelic young woman, an archaeologist. She goes to Hyperion to study the Time Tombs. In a freak accident, she suffers “temporal poisoning” — she is infected by Time. This poisoning has a strange effect. She begins to live her life in reverse. She goes to bed today as a twenty-five year old woman, and she wakes tomorrow a day younger in every way. Her body is a day younger. Her memories are a day younger. Everything about her is a day younger. If she met you today, she won’t remember you tomorrow, because for her it is now the day before and you haven’t come into her life. For twenty-five years, Rachel ages backward, one day at a time, losing memories, losing friends, losing knowledge, losing abilities.

It’s a poignant story, utterly fascinating, and the kind of thing that makes me stop to think about Time for ten minutes, or twenty.

Mostly, though, it causes my mind to percolate until I’m sitting at the computer, entering invoices, and all of a sudden I’m stuck in a reverie about Time, a reverie I have to write down to share.

I’m a geek.

On 11 March 2004 (12:36 PM),
Lisa said:

A few years ago, I read a book called _Finding Flow_ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I’m not sure that I can do it justice in a short explanation, but the gist is that when you’re unaware of time passing (and of yourself in general), that’s flow. It’s basically being “at one” with your task. And if you do things where you find flow and appreciate the experience, you’re getting more out of your life. (That said, I don’t think that every task where you lose yourself is a good one–the computer being an excellent example.)

Anyway, it’s another look on the idea of time passing. If you’re interested, I can loan the book to you…

On 11 March 2004 (08:26 PM),
Aurora said:

You probably won’t read this, but there is a mathematical theory that proposes a reason for why time seems to move more quickly as we age. When we were young we had only been alive for a small fraction of our life, so a minute seems like forever in relation to the short time that we have been alive; however, as we age the passage of time in reference to the amount of time we spend on earth is shorter, so time seems to pass more quickly. There were equations and stuff along with this but I certainly don’t remember them.

On 11 March 2004 (10:17 PM),
nate said:

Is all this time philosophizing brought on by Donnie Darko? Or did you just finish reading The Philosophy of Time Travel by Roberta Sparrow? ;)

On 24 May 2005 (04:41 PM),
lewstermax said:

Time does not exist.
I have proven this, since I live backward right now, like that Merlin guy.
I was really near death when I was 20. Now I’m 48, and life is bran new! Yeah, I like that kind of cereal.
Hen way, time is an illusion, and merely a convention used to make clocks tick, or vibrate, or lose time; batteries wear out too.
Oh, and its good for clock makers too.
Anyway, if there is time, its one breath to the next. Any Zen master will tell you that. The one hand clapping koan, that was just to get you to snap out of your dazed and confused mind set, and wake up to the brazen fact that without breathing, nothing else will keep you alive! Nothing.
Try breathing deep space some time—I know I did.

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