THE IDEA OF TIME IN THE WORK OF JAMES JOYCE – By Marcel Brion

Certain thinkers have at times wondered if the essential difference existing between man and God were not a difference of time. Space is not concerned here — God is everywhere —- but, rather, this much more complex dimension which is generally inaccessible to human science. We measure time but we do not know what it is.

We often encounter in mystical literature the story of the monk or poet who has fallen asleep in the forest. When he awakes he no longer recognizes either men or the countryside.

His meditation or slumber, which to him has appeared very short, has in reality lasted hundreds of years. But during this moment in which he has been snatched from the tyranny of time he has caught a glimpse of the mysterious aspects of infinity, he has neared the laws of the Cosmos, the throne of God.

Theoretically, the difference in speed between two objects in motion is sufficient to make them imperceptible to each other; to destroy, practically, their existence.

The relations between human beings are those of time.

All men are made similar by the nearly equal cadence of their heart—beats, but they are separated by the rhythms of their sensations or their thoughts. Only those walking at the same pace know each other.

The fourth dimension is actually the only one that matters. Space is nothing — it is reduced every day by mechanical means of communication -— but consider two men seated side by side. They do not live in the same time. There is no possible communication between them. And it is often the tragedy of life to feel oneself only a few centimeters away from the beings among whom one lives, yet separated from them by all the infinity of time.

Time is not an abstract concept. On the contrary, it is perhaps the only reality in the world, the thing which is the most concrete. All the rest could only intervene in the form of its emanations.

We may deduce from this that time is the essential factor in a work of art. (This appears quite evident when considered in one if its aspects -— rhythm). It is the law of architecture and of painting. The painters who have attained the greatest emotional power are precisely those whose work includes time — for example, Rembrandt. While we look at it, the picture seems always in the process of “being made”. It seems to be constructing itself with the moments and it seems that if we were to return on the morrow we should find it changed. And, in fact, when we return on the morrow, it is changed. There are likewise masterpieces of sculpture, which give the impression of a continual palpitation, of an uninterrupted succession of imperceptible movements. It is this that is ordinarily called life -—- but life is the consciousness of time.

A book’s story may embrace several decades, several centuries without revealing time to us. Another imposes it in a brief moment. There are flat books and deep books (without metaphor and almost in a material sense); there are also books rich with time and books destitute of time. This is the reason that one of the greatest writers of our period, one of the most sensitive and most intuitive, made of time the essential dimension of his work — temps perdu and temps retrouvé.

Marcel’s Proust’s idea of time is extremely curious. In his books time is a character like the others e I might even say more than the others. Time is at the centre of his work like s sort of lighthouse with turning signals. The men who revolve around this luminous mass are suddenly illuminated by the beams of the projector in periodic Flashes, and the moment the light abandons them they fall back into obscurity, nothingness.

It is in time that the characters of Proust become conscious of themselves. They seek themselves in it and are reflected in it. They complete their metamorphosis in it. But time remains exterior to them. They are not incorporated in it any more than they integrate it in themselves. They submit to it, as to gravity or the law of acceleration. But the author has conceived it so intensely that we feel this time to be materialized often like an object, applied like a thin and transparent pellicle on the face of men.

Perhaps because illness sheltered him from the customary rhythm of life, because it imposed upon him a different order of sensations, Proust understood time as a thing in itself, time which does not ordinarily separate us from our act and which we make simply a condition, an accessory of our existence.

With James Joyce it is another thing. l place James Joyce and Marcel Proust together intentionally because in my opinion they are the two greatest writers of our century, the only ones who have brought an original vision of the world to our epoch, who have renewed equally the universe of sensations and of ideas. The work of Proust and that of Joyce are the only ones between which a parallel may be drawn on an ideal plane of quality — and this for reasons which go far beyond questions of technique or talent — in the domain of literature and art. Perhaps it is because a sort of pure instinct of genius is likewise found here under a very elaborate art; but, above all, it is because with Joyce as with Proust time is a dominant factor.

On the absolute plane, the life of the ephemera and that of the animal endowed with the greatest length of life are equal. In the one case as in the other it is a life, and the fact that it stretches out for a few seconds or a few centuries has no importance. It is probable that both will be divided into a like number of units but that the unit will be long for the one and extremely short for the other. The idea of time being essentially that of the dissociation of moments, a hundredth of a second for an insect that lives for some minutes will be loaded with as many experiences as a year for the long—living animal. It is the same thing, all proportions retained, with men— some live at high speed, others at reduced speed; and they are separated, inexorably most often, by these different cadences.

We may thus account for the fact that eighteen hours of Bloom’s life should give birth to Ulysses, and we can easily imagine that Ulysses might have been ten times as long, a hundred times as long, extended to infinity, that one of Bloom’s minutes might have filled a library. This is the mystery of the relativity of time.

If time remains external to Proust, if he gives it an existence apart, isolated from his characters, for Joyce, on the contrary, it remains the inseparable factor, the primary element at the base of his work.

This is why he creates his own time, as he creates his vocabulary and his characters. He soon elaborates what he receives from reality by a mysterious chemistry into new elements bearing the marks of this personality. But even as he metamorphoses the countryside, the streets of Dublin, the beach, the monuments, he mixes all this into what appears to us at first sight as a chaos. This chaos is the condition necessary to all creation. The cards are shuffled to begin a new game and all the elements of a universe are mingled before a new world is made, in order that new forms may be given birth. A total refutation of man and his milieu, a rejection of combinations already used, a need of fine new instruments. Joyce dashes the scenes of the world down pellmell to find an unhackneyed meaning and a law that is not outdated in the arrangement he is afterward to give them.

To do this it is fitting that he should at the outset break through the too—narrow restraints of time and space; he must have an individual conception of these dimensions and adopt them to the necessities of his creation. In Ulysses, and still more in ‘Work in Progress, we seem to be present at the birth of a world. In this apparent chaos we are conscious of a creative purpose, constructive and architectural, which has razed every conventional dimension, concept and vocabulary, and selected from their scattered material the elements of a new structure. Joyce has created his language, either by writing words phonetically —— and Heaven knows such a method is enough to discipline English — or by introducing foreign words and dialect forms, or finally by the wholesale manufacture of words which he requires and which are not to be had at second hand. And it is all done with an unprecedented creative power, with an almost unique fertility of imagination, inexhaustibly reinforced by the incredible extent of his culture. In the field of verbal richness Joyce has annexed the seemingly impregnable position of Rabelais; but whereas in Rabelais, form was under no direction other than that of an amused fantasy, in Joyce it is the handmaid of a philosophy. Work in Progress seems to be based on the historical theory of Vico -— an actual recreation of the world, its ideas and its forms.

Mr. Elliot Paul well demonstrated recently how Joyce in his composition of ‘Work in Progress revealed an entirely individual conception of time and space.

This was already quite apparent in his first books. The stories in Dubliners, for example, seem entirely filled with the beating o fa silent metronome. They unfold themselves in “time”. Properly speaking, Araby is a drama of time, a drama of lost time; and we feel that each of the characters in Dubliners is rich or poor with his time, that the vibration of his life is hasty or slow.

In Ulysses the phenomenon is- even more evident. To reduce the decades of the Iliad, the Odyssey, of Telemachus to eighteen hours in the life of a man —— and of an ordinary man to whom nothing happens save the most ordinary events of existence — is one of the Einsteinian miracles of the relativity of time. And we understand it even better when we see the movement of the vibrations transformed in each chapter, changing rhythm and tempo, slowing up in the Nausicaa episode, blowing like the wind in that of Eolus, giving spacious and deep cadences to the gynaecological discussion. The chapter most powerfully demonstrating Joyce’s mastery in expressing time is perhaps that in which Marian Bloom’s revery unrolls its rapid uninterrupted chain of ideas, memories and sensations, contrasting to her calm regular breathing.

Better than anyone else, Joyce has restored the sense of biological and intellectual rhythm. I imagine that he could write an unprecedented book composed of the simple interior physical existence, of a man, without anecdotes, without super-numeraries, with only the circulation of the blood and the lymph, the race of nervous excitations toward the centres, the twisting of emotion and thought through the cells. I imagine that Joyce could compose a book of pure time.

It sometimes seems that a page of Joyce is a strange vibration of cells, a swarming of the lowest Brownian movements under the lens of the microscope. In my opinion, if the recent books of Joyce are considered hermetic by the majority of readers it is because of the difficulty which the latter experience in falling into step, in adapting themselves to the rhythm of each page, in changing “time ” abruptly and as often as this is necessary.

But still more than to Ulysses these remarks apply to the book which transition is publishing and of which we as yet know only a part. Work in Progress is essentially a time work. From a bird’s eye view, time appears to be its principal subject. It begins in the middle of a moment and of a sentence, as if to place in infinity the initial disturbance of its waves. The concept of time here plays the principal role, not only by its concrete expressions but likewise by its abstract essence. It here takes on the significance of a creator-word and determines all the movements of the work.

The chronology of the story matters little to the author of Work in Progress. By his caprice, which in reality obeys a carefully studied and realized constructive will, characters most widely separated in time find themselves unexpectedly cast side by side; and, as for example Mr. Elliot Paul recently wrote in transition, ” Noah, Premier Gladstone and ‘Papa’ Browning are telescoped into one”. This image is perfectly accurate, and the optics of the work are so much the less accessible to the average reader as he does not always distinguish the moment in which the present episode is placed. When we are made to pass, without any transition other than an extremely subtle association of ideas, from Original Sin to the Wellington Monument and when we are transported from the Garden of Eden to the Waterloo battlefield we have the impression of crossing a quantity of intermediary planes at full speed. Sometimes it even seems that the planes exist simultaneously in the same place and are multiplied like so many “over-impressions”. These planes, which are separated, become remote and are suddenly reunited and sometimes evoke a sort of accordeon where they are fitted exactly, one into another like the parts of a telescope, to return to Mr. Elliot Paul’s metaphor.

This gift of ubiquity permits Joyce to unite persons and moments which appear to be the most widely separated. It gives a strange transparence to his scenes, since we perceive their principal element across four or five various evocations, all corresponding to the same idea but presenting varied faces in different lightings and movements.

It has often been said that a man going away from the earth at the speed of light would by this act relive in an extraordinarily short time all the events in the world’s history. Supposing this speed were still greater and near to infinity- all these events would Hash out simultaneously. This is what happens sometimes in Joyce. `Without apparent transition, the Fall of the Angels is transparently drawn over the Battle of Waterloo. This appears to us as contrary neither to the laws of logic nor to those of nature, for these “bridges ” are joined with a marvellous sense of the association of ideas. New associations, created by him with amazing refinement, they cooperate in creating this universe, the Joycian world, which obeys its own laws and appears to be liberated from the customary physical restraints.

And we have, indeed, the impression of a very individual world, very different from our own, a world of reflections that are sometimes deformed, as in concave or convex mirrors, and imprinted with a reality true and whole in itself. I do not speak here only of the vocabulary which Joyce employs and which he transforms for his usage -— which, one might, say, he creates —— but especially of his manners of treating time and space. It is for this reason, much more than because of the work’s linguistic difficulties, that the reader often loses his footing. This is related to the prodigious quantity of intentions and suggestions which the author accumulates in each sentence. The sentence only takes on its genuine sense at the moment that one has discovered its explanatory rapprochements or has situated it in time.

And if the books of Joyce are as difficult for many to read as those of Einstein it is perhaps because both of these men have discovered a new aspect of the world and one which cannot be comprehended without a veritable initiation.

Translated from the French by Robert Sage.

 

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Publicado on setembro 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] The Idea of Time in the Work of James Joyce,  por Marcel Brion […]


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