Time sits down on a tree stump, thinks about the past and lights up a cigar

wellingtoniaTime is the writer’s magic ingredient. This is especially the case where narrative writers are concerned; but the proposition applies to any sort of writing. Without a sense of time (and timing) you have, at best, a thesis; at worst a shopping list.

For the narrative writer (historians, polemicists, and sophisticated types of journalists as well as novelists and playwrights) time is a primary structural material. All stories take place in the past, clearly, but you must choose, for instance, which parts of a narrative form the back-story and which are intensified into a passable imitation of the present tense.

The truth also is that every utterance of any worth, every chapter, every article, every paragraph and every sentence, contains eddies and vortices of the past and future as well as the present. And this is how words may move us at the deepest psychological level. For we are each of us on a personal countdown to oblivion.

Many writers have written overtly about time – and indeed the carpe diem theme has been with us since antiquity. Few writers, though, have attempted to theorise about the very stuff of time itself. With good reason.

No-one has ever really been up to the task, not even the very best of philosophers and theologians; and even the more accomplished attempts to nail this have been disfigured by unintentional bathos and low comedy. As indeed is the case with one of the earliest and best known examples, to be found within the pages of St Augustine’s Confessions.

Written on vellum in 398, this text was, prior to the printing press, one of the most copied documents in history: and hundreds of mediaeval manuscript facsimiles still survive to this day.

What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provide that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled. All the same I can confidently say that I know that if nothing passed, there would be no past time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time.

Of these three divisions of time, then, how can two, the past and the future, be, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time but eternity. If, therefore, the present is time only by reason of the fact that it moves on to become the past, how can we say that even the present is, when the reason why it is is that it is not to be? In other words, we cannot rightly say that time is, except by reason of its impending state of not being.

[… The manuscript continues in this vein for many pages…]

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