Time remains a mystery to us. From the dawn of humans, it seems to have fascinated us, and humans of all eras seem to have been occupied with marking its passing but we still don’t understand it or can be even sure if it exists. Through science, philosophy, and the creative arts, we can explore time and what it means to us but any true definition still eludes us. On many levels, it appears to be a purely human construct that comes about from the experience of change, sensory or otherwise. Perhaps it is the mysterious nature and our lack of fundamental understanding that leads it to be a source of inspiration across the creative arts? Will exploration in this creative way lead us any closer to what time actually is? This reflection takes a look at how the sciences, philosophy, literature, film, art, and music engage with or use time to explore our understanding and experience of it.
When I think about what time is, my first thoughts take me back to learning about time as a young child. From an early age, we are taught to “tell the time” on a clock and the concept of time is broken down for us into units of seconds, hours, years. We mark the passing of time by learning about seasons and expectedly count down the days to birthdays and Christmas. All through high school science, we treat time as a fundamental measurement, we use equations with t in them to calculate the time in the standard unit of seconds. We use it to measure the speed of something, how much an object accelerates, and other basic calculations. Then, when we get to a certain level of science learning, we discover Einstein and how he blew the notion of time to pieces. Through his work on special and general relativity, we know that there is no absolute time. Time is not constant like we intuitively assume. There are mind-boggling ideas of time being slowed down by mass and it changes depending on how fast an object is moving. That in fact time is linked to space through the concept of ‘spacetime’. The more we learn, the less we seem to understand and we yearn for those simpler days of moving hands on a clock to learn how to tell the time.
As Carlo Rovelli talks about in The Order of Time (2019) and his Royal Institution lecture, time’s properties mean very strange things occur, such that our head ages at a faster rate than our feet! Scientists now are pretty unanimous that there is no actual concept of “now”; what we consider now is actually not now on a distant planet lightyears away. Just take that as an idea, the fact that we are measuring a distance using a time measure of a year shows how intricately linked space and time are. We also know that the only equation in the whole of the body of science that even considers time to have a direction is the second law of thermodynamics. For everything else, we can seemingly work with time that does not need to flow from the past to the present to the future. It is only through our understanding of entropy needing to flow from the past of order to the future of randomness that we consider time to have this directional nature. The more we discover in science, especially on the quantum level, the more our intuitions about time are proved wrong. Is it this when we turn to other disciplines outside of science?
There is no question that science must work alongside philosophy especially when dealing with time. Time is one of those bones of contention that has been argued about for centuries. In the Hellenic period, there was a split between those who saw the world as a static place (e.g. Archimedes) and those who saw it as essentially flux (e.g. Aristotle). Aristotle was a great thinker about time, it is from him that this idea of time being the counting of change started and science has come back to this model of time. Philosophers have battled to find the answer to the question “what is time?” and like the scientists, no definitive answer has arisen. Plotinus considered the nature of time and stated “Time is the moving image of eternity” and “time is not something separate from soul, not the same as soul; it is the energy of the soul”. This Neoplatonic view has heavily influenced many in the creative arts such as T.S. Eliot who I will consider later in this reflection.
Various religions have their interpretations of time and how it was created by whom. Some see time as a linear process with a creator God starting time and that we follow a line from His creation along the timeline that He has mapped out for us. Other religions see time as a more circular path. In Buddhism, the idea of time and as a result, impermanence is what results in suffering. Ancient religions such as the Celtic Druids held time as important, the root of many festivals still celebrated today, was in the marking of time, with huge structures such as Stonehenge built to mark the seasons and the wheel of the year.
Literature has always tried to explore time. The most famous literary novel exploration is probably Prousts’ In Search of Lost Time which is a fictional piece of work heavily influenced by thoughts of philosophy of time. Other pieces of work such as Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude explore how time feels to pass. Children’s literature too such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland explores time more fantastically with some of the best-known quotes about time.
Poetry too not only explores time and the human perception such as the famous line ‘Stop all the clocks’ by WH Auden, but perhaps in a more direct way than longer pieces of prose, they use time as a poetic method.TS Eliot is one poet who, as mentioned earlier, due to his philosophical background contemplates the nature of time, and many of his poems reflect this. Some emphasise the individual experience of time such as his earlier ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ and the experience of timelessness, others look at the fundamental nature of time, particularly in his later poems, the question of time is increasingly religious such as in ‘A Song for Simeon’. There is a lot of evidence in the poems that Eliot is influenced by Plotinus’ view of time. In his earlier poems, there is a consistent emphasis on daily routine, the cycle of the morning, afternoons and evenings and this comparison of the external world of time passing and the human consciousness of time.
“And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.” (TS Eliot)
There is a sense of preoccupation with time and its control but also patterned by the cycle of seasons. It leads back to this human conflict between us wanting to be in control of something and understand something that seems to just pass us by and nothing we can do can alter that. In Four Quartets memory becomes a far more powerful key, retaining in time, timeless moments. This links to the idea that Rovelli talks about in his Royal Institute Lecture, that it is really our brains that are the ultimate time machine of deciphering what is past, present and future.
There is a strong exploration of the concept of time in art and photography. Both in terms of exploring the nature of time and using time to help portray the meaning behind the picture. We use time to date art, such is our need as humans to categorise things due to the time in which they were made. We can do this in art by looking at the materials used but also the style and techniques that were used at the time of the creation. For example, we can look at a cave painting and know it was from a different era to an impressionist piece. On the next level, we can help deduce from a painting, what time of year or even time of day a painting is portraying. For example, in Canaletto’s View of Venice with St Mark’s (1735) he conveys that it is late afternoon by painting long shadows that stretch across the square. It is this linking to a certain time of day that helps give Canaletto’s work a strong sense of place as time is such an important theme to portray. A piece that isn’t linked to a time would not appear to have as strong of a connection to the real place. However, Van Gogh subverts this and deliberately paints the night sky in Café Terrace at Night in vibrant blues, violets and greens which seems to highlight the concept of the time of day being night even more. As well as time being used to indicate the time of day in paintings, there are examples of symbols that are used to discuss the idea of time. One such symbol is the skull which is used to indicate the time of passing into death. One interesting use of this is in Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassador (1533) which has a large distorted skull in the foreground. Could this be an early sign of the ambiguity of time? More traditional symbols appear in Vanitas paintings. We see skulls, candles, hourglasses to indicate time throughout still life compositions. In Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888) three candles appear on the boat with her to show the passing of time on her journey.
The bizarreness of time has been explored in art too. The most famous example is probably Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) which is said to have been influenced by Einstein’s work of a similar time on relativity and the nature of time. Einstein described how time bends due to gravity and Dali made the step to showing if time bends, do watches too?
Photographs too often are set up with the premise of capturing “a moment in time”. By the very nature of them, in contrast to moving film, a photograph is a snapshot of time. However, there have been cases of photographs not necessarily portraying the moment in time the viewer is led to believe. One example is Capa’s The Falling Soldier (1936) an early war photograph that depicts a soldier falling backwards after being shot and is said to depict the moment of his death. However, the image is controversial as it has been suggested it was staged and that it is instead a posed photo. Another example perhaps of time not always being what we think it is!
The use of special effects play with time. In the media of film, we can view things faster or slower than we perceive them normally. With super slow motion cameras, we can slow events that happen in milliseconds right down to see in more detail than ever before the mechanisms of things such as explosions.
Few would disagree with the idea that music has a special relationship with time. This time connection is not without parallel in other expressive arts; drama, film, dance and performance art all involve time performances. We know that the ear is a better device than other sensory organs for extracting many types of temporal nuance from perceptions. Music parallels science in that musical events have a unique time ordering. One is that musical time, except that, found measured out in the metronome markings of scores, has a subjective, experienced, psychological component. This much-discussed subjective impression of time is affected by various qualities of the musical texture, notably activity level, and to a lesser extent, timbre, pitch, etc. This dichotomy between clock or objective time and experienced or subjective time has had considerable discussion in music. Musical time is designed by the composer and articulated by the performer, not empirically received by the listener as the result of natural processes governed by physical laws. Some composers have subverted this, such as John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) where the order and inclusion of parts are at the performer’s discretion. Music also continues to show this fascination we have as humans as marking the passing of time. The classic example is Vivaldi’s popular ‘The Four Seasons’ which honours similarly that the ancients did the passing of the seasons and the magic which is the wheel of the year.
Through this rather jumbled reflection of some of the ways, humans interact with the concept of time has confirmed to me the wonder of the human mind. We can take something that on one level seems so intuitive to us and expand our knowledge radially to the point where we realise that we don’t understand anything at all. Time is truly an interdisciplinary topic that shows the importance of all disciplines working together to form collective knowledge. We can never truly understand anything if we narrow our focus on one academic subject. At the same time, do we ever truly understand anything?