Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time and music and narration

Can one tell - that is to say, narrate - time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking. A story which read: "Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward" and so forth - no one in his senses could consider that a narrative. It would be as though one held a single note or chord for a whole hour, and called it music. For narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It "fills it in" and "breaks it up," so that "there's something to it," "something going on" ... For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration - like music - even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain


Mark said...

I like this. I think there's more truth than we realize to the cliché "time flies when you're having fun" and the implied opposite, that time moves more slowly when you're *not* having fun--because human consciousness is our reality, not some imagined "objective reality" "out there."

Tom Conoboy said...

Well, humans like to label things, don't they? There was something in the Guardian today - someone asked if a badger is still a badger after it is dead. Someone else replied it never was a badger, not to itself, anyway. Only humans - English speaking humans, at that - call that particular animal a badger, because we see something black and white and snuffling and sentient and that's what we like to call it. In the same way we call sixty seconds a minute and sixty minutes an hour, because that's the way we've chosen to perceive it.

Mark said...

Right, and these models or explanations or labels or categories are obviously our inventions. This doesn't mean they are false or untrue, of course, but it does mean that there is a personal element. Personal does not necessarily mean "subjective," but it surely means "not objective."

Such things are very useful as explanatory tools, so long as we don't start thinking they are synonymous with reality.

Carlos said...


Owen Barfield has a great, short little book called __Speaker's Meaning__ that dovetails well with the idea you are flushing out.

All of a 100 pages, and very enlightenting as to the nature of lexical meaning as a shared yet very personal thing. It examines the way that as each of us uses a particular word, each time we use it, over time causes it to migrate and change meaning ever so slightly... until sometimes it flips or inverts completely. He explains why the terms "subjective" vs. "objective" and "conservative" vs. "liberal" have switched over the passage of time (often mutliple times). Also, how a word like "focus" came from meaning 'fireplace' to 'concentration of attention'. Some of this slippage has to do with a word's use in tropes. In other words, the pressure exerted on a word's meaning when used in, for example, a metaphor or analogy can cause it to move in meaning slightly over each successive use. In the end, the very personal speaker's meaning comes writ large to be the society's meaning as attached to that word, at a given point in time. Yet, at the same time, the given societal meaning at the time when a speaker's chooses to use the word deteremines the contours of what may be expressed with it.

Mark said...

I really do need to read Barfield. I've run into quite a bit of second-hand Barfield in other writers, so I know he would be a fascinating read, and you've only reassured me of that.

Tom Conoboy said...

Likewise, I'll look out for the Barfield.