I recently had breakfast with an old friend who is also a fine photographer. In the course of our time together, she told me she is embarking on a new project to try and photograph “time.” She then asked me if I would share some thoughts about what time is. My first comment was “Time is an illusion invented to simplify our lives.”
As our conversation evolved, I heard myself saying something that has stuck with me as absolutely what I believe: I said “Art freezes time and memory holds time.” In the days following that evocative breakfast, I have kept returning to this idea, wanting to flesh out what I meant when I blurted it out as I ate my delicious croissant with my friend. John Keats’ marvelous “Ode on a Grecian Urn” came back to me as a perfect example of how art freezes time. In that poem, he describes several scenes on a particular antique Greek vase or urn; at one point, he reflects about an image of heterosexual lovers poised to kiss. He says “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;/Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” These lines speak of the inherent stasis that all art shares. And Keats affirms the inherent ambiguity inherent in this frozenness–while the lovers will never complete their action caught by the person who decorated the urn, they will never grow old or come not to want to kiss one another.
So, if art suspends time by freezing what it so beautifully depicts, where can we humans look for a means of preserving the ever-elusive nature of time as it plays out in our lives? I maintain we look to memory as an ever-expanding repository of time. When I remember a person or place or feeling, I am able to reenter the moment being remembered. If we separate the word, it makes what I’m claiming clearer: “re-member” suggests a putting back into place something we think is over. Now this process of memory’s holding time can either be experienced as sustaining or terrifying. Surely anyone struggling with PTSD knows just how powerfully memory can hold time. Each time something in the present “triggers” the debilitating memory, the person feels as if s/he is
“in time” again, that nothing is “over.” Toni Morrison describes this element of memory’s ability to collapse and hold time in her novel Beloved, when Sethe can’t keep from remembering Sweet Home, the slave plantation where she grew up. In fact, in that powerful work, Morrison speaks of her characters’ mighty but futile efforts to not remember precisely because they know that their memories contain every smidgen of a time they would dearly love to forget.
For many of us, however, as we grow older, we cherish certain memories because they take us out of what passes for the present time, allowing us to magically return to a situation or person or emotional moment categorized as “the past” by clock-watchers and schedule-setters. I trust that my memories are stockpiles or silos where I can find all sorts of moments and people no longer tangibly in my life. So I work to sharpen my memories in my efforts to outrun or simply sidestep the clock. Even when honoring a memory brings me renewed pain, as if it were happening again, I welcome the process.