I stayed up late last night reading an article about the manner in which German writer W. G. Sebald dealt with time in his novels, particularly in The Immigrants and Austerlitz (I recommend both of these fine books). If you’re a writer, or if you’ve taken literature courses, you surely know some of the structural and grammatical techniques for dealing with time within the novel.
But why trifle with time in the first place? What’s so important about time?
The Webster definition of time isn’t much different from any other shot at pinning down time’s nature: the period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues.
But what if you banish such an action, process, or condition – particularly a significant one – from existence. What’s the effect of time? Sebald accomplishes this by omitting any reference to perhaps the pivotal (and here we can call it all three – action, process, condition -so to combine, let’s use the term situation) situation in modern Western history, The Holocaust. To be clear, everything in Europe, indeed the world, that The Holocaust cast its shadow over is left as is, but The Holocaust itself has vanished. Significant time, then, has disappeared, but its effects remain.
What’s gone unsaid to this point is this: What’s the effect on the human mind? We forever look for such situations as a cause for the effects time leaves to us. If we suddenly find ourselves in bed with a leg in a cast, we can’t help but ask: How did this happen? Did I fall? Was I hit by a car? Are my bones brittle? We want to know the cause as part of experience. The leg is in a cast, immobilized, and at least for a while, my life has changed, not necessarily for the better. There is a host of other questions: How long will my leg be immobilized? Will the pain stop, and if so, when? When will I know what happened?
The problem is that there are no answers, only questions. Half of normal human experience does not exist. There are no social or ethical (or medical) standards by which to judge either the leg’s condition or the effects of The Holocaust. And this in turn prevents repair of these conditions or effects. In other words, we are socially without perception because someone or something has created a blank slate of a certain key segment of time. Thus we have no idea what we’re dealing with, much less how – or if – it might be repaired.
Such a void, as Sebald shows us, reduces us to a primitive human state. We might have the tools of a highly advanced human awareness, but they are so many alarm clocks in a cave man’s hands.
So what’s the lesson here? It’s not that we aren’t prone to horrific human miscalculations and consequent events, but that since we are, we must always question. We must forever find ways to prevent the erasure of time that will keep us from following situations back to their source. Only then is human experience worthwhile. Only then can human experience allow us to understand. If we cannot understand, then human experience is not worthwhile, and our existence as a self-aware species is lost.
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