Saturday, May 28, 2011

Keeping Time

Because I write about poetry and antiquity, I am always keenly aware of the way that time seems to keep us guessing. The lyric mode can suspend, extend, and rewind time. Just look at Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," which moves from the longest length of time imaginable (apocalyptic), "vaster than empires and yet more slow," to the grave, where worms consort with his mistress's corpse, to the pounding heart beats of the last few lines. Or look at Shakespeare's sonnet 59, which imagines that time itself is revolutionary; all of this has happened before, all of it will happen again. The poet imagines encountering an illuminated miniature of his beloved in a medieval book, centuries before the young man was born. Or else he's imagining projecting an early modern book containing a portrait of his lover into the future, perhaps our future:
Show me your image in some antique book
Since mind at first in character was done
That I might see what the old world would say
To this composed wonder of your frame
Whether we are mended, or whether better they
Or whether revolution be the same

And then there's the way that music itself transports us into a different time-scape, one in which time seems to stop, or move at a different pace from normal life. It doesn't always happen, but when it does it can be sublime for the audience and for the performer. I remember distinctly that it happened one spring when I performed the Chopin Barcarole at Oxford, during graduate school. I went into a trance and it really felt as if the music was doing something to the fabric of time, stretching it, unwinding it, repairing it, folding and pleating it.

There's an excellent article by Burckhard Bilger in The New Yorker that came out last month, in which Bilger anatomizes David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author who is fascinated by the way that the brain registers time differently depending on the situation. The brain can appear to stretch time, for instance, during a near-death experience. Eagleman has begun studying musicians. I'm more interested in what happens to our perception when we feel like we have somehow walked outside of time. You feel it in the early stages of a romance, when you stay up all night and the night seems to go on forever and ever and then suddenly it's daylight and whoops, it didn't go on forever and your romance grinds to a bumpy halt (cue Romeo and Juliet 3.5).

There's also the weird sensation we get when we remember and try to relive those moments. For me, they are all connected to music. When I play a certain piece, like Schubert's G flat major impromptu, or listen to one, like Beethoven's A Minor quartet Op. 132, I am again transported by memory to that place where (when?) time stood still. Only instead you can't get it to stand still again, and the experience is somehow cheapened. That's why we sometimes cry, because we know we can't rewind. And of course the experience of loss is heightened when it's Schubert or Beethoven, because somehow in their music, they both seem to yearn for the same thing and yet remain profoundly aware of its futility. When adolescence hit me like a giant blow to the head, I would listen to my favorite childhood record, Mary Martin in Peter Pan, over and over again, tears streaming down my face as I mourned my lost innocence. Ovid was right: change is the only constant. But sometimes I think I feel it a little too powerfully.

I recently learned that an old boyfriend, now a friend, has gotten married. I am happy for this old boyfriend, and very happy in my current relationship. I also have very powerful and intense memories of my time with the o.b. (old boyfriend), and most of these memories are strengthened by their association with music. Listening to him play the last movement of the Beethoven Op. 109 and trying not to look at his facial contortions, crashing through the fugue of the Schubert F minor fantasy together, lying side by side on his tiny bed staring at the ceiling and trying not to move, listening to recordings of the Beethoven trio Op. 70, No. 2, and to Op. 132.

We went our separate ways. We parted amicably (in fact it was the most amicable and satisfying break-up I have ever experienced). We dated other people, we stayed in touch as friends. We saw one another once in a while, and when we did, we went to musical performances, and it was not without awkwardness, confusion and nostalgia. I know people always select which memories to retain and then we edit and modify them, usually unconscious of what we are doing. Maybe the o.b. remembers things differently, or different things.

A small part of me wants to believe in revolutionary time. Not that everything repeats itself exactly, but that the past is still animated, that these old memories are somehow alive and ongoing. A part of me really wants those two young people listening to that quartet on the floor of that tiny Oxford room six years ago to go on listening to it and to go on thinking that time is standing still.


Veralinda said...

What a beautiful, moving post. Welcome back--glad you are.

Pamphilia said...

Thanks, V! Care to weigh in on time? I know your work intersects with this post, and in very interesting and different ways!

tempus fugit said...

This moved me powerfully: sometimes the past springs on us in such a profound way that it feels as if it has suddenly become the present. Like stumbling across a letter long forgotten, seeing the hand of one once loved, and finding, with some surprise, that time can switch direction.

I wonder if that is what Eliot was thinking in the first of his quartets: time is beyond control, yet the present is full of moments of timelessness, when it seems as if we have escaped its grasp. We cannot change the past, but it still animates the present in ways both unexpected and beautiful, lived and unlived.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Perhaps that is why music is the greatest of all the arts, for it challenges time at its own game, constantly opening in the present glimpses into worlds past and future. And in those precious fragments we can live again those moments of joy that made our present selves possible.

He has not forgotten. Es muss sein.

Pamphilia said...

Thank you.

Time does work in funny ways. Reading this comment created a crumple in my sense of past and present for the duration of that quartet movement.

And now I am thinking ahead to the future, the near future, when I'll be back in the UK, a place of my past and soon-to-be-present, creating a new present with friends in a new part of London for six weeks of research.

I've been avoiding planning my research trip to Oxford because I'm a little afraid of the ghosts.