He overheard two colleagues discussing a story one of them had written and read at an event the night before. She asked him questions about how he’d come by it, when he’d come by it, whether the end had always been what she’d encountered.
Her questions were welcome, and he enjoyed that his answers elicited another and another inquiry from her. She expressed appreciation. Maybe she liked being inside the story’s creation, witness to machinery running so smoothly, admirably, and invisibly.
Across the room from his colleagues, the work in front of him kept him from attending—he hadn’t read the story—but he assembled broken parts:
There was the experience from which the story arose, there was the story, there were thoughts about its conception, there was fabrication and reaction, there was her attention to those elements, and there were her surprises, there was his surprise too, there was relief, there were revelations, there was the continuing life of this and other animals he’d made, there were ideals and distortions and regrets, there was completion and, with that, past, present, future, and everything soluble and insoluble in time.
A few desks away, there was his half-listening.
Time, at times, must desire to die, sitting as he does inside a clock’s chambers like blood trapped in a heart. His words are the curse of speech uttered to no one particularly. Time waits without hope.
He watches movements too small to be seen. To everyone else they’re dreams. To Time, they’re rolling boulders pushed by millions of hands whose compulsions are too various to seize under any single word or name.
When Time seems still, silent, and whole, he doesn’t really doze—he can’t—and doesn’t dream. His fate is to pronounce, and he never shuts up.
Are you and I only interested in whether we recall the same details of the same events because we want to believe the truth of our own version and feel we, of everyone, know time best?
In Speak, Memory Vladimir Nabokov writes of his attempts at poetry:
The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions. It was a phenomenon of orientation rather than of art, thus comparable to stripes of paint on a roadside rock or to a pillared heap of stones marking a mountain trail. But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge.
He later quotes a friend who said, “While the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time.”
What greater burden can there be than to know you’ve written a failed memoir and ruined your one story, all the past expressed with the wrong sort of sense or, worse, read as amateurish, all your life’s original beauty rendered irretrievable by your own clumsy and unskilled hands?
Sven Birkerts says memoir’s business is to match past with present, fold them together—my metaphor, not his—the way one might fold whipped egg whites into denser batter to elevate it in cooking.
“Memoir,” he says, “depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter.” He says the big question of memoir is not, “What exactly happened? ” Instead, the question is, “What is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life?”
But I side with Kierkegaard in asking who’s qualified to answer such a question when there’s no standing still, no complete quiet from which to view. We’re doomed to move, and, in the stillest moment of sleep, time keeps passing as we dream. We awaken knowing nothing is, or can be, exactly the same as before unconsciousness began. We just don’t know it yet.
Lately it seems I always need a haircut. I wonder if age accelerates the growth of hair or if—my attention to time atrophied—I notice it only intermittently, continually rediscovering what’s actually been changing all along.
Time withdraws to nowhere, having never left. We try to move him about, and he, by being ignorant of our attempts, resists. His is the greatest recalcitrance, the deep regret of his nature, a relentless engine of seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years running on.