An essay accompanying Lost Found Time, an anthology of poetry published by Stockport Arts.
In the poems of this collection time is never a straight line. It is a multi-layered thing which curves, folds in on itself and changes direction and perspective. In ‘Cairo’, for instance, the poem found on a battered table decades ago coalesces with the poem of the present, and both echo with the hieroglyphic symbols of thousands of years ago. ‘Applying the Coup de Grace’ hints at the confusion of direction which comes with time, the sense of moving forwards as we pass through days and weeks into the future, and at the same time moving backwards through the act of remembering.
Our normal perception of time, however, is of a kind of arrow that moves from the past through the present to the future. The present flashes for an instant, and is swallowed up by the past straight away, where it stays forever. This view of time tinges our lives with sadness. In the back of our minds we’re always aware that time is running away from us. Even when we enjoy ourselves we’re aware that time is passing and that soon the situation which produces our enjoyment will no longer exist. Even when we remember the good times in our lives there’s a tinge of sadness at the fact that we can never go back there, that those people and those places no longer exist. Time seems to be destructive. It takes things away and doesn’t give us anything in return. It takes away our youth, our good looks, our health, our friends and relatives. And eventually, of course, it takes us away too.
Many poets and philosophers have bemoaned this destructive power of time, and felt that it makes our lives meaningless and tragic. A sense of the inevitability of time passing and moving us towards our own deaths runs through Shakespeare’s plays, for instance. As the line from Macbeth goes, ‘All our tomorrows are but brief candles that light the way to dusty death.’ To the German philosopher Schopenhauer, the continual passing of time meant that happiness was an impossible condition. As he wrote, ‘In a world like this, where there is no kind of stability, no possibility of anything lasting, but where everything is thrown into a restless whirlpool of change it is impossible to imagine happiness.’
Fortunately, however, this isn’t the whole story. There’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that this linear view of time is only really a kind of illusion, and that in reality the dividing lines between the past, present and future are not solid, and can easily fall away.
This is suggested by some of the most fundamental ideas and theories of modern physics. They tell us that the idea that time flows in one direction doesn’t make any sense, and that in reality the whole of past and the future are here now, existing side by side with the present. According to the physicist Robert Penrose, for example, ‘The way in which time is treated in physics is not essentially different from the way in which space is treated…We just have a static-looking fixed ‘space-time’ in which the events of our universe are laid out.’ Similarly, one eminent British physicist, Julian Barbour, has recently suggested that the reality of the universe is a static realm which he calls ‘Platonia’, where all past, present and future events co-exist.
The world’s great mystical traditions tell us exactly the same thing. In the real sense of the term, a mystic is someone who manages to refine and intensify his or her own being, usually through spiritual practices like meditation. He or she looks at the world with a more intense consciousness than normal, and has a fuller vision of reality, in the same way that a powerful beam of light illuminates more than a dimmer beam. And amongst other things, mystics unanimously tell us that our normal view of time is an illusion. As the German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘There is only a present now; the happenings of a thousand years ago, a thousand years to come, are here in the present.’
Physics describes the fundamental reality of our universe. If it tells that linear time is an illusion, then it’s not surprising that many of us have experienced what we could call ‘altered perceptions of time’. These might be experiences of ‘precognition’, in which we glimpse the future before it’s happened, or predict events before they occur with an accuracy which goes beyond coincidence. On the other hand, we might have experiences of ‘retrocognition’ – a lesser known phenomenon in which we step into the past, and see our surroundings as they were at an earlier historical time.
This type of retrocognition is quite rare, but there’s another kind which we experience quite frequently. Occasionally the past becomes incredibly real to us, so vividly real that we have the sense that it’s still there. You might be listening to the radio and hear a song which you haven’t heard for years, and which you associate with a particular period of your life. As you listen the song takes you back to the situation you were in when you heard it before, and suddenly it’s as if a door opens. You can sense the atmosphere of the flat you were living in at the time, experience the same feelings and thoughts you had then. You sense it all so vividly that it seems to be more than just memory. It’s not just a replay of some impressions on a screen inside your head – you sense somehow that these past events and scenes still exist.
This is what Proust experienced when he tasted a biscuit he used to eat when he was a child. He was suddenly awakened to the reality of his past life, which was no longer a dream-like haze of memory but a living and breathing reality. As a result he felt as though he had slipped beyond linear time and beyond everyday reality. ‘The vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory,’ he writes. ‘I had ceased to mediocre, accidental, immortal, mediocre.’ And this experience inspired him to begin his massive recollection of his early life, In Search of Lost Time.
Three poems in this book are cut ups taken from Proust, and all of them arise from the same intense re-experiencing of the past. In ‘Lamps’, for example, there is so much colour and texture and vivid sensory detail that the poet is surely not just recalling the scenes and events but actually experiencing them all again. And through being framed in poetry, these past scenes and situations are captured in the present, so that they’ll never be able to slip into the fog of the past again.
All of these poems come from a place beyond linear time, where intense recollection turns into something more, and the dividing lines between different tenses fade away. They remind us that, just outside the parameters of our normal consciousness, the past is still with us. They remind us that, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, ‘perfect, bright experience never falls to nothingness’.