The Conjuror, The Parrot and The Past

Talk given to The International Writer’s Reunion (whose theme was “The Writer’s Time”) in Lahti, Finland, Midsummer 1995.

Before Greenwich “Mean Time”, different British cities had different times. London said your coach would get to York at 4.00. York time made this 3.00. You missed your connexion. Connexion and communication depend on temporal joining, on making times touch. Writing puts different times in touch with each other, and its ingredients, letters, are knitted into time. In most languages the word “letters” spans both the atoms of words, and a special sort of text: one which takes time to get from one person to another. Both imply relationship, joining, and temporality.
In Western languages, a poet is faced by two basic kinds of letter. Vowels create the sounding “time” of a poem. An Indo-European poem gets itself made from long and short, stressed and unstressed vowels; from the way they relate to each other (rhyme, half rhyme, slant rhyme), and their patterning. Vowels make for musical, temporal relationships. Consonants (things that ring together, “sound with”) make edges and changes: they carve up time. This duality in the raw element of writing reflects, as it happens, an ancient Greek duality of time. Kairos meant a moment of time: crisis, opportunity, time you had to use. The consonantal is an opportunity to wield the knife, make a difference to the world. But time outside, outside you, outside humanity, time absolute-and-in-itself, was chronos. Time you belonged to, not time you made your own.

Writing joins vowels and consonants in timeand a poem’s time is made by their mix. Writing also joins kairos and chronos, immediate time and time eternal. In a sense, all art does this. Music is incarnate time and its units are those of time. The first thing a musician does is count. Playing with other people, you must “keep” the time they keep. Sonata form brings back harmonies or tunes from the first statement: time reflecting on itself. Painting, especially dramatic painting, also joins times. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, for example, joins Ariadne’s present isolation on Naxos to her past (her lover’s boat pulsing away from her on the horizon), and to her future: the god rushing in from the sky. Painting operates tension between movement – which implies a history, a future – and stillness. What are the temporal implications of, for example, nature morte?

But music and painting don’t choose tense. Tense creates one of the peculiar tensions of writing: tension between reader’s time and writer’s time, between the present on the one hand, past and future on the other. European narrative has mostly chosen the Past Historic. “Sing to me the anger of Achilles, how it sent many Greeks and Trojans to their death”, begins the first Western narrative: and there we are, whisked from the Present (“Sing to me”) to the Past Historic. As a wolf licks her cubs into shape the moment they are born, traditional Western narrative gives shape to the present by giving it a past. Such narrative also brings the past to the present. ‘”Once” upon a time’ gets the uniqueness of an individual event in time. “Once”, and once only.

Plus a communality: we are gazing back at that time together, now. “Once upon a time” is a familiar, conventional invitation to a party. It invites joint entrance into other time, joining storytelling time to the time of the story told. John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman brings past consciousness alive – how the hero would have felt about a woman at that historical moment – then invites the reader to join that time, and choose between different endings. You and your feelings become part of the time written about. Writing gets at “chronos” through “kairos”: expresses universals, the sound of the human condition, best through particulars.

Our particulars vary like our languages; and like the way we use vowels. In inflected languages, rhymes are so common poets have often tended to avoid them. Ancient Greek poems did not rhyme; modern Greek poems rarely do, except in folksong and only for “folk” or song effects. In Spanish, each vowel always sounds the same, whatever the word; regional differences show themselves in consonants. Italian chiave is llabe in Spain, jabe in Argentina. Spanish people learning English face the horror of learning each vowel-sound with each word. In English, regional differences show in vowels. “Tub”, an open “u” sound in the South of England, like “a” in “agree” or “o” in “glove”, is a more “oo”sound, like “book”, in the North. Some languages, like Hungarian, bunch more consonants together than others and these consonants take more time. Finnish, I see, goes in for double vowels: yet “Kiitos”, “thank you”, keeps sounding to my English ear like a short “i”. Languages differ in their use of vowels and consonants but even more in tense. When speaking French, you must use the Perfect, not “Past Historic” as in writing prose. I’ve never known why, and I don’t know how it feels to a French speaker if you get this wrong. Does it imply that narrative sounds or feels different when it is not spoken? German has two Past tenses, but no Continuous Past like English “I was going”. Idiomatic command of English “Past Continuous” is hard for a German speaker learning English. Is it true Finnish does not have a Future tense? I’d like to know how this works on the ground.

So grammars express (and also perpetuate) cultural differences in approaches to time. We inhabit time differently through our different language-worlds. I learned last night that the tense for most Afrikaans novels is the Present. Only two Afrikaans novels, to date, use the Past. I’d like to know how and when this happened. English novelists made experiments with Present-tense narrative from the beginning. Richardson’s novel Clarissa works through Present-tense letters. But each letter deals with past events, so that ultra-long novel keeps on “making the present past” in Past Historic mode.

It was the twentieth century that got English fiction going in “narrative present”. In very ancient Greece, Neolithic potters discovered the joy of working in clay, but liked to play with recreating, in their lovely new medium, the effects of the old – that plaited rush basket – using one medium to convey the appearance of the other. One issue that has come up a lot at the conference this week is writing’s changing relation to the visual, to “image-culture”. But no one has yet mentioned how the rise of present-tense fiction coincided with the advent of cinema, which radically altered our sense of narrative. Even, apparently, the way we dream narrative. In English, at least, present-tense narrative seems to me to mimic the cinematic. It is parasitic both on familiarity with past tense narrative, and on the cinema; maybe also on the comic strip. Tintin exists in cinematic time. As the Italian novelist Stefano Benni said this morning, the book “stays”. When he asked Sarajevo on behalf of the Italian writers how they could help, Sarajevo asked for books.

The long and expensive time writers take to write, is magnified in the even longer time, a lifetime or more, a book may “stay”. Time that has been treasured can be treasured again. But the visual image is immediate. Listening to Assya Djebar and Ana Blandiana, I felt keenly the irony that while writers in some countries have been and still are assassinated and imprisoned for writing, safe Western children have been heading for words that serve the image. Words which relate only to the immediate and the visual: as in the highest-paid writing job, advertising. Or screenwriting, where words shrink under the empire of the camera. As someone living with a young child in Britain, I watch Western children becoming more sophisticated visually, and maybe lose the tension of tense: the way the present implicates past and future. Assya Djehar, facing the disappearance of her culture, interrupted one novel to research the archives of her country for another novel. For her, the political crisis of writers under death-threat could only be met by re-creating the ninth century. I wonder if most Western kids of fourteen would find that a natural move. In my country, one credo in the market-led industry of children’s books is that “children want” to find their own time and society mirrored in what they read. On a poetry course last year, I asked a sixteen-year-old what prose she read. Had she read Hardy’s Tess of the T’Urbevilles, for instance? Her teacher answered for her. Oh, he said. “I don’t think she’d be interested in the life of a girl from such a different time.” But a film, now – he’d have taken his pupils to that. Films are expected to make things “relevant” to us, to mirror our own age.

But mirrors distort. The visual image lies while seeming not to. This crunch came for British poets during the Gulf War. How could you write about anything else while TV was presenting that, in your home every night? Yet all you could witness to was the experience of being lied to by word and image; of watching images and being told what they meant. A symbol on a “Space Invaders” screen that meant another city’s death. Seemingly virtual reality, representing seemingly virtuous violence, done now, in our name; violence we had not willed, with which we could make no relationship. The experience was obscenely domestic – and cut off from everything we knew how to write about. British poems that came out of that time, and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s fine poem in Irish, spoke to a “gulf” between time here and time there; the willed cosmeticism of what we were shown; the terrible need to show it to us. Words, trying to make something of the unreality of the visual image. A gulf war between image and truth.

Images of past time also distort. As Etienne Van Heerden said, there are so many pasts, and “it” never looks the same. Finding an identity through past time is dangerous as well as necessary. Self-narratives of nations are explosive, imprisoning, and essential. There are several different models. Empire, occupation; conquest, liberation. Thatcher looked back to an Victorian economic and political “greatness” which entailed in its time large-scale hypocrisies and injustice. Her appeal was appalling and fundamental in many sections of British society: and is still, you will be amazed to hear, a political force there. Once, before giving a reading in a small sea-side town, I turned on the TV for the local news and got a local estate agent interviewed on the number of houses he had sold that week. “Britain was great once”, he said, “and will be great again”. He did not reckon or know what it entailed, that so-called “greatness” of empire he was invoking, and he didn’t care. For him it meant money; his own firm’s status in his town, Britain’s commercial status in the world.

Like Thatcher, Sadaam Hussein looked back and appealed, through the names he gave his tanks, to a time when his country, or the land his country is in, “was great”. Vassili Askyonov talked of the dangers for a writer in looking back to personal “greatness”. For nations, it is even more self-destructive. Any country’s time of being “great” is very short: “kairos” in a very long “chronos”. Looking back to “greatness” is a non-starter – economically, personally, or poetically. Other nations look back to the moment they got “free”. Narratives of liberation are a greater asset than past greatness for writing (and maybe for politics too). Witness Ireland, and some Latin American countries. In Argentina, every bookshop, especially the children’s section, has multiple versions of the epic poem “The Liberator”. This is fine, as long as imagination looks generously onward, and does not get frozen in the awfulness of what you were liberated from. As James Baldwin said, “Remembering your past is not the same as drowning in it. It is to learn how to use it.”

“Writing’s time” is both solitary and shared. You share with your future, your audience, the past of “once upon a time”. But when you write, you are out of other people’s time. You take time away from them. From your children, your family, your lovers. Writers put other people into other time, give them other time, the time of the novel, by first taking time away from others. Writing, like reading, is “time out” from living, yet depends upon it.

Writing is sharing time alone: with “the other”. One model for this paradox is lovers’ time, as in Louis MacNeice’s classic love-poem:

Time was away and she was here,
The room no longer what it was,
The bell hung silent in the air
And all the room a glow because
Time was away and she was here.

“Time is away” when you love, when you write, and when you join the writer in reading. But a writer’s offering of present-time is ordered by some particular relation to the past. Only that gives you and your other, your reader, an interesting future.

There was once a conjuror who worked on ocean liners, doing tricks in the ship’s bar. On one voyage he got fed up with a crazily offensive parrot which perched on beer-taps, watched the performance and gave the tricks away. “The rabbit’s in his pocket” stuff. One night there was a storm, the ship sank and the conjuror grabbed a piece of wood. As dawn broke he found himself clutching the lid of the bar piano in an empty sea. No ship, nothing. After many hours came a flutter of wings and the parrot flew down, settling on the far end of the piano lid. For hours it looked at him, head first on one side, then on the other. At last it said: “Alright – I give up. What have you done with the ship?”

I am making a plea for keeping on joining present-tense to past tenses; in the hope of future languages, grammars, verbs, moods and modes. A plea for playful, flexible joining, as varied as the ways we join vowels and consonants. A trying-out of many joints, to reflect the many ways our different languages carve up time. If you go on thinking the ship is still around, you’ll spend your time wondering what the trick was, where it’s gone. That’s hopeless. No one should linger around like that parrot, wondering what the trick is, what happened to the way things were. But if you have no sense at all of the ship that went down, of the fertile illusions and meanings that come from the past, that’s worse. All you’ve got for ever, then, is the empty sea.