What is Time, if not a river flowing ever onwards from now -or from an ill-remembered ‘then’ to the same now? Of course, we all know the quotation attributed to Saint Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know – but that doesn’t get us very far. It neither allows events to be situated in time, nor allows us to appreciate its passage. Perhaps that’s unfair to ask of a denizen of the fourth century -saint, or no- but an orderly historical conception of time’s progression began long before his birth.
To more fully acknowledge the extent of time, one must be able to measure it -not so much mechanically, as calendrically. And, as Paul J. Kosmin pointed out in an article in Aeon, ‘from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles. https://aeon.co/essays/when-time-became-regular-and-universal-it-changed-history
‘In ancient Mesopotamia, years could be designated by an outstanding event of the preceding 12 months’ -presumably this would make the time frame more easily memorable. The more distant in time events occurred, the more difficult it would be to appreciate any surrounding context. And it would be meaningful only to those living in the country, or region, so unless forced by conquest or a shared natural disaster, uninterpretable by others.
Finally, though, ‘In the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 BCE, all this changed. One of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, who would go on to win an enormous kingdom stretching from Bulgaria to Afghanistan, introduced a new system for reckoning the passage of time. It is known, after him, as the Seleucid Era. This was the world’s first continuous and irreversible tally of counted years. It is the unheralded ancestor of every subsequent era system, including the Christian Anno Domini system, our own Common Era, the Jewish Era of Creation, the Islamic Hijra, the French Revolutionary Era, and so on… For the first time in history, historical time was marked by a number that never restarted, reversed or stopped… Most importantly, as a regularly increasing number, the Seleucid Era permitted an entirely new kind of predictability… to confidently and accurately conceive, name and hold in the imagination a date several years, decades or centuries into the future.’
So, no matter what else happened, the year and all that happened in it was stable -and traceable. Nowadays that may not seem so amazing, but if you think about it, the perception of time itself changes when that happens: ‘Every event must be chained to its place in time before it becomes an available object of historical articulation. And the modes by which we date the world, by which we apprehend historical duration and the passage of time, frame how we experience our present, conceive a future, remember the past, reconcile with impermanence, and make sense of a world far wider, older and more enduring than any of us.’
Of course that’s not to imply the ancients had no concept of travelling through time, but with only remembered time posts as a guide, it made the journey more fraught -more circumscribed. And for many, it must have seemed like they were confined in a room whose walls were events they may not themselves have witnessed. Kosmin quotes a paragraph written by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård about the introduction of numeric time that describes it nicely: ‘It was as if a wall had been removed in the room they inhabited. The world no longer enveloped them completely. There was suddenly an opening … Their glance no longer met any resistance, but swept on and on through more of the same.’ We take the view for granted.
I remember visiting my grandmother in her final days in hospital. She was approaching her 100th year, and becoming increasingly lost as she wandered along the ever winding trail she’d taken through time. It was often difficult for her to pin down the order of some things, and yet her memory of other details seemed impeccable.
She recounted tales about her early life I had never heard before, but at times they seemed metaphorical -believable only in translation. She meant well, but I suspect that because she found dates elusive, she was trying to compensate with word pictures, and comparisons to tell her story. And then, like pre-Seleucid times, she would necessarily tack her story to past events.
When, ‘Do you remember when…?’ didn’t work because the incident was well before my time, she would resort to things like ‘When your mother was a little girl…’ or ‘The year Joe and I got married…’. Then, with no need to worry about correction, she would recount her version of what had happened.
I found it a delightful, albeit opaque, excursion along her personal timeline, but one I could never even hope to verify without considerable effort. Her description of their journey across the country to the west coast on a ‘pioneer train’ as she called it, was a good example.
“Whenever the train would stop to pick up water for the engine,” she said, “ it was our signal for the men to jump off the cars and search for firewood…”
I remember her eyes twinkling at the memory. “There were stoves in each car for cooking, so while the men were away, the women would rummage around in their trunks for the rice and beans we were told to pack for the trip.”
I remember being surprised at them having stoves on a moving train -I come from a railway family, and I’d never heard of such a thing. “When did you travel across the country, grandma?” I remember asking her, thinking maybe she meant the train would stop long enough for people to cook at the station, or wherever.
Her eyes looked inward for a while -whether to remember, or relive the experience, it was difficult to tell. “I remember seeing soldiers wandering around on some of the platforms, so maybe it was during the war…” And she shrugged.
That didn’t sound right. “But grandma, soldiers would have been going to the east coast -to Montreal or Halifax -not west to Vancouver…”
Her eyes cleared for a moment and she sent them to reprimand my face for its expression, all the while shaking her head at my inability to follow her story. “The soldiers didn’t get on our train. They were waiting for the next one, G… Try to pay attention, eh?” she added and then sighed like the woman I used to visit when I was young.
I shrugged, embarrassed for doubting her. “So, I suppose that was early in the First World War,” I said, mostly to myself, I suppose. I was trying to establish a time frame that made sense to me -a picture that I could pass on to my own children about her life.
Her eyes, though, were the real storytellers, and at times they seemed impatient as they watched from their increasingly bony redoubt. “I don’t remember the year, G, but you asked me to describe our journey across the country; the year’s not as important as the story, is it?”
Then, she smiled at the scolding and the grandmother of my childhood returned briefly. “You have to open a book to see what’s in it -the cover it’s wrapped in is irrelevant…”
I think my grandmother would have done just fine without the encumbrance of the irreversible tally of counted years.