Spending Time

Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Sandy Denny

Spending Time

Woman Reading
Utagawa Kuniyoshi

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Who stole our reading time?,” about time and reading and the encroachment of interests and obligations. Though it is true for many that work and other obligations are consuming more of their time, it is other leisure activities that are most responsible for a decline in the number of hours spent reading, even on the part of, at least at one time, avid readers. When I first started teaching an English teacher at the school said that being a teacher left him little time to read. This seemed strange to me at the time but less strange now. Not only do papers need to be graded, but everything now has to be documented. Documentation is not a bad thing, but there are only so many hours in the day and that cannot be changed, but the expectations change regularly and it is amazing how much some seem to think can be done in the course of a day. I envy the woman in the painting who is so engrossed in her book; but of course not being a reader of Japanese I do not really know what it is she is reading; it may be local gossip, it may be epic poetry.

The song asks where the time goes. The harder we work the faster the time seems to pass and the more easily it is lost. At the end of each day there is satisfaction over what has been accomplished, but also a bit of frustration over what has been set aside for another day. Where did the time go? Perhaps management is part of the problem but can it be the whole problem. Why at the end of the day is looking at a film often more attractive than reading a book? Is it that our energies are drained by the things that we must do such that there is not sufficient energy for what we would like to do. The more passive the activity the less energy it requires, but also the less satisfaction and enrichment it supplies. What happens to a people whose minds and imaginations are inadequately nourished?

The elephant clock from Al-Jazari’s manuscript

Clocks are interesting machines that keep track of time and how much of it has passed. We may not know where the time goes, but we always know how much of it has gone. The images above and below are of clocks that to me do not look like clocks. It is said that replicas of these clocks have been built and that they keep good time, but for the life of me, I do not know how, I do not see the clock faces that I am accustomed to seeing that indicate the time of day, but there must be a way of reading them. Perhaps it takes little imagination to read these clocks once one understands how they work, but the images suggest that the clocks telling the time are also telling a story.

Clock of al-Jazari

These images also suggest that simple things, like telling time, can be infused with a bit of imagination and magic. These clocks are not purely utilitarian; in fact, they probably serve more of a decorative than a practical purpose. Still, if the story surrounding these clocks is true, they did not merely decorate. I think this speaks to something inside us that wants our tools to be more than merely functional, that they ought to please us as they work for us; they ought, like great poetry, to delight and instruct (or perhaps, merely inform). Who knows, perhaps the work that most deeply satisfies is work that delights us in its performance and enriches us in its contemplation.

The Corpus Clock & Chronophage
John Taylor

The film is of a clock that “consumes” the time. Its maker calls it a “Chronophage” or “time eater.” This clock, too, requires us to “read” time differently, we have to work harder, pay more attention, to the clock to get the time. But like many great clocks it is a thing of beauty to look at; we can lose time in the act of telling it, the clock beguiles and enchants. Perhaps this is another aspect of time and its passing. It is seductive, it charms us into believing we have ample amounts of it and as a result we are at times a bit profligate in its use. A good book in the reading of it also beguiles and enchants and is also a “chronophage” of sorts, though at the end we, hopefully, know more than just the number of hours consumed. For some the “ages” of their lives are marked by books that give their names to aspects of their personal history. They go through a “Beatrix Potter” phase, perhaps, or a “Fitzgerald” phase.

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “Looking at ‘The Iliad’ and seeing ourselves,” about how the present moment shapes our understanding of the literature of the past. The specific book in question is Homer’s Iliad, but the principle is true for any book. When reading a story it is important to be aware of the setting. One aspect of setting is time, but time is a bit tricky, it operates on many levels, there is the time day, the time of year, and the time in history. A story takes place in a certain time, the eighteenth century, for example, but it also takes place in the afternoon of a day in summer. In most books historical time is constant, there are exceptions, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine for example and other science fiction stories like it, that move around in time, but most stories occupy at most a single lifetime. Events in the story happen at different times of day or during different seasons, but the whole story moves through a specific period of time.

Sometimes stories are set in the past in order to comment on the present, or at least the present of the author at the time the story was written. Readers reading that story have to be aware of the historical context (the events taking place when the story was written) and the historical setting (the historical events surrounding the period of time in which the story takes place). But there is a third factor the reader must take into account and that is what is happening in the reader’s present and how the reader understands the past, both the past as it existed for the writer and the past as it exists in the story.

I remember reading The Once and Future King for the first time. The book retells the King Arthur legend. Arthur lived about 300 AD, but everyone in the story behaves like an English gentleman of the fifteenth century. So when T. H. White retells the story he sets it not in the time when Arthur lived, but in the age that informs Arthur’s and his knights’ behavior. This gave me some trouble, because I knew Arthur did not live in the late Middle Ages even if he behaved in the stories as though he did. I had the same problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. On the other side of the coin Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union did not trouble me, though they were playing similar games with history. Perhaps this is a third element of time the reader must acknowledge, the extent to which her or his knowledge of history as it happened can be suspended so that the story can have its way with it.

But this is not what the article was getting at when it talked about the way we read the literature of the past. Katherine Powers, who wrote the article, is suggesting that how we understand the events of The Iliad is shaped by the events of our own time. There was a film version of Euripides’ Trojan Women that was made in the 1970’s. The play presents Euripides’ view of war. He was using the Trojan War to comment on the conflicts of his day. The film was using Euripides’ presentation of the Trojan War to comment on the Vietnam War. Perhaps Euripides would have shared these views, perhaps not. Powers suggests that modern readers of The Iliad see the story not as a tale of heroism and glory, but of the futility of war and the arrogance of some of those that wage it. She wonders to what extent this is a modern reshaping of Homer’s tale that violates Homer’s intent. But she also points out that Agamemnon is a dubious general at best, and that Homer created him that way and that Achilles’ concerns are not entirely unfounded. She points out that some modern readers see in this poem a commentary on war that is relevant today and speaks to present day concerns.

As readers I suppose we are captured by time. We must fight with time to find the time to read in the first place. We must look at the times being depicted in what we read and shape our understanding of those times in light of what we know of how those times played out and what is true for the time in which we live. We must recognize that how we understand the time may not be how the author understood the time and we must make some decisions about what we will concede to the author. We may enjoy stories that involve knights engaging each other in jousts by the roadside, but we may not be willing to concede to others the right to pursue similar interests in the present day. We may be able to enjoy a story about magicians shaping the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars without being able to take it seriously as even a remote commentary on the history of the time. We accept it in fun and fancy, not in fact. Time may consume the moment but we in our choices may determine how the meal will be seasoned.

The Reader
Jean Honoré Fragonard

A Wicked Good Guy

Bad Man’s Blunder
The Kingston Trio

A Wicked Good Guy

King Richard III

The song is about an inept outlaw for whom, perhaps because of his incompetence, the listener feels a bit of empathy. Most of us are incompetent at something and so we understand the poor outlaw’s problem. Still there is the problem of the deputy that, he tells us frankly in the opening stanza, he killed. The name in storytelling circles for such a character, for the likable bad guy, or the guy with too many flaws to be heroic, is antihero. What lies behind the antihero is a belief that we all have the capacity to be villainous and part of our reaction is a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of sympathy. We see our own potential in these characters. In the conventional tragedy we encounter a good man or woman with a significant character flaw. This flaw proves to be the character’s undoing. Because in so many other respects this character is so good the reader or viewer sees the consequences that result from this single flaw as undeserved. But no one sees the antihero as undeserving of her or his fate; it is just that that fate falls too close to home.

The painting is of Richard III. As Shakespeare tells his story he is a totally villainous unredeemable character but many throughout history have championed his cause. When I was growing up it was Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time that made his case. Tey was a writer of detective fiction and her detective, while in the hospital for reasons I have forgotten, becomes intrigued with Richard and the story history has preserved of his legacy. He receives a card with this painting of Richard on it and his curiosity is aroused, also his sense of justice. He does not believe someone with the sensitivity the portrait captures could commit the heinous crimes associated with this “wicked” king. According to history, especially Shakespeare’s history, Richard became king by murdering everyone, including two young children, ahead of him in the line of succession. The Richard of the painting, though probably not the Richard of history, is a bit of an anti-hero in the sense that this portrait provokes a kind of empathy that his actions cannot easily support.

Gustave Dore

There was an article in The Guardian last week, “Francesca Simon’s top 10 antiheroes” on the great antiheroes from literature. Number ten on the list is Satan from Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. I am not sure that Milton intended for this character to be seen in this light, but since the Romantic era this view of Satan as the wronged “hero” of the poem has been popular. It is still a popular view espoused by Philip Pullman, the writer of children’s stories who has made a Satan-like character the hero of one of his tales, and Harold Bloom America’s most popular literary critic. Those who see Satan as, well, “Satanic” point out that the Biblical account of this character is as a liar and a seducer consumed with unbounded pride. He has extraordinary gifts combined with ambitions beyond his station. Of course it is the “beyond his station” part that makes him “likable” because most of us have aspired to things that seemed beyond us and have been “put in our place” as a result. Often it is the point of view we bring to what we read that determines how we understand the characters that live in the stories we read. For the atheist and, perhaps, the agnostic Satan is the ultimate hero, for the theist he is the ultimate villain.

Egill Skallagrímsson from Medieval Illustrated Manuscript

Egil Skallagrimson is one of my favorite anti-heroes. He is a smart and capable man. He is a ferocious fighter and a great poet. His actions are not always to be emulated but he is audacious and it is his audacity that makes him attractive. His flaws are numerous; he is egotistical, ambitious, and avaricious to name a few. He is slow to let go of a grudge and the “quality of mercy” is not something he was interested in cultivating. One must consider the times in which Egil lived which were very harsh and unforgiving times in which mercy and forgiveness were not often rewarded and were often seen instead as signs of weakness. He belonged to a free and independent people that rather than submit to the authority of a king left Norway and established their own “democratic” nation in Iceland. The Icelandic “Althing” is the world’s oldest standing parliament having met in continuous session since 930 CE and still meets to this day.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

The film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is about a Russian submarine and its crew that run aground off the New England coast of the United States. The Russians were the villains of the cold war, though there are probably some in Russia who would take a different view. The crewmembers, though, are just ordinary folks who are trying to survive with little interest in international politics. They run aground because the ship’s captain wanted to see what America looked like. When the film was released the cold war was still intense and these hapless sailors were quintessential antiheroes, members of an “evil empire’s” military, who were really not much different from the Americans that viewed the film. What responsibility do everyday folks have for the decisions their government makes. These sailors are not interested in fighting any war, cold or otherwise, they just want to go home, and who of us, in difficult circumstances far from friends and family would not also want to go home?

A Dime Novel Featuring Jesse James

The pictures above and below capture another side of the antihero. Some whose behavior was seriously out of line have managed to wrap themselves in the aura of romance. In the “wild west” Jesse James was such a character. He was robber and a killer but one way or another he was greeted warmly by some in the culture. The romance surrounding his exploits inspired pulp fiction like that of the cover illustration above. In this “dime novel” (that according to the cover cost a nickel) Mr. James is not only not an outlaw but he as a protector of the people and a solver of crimes. This Mr. James is “the law” not the outlaw. No doubt his criminal record is the result of some misunderstanding and that at heart he has more in common with Pat Garret than with Billy the Kid. Of course, Billy the Kid established his own aura of romance and is an antihero in his own right.

Coin de table (Corner Table, Rimbaud is second from left)
Henri Fantin-Latour

The painting is of a group of French writers. The second writer from the left is Arthur Rimbaud a poet with a “colorful” history. He was an influential and popular poet. He gave up poetry to pursue other interests that culminated in gun running among other things. He is the author as antihero and his life after poetry is part of the “romance” that attaches to this writer. He does not, in this painting, look that radical or counter-culture, in fact no one in the painting looks that revolutionary, with the possible exception of the two bearded gentlemen sitting at the back of the table. He became an inspiration to many twentieth century writers, like some of the Beats in America and folks like Jean Genet in France, who sought to cultivate an aura of anti-heroics. They were antiheroes not because they were engaged in activities that were outside the pale but because they were “labeled outlaws” (culturally not legally) by a culture that was, for them, outside the pale and rather than answer the accusations against them, they embraced those accusations and after a fashion made antiheroes of themselves. Whether the post poetic Rimbaud was an antihero or a true villain would depend on who he was running guns for and who benefited from the business that he transacted.

There is something in human nature that wants to rebel. It is this something that makes the antihero attractive. Whether he is the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause or Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. Laws may be broken, maybe laws it would be better not to break, but these characters are seen to be driven to illegality by other “crimes” the culture chooses to ignore, like sexism and intolerance. Often these characters desire to do good but are driven in other directions by a culture that does not believe them to be capable of good. In the book Frankenstein a monster is created. Monstrous things are expected of him because he looks like such a monster. However, he tries to do the good and noble thing, to be compassionate and kind in his dealings with others, but he is always rewarded according to the expectation and not the act. At one point he is shot for saving a young girl from drowning. He changes, he realizes that no one is ever going to give him a chance and he begins to fight back. That too, is part of the story of the antihero. If we do not let people become kind, if for whatever reason we judge them by something superficial, we should not be surprised if they become what we have pre-judged them to be and that it becomes difficult to identify the true heroes and villains.

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Frankenstein