When I read Proust for the first time many years ago, after six volumes of incredibly lengthy sentences discussing ‘lost time’, the last two words of the work were so short that they hit me like a bullet between the eyes. In time: these words seemed to sum up the entire work. And having read it I don’t think we spend enough – er, time – thinking about time.
Time is a fascinating thing. I don’t pretend to understand Einstein’s idea that there is no such thing as simultaneity: for one thing it’d make nonsense of songs such as ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’
The thing is, with ideas like Einstein’s I can get them on an abstract level, but I can’t translate it into my own experience. What does it mean to say that by the time I get to Phoenix she won’t be rising; that the two events happen separately and are unconnected? I can’t get my head around it.
Another phenomenon which I’m sure has a scientific explanation, is the way ideas fly away when you look directly at them. For example. I had many thoughts this morning of a stimulating (if not simultaneous) and inventive nature, but as soon as I came into the library with a fresh sheet of paper ready to work with them, they all flew away. I think this is like Alice’s experience in the wool shop (if it was a wool shop) where the shelves seem crowded but as soon as she looks directly at one it’s empty, though all around they are as crowded as ever.
It was the wool shop:
‘The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite, empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.‘
This is surely familiar to anyone creative: you have a million ideas all crowding into your mind but as soon as you sit down with pen and paper and try to summon them up, they become terminally shy. So it was with me this morning: I had several bright ideas and almost wrote them down; however they seemed to suggest that this would be premature, and that they needed to stew a little further, so I left them where they were. And now that I’m in front of the computer, where are they? Hiding, that’s where, and refusing to come out. No doubt they will come out at the most inconvenient moment, say, three in the morning.
Another phenomenon I’ve observed (and I’m really not sure science has caught up with this one) is this. You may be wrestling with any number of ailments or neuroses; and then you go away on holiday. It’s as though this fact – the fact of your going away – takes the ailments by surprise; and for once you are able to shake them off and arrive at your holiday destination free and light-hearted. This continues for a day or two; however, sooner or later the neuroses will wake up. She’s gone! they say to each other, rousing themselves and packing their bags; then they set off, shading their eyes against the sun to see where you are. You can spot them, black figures charging up the hill in ones and twos – but if you are on the watch you can pick them off one by one: or at least identify and store them to deal with at a later date.