Friday 12 April 2019

On Time

by Antonia Senior

Amid a cacophony of fiction, there are two non-fiction books on my bedside table. Both brilliant, both about Time with a capital T - and both radically altering the way I view reality, history and the nature of the present.

The first looks at Time from a scientific perspective: Carlo Rovelli's extraordinary The Order of Time. Rovelli is that rare thing - a theoretical physicist who writes like an angel. I would love to understand deep maths, and magically gain the ability to understand a universe in which reality is entirely at odds with human experience. Without maths, we can only approach the subject through metaphor. Language is a loose and inadequate way of approaching the mysteries of a quantum universe, but it's all I've got. Rovelli is a brilliant guide and metaphorist.

The second book is Christopher Clark's Time and Power. Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Year to the Third Reich. A disclaimer: about 100 years ago, Clark taught me for a term at university and was my favourite and most memorable supervisor by some margin. His last book The Sleepwalkers, a rare blockbuster history book, was a brilliant survey of the origins of World War 1.

Clark's new book takes four epochs in German history and examines how attitudes to time and history shaped, and were shaped by, the exercise of power. Clark has introduced me to a new movement in historical studies which analyses temporality - a notion he describes as 'a feeling for the motion of time'. He asks these questions: how closely do the past and future breathe upon the necks of those in power? In the eyes of the powerful, how stable or fragile is the present? How do these perceptions frame, shape and legitimise the exercise of power? And how does power itself alter the perception of time?

Christopher Clark: A bit of a genius. 

Here is a quick and entirely inadequate introduction to two different books which share one pre-occupation: that time is actively perceived, rather than passively experienced.

We think of time as linear. We experience it as a progression. Our beetling minds move from past to  present to future without pause. We can listen to the tick-tock passing of time, and understand it.

The problem is that time does not really exist. The exact workings of Time remain a mystery - but we know that it does not march across the universe in the way that we experience it. The most simple rebuttal of that fallacious view is the measurable fact that time passes more slowly at the top of a mountain than at sea-level.

Beyond what a  hugely accurate clock can measure, there is a universe as understood by physicists. According to Rovelli (he builds his argument slowly and carefully - I am jumping to the conclusion) - "In the elementary grammar of the universe there is neither space, nor time - only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another, from which it is possible to calculate probabilities and relations."

At a fundamental level, in the universe, there is no difference between the past and the future. This leads to the obvious question - if time does not exist, why is the sense of its passing so fundamental to being human?

I am still wrestling with Rovelli's answer, and am obviously entirely lacking the skills to judge its veracity. It sounds convincing and is based upon the fact that our interaction with the universe is partial. We drink a glass of water, and interact with the water itself, not the molecules. We see solid objects as solid, when in fact they are explicitly and permanently not solid on a quantum level.

In other words, our view of the universe is blurred. We are squinting at one level of reality, wearing fogged spectacles. Rovelli then comes close to losing me when he argues that what we experience as the flowing of time is the actual blurring itself - our brains' interaction with entropy (the movement of things towards disorder) and quantum indeterminacy (the necessary lack of measurability of things - the world according to quantum physics is made up of events not things). But the important concept to grasp is that what matters to humans is perspective. "Temporality is profoundly linked to blurring. The blurring is due to the fact that we are ignorant of the microscopic details of the world. Time is ignorance."

In Clark's lexicon, temporality is a slightly different animal - but equally locked in an endless tango with human perceptions. The book opens with the memorable line: "As gravity bends light, so power bends time."

Clark's concern is with the point at which perceptions of the nature of time collide with the exercise of power. He explores the notion of "chronopolitics" -  the idea that decision making is influenced both by differing perceptions of time, and varying beliefs in how change occurs within that flow of time. The chicken meets egg dance between temporality and historicity. This matters, not least because as Clark says: "this was the place where the political rationalisations of power expressed themselves as claims about the past and expectations of the future."

So, for example, Clark examines Nazi attitudes towards time and historicity. Italian fascists and the Soviets both saw history and time as a triumphant, linear march forward towards the apotheosis of civilisation, as represented by their respective ideologies.The Nazis, on the other hand, intuitively rejected this linear progression. Hitler idealised a remote past - centred around racial theories and the power of the volk.

Clark argues that the Nazi had a notion of temporality centred on the Volk as a sort of racial essence that transcends history and time. This, by its nature, was non-progressive and non-linear. "Underlying the dictatorship's vision of its place in time was a radical rejection of 'history' and a flight into a deep continuity with a remote past and a remote future.'

This was an important part of the Nazi storytelling - this appeal to imagined timescapes. In Rovelli's book, he talks with a philosopher's zeal about the idea that time is not a one way street. We do not just perceive time; on a fundamental level we create it in the action of perceiving it. "It is with respect to which physical system to which we belong, due to the peculiar way in which it interacts with the rest of the world, thanks to the fact that it allows traces and because we, as physical entities, consist of memory and anticipation, that the perspective of time opens up for us, like our small, lit clearing.

It takes a physicist to reveal that we are in the small, lit clearing. It takes a historian to remind us that within the small, lit clearing there are shadows and flickers and falsehoods. It is part of the essence of history to remind us of the multitudes of perspectives. Sand falls through the timer; we watch it fall imprisoned in our own vivid melee of memories, beliefs and superstitions.

In his conclusion, Clark projects his mode of temporal analysis onto the present. He argues that we are in a period of flux - between the optimistic futurity of modernity and something more strained, and pessimistic. He says that there is a 'sense that the present is in transit from the futurities of the modern to something more recursive, chastened by the collapse of past human projects and deferential to the voices of "elders".'

He points out that liberal democracy is underpinned by a linear understanding of history that is no longer automatically assumed. We are in a period of "temporal uncertainty", he says. It's a convincing analysis of the pervading unease we feel. I had already noticed that my left-wing friends have become convinced that the end times are nigh and the present is hopeless, while my right-wing friends have lost their emphasis on the imagined, happy past and are more interested in emphasising the soon-to-be-lost glories of the present. Clark seems to posit temporal uncertainty as a cause, not an effect. I'm not sure about this - there are solid economic and demographic reasons for both our unease and our shifting temporal perspectives.

But, if thinking about physics and history in the same ((but non-existent obvs!) space has taught me anything, it is that cause and effect can sometimes be the same thing. There are no things which have properties, just events which appear as things. As Rovelli says: "The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming."

My big kitchen clock. Lying to me, the bastard. 

Where does this exploration of time as a thing perceived leave me as a historical novelist, and a thinking human? I'm not sure yet. I'm still digesting it all. My head hurts. I'm sitting at the table writing this, listening to the tick-tock lies of the big kitchen clock, wondering - what next?


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

A fascinating and thought provoking post. Thank you for bringing these books to my attention - particularly the first one. I use 'psychic'time travel to get at history via a very talented dear friend with the ability to tune into the past). She is fascinated by the quantum side of the matter and would love the Rovelli book, so that's her birthday present sorted! I resonated with that front cover immediately. There is so much still to discover and so little known. It's such an exciting time at the moment in various scientific disciplines.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth, I cannot recommend the Rovelli highly enough. Fascinating and just so briliantly written for the lay-person