Wednesday, 20 May 2020
Britain, emerging from coronavirus lockdown, is a country where an old writer called Ian McEwan senses "that things might not be the same again"
Yesterday on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, he gave his thoughts at the prospects of emerging from lockdown after being "shunted into a siding from our main line existence."
"Now that the beginning of the end of our lockdown days may be in sight, this is a good moment to reflect on the nature of time. Not time as a set of subdivisions of the Earth's rotation and its orbit around the sun, but time as we feel it : time that slows in a emergency, speeds up as we age or lengthens as we wait, boiling with impatience, for a long overdue train.
The pandemic has put many of us through an experiment in subjective time. When the coronavirus is banished or tamed and clock time reasserts its ascendancy, we'll feel immediate relief, of course, but we already sense that things might never be the same again. We may want to retain some element of this altered time.
For those of us not doing vital work, what happened to our perception of time ? Part of the answer might lie with an ex-convict I once heard describe his 20 years in jail : "It went in a flash", he said.
Now that we’ve been doing time ourselves under house arrest, we may begin to understand what he meant : Bleached of events , one day much like another, time compresses and collapses in on itself . Friday again, when yesterday was Monday. But contained within that there’s an opposing element - the experience in lockdown of time's expansiveness, bringing in exponential growth, as we like to say, of : introspection, daydreaming, mental drifting, especially about the past.
Kierkegaard famously observed that "Life could only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." When that forward motion is denied, then you’re liable to go tumbling backwards through time. You might begin to wonder or even remember who you are and how, minute by minute, you travelled through time by tiny stepping stones from your five year old self, to the person you are now. And this now has been mightily enlarged and you can begin to luxuriate in it : you can waste it without guilt. Within its spaciousness you might even appreciate the extraordinary fact, commonplace, yet miraculous, of you own consciousness or catch a glimpse of essential self that was partially obscured by the daily round.
If you suspect that our society is undergoing a profound shift, as yet hard to predict, reading a book even watching tv can seem irrelevant or hard to settle to. You wander into a room to do one thing, but you end up reaching for something else. As long as you don’t fight it, the experience can be enlightening. The unopened mail piles up on the kitchen table. It’s not laziness, so much as stillness, that prevents you from dealing with it. When time stretches so vastly ahead, why do today what you can do next month ? Anaesthetists, care workers and many others doing important work, must remain under time's lash. The bereaved especially suffer cruelly for a sense of loss or truncated time.
More benignly, my younger son and daughter-in-law work from home and care for their lively two and a half year old son. They share child care shifts and have a book with each day portioned out in half hours :
9am. Make unicorns with daddy.
2pm. Make superhero masks with mumma.
But for the rest of us, shunted into a siding from our main line existence, time has had no book no timetable.
Now this episode could be coming to an end, the old life, its duties, as well as its many pleasures will be tagged with dates and times. But that life will be fundamentally altered. We face massive economic problems and perhaps opportunities. We'll need new resources. Our physics tells us that the rate of time's flow is a function of the strength of a gravitational field. For a while, we slipped free from under time's weight and linearity and we embraced a paradox :
We’ve been like children at play for whom a summer holiday is a lifetime and yet it’s gone by in a flash.
My hope is that we can take, from this extended tragedy, a memory and lesson in timelessness and stillness. They could be of use in turbulent times ahead."