A recent life event has made me think that Time is cyclical rather than linear. The event was the reunion of a group of friends from my sixth form days in Liverpool when the city was alive with creativity in art, music, poetry and ideas that the future was full of infinite possibility if only we could grasp it. We had taken a photograph then, and astonishingly 50 years later had taken the photograph again in the same place. There were one or two gaps for those with whom we had lost touch.
As a literary scholar I am drawn to ideas of Time explored in poems and plays by writers like T.S. Eliot, and J. B. Priestly, the socialist and pacifist; and in a post-modernist novel like Slaughterhouse-Five, where linear Time is disrupted by war. Personal experience too has made me aware that linear Time can become distorted by events
Eliot’s view of Time is shown in Burnt Norton where he expresses the concept that time present time past and time future are all contained within each other, but what does that actually mean? As a reader of his poetry and its application to my own life as mentioned I can relate it to the idea that Time is cyclical, that events can be seen to repeat themselves. In a song called Deja Vu a band sing, ‘It makes me wonder what’s going on, down under the ground?’
What is going on? Some years ago, I experienced the sudden loss of two people in my life causing Time to lose all sense, all structure and all meaning. I consulted Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and found him talking about ideas of succession and duration. Locke related this to the specific motion of the earth around the sun, and later in the book discussed a mother’s grief about the death of her child in relation to Time, and how long it would take for her to recover.
Although I had no experience of the death of a child, this connected with me and in furtherance of my teacher training I began to plan a project on the subject of Time itself with a class of 11-12 year olds. I asked them time related questions about how early man became aware of the passage of time, how our bodies are a kind of clock, and how time could be measured? From a range of experiments that they did in groups a number of conclusions emerged. One read: ‘A water clock measures times of hours and minutes and is a bowl of water with a hole at the bottom. When the water leaks out it falls into another bowl which has markers. Each marker could represent minutes. So, if the water reaches five marks it means that five minutes have passed.’
There are many ideas related to Time. J.B. Priestly in his Time plays explores those of J. W. Dunne. I studied Time and the Conways with adult students and found that the concept had a tremendous fascination for them and that they enjoyed reading the play expressively as though on the radio. Ideas such as those described here, I should like to explore further within literary and educational settings, using Annie Ernaux’s The Years as another jumping off point.
- Essay on Human Understanding (1690): John Locke
- Burnt Norton (1936): T. S. Eliot
- Time and the Conways (1937): J.B. Priestly
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969): Kurt Vonnegut
- Déjà Vu (1970): Crosby Stills Nash and Young
- Time (1972): Roy Richards, MacDonald Educational
- Advanced Diploma in Science Education (1982): Peter Leyland, Cambridge Institute
- The Years (2008): Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer
- What Was Remains (2023): Peter Leyland, Authors Electric