Friday, December 23, 2011

Synthesizing Knowledge

Ten or so years ago, my friend Johnnie and I got mired in an argument about the nature of time. It was Johnnie's opinion that time moved forward in a circular fashion, always repeating itself. Russian history certainly gives frequent causes to believe that, and yet, I protested, there's no reason to think that it can't also leap forward and develop in some entirely unexpected dimensions. Moreover, personal time doesn't need to adhere to the pattern of historical, or national time (national time, so arbitrary--who or what defines a nation, anyway?). I'd been living away from Russia for a long enough time already that I couldn't imagine myself being bound to its rhythms just because I had happened to be born there. I don't remember what geometrical model of time I proposed to Johnnie; anyway, this was not that kind of argument. Johnnie advanced his cause in rhymes, and I tried to respond in kind, by writing poetry.

In a way, what I argued against was a deterministic model of the future, a model that I felt would limit my ability to change simply by proclaiming that change was impossible or pointless. It's likely that this wasn't the point of view that Johnnie was advancing, but something I inferred and thought unacceptable. Time, the way I perceive it today, works more like sign in the de Saussure's model of language: it's arbitrary and the way it functions is determined more by social conventions than by its own inherent properties. Storytelling and literature are an important part of this mechanism, they are both formed by and form the social conventions that in turn determine our individual perceptions of time. The novels of high realism observe and structure the ways we see cause and effect and perceive our own lives in terms of plots and arcs. The post-modern novels that try to destroy the conventional notions of arc have to struggle with more than our ideas of what literature is, but also with our ideas of what time is. They are stuck in avant-garde; while time-travel and science fiction novels are too fully mired in literary conventions and offer intellectual food for thought without affecting our more deeply ingrained notions of time.

Somehow these thoughts might (but don't need to) relate to the fact that Dave and I are in Australia now. We landed in Sydney yesterday morning after a 14 hour flight that took us across the International Date Line and catapulted 24 hours into the future. It was the shortest 14 hours flight in the history of 14 hour flights -- we slept for ten of them, and then barely got a chance to do some reading. I read a few Julio Cortázar stories and was terribly disappointed by them (I'd never really read Cortázar before, but he'd been for years at the top of my lists). Maybe it's because I read him in Russian -- and lately I've started to notice that everything I read in Russian strikes me as slightly sentimental.

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