The Tragedy of Time

Time. It’s part of our lives, as inescapable as the three dimensions of the physical world, as seemingly natural and intuitive as the idea that up is up and down is down. Yet it may also be an illusion, albeit a necessary one if we’re to live in the kind of world we’ve created. Time separates us from a past we may yearn for, just as it divides us from an unknown future; the present is barely there before it’s gone again, each moment a potentially lost opportunity. Yet time also provides us with chances, gives us reason to hope. A difficult situation may be resolved if we play for time; we wish for time to bring an end to our troubles, to carry us to the elusive “someday” where our problems are finally resolved. Time is both our tragedy and our great opportunity.

Image credit: Sabine Sauermaul |

Time is a mystery. Perhaps it’s a purely human construct, but it’s one that we find almost impossible to define. “If no one asks me,” said Saint Augustine, “I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Our perceptions of the passing of time are notoriously variable. Time flies when you’re having fun, as the old adage says. If you’re anxious, on the other hand, or bored, or in pain, it slows down to an agonising crawl. There is never quite enough of the stuff, but on occasion it seems to hang very heavy on our hands.

Time is also a rich source of inspiration for writers, as a glance here will confirm. (Warning: do not click that link if you ever want to get any work done ever again.) A character may be preoccupied with his history or cowed by an uncertain future. Perhaps the past – gone, apparently unchangeable – haunts him to such a degree that he tries to recover it, either by taking refuge in memories or, more proactively, by attempting to travel back in time. The time travel story may be irresistible simply because it touches on a very deep human desire. What if you had a second chance? What if you could find your lost love, undo your biggest mistake, save your dead friend?

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity introduced the idea of time dilation: that time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. For a fast-moving observer, time is measured as passing more slowly than for a stationary observer. That being so, we are all already chrononauts of sorts; it’s just that the amount of time involved is so tiny that it’s imperceptible.

Naturally, the idea of time travel comes complete with a whole set of problems and paradoxes. If you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was conceived, wouldn’t you by that very act make the same act impossible? If time travel is achievable, a future civilisation might well master it, or have mastered it already. But if so, why haven’t the time tourists come to visit us? Or have they, or will they? (Tellingly, perhaps, grammar tends to be one of the first casualties when we take up arms against time.)

Might we one day overcome the boundaries of time? I confess to a glimmer of hope that we might. Time lies at the heart of much of the angst associated with the human condition, but perhaps also fuels much of our art, culture and science. We often tend to think of ourselves as being the victims of time, even if we – in a sense – create it. What would happen if we were freed from that sense of victimhood? It’s both a heady and a frightening prospect, and one that will probably continue to inspire writers for some time to come.

I end with a plea. In the unlikely event that any chrononauts out there happen to read this, is there any chance that you could head over to 2016 and get in touch? I’d quite like to hitch a temporal ride, if that’s all right…

5 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Time

  1. Fascinating post, Mari. I so agree with the slight sense of melancholy that thinking on the nature of, and passing of, time brings. ‘Oft in the stilly night, Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me, Fond memory brings the light, of other days around me…’

    We would all change certain things about the past. Would we then change all the past, etc etc?

    In fact, in a way a huge amount of writing is about time. Could we even write stories without a strong sense of the future, and the past?

    I am delighted to say that a writer friend is at last going to self publish a fascinating story about a girl with PTSD who as a result gets trapped in a time warp.

    I believe – I may be wrong, I’m no scientist – that Einstein had only touched on the possibilities of his theory by the time of his death, and had some ideas about quantum theory totally incredible to logic, and even the ones we know about are astounding.
    As you know, time travel is a favourite theme of mine, both for reading and writing. But do I deduce from this post that you might be writing a story about time warps or time travel? Do keep us informed, as you are sometimes cautious about revealing new projects – those who believe in horoscopes would say due to your birth sign.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda! It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it? – albeit one that my non-scientific brain finds difficult to twist itself around. And you guessed right – I am indeed writing a story in which time travel is, not exactly the main plot device, but an important element. We shall see how it works out, if indeed it does…

  2. In college, I was obsessed with the philosophy and mathematics of time, and started my honors thesis on that topic. It only took a few months to start to lose my grasp on reality; the more I connected various culture’s myths and philosophy to the mathematics, the closer I felt to understanding something ultimately devastating. It was clear my choice was to stop investigating those intersections, or go mad. Consequently, I did not graduate with honors.

    When I read Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” over the winter break between semesters, I felt a thrill of recognition. “Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore … one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.” I was a modern Gilman, or so I felt at the time. The truly odd thing about the entire interlude is that all of my research disappeared. All of it. A box of index cards. Every computer file; even the disks (remember floppies??) went missing. The stacks of handwritten notes and scraps of napkins with equations – gone. Even my advising professor’s copy of the paper in work – gone. He had every other paper I’d written, but the on on time was as gone as if it never existed. I’ve never stopped feeling perplexed, and not more than a little wary of looking too closely back on what are now only hazy memories of that (ahem) time…

    It sounds like you’re navigating the wreck shoals of time far more successfully and with a greater grasp on sanity than I managed! I am glad! And I look forward to reading your book!!

    As ever,


    1. Hello Aniko, and thanks for commenting. Your story about your honours thesis sounds like the basis for a wonderful story in itself! It’s interesting that so many cultures have entirely different concepts of time to those we are used to in the modern West – the Aboriginal Dreamtime, for example. And quite possibly, the more we explore the scientific theories of time, the less satisfactory our traditional linear concept of time will appear. But I agree that, the more you think about it, the less sound one’s intellectual and philosophical ground appears to be, the more outrageous the various possibilities begin to seem … that way madness lies, perhaps. (I hope I can write my novel without going mad, but then some people would say that I lost my marbles some time ago anyway!)

      1. I think that if you keep something concrete as a touchstone, like a garden or a relationship, you won’t go mad, even immersed in the study of time. The danger is the obsession with trying to solve the puzzle of time. That was my problem, I think – I brought the entire focus of my life into the puzzle, and left nothing as an anchor outside of that puzzle.

        Happy time travels to you!


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