Marshall McLuhan is said to have quipped (he may even have done so) that, ‘We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.’
It’s not just a matter of watching the past play out behind one like so much length of road or even of using that past experience, rightly or wrongly, in dealing with the present and the future. In a car one lives time linearly, privately. One excerpts oneself from the flux and multifocality of what goes on, locking the door on community and all that lies outside one’s chosen focus.
In Travesty, for example, John Hawkes catches a car and its occupants in the act of moving towards catastrophe and death, which lie beyond the novel’s ending. The experience of the present is all inside their metal box. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi starts and ends with ‘a parking lot’ as the paving over of ‘paradise’. Its emotional centre speaks of being excluded from a within:
Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
But could one not perhaps live history in a more open way through being part of the molar and molecular arrangement, that flux, by which communities are made up?
When Dante meets up with Virgil, for instance, it’s after the famously ‘dark wood’ and during a sleep akin to death. Virgil is part of the past: ‘I’m not a man. I was a man before’. He leads Dante into a series of possible futures which are the present for those who find themselves there: a more social and more dimensioned sense of time. However, when Dante enters Purgatory he is warned against looking back, a reversal of the Eurydice principle, because ‘anyone who does look back returns outside’.
And now here is Enrico Palandri in a 2006 conference paper, delivered in English, exploring Time & Literature. First he asks whether time appears in ‘our culture’ along with the written word:
‘[W]e distinguish History from Pre-historic time precisely along the border marked by the invention of the written word. From that moment onwards we will have things and their linguistic and symbolic representation. I shall give a simple example of this separation: God will appear in the Bible as Ya-ve-he, I am what is, but the word which indicates what is cannot be written as it makes it past.’
So writing is looking back. And the US Constitution is a written one, a closing out of the past.
Palandri develops his thesis in a very particular way. He asserts, for example, that nowadays we orient ourselves in ‘our time’ by reference to its precedents. We use the rearview mirror, keeping that metaphor, through psychological relativism expressing itself chronologically. An objectifying process. Its effect on usefulness and presence isn’t a good one:
‘When Romanticism begins to describe the individual reading as ‘subjective’ interpretation, History begins to separate us from the past. We look at these books today and ask ourselves what did they mean for them, rather than what do they mean for us.
‘Our time separates generation from generation through a severe objectivity, a material grasp of the meaning of words which dissipates any ambiguity, but possibly also any real proximity.’
His own take on Dante is as follows:
The development of this historical view of the past, mainly through philology, has given us reliable texts and a scientific attitude towards the study of our tradition […] but it is worth stopping a moment and wondering whether it is not because of this further historicization of time that we cannot really imagine, like Dante, to have as a guide to the other world a poet born 1300 years before, and to meet all those poets and philosophers we would like to confer with in Limbo.’
Another Palandri text feels like background for this. His 2003 novel, L’altra sera sets the personal experience of a broken family attempting (or not) to meet up within the public experience of a rioting, multicultural Paris during the 1998 World Cup. It’s a short but complex book which can also be read as a dialectic between two competing times: the time of the job and the car, and the time of affiliation. (Close to the end of the novel there’s a scene which embodies this dialectic quite precisely: Gilles, whose impatience is quotidian, attempts to chivvy Francesca, his wistful, delaying wife. And it’s through her interruption of quotidian time that some kind of real reunion comes about.)
The emotional substance of the novel arises out of words but it forms a sort of surplus which words alone cannot capture. (A young victim of a knife attack is not the father’s unknown son. So things don’t ever quite come into balance.) Blanchot called death ‘merely the side of life which isn’t turned towards us.’ Here it’s night which provides the frame, at either end of the book. This is the side of death which remains as possibility, of construction as well as destruction: ‘Night will come. Black night. Bare night. My night,’ the repository of fear. Either the sky has been stripped of its constellations or else it’s waiting to be (re)populated with new stars: a prelude to conversation. Later on these possibilities are reconstructed, through memory:
‘In the evening the peasants called the animals into their quarters and the countryside was filled with cries that lasted for ages, cadenced and repetitive like songs […] that seemed the calling of the stars, one by one, until night was made complete. In the perfect darkness, after supper, they turned off the lights in the kitchen to look at the constellations and to chatter a bit in the cool air.’
And within the body of the novel, there is indeed (ostensibly) precisely that bringing in, or bringing out. The procedures of desire (positive and negative; its indefinableness is often evoked by smells) as they are articulated in all their different tenses and their moods. The communitas (in Turner’s sense) of the football, which is also the communitas of the rioters. The proposed family meeting disrupted by the riots. Affinities both real (a grandfather, an unborn child, furtive sex between cultures) and implied (a potential lover, a potential child and so forth). How Gianni, the student son, is subject to ‘the irresponsibility of desire’, as he attempts to construct a new present out of the theorised future, as he joins up with a group of Kurds and they attempt to destroy a car; though not Gilles’ car, which gets through it all unscathed. How Giacomo, the father, seeks the (re)construction of a new present out of the legally separated past, whose own desire is more cautious:
‘Superstition has taken up space again within me, that marvellous caution that accompanies us when a desire is so intense that it seems to produce reality directly out of hope, and then we endeavour not to break the spell, not to disturb the surfaces of things
‘In order to be present,’ as Simondon puts it using soul and body as an analogy (L’individuation psychique et collective à la lumiere des notions de Forme, Information, Potentiel et Métastabilité), ‘the present needs the future and the past; through these two […] the soul reaches the body. The body is what-isn’t-present; it’s not the material of some animating form. The present rises up from the body and returns to it; the ‘anima’ crystallises the body. The present is a work of individuation. The present isn’t a permanent form; it’s a form in operation. It finds its form in individuation.’
The novel ends as follows, more or less:
‘Here it is. Night. Bare night. My night. […] One shouts in its face, Don’t scare me, Night. But actually you please me with the infinitude of your time which isn’t beaten out by commerce and by the ordered living of families, of schools, of traffic. Your time is totally free, open to irregularities, to the tentative search for someone with whom to cross the darkness and come out on the other side.
‘I still wait for the night like a child, like a boy, like a man, and like someone who’s grown old. That the day might come to an end…’