Time and meaning
I was recently given the task of responding creatively to the phrase ‘Time sinking‘. I would have far preferred to address a different topic because I have never spent much time dwelling on the concept of time. And the idea of ‘time sinking’ seemed to raise the particular problem of what I imagined was a kind of ‘directed’ or ‘directional’ time. In the end I began to resolve this by imagining how my times have, in a sense, been sinking. (Fading away) In this respect I thought, for example, of the time past that I had experienced in Paris in 1960, then Venice in 1970 and finally New York during the year 2000. But whilst I was puzzling over how to give creative expression to the idea that my times were and are sinking I was also reading Elena Ferrante’s novel, ‘The story of a new name‘. Her striking and acutely perceptive text noted some of the different ways in which we experience ourselves in time: sometimes, for example, it is fluid, sometimes it is glue-like … some of us live in a linear and sequential unfolding of time, whilst other lives are characterised by ruptures, schisms, retrogressions and so on …
However, at the very end of the novel, Ferrante – quite possibly in an autobiographical moment – makes an observation about time and meaning. She does this as we follow the life trajectory of her central character, Lenu Greco, who has returned, from the north of Italy, in order to visit her family in Naples.
During this visit, Lenu, who is fresh from enjoying singular and brilliant academic success and who, in her early 20s, is about to have her first novel published, decides to go to see her long-standing childhood friend, the fascinating and mesmerising Lila Cerullo. Lila, by contrast, is working in the dreadful conditions of a sausage factory.
They meet in the factory and Lenu notices that Lila is ‘bundled up, dirty and scarred’ whilst she has ‘dressed herself’ as if ‘disguised as a young lady of a good family.’ They are now, as it were, inhabitants of different worlds. Their exchanges are both affectionate but always testing and sometimes harsh. On leaving the beautiful Lila, and after their brief meeting, Lenu, in a moment of terrible insight says to herself:
‘I had made the journey [to see her] mainly to show her what she had lost and I had won … But … she was explaining to me that I had won nothing – that in this world there is nothing to win … and that time simply slipped away without any meaning …’
On reading this paragraph I put the book down and thought, for a long time, about the implications of that almost chilling closing remark: Time sinking – or time slipping away – ‘without any meaning’ …