In theory, one is aware that the Earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it. The ground on which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with time in one's life.
-- Marcel Proust, ''Remembrance of Things Past''
We take no note of time, but from its loss.
-- Owen Young, "Letters" WE HAVE spun back to this spot. We have hurtled headlong through space, until we are back where we began. It is the end of the year. If medieval monks had been a bit more adept, a tad more accurate at marking the birth of Christ, it might also have been the end of the millennium, and the beginning.
A confused housefly hurls itself repeatedly against the window panes of my study. After too many attempts at escape, it falls exhausted and faintly buzzing among the "ex"s of my open Oxford English Dictionary.
It lies on its back, doing strange clockwise circles on the page. The buzzing continues until the fly dies in the margin, just a few body lengths from "exit" and "expire," on the same page as "expendable."
The fly has managed a bit of poetry, what some might call performance art, in the end of its life. But it is unconscious poetry, the curious happenstance of the right space and running out of time.
My dear mother warned us as children about such happenstance. That is why she thought it so important, at all times, to wear clean underwear. She had a finely tuned sense of the tragic possibilities of life, and she wanted us to be dressed for the occasion.
The 18th century letters of Owen Young have me thinking that it is only at the ends of things that time becomes visible. Space is always in sight, even in one's dreams, but time is usually invisible, silent, unless it is accompanied by weeping. Space forces the eye to follow it, while time's movement is secretly gauged by the heart, or in the pocketbook.
It is a curious and little observed fact that the human mind does not measure time the way the calendar does. The police might ask a suspect, "Where were you on the evening of March 21, 1993?" But the mind thinks of it as the night that Michael Jordan scored 60 points, or a friend had a memorable birthday party.
The human mind seems to need hooks on which to hang time. Without those hooks, the numbers mean little.
In early Roman times, before they had their own names for the gods, Chronos was portrayed as having two separate pairs of wings. One set was outstretched as if about to take flight, while the other pair, paradoxically, was lowered for landing.
It is only at year's end, or life's end, or the end of anything that is good, that these images can be understood together -- time is both the cradle of hope and the grave of ambition.
Perhaps this is why we schedule our mid-life crises two-thirds of the way along our allotted time. We cannot bear to think about the end until it is time. If time is a maniac scattering dust, it is only when his bag is empty that we pay him any notice. Apparently, we are content to give the maniac a few more years of sprinkling before we declare the millennium has come.
When the bag is empty, time becomes clear. It is then we try to put knots in the rope of time, but they are more like the magician's knots that mysteriously disappear in our hands. They fall through our fingers. They end up in that place where there is no time.
At year's end we try vainly to drive a nail through time, to fix it in place the way we might mistakenly attempt to keep a spinning gyroscope in one spot. But the gyroscope and the earth do their spinning, and the millennium approaches, or it is about to pass.
Only time can turn a dictionary into a graveyard. Only we notice it.
Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.
Pub Date: 1/03/97