Wednesday, April 6, 2011

spatial existence

As I sit here rereading A Separate Peace and teaching it to my 9th graders, I am struck by the many subtleties of the novel. Among these is the very spatial, and almost timeless, Finny. The title of the novel obviously gives one pause because of its multitudinous interpretations... it could refer to the separation of the Devon School from "the gray encroachments of 1943" (137), the separation of oneself in independent and defined identity from another, or... as I've been pondering over this morning... the separation of existence in space from existence in time.

Gene writes of Finny's "magic gift for existing primarily in space" as his "choreography of peace" (136). Quite the character foil, Gene seems to be caught inescapably in the lockstep advance of time... even doubly in his mind which always works in cynical anticipation, "facing in advance whatever the destruction was" (137). Consider even the first paragraph of the novel in which Gene manages to refer to memory, memory within memory, the new within the old, and the powerful acceleration of the war which still haunts and defines him. In fact, his spatial existence seems to be the dark momentum and yet already passed moment of World War II. "The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere," (40) Gene tells us, describing how this moment of his past has opened into (ugly irony) a gaseous pressure-filled medium surrounding his once and future breath.

Be present, they tell us. Are we to interpret this question as a request to fill and experience the present moment? Or is there something even more at work here? A charge to let our spatial reality dominate our existence... at least for a moment. I want to try, for today, to let go of time. I understand that it will still wash over me... for example, in the simplicity of watching the sunrise as I drive to work. And it will pull me when a friend asks about last night. But I want to try. Was that Finny's gift? Or his Achilles' heel?

I find that when I feel the impending pull of something I don't like, that when I live in future moments that I find unsteadying, upsetting, or numbing, that my instinct is escape... physical, spatial escape. To get in the car and drive and drive and drive. Sometimes I only think about that kind of escape. Sometimes I've actually done it. I think part of that urge emanates from the way in which time has become social and deceptively unidirectional. In his provocative book, The Culture of Time and Space -- a book I return to over and over again for the way it challenges my thinking -- Stephen Kern writes about how the experience, the very nature of time itself changed as humanity moved into the 20th century. Whereas primitive societies live in a sort of harmony with time, with the seasons, with the shared memories of collective history told through stories by the fire, technologically advancing "modern" societies exist in a neurosis of relative and divided time. Relative, most likely because of the manner in which time divided into a single and linear "public" time (the clock in the town square, the 8-hour workday, the train schedule, etc.) and "private time" (the space of memory - now private and less shared, now required to isolate itself against the onslaught of the breaking apart of time into minutes, seconds, nanoseconds... things that we can understand intellectually but not experientially.)

And so, of the July Crisis in 1914 (in which "peace slipped away" (260)), Kern writes:
While distinctive past orientations of the five major belligerents shaped their expectations about the future, the exigencies of the present during the July Crisis tended to work on all of them more or less alike. The present was a parenthesis of time between a glorious and prosperous European past and an uncertain future, when diplomats spoke and acted for nations under circumstances of extraordinary temporal compression. This was the climax of the age of simultaneity. Telegrams sent to half a dozen capitals triggered a variety of responses simultaneously. Telephones carried instantaneous two- and three- way conversations. The compacting of events in time was best suited for the one new art form of the period -- the cinema -- that was able to suggest the multiplicity of occurrences in many distant places in a single moment. The July Crisis was a montage of the simultaneous activity of scores of diplomats and later, of millions of soldiers. Each nation had a unique perspective and a different stake in the outcome, but the sense of the present was generally similar -- thickened for all by the sheer density of events and expanded spatially by the new technology. Far different was the sense of the future, which determined why and how the various nations finally went to war. (279)
 To experience space, like Finny, perhaps requires a sort of extrication from the realities of time. While not recommended as a strategy for living, it could be an interesting experiment. Thus, tomorrow's theme: spatial existence...

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