- Thoughts on Time-Based Readings of Canadian Literature and Culture
Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations.… They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time.Ronald Wright
Time is a measure of motion and of being moved.Aristotle
Time is famously difficult to define, and this difficulty itself hints that time is at least partially a cognitive construct shaped by culture. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which offers more than a hundred meanings and idioms for “time,” appropriately begins its entry on the word by acknowledging the inevitable constructedness of the concept: time is “the indefinite and continuous duration of existence seen as a series of events progressing from the past through the present into the future.” What begins as a natural entity, albeit an “indefinite” one, is immediately cast through the lens of cultural association and figurative representation, into something “seen as.” Christopher Dewdney points out that “according to the Oxford English Corpus, time tops the list of the most common nouns in the English language” (95), relegating the word “person” to second [End Page 141] place (“The oec”). And yet, the workings of time as a contested site of cultural power in Canada, the specifics by which we see time as, have often been overlooked. I would like to suggest that while the politics and power relations that saturate Canada’s existence are indeed tied to the usual suspects of race, class, gender, place, and settler-indigene relations, their influence is also profoundly tied to the understandings of time that have been advanced, assumed, and rejected throughout the country’s history, and that Canadian literature and other arts are inevitably tangled up in these complex relationships and serve a vital function in both witnessing and questioning them.
Let me start with an example. In Morris Panych’s play 7 Stories, an unnamed man climbs to the seventh story of an apartment building and contemplates jumping. From his ledge he speaks with several of the building’s tenants, although most of them are too preoccupied with their own lives to ask about his dilemma. Only near the end of the play does an elderly woman, Lillian, lean out of a window to ask what is on his mind. He explains:
You see—my faith in the days of the week has been seriously undermined. When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t exactly sure what day it was. And for that brief moment—it was only a matter of seconds—I think it was seconds—I stood—or I should say I “lay” on very shaky ground. After all—how could I act with assuredness. How could I rise up and plunge headlong into Friday’s world, if it was actually Saturday? And so I lay completely still for a moment, pondering this question. That’s when I noticed my hands. I’d never noticed them before. How they moved with amazing dexterity. But this flexibility, this movement of hands, can never extend beyond the boundaries of its own flesh—can only reach as far as the fingertips and no further, much as the movement of time is restricted by the days of the week.… I saw in the mirror a condemned man, serving a life sentence inside his body.(91)
There is nothing inherent in the flow of time—in the expansion of the universe, the cycle of seasons, or the earth’s rotation—to suggest that there is such a thing as a week or days of the week. The week is a human invention, one of the cultural constructions by which we order our experience of time. Hellenistic scholars likely adopted Babylonian astrology to develop the seven-day week by dedicating a single day to each of the naked-eye celestial objects that move relative to the seemingly fixed background of stars (Zerubavel 14)—an origin that has blended over the centuries [End Page 142] with the seven-day creation cycle of the Book of Genesis. And while this seven-day week has been firmly rooted in Canada since it sprung like an introduced species...