Of Time and the Quiver: connecting time/beauty/language


This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Of Time and the Quiver: connecting time/beauty/language

Em Madsen

Our class has been pondering language. People have asked each other, 'do you think in words?' Some have suggested that when we are involved in activities such as chess or tennis, we do not think in words, but rather act from an intuitive space that needs no language. Our class has also been pondering time. We have reminded each other of
a paradox that exists in our everyday lives: we cannot be truly in the moment, for as soon as we consciously start trying to be in the moment, we have removed ourselves from the moment. There is the idea of that nebulous, nameless space proposed in both lines of thought which begs to be connected. I am led to questions: Can we connect time and language? In other words, can "being in the moment" in the sense of our perception of time mean that we are finally centered in that wordless space where we act from instinct?

I can trace this thread of questioning to a Borges story ("The Secret Miracle") that I love wherein a man is sentenced to death by firing squad. He prays to god to be given enough time to finish his play before he dies, and god freezes time (the shadow of a bee on the stones near his feet remains motionless, and puffs of cigarette smoke from the soldiers' mouths hang immobile in the air). The man cannot move, yet he can think. He spends his time (or his out-of-time) working on his play, and when he finally feels it is done, the normal course of time resumes and he is shot to death.

While intense experiences of immersion in a moment may not take this form, Borges creates an interesting commentary on the notion of being in the moment. The man is frozen in the moment in most senses of the word, though he is able to think and to use language to define his situation. The idea that I am working with suggests that it is only when we pull back from a moment that we engage with language in order to describe the activities that were, in a sense, timeless only moments before. The man before the firing squad is given the luxury of both the moment and the ability to reflect on it.

This raises another interesting question. If "time" is frozen and no one moves, what kind of scale is the man's mind working on? The process of thinking is a process over time, so it would seem that he is existing on two different scales, or maybe even that his time is all taking place at once. Is this far-fetched? The more I think about it, the less I think so, as
I have heard many stories of people who have fallen asleep and had incredibly intricate dreams that seemed to span hours, only to wake up to find that they have been asleep for four minutes. Dream space thus presents another valid way in which to explore the question of timelessness and wordlessness.

I have proposed that at the moment of no language, there is no time. Can it be said that when there is no time there is no langauge? In the case of the man in Borges's story, no time does not mean no language, as the man can think and work on his play, which is a linear accumulation of ideas. In dreams, no time does not mean no language, as we move and speak to each other in a mind-constructed scale of time that has no relevance to the amount of time we've been sleeping. However, in real life, no time would also mean no language, I believe. Since language occurs on a temporal scale (each word, like each thought, following the previous one), to remove the framework of time would be like removing language's bones. Thought and language could not move forward without time, and instead would melt into an unintelligible puddle.

Now I need to contradict myself, however, for the moment of no language that I have been discussing is far from unintelligible. It is actually a moment of intense clarity that results from the removal of language, rather than the removal of time. Cause and effect is important in this case. And the effect of the removal of language and the entrance of our bodies and minds into the electric space where we act from intuition and cannot feel the familiar prodding of time's fingers is something I want to call "the quiver." I feel this is a valid description because this moment out of moments is often an intensely physical
experience, a kind of a-temporal orgasm or seizure.

It is in this way that I feel we experience beauty. The objects we observe are not beautiful as they exist in time or because they have survived time. They are beautiful because we identify with them in a timeless, wordless moment of beauty. When we look at them and say they are beautiful, we are not referring to the statue or painting or poem, we
are referring to that quivering moment when we recognized them for ourselves as beautiful. "The quiver" is that moment when time and language fail, and we are left instead with a fleeting feeling of discovery and wordless awe. In this way, "the quiver" is akin to an electric pulse that moves us along despite the absence of time-- the experiences of life or beauty or even pain motivate us as they propel us forward.

For me, "the quiver" is an elusive flash I can find in my music. Sometimes, as I play my violin, I become so thoroughly immersed in the music that I lose track of time. My fingers move by instinct and I am transported to a different space, a space sans language or time, where only the music and my intense connection to it tether me to the world to which I must return. This is a scary and beautiful experience. Like the man in Borges's tale, I am able to create a work of art in a span of time that does not technically exist-- musicians speak of "stealing time" in their playing by slowing down a passage of music, extending triplets or lyrical sections, or playing around a rest. Musicians use these techniques to create time and space, or to hold them still. This might seem to give musicians a sense of power. But, like the recognition of beauty, even this "quiver" places us as humble humans, relegated to "stealing" time, or escaping from the harness of our self-created language.

Recognizing our humanity and thus our insignificance places us in time, and we struggle, as Orah says, to cling: to time, to beauty, and to the idea that these things will evolve and carry us with them. Who does not want to be remembered? The desire to be remembered transcends time, or rather exists because of it, its forlorn twin. Acknowledging that time waits for no man (anyone know who originally said this?) and admitting the simple fact that death will eventually kindly stop for us all (Emily Dickinson), is to recognize what it is to be human, and to acknowledge that the inexorable system we have named time will carry us into obscurity whether we like it or not. So where does "the quiver" fit in with all of this? I'd like to think it gives us a glimpse of immortality, a taste of what it might be like to merge with the infinite and lose ourselves. Or, we might use it to create a definition of "forever," where time becomes a plane with no edges visible in any direction, something we are always centered in and defined by. In any case, it is an occurrence that carries within it a complicated unfolding of what it means to be human which borders on the sacred.


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