Layers of Time: Life, Death, Memory, January 2008
Layers of Time: Life, Death, Memory, January 2008
This is a brief version of the inaugural lecture given at the 31st annual conference of IAPL (International Association for Philosophy and Literature) titled: "Layering: Textual, Visual, Spatial and Temporal", which were held at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, 4–9 June 2007
"One autumn evening, a year ago, I received sad news. My colleague and friend had died. Just before his death, he had sent me an article for the anthology I was editing. As an editor of his article, there were still some questions that I would have liked to discuss with him – not perhaps in the manner of “editing,” but as an excuse to encounter him again. For example, in the beginning of the article he mentions Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida in the present tense: “Martin Heidegger wants to expose . . .,” “Jacques Derrida agrees partly on this . . . .” My first reaction was to suggest that perhaps we could change the present to the past tense: “Heidegger wanted,” “Derrida agreed,” etc. After all, they had written their texts years ago, and they were both already dead. However, after a while I thought that perhaps the author had good reason for this here: through their texts, Heidegger and Derrida are still speaking to us, or in us, here and now, in the present tense. We have their texts, and by their texts we are still able to somehow evoke their words, their verbal appeal to us.
Never had this obvious but still scandalous truth of writing appeared so strongly to me than when I returned to his text. I realized that I could not force myself to say “He wrote in his article,” in the past tense – for me, he was still speaking, in the present tense, in his text, still committing the act of writing within the very moment that I read his text. In fact, it would have been more natural for me to speak in future tense than in the past tense. After all, the article was still, as we say, forthcoming, on its way to publication. It was still, even though he was dead, more natural for me to say “As he will say in his article” than “as he said in his article.”
Writing (and with “writing” I refer here to all recorded cultural texts – visual arts, music recordings, as well as written texts) always takes place simultaneously in the past, in the present, and in the future. Writing is something that has always taken place; writing is something that takes place only at the moment of reading, here and now; writing is something that is always waiting for future readings, is always to come.
Works of art and other cultural texts are often seen as forming temporal layers in our cultural history. Literature, history, art, film, and other textual artifacts create, year after year, stratifications of collective memory; both as they memorialize and interpret our historical experiences and as they form an archive of their own as our “cultural canon.” From these artifacts we can construct a series of temporal layers, and from these layers we can construct a “history” of our culture as a continuous line of events and epochs that succeed one another. This process is somehow comparable to archaeology: by reading cultural texts, we can dig deeper and deeper into history, finding older and older remnants of what once was.
On the other hand, however, the figure of “layer” can be highly misleading. The figure of “layer” may lead us to believe that literature and art take place in “layers” that have a more or less homogenous existence, or that the layers which come later will necessarily hide the previous ones, consign them to oblivion, or that we could form some kind of neat chronology constituting the “history” of human experience. I don’t think we can. The obvious but scandalous truth of writing, art, and textual representation in general is that these “physical traces” break the diachrony between the past, the present, and the future. To use one of Jacques Derrida’s favorite tropes, pli (fold), temporal layers fold and refold over each other, forming a tortured “culturescape” where sometimes the “new” layers are down and the “old” ones on top, thus making all simple archeological deduction impossible. Tomorrow, I may find myself speaking with someone who has died hundreds of years ago – and finding out that his or her words are more acute and topical than anything I have found from the texts of any contemporary author. Tomorrow, I may find some contemporary text that takes me deeper in time than any “old” text ever has – although the future exists for me only through my experiences of the past. We simply do not know all the things that the past may someday reveal to us.
The event of literature, as well as the event of all reproduced art, is not a moment: it is an event that has already taken place, is taking place, and will take place as long as the text exists. Art is an event and a meta-event. When I read, Virginia Woolf is still writing in me; when I watch movies, Charlie Chaplin is still eating his shoes; when I listen to a CD, I can still hear the effort Jimi Hendrix puts into bending the metal strings of his Stratocaster; when I visit a museum, Vincent van Gogh is still carving his flaming yellow lines into the blue night of Arles."