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Jack Smith

On the scent of that most elusive of illusions--defining time, once and for all . . .

March 11, 1985|JACK SMITH

When John Barclay, author of the syndicated column "Exploring Words," asked me how I would define that elusive word time , I simply turned it over to my readers.

The harvest has been rich--from the frivolous (but not nonsensical) to the near-sublime.

"Time," writes John Lindbron of Laguna Hills, in the most cynical of definitions, "is just one damn thing after another."

And according to Leo Ochs of San Gabriel, "Time is that stuff between paydays."

Hardly more serious but no less true is this one from Jim Reed of La Mirada: "Time is what prevents everything from happening at once."

Ed Mitchell of Eagle Rock comes up with the most comic definition, and one that hangs on a pun, which he credits to Jane Ace, wife of humorist Goodman Ace: "Time is something that wounds all heels."

A man who lives for the moment is Howard Meyers, whose definition of time is this: "Time--the illusion that past and future exist, when in fact there is only the present."

Dan Brennan recalls the macabre thoughts of William Faulkner on time in "The Sound and the Fury." Quentin, at Harvard in 1910, says, "Father said man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. Father said. A gull on an invisible wire attached through space dragged."

Quentin's father also said that "clocks slay time; that time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."

Of course those are not definitions of time as much as poetic expositions of its nature; its effects.

James B. Scheel also attempts to define the word by enumerating the life it encompasses. "Time is the measure by which we are born, grow old and eventually die. It helps us chart the movements of the celestial bodies across the heavens, and measure the movements of a garden snail across a leaf. It is watching your friends come and go. It is being with your wife. It is watching things decay and rot around us, only to see new beginnings rise up out of the rubble and ashes. It is the measure by which we watch our children grow. . . . "

In that sense, time could be the name of any novel, the essence of any life. Thus, it might be defined as the medium in which life takes place. (After there is no life, will time be of any consequence? If there is no one to measure it, is there any time?)

"From your column," writes Vance Geier of Highland Park, "I gather that you prefer kairos (the fullness of time) to chronos (the fragmentation of time). So do I. Thus, instead of raising the abstract philosophical question, 'What is time?' would it not be more appropriate to address the nuclear existential question, 'What time is it?' "

Good question, Geier. But what time is it in relation to what?

Walter C. Douglas writes that he and a friend, who teaches French at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, Calif., are puzzled by a phrase " odeur du temps ," in a poem by Apollinaire, as follows:

J'ai cueilli ce brin de bruyere

L'automne est mort souviens-t'en

Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre

Odeur du temps brin de bruyere

Et souviens-toi que je t'attends .

He notes that time has some meanings in French that it doesn't have in English (e.g., weather, season), and wonders how my French connections would translate the phrase.

He translates the poem, skipping the puzzling phrase, thus:

I have plucked this sprig of heather

Autumn is dead do you remember

We'll never see each other again on Earth

(Odeur du temps) sprig of heather

And remember that I wait for you.

He adds: " ' Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre ' is, for me, one of the saddest lines I have ever read in any poem."

I would say that " odeur du temps " simply means "scent of time," meaning that the sprig of heather will always remind her of this last hour together on Earth.

It is indeed a sad poem. I can't imagine what circumstances could have brought the lovers to such a final parting. Is he to be banished or executed? Is she to be married to another?

But it shows the relationship between time and love. In love, there is either not enough time or too much--thus the anguished partings, the painful separations in romance; and the burned-out marriages.

"Time is meted out with complete equality to every living being," writes Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, my spiritual adviser, "yet each of us uses the allotted share differently, sensing even the speed of passing time differently. We say that 'time is money'; but all the money in the world cannot buy one extra second in the 24-hour day.

"The protestant theologian Paul Tillich said, 'Judaism is more related to time and history than to space and nature. Therefore it could exist when it lost its space. Judaism teaches us to sanctify time, not how to define it.'

"I do, however, have a definition of sorts for eternity . Far away in the ocean there is a mountain, a mile high. It consists entirely of diamond, the hardest substance on earth. Once every thousand years, a little bird flies to the mountain to sharpen its beak on the diamond. When the bird will have worn down the entire mountain, one single second of eternity will have ticked away."

It ticks for thee.

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