Time in the Body

Understanding memory

Melissa Miles McCarter
Aug 4 · 6 min read
geralt on Pixabay

“Spatial temporal relations, determination, are not predicates of the thing but dimensions of multiplicities.”

“A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only lines. It is a rhizome.”

— A Thousand Plateaus, (263)

What if memory resided only in the body and you only had knowledge of the past when your body reenacts/participates in the movements of that past?

For example, you go to a door you have never been to, or at least don’t remember, automatically pull out the correct key, which you have never seen or used, and open the door to an apartment you have never stepped foot in. Yet, despite this lack of prior knowledge, your body knows.

This act involves no anticipation, preoccupation, or premeditation — it is simply acting via the body, in the moment, finding oneself there, without understanding why, or even how. There would be no resistance, no attempt to understand one’s relation to time or speed, but an acceptance of the action you are now participating in. It would challenge the notion that memory is essential for action, that agency presides movement.

The belief that memory is essential for action is shattered by such fiction writers as Martin Amis, Milan Kundera and Alan Lightman. We can also see the (dys)function of memory in the film Memento. Each fictional work, book or film, plays with time and memory such that the necessary relationship between the mind and movement becomes suspect. Three books in particular, Time’s Arrow by Amis, Slowness by Kundera, Einstein’s Dreams by Lightman, and the movie Memento raise the question of:

What is the body’s relationship to time?

Time’s Arrow and Memento

Martin Amis begins Time’s Arrow with the death and subsequent birth of the narrator, and then traces his life backwards so that each day at dawn the dates on the paper go from October 11 to October 10 to October 9. Amis challenges Nobokov’s claim that,

“Nobody can imagine in physical terms the act of reversing the order of time. Time is not reversible.”

The process of reading also challenges a faciality by forcing us to read the narrative “backwards,” where effect is cause-and-cause-effect.

We can see this reversal in time used as a device in the film Memento, where the main character has a short-term memory disorder where he can not form new memories. Similar to the backwards storytelling process of Time’s Arrow, this use of time traps us in the narrative, preventing us from having any new knowledge of what will happen.

In Memento, the protagonist can remember everything perfectly before a traumatic encounter — who he is, where he’s from, what his married life was like — but everything further that has happened to him begins to fade after about fifteen minutes, and so he must rely on Polaroids and handwritten notes for reminders as he searches for his wife’s killer. He has tattooed on his body a passage written backwards on his chest so that he can read it when he looks in the mirror each morning: “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

While reading Time’s Arrow, we are put in the same position as the main character in this film — we only discover what came before through cues in the environment.

This novel by Amis reflects the notion that to remember is to be dependent on the body’s relationship to the environment. Even reversing time creates a sort of detective story where the body knows before we do. We act through cause and effect, but our relationship to time is more tenuous. Just like haeeciety does for Deleuze & Guattari, this novel and the film Memento reflect the way that,

“It is not the same time, the same temporality.”

The measuring of time, whether forward or backwards, is our method of making sense of memory through chronological assumptions. Even this mapping challenges a linear notion of becoming, supporting the idea that becoming is anti-memory.

Einstein’s Dreams

Lightman, in the novel Einstein’s Dreams, chronicles the dreams the scientist might have had in the months leading up to Einstein’s theory of relativity becoming public. One dream is of people who live at the center of time, where time moves neither backwards nor forwards, but stands still or almost still. This is the place where mothers go with their children, so that they won’t grow old and leave them, and where lovers go to find eternal love, forever caught up in an embrace. In this dream,

“Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. . . . Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their legs cocked as if held by strings. . . . As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly.”

Then there is the dream in which time flows like water,

“occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make a connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves suddenly carried to the past.”

Throughout each dream, the different relationship to time affects the space people live in, and in turn they chose the space and time that most reflect their deepest desires. However, in these dreams people are not constrained to a particular approach to time. The free flowing element of time is layered in the formation of “strata”; the becoming in these dreams is not punctuated by our normal interaction with time and space. These worlds sit side by side, like Leibniz’s compossible worlds. The black hole which borders these worlds, which makes the passage from one world to another possible, is then only accessible through our dreams.

Slowness

In Slowness, Kundera crosses over various time periods to consider the role that slowness and movement have in our lives. One of the characters, Madame de T.,

“possesses the wisdom of slowness and deploys the whole range of techniques for slowing things down.”

According to Kundera, the degrees of speed are directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. In turn, “imposing form on a period time” is what memory demands. Just like the nomad, Kundera posits a body that knows how to wait, who knows infinite patience.

Kundera is concerned with our attempt to eliminate memory through speed. However, the becoming that Deleuze and Guattari suggest cannot be attained simply through slowing down — there must be a proper relationship to movement. The forgetting that Kundera attacks is not anti-memory — there is a clear relationship between stillness and the capacity for authentic experience in the body in this novel.

Time and the Body

However, all of these attempts to characterize time and space only suggest a different way of looking at memories and their relationships to the body. Each memory can only show a partial representation of time and space because of our love/hate relationship to memory. As Kundera points out, our modern culture wants to go faster in order to induce forgetting, however the memory that is necessary in the body, that can result from slowness, must not be of the nostalgic sort, which rewrites what actually happened before.

Within the film Memento and the novel Time’s Arrow, we can break out of our normal relationship to memory through reversing time. But just as the forgetting character in Memento must write on his body in order to know the world, our own memories become written within our own bodies.

This writing of the body goes back to the question I started out with — what is the relationship of time to the body?

Through an excess of memory, we can slow the body down so that no action is taken — according to Kundera — but there is another possibility. Memory can reside in the body so that speed can have a proper relationship to movement. The question then becomes not why do I move, or act, but how? Finding ourselves in an odd relationship to time, as the characters in the fictional worlds I discussed do, would not be a limitation to action, but an opportunity for new ways of becoming.

Fat Daddy’s Farm

where uncommon voices grow

Melissa Miles McCarter

Written by

I live in a rural Civil War era home under constant renovation with my husband, stepson and daughter. Read more at https://medium.com/melissa-miles-mccarter

Fat Daddy’s Farm

where uncommon voices grow

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