Walking Backwards Through Time
We walk backwards through life, only seeing where we have been, not where we are going. From a physicist’s perspective, it is not clear why this is true. If we accept time as the fourth dimension and state that the universe is a four-dimensional object, why does our consciousness seem to move only in one direction along only one of four possible axes, yet we are only able to see in the direction opposite to our movement? This is not the only possibility imaginable. Many claim, for instance, that God is omnipresent in time as well as space, existing in all epochs at once, in other words he is outside of the illusion of time.
History is an Angel Blown Backward Through Time
The statement, “History is an angel blown backward through time” is Walter Benjamin’s ninth thesis from the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (257) (thanks, Mark for first drawing my attention to this), which plays with the same idea of moving backwards through time in terms of historical consciousness, but with a much more pessimistic view:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Merlin Lives From Future to Past
In “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White, Merlin lives his life opposite to us, seeing the future but not the past. White does not try to represent what this might be like for him, but we can imagine him (details not necessarily from White’s version) trapped in a tree for eons without knowing why or even recognizing that there was any other mode of existence, although he is aware of bird song and knocks to the tree as it slowly shrinks. He is suddenly released (rather than entrapped) by Nimue, his young and traitorous lover and they moves backward through their relationship, which gradually improves to the blissful moment when they first met. Unlike us, however, Merlin can learn where he is headed, because he can read history books and learn from others about his origins. Arthur comes back to life, the king is reunited with his wife, she becomes faithful to him, they fall in love, part (not acrimoniously but with the sweetest moments last) and Arthur becomes Merlin’s student. Life is a sad story only because it is told in the opposite direction.
Narrative time is flexible because it is up to the writer how it is handled, as I demonstrated above with Merlin’s story. In the movie Momento, the story is told backwards through short (forward-moving) pieces. The main character has no short-term memory, so he can only remember what he has written on his body, very metafictional because it challenges the convention of a story told chronologically and because of the reliance on text on his body to make sense of events. Even though it is a movie, it was still a written text before it was a spoken one.
In Tristram Shandy, when the narrator is telling a story of Tristram’s father and Uncle Toby going down the stairs, he takes many, many chapters. The characters say something then freeze with their feet above the second stair as Tristram explains some reference or pursues an association.
In other cases, the narrative clock keeps ticking, as when Tristram, as our narrator, sends a reader (“Madam”) away to reread the previous chapter to see if she can spot a reference she missed (as did all other readers). Readers can actually stop reading and go look for it, in which case narrative time again freezes, or they can keep reading as I did and follow the narrator through his various discussions until Madam returns, none the wiser. (The reference was very obscure; the belief that a baby can be baptized while still in the womb if in danger of death implies that a character is Catholic.)
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoecken, 1969. 253-264.