Winged Chariot

  Jerome Shea       January 27, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Ok, so last week I left you with a teaser about chronos and kairos, the two faces of time. Well, I should know better: I would be very severe with a student who proposed a five hundred word essay on “time” (“Sure that’s big enough for five hundred words, Sparky?”). The topic has turned into a writhing kudzu and just escaping with my life will be the best I deserve. This week chronos, then; next week, or some week, kairos. If I find the time.

Chronos. Chronic, chronicle, chronology, chronaxy, chronometer—the cognates march on as does chronos itself. Like kairos, the Greeks had the word for it, though they seemed to have preferred “k” over “c”—khronos in the dictionary transliteration. This is clock time, the length of time, the duration of time as in MacBeth’s haunted lament: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time.” I was about to say that of the two faces of time chronos is the simpler, the more straightforward. That may be so but anyone who has wrestled with Einstein’s theories or Stephen Hawking’s glosses on them knows that it is only a relative simplicity.

Time can be a real headache. I know all about time’s arrow, what happens if your twin brother goes off in a spaceship near the speed of light and returns years later, the demonstration about the guy on the train and the guy on the platform, the fact that time and space are in effect interchangeable. I know that stuff, but that does not mean I understand it. I know that when I turn this Mac on certain marvelous things happen. But how they happen is light years beyond my ken. And as to more outre time explorers like J.W. Dunne (An Experiment With Time)…well, we’ll just save that for another time, shall we? In this maelstrom one could wind up, in the words of Yogi Berra, experiencing déjà vu all over again.

The word itself is said to derive from Chronos, the Greek god of time, also called Aeon (yes, “eon” [“aeon”] is surely a derivative; but to confuse time with eternity really lets the cats loose). Things get further confused when “Cronos” is dragged into it. He was that charming Titan who covered his flanks by demanding that his consort, Rhea, surrender their children at birth so that he could eat them (Goya has a wonderfully gory depiction of this somewhere). The identity between Chronos and Cronos is likely bogus, based solely on the similarity of their names. Still, the fact that time does devour all of us children is beguiling and probably made the connection all the more attractive.

Crack open your Bartlett’s and you will see how time has enthralled the great and near-great writers. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” warns Thoreau, and then he evokes its most common metaphor: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” Poor MacBeth, again, was caught “upon this bank and shoal of time.” Even Isaac Watt (1674-1748) dips his oar into “Time [that] ever-rolling stream.” Longfellow was loath to get his feet wet, but he did give us “footprints on the sand of time.” And time, said someone, “is eternity living dangerously.” We are as immersed in time as is a fish in water and that makes us, most of the time, and ironically, oblivious to it.

But it saturates our speech as it saturates our existence. We spend time, buy time, make time, lose time, gain time, find the time, pass the time. Perhaps most egregiously, we kill time (see above, HDT). What should we get for killing time? Well, hard time, I should hope. We live on borrowed time, some of us. What’s the vig on borrowed time, I wonder. If you welsh on the deal does some big beetle-browed guy named Chrono pay you a debilitating visit?

And—sorry to break this to you—there is really no such thing as “time-out.” Except the final one, that leap into eternity or oblivion.

Time’s up. See you next time.

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