The first panel that I attended on Saturday morning was titled, “When Time is Out of Joint: Alternative Times in Fantasy,” and moderated by Elizabeth Whittingham. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation between the panelists during this session. The discussion went vibrantly back and forth between panelists Brian Attebery, Aidan-Paul (A.P.) Canavan, John Clute, Guy Gavriel Kay, Maria Nikolajeva, and W.A. Senior. Below is a summary of my notes on the panel exchanges.
Brian Attebery talked about, “the power of magical narrative to map different kinds of time on others.” He outlined a number of these other kinds of time, of which “each is a universe of time, a chronotope.”
Guy Gavriel Kay approached the topic from what he termed a utilitarian perspective of the author who uses time as one of many tools in the authorial toolbox for providing narrative solutions. This raises the question–is the novelist avoiding the problem of explaining where did a character go from their normal or mundane place and time?
Maria Nikolajeva brought Fred Hoyle’s October the First is Too Late (1966) into the conversation, because the central musician and scientist characters, both friends, are presented with the same temporal choice, but each chooses to do something completely different with that temporal choice.
John Clute problematized the conversation by reminding us that humans have difficulty imagining what time really is, and as a result, we haphazardly play with representations of time. He went on to talk about the centrality of anxiety to our human understanding of time. He said that SF is “time as anxiety toward the future,” horror is “anxiety toward something that may come true,” and fantasy is “time of the narrative would be rediscovered.”
W. A. Senior brought the conversation back to what Guy Gavriel Kay said about the toolbox, or what Senior thinks of as the common library. He mapped time into three elements: 1) time as plot and plot device, 2) time as restorative (time out before the next stage of a character’s journey), and 3) fantasy is the restoration and the discovery of truth, or the place “outside of time,” allows for restoration of the world (e.g., the first Narnia book).
A.P., following after everyone else, interestingly used select quotes to frame the narrative uses of time that Brian initially alluded to. He began by reading from a fortune cookie, “The best prophet of the future is the past.” Others included, “his face was ravaged by time” (time as process, body as record), “how long will this panel last,” and “how long is this guy’s paper going to run on?” He then segued into the core idea from his previous presentation that there is a conflict between irrational fantasyland time and rational time of the here-and-now.
John Clute followed A.P.’s statement by commenting that it is an ethnocentric version of time that A.P. terms rational time. Additionally, the lack of change in fantasy stories in David Edding’s The Belgariad has some historical grounding in paleolithic cave paintings that reveal little change terms of a magnitude of thousands of years. Also, there are those who deliberately refuse the history of the 20th century (e.g., Holocaust deniers).
Guy Gavriel Kay then engaged Clute’s formulation of time with anxiety by saying that we try to alleviate anxiety by exerting control. So, fantasy writing is the exertion of control over time/anxiety. Fantasy writing tries to ameliorate or assuage that anxiety in fantasy writing. Also, the mythic world may intrude on the rational world (e.g., Grendel in Beowulf), which reverses the assumed function of fantasy to push back against time anxiety. Another example of this is the loss of the mythic (e.g., the elves leave humanity in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), which may generate anxiety.
Brian then added that the reader has control over what he or she reads. He went on to say that the act of reading causes a confrontation between the time we are living and the time we encounter in texts.
John Clute brought things back around by offering that the fantastic has the potential to create solace or some kind of truth.
Guy Gavriel Kay shifted to the idea of temporality of the book artifact by commenting on what he called “the hunger for the classic.” Book covers (and other artifacts) are often labeled as “an instant classic.” However, something must have been around awhile to be truly considered classic, and as he said, “fame doesn’t work that fast except on Twitter.”
John Clute commented on the intensification of narratives that have moved away from the either/or moral or truth formulation into a spectrum. He finds this shift to have led to crisis in the fantastic.
W.A. Senior, returning to the idea of other media, said that time is a very significant reason why book to film translations have problems. The flow and representation of time in books versus movies is not directly correlated.
A.P. got into the fray returning to the idea of book covers by talking about the datedness of covers while the text within the story may not be so dating.
Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned that at a recent Harvard conference there was a session on “How to Grab Your Reader at ‘Hello.’” He takes issue with this, because he feels that you need to engage in world building initially in order to fully develop the narrative to come (e.g., Tolkien’s first 125 pages in The Lord of the Rings). He identifies a tension in culture between the instant now and “fantasy’s benign congress.”
Brian rejoined the commentary by asking can realistic literature really allow a reader to feel the sacred-private time (which Maria mentioned earlier). Brian gave the anecdote of his Friday routine–office-bound and computer-based work until he leaves for the Music Building where he teaches cello lessons and enters his own sacred-private time. He doesn’t believe that the affect of that time is translatable into text beyond mere observation–removing the context strips the affective experience. Also, he said that he thinks of books as musical scores–each time you read something it is new.
A.P. asked the panel about their thoughts on whether different cultures perceive the passage of time differently or the same way? Do older cultures that live in their own history (he mentioned globs of history strewn all about in Ireland and England) perceive it differently than say Americans? I would add to this how does time figure into the postcolonial experience?
Maria Nikolajeva stated emphatically that time is cultural.
From the audience, Elizabeth Hoiem asked the panel about the relationship of time and memory. What can we make of the phrase, “the United States of Amnesia?” She went on to describe David Hume’s grappling with the understanding of time and presence through the act of writing a letter and receiving a response. How do we know that the letter received really came from who we believe it came from? How do we make sense of the deferment of time in letter conversations?
John Clute, taking up the term ‘amnesia,’ said that memory enables our stories, but that we inhabit an irony of sorts, because those things are divested of malice. Furthermore, he refered to earlier work of his in which he uses the cenotaph as an emblem for describing the way in which the world is a series of monuments.
Closing quote: John Clute stated that, “we have to cheat to understand anything.”