Circles in Time

Arrival8-1-600x450by Leanne Ogasawara

Two months ago, I wrote a post in these pages called The Romance of the Red Dictionaries. It was about the possibility of romance without a shared language; that language can make things more complicated and, well, less, fun and romantic! In my case at least, things went downhill fast the more I learned my husband's language–and indeed, I always looked back on our early days of mutual incomprehension as a golden time.

While love may have declined, my experience of thinking and dreaming in Japanese allowed me to experience life through a different mindset. And that was an experience I would not trade for anything.

I was like a different person in Japanese. I certainly said thank you more often, and I believe I became more considerate and compassionate. Speaking in particular, allowed me to gain a certain kind of inner harmony, as I have always been much more agitated in English.

I also think in the spoken language, there was an element of fun to be had with verbs coming at the end of sentences. Endless jokes could be made as a person expected you to say one thing, only to be taken off guard to see the action verb was something quite different from where they thought you were going with the sentence. I felt more on my toes and tended to listen more carefully than I did in English till I found out the verbs of each sentence.

Even more than speaking, reading was a changed experience for me than reading in English having to do with time. Because many Chinese characters function like pictographs (logograms), meaning is not tied to the verbal language, so you can skim and grasp meanings without actually reading. Instead of proceeding in time from left to right sounding out what the words say in your mind, for example, you see a character and immediately know what is being conveyed. There are many types of Chinese characters, but in general the meaning in characters is not tied to sound. So that 山 means “mountain” no matter what language you speak. And when you “see” the character you can immediately grasp the meaning instantaneously.

It is this feeling of instantaneity that I want to talk about.

Many people probably already saw the film Arrival. If you haven't seen it, please don't miss it!! The short story that the film was based on is even better…. Linguists and translators will especially love it, I think, since a linguist is the hero who is given the task of trying to communicate with aliens who have come to Earth. But how to communicate with them when we don't share a language?

The alien language in the film is called Heptapod, and like Chinese, the written form is not tied to the oral language. So, in the story, in order to communicate with the aliens, the linguist decides to ignore their oral language and instead try and crack their written language first. In a sense it is like Chinese: meaning is conveyed in the structure of characters (semasiographic) rather than the pattern of phonetic, vocalized sounds (glottographic). Taking it further, if I am getting this right, Heptapod logograms can convey the meaning of entire sentences.

It is fascinating to figure out how Heptapod works; for as in my own experience learning Japanese, the alien language transforms the hero's inner world. Sapir and Whorf proposed that the structure of language shapes how we see and understand the world. In the movie, as the hero becomes fluent in the language, which conveys all the semantic pieces of the sentence instantaneously, she experiences a great shift in how she understands time; so that the future is already present in the present moment. The short story describes this better than the movie, but the idea is if you always receive meaning in an instant (instantaneously) instead of experiencing it in time (reading from the start of a sentence to its end), you come to perceive the future and present bound in a single instant.

Interestingly, Ted Chiang was inspired to write this story by Fermat's Principle of least time in optics. As luck would have it, my husband was teaching this very concept to his undergraduate class at Caltech right when the movie came out, so I attended (but was told I was not allowed to ask questions until I learn Calculus). In a nutshell, if you know the start point and the end point of a ray of light, you will discover that it always travels on the path of least time. It is so fundamental as to stand in for the definition of a ray of light. But to work on the equations and think about the principle, you find yourself in a strange world where the future is already present in some sense. It almost forces you to describe light as somehow “knowing” where it was going in the first place–because by knowing where it ended, there is no other possible path it could have taken.

This is akin to Augustine's notion of time. In his Confessions, Augustine spoke of time as a wheel. God is situated at the center in a higher non-temporal state of eternity. Human temporality, the edge of the wheel, is derived from this state of eternity. As we are on the edges of the wheel we cannot perceive the unity of God time (an eternal now). Both Augustine and Chiang preserve free will similarly by making using of the performative nature of our actions, so that even if there is no real freedom of action, there is still freedom of will.


After I finally returned home from Japan, I found myself growing increasingly resistant to the notion of what Heidegger called “vulgar time”–which is really clock time. I felt our secular notion of time was flat, linear, and mundane. I missed the festivals in Japan and the cyclical, seasonal shared practices of the ancient Chinese and Japanese calendar. This modern model of time probably originated in Aristotle's Physics. In what is basically “clock time,” time is seen as uniform and discrete “now-points.” It is homogeneous and transitive, with the past as no-longer-now and the future as something which unfolds from the present moment. So pervasive has this notion of time become that it almost sounds silly trying to describe it here. But I think it bears remembering that this is not the only notion of time available to us.

Philosopher Charles Taylor (who just was awarded a million dollar prize) unpacks the notion of modern clock time better than anyone. In A Secular Age, he sees the re-imagining of both time and space to be the foundation for our modern age, including the notion of the nation-state. His theory is based on Benedict Anderson's classic work, Imagined Communities.

Here is Anderson:

A re-imagining of time is part of what makes possible the re-imagining of space divided into nations. Medieval Christians might have imagined themselves to be near the end of time, imagine Christendom as similar to self, not much concept of linear cause/effect history or the past as separate from the present. Think of the similarity between two causally unconnected and temporally removed events: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and God's sacrifice of Jesus. It's like the dreamtime. “It is simultaneously something which has always been, and will be fulfilled in the future;” – eternal, omnitemporal. In contrast, we've achieved this notion of 'homogenous, empty time” in which simultaneity at distance is possible. Think of how novels do simultaneity (“meanwhile…” we are an omniscient observer to the limited actors in the story), and how that could have popularized that sort of thinking. The newspaper also achieves this, events in distance places tied together only by the fact that they all happened on this day. We consume it privately, aware that many others are doing the same.

Taylor, as a practicing Catholic, is sensitive to this idea of sacred time as something which “gathers and re-organizes” events. In the most memorable part of his work he describes the way that, for example, Good Friday 2015 is “closer in time” to the Crucifixion of the Christ 2000 years ago than it is to April 4, 2015. Taylor calls this the “simultaneity of sacrifice and the Crucifixion”–something that is reminiscent to Einstein's notions of simultaneity and relativity.

MasaccioI have written before about my obsession with Renaissance donor portraits. I love the way time is conflated and made sacred in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, Mary and the baby were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, forming a link between two worlds, a kind of sacred time with an eternal return.

Time, in the movie–as in a donor painting– no longer moves forward but goes around in circles so that the future is always present and pregnant in the now moment.

Nietzsche, of course, found this to be the most oppressive idea in the world. Like the Multiverse, it is incredibly tedious to imagine that across infinite time and infinite space, all things are recurring. even though he found it paralyzing as an expression of ultimate nihilism, it led him after all to embrace our life. For in the face of this never-ending recurring, he says,

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

Ultimately in our search for meaning, we want to know, or at least guess, the story in which we find ourselves, what came before, what will follow. We can never know, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to get a glimpse, for an instant, of all of it? Maybe we would find an elegant simplicity to the paths we follow. That we would follow again and again and again, in love with our fate.


Stephen Worlfram: Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?

Tasneem Zehra Husain @ 3Quarks: The Shifting Consolations of Time