The expansion of tense.
The difficulty with this inference, however, is that, in fiction, as in life, as we experience the present, we have not yet reached the future in relation to which the present is structured, so that our anticipation of it can be no more than an imaginative projection into the unknown. In other words, the already-there-ness of the future does not seem to offer any material difference on which the experience of the quasi-present in narrative can be distinguished from the experience of the existential present in life, since the future in either case is the object of mere speculation and anticipation. It seems necessary to ask whether the notion of the anticipation of retrospection is any more the chief tool by which we make sense of narrative than it is the master trope of the strange logic of temporal experience in general.
The characterization of narrative in this argument requires some reflection on the idea of a future that is already there, waiting for us to reach it. There are two possible ways (both of which are concerned with tense) of approaching Brooks's claim that, in narrative, the future is already there. On one hand, there is the notion of verb tense, whereby the time of an utterance and the time to which it refers are encoded in the verbs of a sentence, so that the quasi-present of narrative events carry within them the future time of their utterance in relation to which those events are in the past. In the case of a retrospective narrative, the past tense of verbs will structure the quasi-present of narrative in relation to the time of narration, even if that future time is not represented in the narrative. On the other hand it can be argued that the future in a narrative is already there in the sense that there are words still to be read which are already written, and events to which they refer which are still to come, but about which we can do nothing. Brooks invokes both of these ideas of the narrative future in his discussion, asking on one hand how much we depend, for our sense of the pastness of the action presented, on verbs in the past tense, while suggesting on the other that "we read in a spirit of confidence, and also a state of dependence, that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional meanings of the already read" (23).
But it cannot be argued that the difference between narrative and life comes clearly into focus as a result of either of these conceptions of the narrative future. If, as Brooks himself has argued, past tense verbs can be decoded as a quasi-present, it follows that there can be no straightforward or precise relation between the tense of a verb and the time to which it refers, and the severing of this relationship makes it as possible to live the present in a mode of envisaged retrospect as to experience events tensed as past as a kind of present. (1) Similarly, the argument that "we read in a spirit of confidence ... that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional meanings of the already read" seems only to reproduce a more general future-orientation in lived experience that all this will look different when we look back upon it, and it becomes difficult to distinguish what remains to be read from what remains to be lived, or the already-there future of narrative from the open future of life.
On what grounds, we would also need to ask, do we distinguish the as yet unknown events that remain to be read from the untensed view of time of contemporary physics, which admits no ontological distinction between the present and the future, since the future already exists, even if we do not know it? Yet the difficulty of distinguishing is easily overwhelmed by the importance of distinguishing, ontologically, between reading and being. If we take what Heidegger calls the "ordinary" conception of time, for example, as a sequence of "nows," or the classical philosophical account of nunc movens, or the "moving now," the written narrative seems to offer a particularly inadequate model for the idea of the present, or the now. We are not, for example, ineluctably and collectively imprisoned in the now of reading, as we are in the moving now of time, because we can stop reading or skip ahead, or if we really want to, read backwards, and these are all forms of roaming in time that narrative tense structures can subject us to, at the level of the temporal reference, through the well-known variations and anachronies of plot. There are two problems here that I would like to think about together. The first is the question of whether the anticipation of retrospection can be thought of usefully as a master trope of narrative's strange logic. The second is the simultaneous difficulty and necessity of distinguishing between the temporality of reading and living.
An analytical framework for the description of this condition--the similarity and difference between narrative and time, or reading and being--is offered to us by Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative in the form of the healthy hermeneutic circle. According to Ricoeur, the relationship of narrative and temporality is undeniably circular, in the manner of all hermeneutic activity, in the sense that narrative reconfigures the experience of time in the act of representing it, and in so doing, it inflects the temporality that it represents with the shape that narrative gives to it. Thus the relationship of time and narrative is reciprocal for Ricoeur, to the extent that any understanding of time is marked already by the shape that narrative has given to it. The hermeneutic circle acts as an explanation for why it might be difficult to distinguish between the experience of time in narrative and in life, since there is between the two a kind of spiralling reconfiguration of the represented object (time) by the representation itself (narrative). If we think about Brooks's account of the anticipation of retrospection in this light it becomes possible to theorize the difficulty and the necessity of distinguishing between the already-there-ness of the future in reading and in life. If the reading of narrative involves the decoding of past tense verbs as a kind of present, the act of reading seems to be involved in the active presentification of events which are not in themselves present.
I would argue that the shape that this process projects onto events in a narrative, of being both present and structured in relation to a future, finds its correlative in the lived experience of time, in the experience of the present as if it were past or the object of a future memory. If reading involves the active presentification of events, living often involves the opposite: the active depresentification of events which take place before the eye. The circle of presentification and depresentification is therefore a specialised version of the more general hermeneutic circle of narrative and life, which makes the anticipation of retrospection a feature of both. This framework can also be understood as a tense framework that straddles the distinction between reading and being, making the past present and the present past under the common trope of the anticipation of retrospection.
Under this rubric, I would like to offer a series of arguments for the importance of tense in narrative theory, where the concept of tense is expanded to articulate the presentification of reading to the depresentification of lived temporality. The project can be thought of as an attempt to move the question of narrative temporality on from the preoccupation with the thematics of memory, and beyond the description of the temporal structures of narrative for its own sake, in which the theory of narrative and narratology have been respectively stuck, and to place the notion of anticipation at the center of an expanded notion of narrative tense, as a much needed companion for the notion of retrospection. It is not only because narrative theory has focused its energies on questions of retrospection and attended too little to those of anticipation. Narrative may be understood more naturally as retrospection than as anticipation, but it is difficult to think of it as the former without also thinking of it as the latter: if a narrative is a story we tell about the past, the present must also be a story about the past that we will tell in the future. Questions of retrospection and anticipation are in fact inseparable if we consider that we experience the present as the object of a future memory, or live the present in a mode of anticipation of the story we will tell about it.
Within this preliminary framework, I would like to offer a series of propositions about tense which aim to link the notion of verb tense with an expanded notion of tense, and therefore the temporal conditions of narrative with the lived experience of time more generally. I would like to begin from five propositions which expand the notion of tense outward from the verb towards philosophical questions about time:
(1) The concept of narrative tense must be understood at a discursive level higher than that of the form of the verb, both in terms of what philosophers call indexicals and in terms of the temporal reference of a narrative sequence as a whole.
(2) The concept of tense describes the basic relation of the time locus of the narrative act and the time locus of the events to which it refers.
(3) The foundational relation of narrative is not a relation between one moment and another, but a relation between different movements, the most significant of which are directional movements of forwards and backwards.
(4) The analysis of a relation between forwards and backwards movement in narrative has an underexplored potential to define distinctly contemporary temporal structures of the novel, particularly in relation to prolepsis, to transhistorical jumps, and to perspectives which reverse the temporal relation between a moment and its explanation.
(5) The distinction between tensed and untensed views of time, in conjunction with the healthy hermeneutic circle between narrative and time, offers a model for understanding the relationship between the already-there-ness of the future in fiction and the apparently open future in lived experience.
I offer these five propositions as suggestions for ways in which narrative theory might expand the notion of tense to bridge the divide between the surface tense of narrative verb forms and the most profound effects of narrative on the experience of time. The movement of the discussion which follows aims to do no more than sketch the expansion of tense in the direction of more philosophical approaches to narrative, and in so doing, to indicate a possible contribution that narrative theory might make to an understanding of how stories function in the world to help us conceptualize and envisage the future.
The concept of tense is a promising starting point for any consideration of narrative temporality. It seems to go straight to the relation between the time of an utterance and the time to which it refers, and therefore to the description of narrative's foundational double structure. In doing so, however, it seems to point beyond itself, beyond the notion of verb tense to a more general question of temporal reference, to complex temporal structures and even to philosophical questions about time. This is perhaps what has happened anyway to the grammatical notion of tense: that it has had to expand beyond the description of verb forms because the tense forms of verbs cannot account for the full complexities of temporal reference. The strictest grammatical approach to tense will maintain, for example, that there is no future tense in English, because there is no morphological marker, such as an ending, which carries reference to future time. The fact that there is no straightforward relationship between the tense of a verb and the time to which it refers requires us to distinguish between tense and temporal reference. (2)
Tense can therefore function as the basis for a description of narrative's foundational relation between the time of an utterance (the time locus of the narrator) and the time to which it refers (the time locus of the narrated), yet there is also a sense in which this expanded notion of tense is anti-foundational, since unanchored from the tense of verbs. The relationship between an ordinary and an expanded notion of tense is most easily demonstrated by looking closely at some narrative sentences: "We'd been in the middle of what we later came to call the 'tokens controversy'. Tommy and I discussed the tokens controversy a few years ago, and we couldn't agree when it had happened. I said we'd been ten at the time; he thought it was later, but in the end came round to agreeing with me. I'm pretty sure I got it right: we were in Junior 4-a while after that incident with Madame, but still three years before our talk by the pond" (35). This comes from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, and offers an example of the kind of complex structure of temporal reference that fiction characteristically presents. There are three verb tenses in the extract: the past perfect (We had been), the simple past (Tommy and I discussed), and the present (I am pretty sure). The past perfect refers to an event which is previous to another event in the past, so that there are three time locations involved: the present, the past, and a more distant past. The first sentence therefore refers to a time in the distant past and a less distant time in which the first time was given a name, both of which are in the past in relation to the time locus of the narrator. The relation between these two time locations is marked by the transition from the past perfect (we had been in the middle of) to the past (we came to call) and clarified by the deictic word "later." The following sentence has the same combination of elements--a verb in the past, a verb in the past perfect, and a deictic phrase "a few years ago"--but the structure of time referred to is not the same, since this sentence introduces a time location which is subsequent to the naming of the tokens controversy but still a few years before the deictic centre, the time locus of the narrator. A fourth time locus is introduced in the last sentence of the extract which, in its attempts to locate the tokens controversy in the face of dispute and memory failure, refers forwards to an event which has not yet been narrated in the sequence of the novel (though it has been alluded to in a similar fashion before), and of which we catch only a glimpse here--a talk by the pond with Tommy. The point about this fourth element is that its status as prolepsis can only be known at a higher level of discourse which depends upon the knowledge of the narrative sequence up to this point.
This passage represents something of what might be called the expanded tense structure of the novel, and contains a particular effect which might be called the proleptic past perfect: a structure which remembers remembering (and forgetting) the past and, in the process, reveals things about a future which we have not yet reached. The restricted notion of tense serves to locate the time reference of an individual verb, but not to identify the chain of temporal locations over which these sentences roam.
There are three tenses at work in the extract, but six temporal reference points: (a) the present of narration; (b) the incident with Madame; (c) the incident in the middle of the tokens controversy; (d) the talk by the pond three years after this incident; (e) a vague time period, referred to by the word "later" in which the tokens controversy was named; and (f) the time "a few years ago" when Kathy and Tommy discussed the tokens controversy. This gap between the three verb tenses and the six temporal locations to which they refer is a straightforward justification for the distinction between tense and temporal reference, or for the expansion of tense towards structures of temporal reference. The expanded notion of tense is reached partly through a consideration of deictic words and phrases, and partly through knowledge of a much larger linguistic sequence (without which we cannot identify an event as proleptic), so that the notion of tense is spread more widely across higher levels of discourse.
There are strong hermeneutic reasons for allowing the notion of tense to expand in this way. In a novel like Never Let Me Go, the proleptic past perfect acts as a kind of restriction on information that helps the story to enact the process by which a total institution brings its inmates to accept the unacceptable. It offers glimpses of a future which has not yet been fully narrated, but which, if it were to come more fully into view, might reveal too early the full horror of Kathy's situation, of the future that lies in wait. The extract above controls the unfolding of a horrific future partly through memory failure, in the form of a dispute between Tommy and Kathy about when the tokens controversy took place, or more precisely, the memory of that dispute. This idea of a recollection of forgetfulness is paired in the novel to a reciprocal temporal structure, the recollection of anticipation, in which Kathy remembers how she used to envisage the future: "After that morning I became convinced something else-perhaps something awful--lay around the corner to do with Miss Lucy, and I kept my eyes and ears open for it. But the days passed and I heard nothing. What I did not know at the time was that something pretty significant had happened only a few days after I'd seen her in Room 22" (84; emphasis original). Kathy's relation to her future here is structured as a recollection of an incorrect anticipation made in the absence of key information acquired subsequently, according to the temporality of "what I did not know at the time"
The recollection of anticipation is a kind of opposite for the temporal structure from which we began, the anticipation of retrospection, and in this opposition we see something of the reciprocity between anticipation and retrospection at work in all narrative. To recall what one did not know at the time is to recall in the light of a later event, or an outcome, or to view the past in the mode that is sometimes referred to as teleological retrospect. The mode of teleological retrospect (and I'm not convinced there can be any other kind of retrospect) seeks to explain past events in the light of later events, and therefore to confer on those events a significance that they did not possess at the time of their occurrence. For Kathy, this kind of revision of the significance of events is a feature of many of her sentences: "As I've said it wasn't until a long time afterwards--long after I'd left the cottages--that I realised just how significant our little encounter in the churchyard had been. I was upset at the time, yes. But I didn't believe it to be anything so different from other tiffs we'd had. It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that" (180). There is anticipation embedded in this recollection, of the unravelling of lives, but whereas in previous examples the prolepsis has been part of a recollection of an anticipation, in this case the memory functions in a double structure, as both a memory and an anticipation. The novel, then, constantly projects backwards to remember what Kathy did and did not know about the future.
Nobody could argue, despite the apparent density of temporal references in the extracts quoted above, that these are unusually complex temporal structures by the standards of contemporary fictional narrative. Taken as a species of prolepsis, the proleptic past perfect is almost quaint in its methods. Its excursions into the future take place in the traditional frame, as jumps forward from the time of the narrated to the time of the narrator, and cannot be considered to constitute an experiment. One question for the concept of tense then is whether it is capable, in its expanded scope, of describing temporal structures more complex or unusual than this.
Prolepsis, of course, belongs to the tense framework given to us by Genette in Narrative Discourse and takes its place as one of the anachronies of narrative order. Genette too was under no illusion that an anachrony such as the prolepsis embedded in the past perfect represented anything out of the ordinary for narrative discourse: "We will thus not be so foolish as to claim that anachrony is either a rarity or a modern invention. On the contrary, it is one of the traditional resources of literary narrative" (36). This is particularly the case in relation to the example of prolepsis in the first person narration like Kathy H's in Never Let Me Go: "The 'first person' narrative lends itself better than any other to anticipation, by the very fact of its avowedly retrospective character, which authorises the narrator to allude to the future and in particular to his present situation for these to some extent form part of his role" (67). It is difficult to disagree with the idea that flashforward is structural in the first person narrator by virtue of its avowedly retrospective character, and it would be equally difficult to argue that this kind of prolepsis could be thought of as in any way modern. I have argued elsewhere that there are grounds on which prolepsis might be thought of as a distinctly modern temporal structure in the novel, partly because it corresponds to a temporal experience outside of the novel which can be clearly linked with contemporary conditions? It may be that prolepsis in the first person narrative is nothing more than a function of retrospect, as Genette claims, but in other forms (such as third person impersonal narration) there is a kind of backward movement that it imports into a narrative, in the sense that it installs in the present a future moment from which that present is understood in retrospect, thereby joining the forward motion of time to the backward motion of explanation. Here again we see something of the scope of an expanded understanding of tense through which we might approach the most complex of our contemporary narrative structures. If the traditional conception of tense offers us the relation of two moments--the time of an utterance and the time to which it refers--this new conjunction offers us two movements, or two directions of temporal process, which can only be represented together in the larger movements of narrative. There is a potential, in other words, to expand Genette's categories, and his tense framework, into questions about the forward and backward movements which are inherent in the structures of narrative, and in the relationship of narrative to life.
The relation of forwards and backwards movement in narrative does seem to offer some promise for an account of what is distinctly modern in narrative temporality, but it also seems to point to a conception of narrative tense which departs significantly from the notion of verb tense. The forward motion of lived experience and the backward motion of explanation have always been articulated together, whether in the terms of Kierkegaard's injunction to philosophers to remember that life must be lived forwards, (4) or in Todorov's explanation of the double time of detective fiction, which proceeds forwards in order to narrate backwards. The narrative that goes backwards as it goes forwards is probably the most standard structure available, not only in fiction, but for the utility of narrative discourse as a form of explanation in general. Yet there is a contemporary preoccupation with the relation that shows itself in the order of narrative (temporal jumps, cut ups, loops, prolepses) as well as in its content (time travel, temporal confusion, time reversal, etc.). At the level of content, there is no doubt an argument that the representation of time reversal in narrative is somehow historically consequent upon Einstein's relativity, the possibility of time travel, or the actuality of travel in space. But the imagination of time reversal is enhanced considerably by the advent of technologies which allow for the running backwards of time at a formal level. (5) (We have to remember that the idea of reverse aging is as old as the hills, and certainly wasn't beyond the powers of Plato's imagination). (6) The point here is that the representation of a temporal process running in reverse is not the same thing as the representation itself running in reverse, and though film is capable of such reversal, even film itself rarely persists with it.
If we assume for a moment that words cannot run backwards, that they are as irreversible as time itself, we face a paradox. On one hand it seems that words are absolutely time-bound and dependent on the forward motion of time; on the other, it seems that they are capable of representing backwards sequences. To resolve this paradox, it is only necessary to distinguish between the sequence of words and the sequence to which they refer. In other words they can narrate backwards in the process of moving forwards, without having to resort to the sort of nonsense that we encounter when we run a sound recording backwards or reverse the direction of writing. Again it becomes necessary here to distinguish between narrative levels, since the effects of reversal are more problematic at the level of the most local sound sequences or at the level of the written word. A sentence which preserves the order of letters in words but which reverses word order is relatively intelligible, and by extension, a narrative which narrates in forward-moving blocks a backwards order of events presents few problems to its interpreter. Even film, with its potential to render in reverse the actual movement of its sequence, rarely resorts to reversal for long: most films that we think of as backward narratives, such as Memento, or as time loops, such as Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, narrate forwards in episodic blocks before proceeding to an earlier episode. If the reversal of words threatens intelligibility, and possibly strikes at the direction of time itself, the reversal of events in terms of narrative order is so familiar as to remind us of the basic conjunction of forwards and backwards movement in narrative in general. Between these poles of experiment and convention, narrative establishes its basic relation not only, as the grammatical notion of tense would have it, in the relation of the time of an utterance and the time to which it refers, but in the relation of two temporal movements or directions, forwards and backwards, which are intrinsic to the temporal form of storytelling.
Narration forwards through an episode and, at a higher level of discourse, backwards through a sequence of episodes, can be thought of as a temporal organization of the most familiar kind. Nobody would think of frame narration, for example, as an experiment in backwards temporality despite the temporal leaps entailed in the nesting of past time within the time of narration. It is more startling in the face of conventional expectation to embed the future inside the past. An easy example here is David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, which begins and ends in the journal of Adam Ewing, which recounts events in the Pacific islands in the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the frame structure of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which begins and ends on the Thames, and which embeds within it the narration of a previous journey in the Congo, Adam Ewing's narration breaks off to give way to a subsequent narration based on the adventure of Robert Forbisher in the household of a musician in Belgium in 1931. In Conrad's novella, as the narration is passed from the impersonal third person flame to Marlow on the Thames and onward to Marlow in the past, the narrative takes on a thematic interest in the idea of narrative as a regression into the dawn of civilization. Mitchell's novel moves in the opposite direction, jumping forward from 1931 to 1975, to the early twenty-first century, to an indeterminate future, and finally to some distant post-apocalyptic future after the fall of civilization, and from this center it returns through the second half of each narrative to work its way back to the nineteenth century.
There are several striking effects of this structure which embeds the distant future in a series of frames, perhaps the most obvious of which is that the logical relations of the conventional backward moving frame have to be replaced with an alternative set of relations. The idea of recollection, in which frame narratives such as Heart of Darkness or Wuthering Heights find their unifying logic, is dispensed with, and similarly the idea of the found manuscript, which operates in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or James's The Turn of the Screw, is not available in any familiar way to the forward moving frame structure. Mitchell's characters are linked by a double logic of, on one hand, a kind of reincarnation (the six characters share a birthmark in the shape of a comet), and, on the other, by a relation of reading. This second relation produces a variation on the notion of the found manuscript, since each character reads (or in the case of the most distant future, watches a hologram of) the narrative of the previous one.
In relation to the traditional frame, which works backwards towards some kind of explanation, the forward moving frame seems to destroy the project of constructing a causal sequence that explains the present, and there are two effects of this which are worth noting. The first is that the conventional relation of forwards and backwards movement in the frame structure is replaced with something that sounds anything but unusual: instead of moving forwards to the past, we move forward to the future. We might think of this, with Todorov, as a movement in keeping with the single time of the thriller as opposed to the double time of detective fiction, in which the future unfolds as the narrative progresses, or even more ordinarily than that, as the temporality of life itself, of the forward direction of time as a passage into the future. In either case, it would then have to be said that the novel's effects are the result not of the congruence of the forward motion of narrative and the idea of progress into the future, but by the cosmic scale of the leaps involved. The second is that the apparent ordinariness of the idea of moving forwards into the future has an extraordinary effect exactly by reversing the normal direction of explanation, so that, in a series of presents, the explanation of the present lies not in its past but in its future.
The experiment of Cloud Atlas is not adequately described by the direction of time itself, but comes about as a result of the transhistorical scope of its prolepses. The fact that these enormous nested excursions into the future are linked together by the idea of reading does not diminish the experiment, but it does help to relate it to more familiar questions in the temporality of narrative. Something of the same effect is produced in Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which links disparate times and places--Virginia Woolf's London, 1940s Los Angeles and New York in the late-twentieth century--through the relation of readers to literary texts. This too is a novel that makes use of the transhistorical time jump and which seems to posit the idea of an explanation which is, problematically, posterior to the present that it explains. Cunningham's novel leaps from one historical time to another in a way that is entirely predicated on a system of suggestive connections between authors, fictional characters and readers (until it reveals, as an ending, a surprise family connection between two of its main characters) in a way that points to a set of well known questions in the temporal logic of fiction. There is, after all, a familiar sense in which an explanation might be posterior to the present which it explains contained in the idea of an ending, an outcome, which renders intelligible events which make no sense at the time of their occurrence. The idea of teleological retrospect, or the process of retrospective sense-making in the light of an outcome, is at the heart of the reading process, in that we expect sense or explanation to arrive from the future when we read. The relation between a written text and the future time of its reading is also a problematic temporal structure with which the novel has always entertained itself, whenever the narrator addresses the external reader, or, like Sterne, hopelessly attempts to control the temporal process of reading itself. This impossible interaction between the time locus of the narrator and the real, external time locus of a given reader is often the purpose which underlies the dramatization of author-reader relations within the boundaries of the novel.
Interestingly, then, the use of reading relations as links, or as future explanations for present events, allows us to connect two distinct meanings of the notion of prolepsis. First there is the notion of prolepsis as an excursion into the future to narrate events out of turn, and for which the transhistorical prolepsis offers an extreme instance in terms of scale. Second there is a much older meaning of the term prolepsis, the meaning given to the term in classical rhetoric, where it refers to an act of anticipating the response of an audience--normally of an objection that might be raised to an argument of an orator--for the purposes of incorporating into the discourse an awareness or a refutation of the anticipated response. The temporal structure involved here is complicated, not least because, in written narrative, the time locus of the external reader is unknown and unknowable. But it is also complicated because it means that the anticipation of a future event--the act of reading--produces a response that is a part of the event being responded to. In the cases of Cloud Atlas and The Hours, the embedding of futures, by virtue of the fact that it is also the embedding of readers, produces both kinds of prolepsis, one which is a simple leap forwards in narrative order, and the other which produces a serf-conscious temporal loop between the act of reading and the act of writing which represents it.
I suggested earlier that the relation of forwards and backwards movement might hold some promise for a description of contemporary tendencies in narrative temporality, and also that an expanded notion of tense might be capable of describing that relation in a systematic way. Part of my argument must rest on the idea that there is something distinctly modern about the transhistorical prolepsis, and perhaps also that there is something contemporary about the preoccupation with reading through which that leap is often conducted. It is easy enough to substantiate the idea that contemporary narratives have concerned themselves with the transhistorical leap, particularly through the age of so-called historiographic metafiction, where modern narrators flaunt their temporal distance from the time of narration, or present parallel narratives which weave contemporary narrative sequences with historical ones. The historical specificity of the transhistorical leap is also substantiated by aspects of intellectual context such as the new "cultural poetics" of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, and various other new forms of historical thinking which, in the golden age of historiographic metafiction, posited a kind of textualist simultaneity, or a kind of discursive perpetual present as a model for historical understanding. It might be argued that, in the transhistorical leap, we can see the traces of an account of time received from modern theoretical physics, often referred to as the block universe, and this proposition usefully connects the first part of my argument--that there might be something modern about this kind of temporal structure in the novel--with the second part--that the notion of tense might be capable of describing such structures.
The terminology of tense has been deployed in the philosophy of time and in physics to describe two basic approaches. On one hand there is the notion of a "tensed" theory of time, according to which we human beings are stuck in an in eluctable present, and this present is the realm of existence, in that the past and the future do not exist. According to the tensed account of time, the present has special ontological properties, in the sense that the present exists, or has being, whereas the past merely used to exist and the future does not exist yet. On the other hand the untensed view of time holds that the idea of the present, or the now, is merely psychological and subjective, and that any objective view of time must view all the events in a sequence of time as equally real. The untensed view of time is essentially spatial, in the sense that it views time as a landscape, and the idea of the timescape is almost universally accepted in contemporary theoretical physics. The application of this distinction to a linguistic sequence reveals some interesting questions for the role of tense in narrative theory.
In the case of a written sentence, a tensed view would consider the experience of reading a kind of mobile present as the eyes scan across the sequence of words from left to right and downwards on the page. There is a kind of moving now conception of time at work in this approach to a sentence, since the present of our attention passes along the line or word, apparently admitting the meaning of words one by one. The untensed view, on the other hand, will regard the words of a sentence as co-present, in the manner of a landscape of words looked upon from a height.
From a semantic point of view, it is hard to see how either of these approaches can account for the meaning-generating properties of a sentence. It would be pointless to contend that meaning is admitted one word at a time in this process, since meaning is generated in a combination of words in a sequence, and equally problematic to think of the meaning of words as simultaneous in the decoding of the sequence. Like time in general, the meaning of a sentence is produced in a crossed structure of protensions and retensions, or by retaining and anticipating elements of the sentence which are not before the eye. But the problem of protension and retension only addresses the idea of sequence at one level, the linguistic chain, and has not yet begun to consider the question of temporal reference in a particular sentence. The distinction of tensed and untensed views of temporality begins to look even less tenable when the linguistic chain is taken into account together with the temporal sequence to which it refers.
Consider this six word narrative: "machine. Unexpectedly, I had invented a time-" Here we have a formal joke, in which the syntax of a sentence has been disrupted by the time-travel to which the sentence refers. There is a sense in which all six elements of this sequence must be held in the mind at the same time in order for the joke to work, but they are also absolutely sequence dependent, in the sense that the end must precede the beginning of the sentence so that its form can enact its content. In terms of order, we might say that the word "machine" is proleptic, since it occurs before its proper syntactic place as the second half of "time-machine," and therefore that some kind of time reversal takes place in the movement from the end to the beginning, Here it looks as if the linguistic chain and the time sequence to which it refers are in an unusual harmony, but the effects of tense are perhaps more aporetic than they first appear. The verb tense of the sentence is the past perfect, so that the event being referred to is being viewed in retrospect, yet the syntactic reversal of the sentence suggests that the time locus of the narrator and the time locus of the narrated must coincide if the link between time travel and syntactic reversal is to pertain. In this example, the spatial awareness of the sentence as a whole is inseparable from the sequence of time represented by that sequence, making it impossible to think of the tensed and untensed approaches to sequence as separable, either at the level of the linguistic chain or at the level of temporal reference. At novel length, neither the entirety of a linguistic sequence nor the full scope of time to which it refers can be held before the eye in quite the same way.
Nevertheless, the tensed experience of the sequence and the untensed spatiality of the novel as a whole interact in a way that is comparable with the reading of a sentence, as a moving now working its way through an objective timescape. Here the notion of tense comes up against an issue about the relation of written narrative to questions in the metaphysics of time. When a novel is read from the beginning to the end, in the right order and for the first time, the moving now will progress though its pages like the faculty of attention in a sentence. Everything to the left is in the past, already known, and everything to the right is in the future, and not yet known. The past of the narrative is fixed in a way that the future of the narrative is not, so that the untensed view of narrative as a readerly experience seems to represent the egocentric or subjective experience of time in general, in which we inhabit a present positioned between a fixed past and an open future. Again the differences between the experience of reading and the experience of living are more noticeable than the similarities. The present for a reader in a traditional first-person fictional narrative is not really the present at all but the past. It is somebody else's present related to us in the past tense. Though it seems like the present, because it is new to us, it is often tensed as the past. We are narrated to in the past tense, but experience the past tense in the present. Because it is the past tense we know that there is a future present, in relation to which the present of the narrative is past. A fictional narrative encourages us to think of the past as present no more than it encourages us to think of the present as a future past. In this sense, reading offers a particularly useful model for the interaction of a tensed and an untensed philosophy of time, as an analogy for the prescripted landscape and the movement of human experience through it, and narrative, in this light is the discourse that reconverts the untensed relations of events back into the tensed sequence of human experience.
Amis, Martin. Time's Arrow or The Nature of the Offence. London: Vintage, 2003.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative: Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.
Crystal, David. "Talking about Time." In Time. Edited by Katinka Ribberdos. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002. 105-25.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. London: Fourth Estate, 1999.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Dir. David Fincher. Paramount Pictures, 2008.
Currie, Mark. About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2007.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. Edited by W. H. Auden. New York: New York Review of Books, 1999.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. London: Sceptre, 2004.
Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Summit Entertainment, 2000.
Plato. The Sophist and the Statesman. Edited by A. E. Taylor. London: Nelson 1961,
Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 1994.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 1. Translated by Kathleen McGloughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1984.
Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Typology of Detective Fiction" In Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader.
Second edition. Edited by David Lodge and Nigel Wood. London and New York: Longman, 2000. 137-45.
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(1.) The absence of any straightforward relation between the tense of a verb and the time to which it refers is a commonplace of contemporary grammar. For an account of this argument, see Crystal.
(2.) The distinction between tense and temporal reference might seem to empty the notion of tense of all of its promise as a narratological concept, and yet, seen from another point of view, this is a situation that narratology knows well. The distinction between first and third person narrative voice also borrows its terminology from grammar, but there is no exact relation between pronoun use and narrative voice, and any analytical understanding of narrative voice is forced to locate its observations at a higher level of discourse than the pronoun itself. Debates about the nature of metaphor took the same path in the second half of the twentieth century. There is nothing on the page that you can point to, no linguistic marker, to confirm the occurrence of metaphor. Even if, as Ricoeur has argued, one can point to metaphor at the level of the word, there is always a higher level (the sentence, the discourse) at which the concept loses its easy linguistic markers.
(3.) See Currie 29-49.
(4.) "It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition that it must be lived forwards" (Kierkegaard 3).
(5.) It is notable, for example, that Amis's novel Time's Arrow is inspired by Vonnegut's backwards film in Slaughterhouse Five in which the destruction of the Second World War is transformed into an act of repair by the time reversal made possible by the reel of a film, and that David Fincher's film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins from the same desire for the undoing of war. The representation of a genuinely reversed temporality is one of the things that film can do that verbal representation cannot. Just as the skeptic might ask why alien spacecraft never crashed in the Arizona desert before the invention of flight, we might pose the question of whether backwards time is really imaginable before the advent of film. It would also be necessary to note that in the case of Benjamin Button, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the 1920s, the basic conjunction of the forward motion of narrative, which is also the forward motion of history in the twentieth century, and the backward motion of time in terms of Benjamin's biological aging process is in no way dependent on filmic time reversal.
(6.) "The life of animals first came to a standstill, and the mortal nature ceased to be or look older, and was then reversed and grew young and delicate; the white locks of the aged darkened again, and the cheeks of the bearded man became smooth, and recovered their former bloom; the bodies of youths in their prime grew softer and smaller, continually by day and night returning and becoming assimilated to the nature of a newly born child in mind as well as body; in the succeeding stage they wasted away and disappeared" (Plato 277).
Mark Currie is from Edinburgh in Scotland and currently lives in Norwich, England. He is Professor of Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he teaches and publishes on literary theory, narrative theory and contemporary fiction, and is head of the School of Literature and Creative Writing. He recently published About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time and is currently working on a book called The Unexpected, both of which explore issues of anticipation, prolepsis and the future in relation to the experience of reading, contemporary fiction and the philosophy of time. His previous publications include Postmodern Narrative Theory, Difference and Metafiction.