Nearly all of Monet's renderings of the Houses of Parliament and the Chafing Cross Bridge include the shadowy outline of the Westminster clock tower. Erected after the Houses of Parliament were seriously damaged by fire in 1834, the structure was finally completed in 1859 and has come to be known by the name of the enormous bell in its belfry. By 1899 Big Ben had become one of the most famous clocks in the world, but Monet deliberately refuses to record its most operational features. His paintings depict neither hands nor numbers nor the iconic glowing face--one sees only the muted shape of the tower, if that. And therefore, despite Big Ben's persistent presence through the painter's representations of his long days in London, he obscures all record of standardized time in his series.
Yet, Monet hardly leaves time out of the picture. These paintings tell the time of atmosphere and mood, of general scope rather than numerical account. Although there is no record of "railroad time" (the precise synchronized value of hour and minute), several of the Chafing Cross Bridge paintings include a soft purple trail of smoke in the wake of an engine making its crossing. Various others of the series include the soft outlines of boats in the fiver below. The configurations of passing waves and trailing steam are explicitly ephemeral, anchored to a moment--a few moments, perhaps--destined to pass away. (One might also argue that the tremulous atmosphere of the paintings record Big Ben's sound, a resonant roiling echo rather than a precise figure of time.)
London's variations of mist, smoke, and urban residue kept Monet active, though at times frustrated, his work suspended in a state of perpetual incompletion. One letter to his wife Alice records Monet's paradigmatic method of painting: "I've never seen such changeable conditions and I had over 15 canvases under way, going from one to the other and back again, and it was never quite right" (19 March 1900, noon; Monet 191). The previous evening, he had written her:
each morning I get carded away like this until the weather makes things too difficult for me.... The only shortage I have is of canvases, since it's the only way to achieve something, get a picture going for every kind of weather, every colour harmony, it's the only way; in the beginning you always think you'll find an effect again and finish it: hence those unfortunate transformations which get me nowhere. I'm not lacking for enthusiasm as you can see, given that I have something like 65 canvases covered with paint and I'll be needing more since the place is quite out of the ordinary; so I'm going to order some more canvases. (18 March 1900, 5 p.m.; 189) (1)
I realize that my fascination with Monet's painterly methodology may seem out of place here, not so much perhaps in a special issue on Temporalities as in a journal explicitly entitled Narrative. Consider, however, that in honing in (or out) on the subtle qualities of light and color, and allowing haze, smoke, and mist to override the hands and even the face of the most famous clock in the world, Monet was striving to achieve a new way of telling time, to conceive a tale that recorded the machinations of reverie more than the precision of synchronized time that (also) marks modernity. "I can't begin to describe a day as wonderful as this," he wrote in February 1901. "One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad" (191). Like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, which inspired Gfrard Genette's highly influential study of narrative discourse, including treatments of time, Monet drifts among a series of ephemeral moments: temporal perception is as much the star of these paintings as any particular figure.
Genette's extended study of Proust appeared in English in 1980 as Narrative Discourse (from the 1972 "Discours du recit") and has remained a foundational text. (2) As one of the first works of criticism to provide a vocabulary for theorizing the mechanics of time in narrative, Narrative Discourse still garners citations for the delicacy and finesse with which Genette outlines such seemingly basic issues as "Order," "Duration" and "Frequency" (the first three chapters). Moving among the flywheels of sentences and the much larger components of plot and interruption, Genette offers a method and a language for articulating the differences between, say, simple analepsis and subtler forms of recollection and memorialization.
Given the topic of this issue, I am particularly interested in Genette's evaluation of time in narrative, even as I realize that later narratologists have sought to correct his evaluation of space: "I can very well tell a story without specifying the place where it happens, and whether this place is more or less distant from the place where I am telling it; nevertheless, it is almost impossible for me not to locate the story in time with respect to my narrating act, since I must necessarily tell the story in a present, past, or future tense. This is perhaps why the temporal determinations of the narrating instance are manifestly more important than its spatial determinations" (215). For Genette, the metaphorical time-stamp is a basic component of literary structure and intelligibility. But more importantly, perhaps especially in the case of Proust, the complexity and sensitivity with which a literary work (and I would say aesthetic work, more generally) structures temporal relationships provide it a unique and unusual potential to remain relevant and engaging across time--to endure.
Literary and cultural critics have honored a range of enduring forms, attending more or less consistently to figurations of time, although the focus of scholarly attention has certainly fluctuated. As theoretical approaches have come to accommodate structuralism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, feminist theory, deconstruction, new historicism, cultural studies, queer theory, and an array of other significant approaches, narratologists have aligned textual and temporal relationships into a nearly-kaleidoscopic set of curves and angles, new grammars of order)
It may be my own disciplinary bias that leads me to privilege the "transhistorical imperative" with which Fredric Jameson opens The Political Unconscious: "Always historicize!" is a particularly resonant marker for critical scholarship on time (9). If the structuralist bent of early studies in narrative temporality now seems the stuff of critical history, this is in part because of structuralism's general disinterest (especially in contrast to scholars of the past two decades) in history proper. As the impact of historicism has changed the shapes of disciplinary fields, however, it has changed the perspectives scholars have taken in their approaches to time, leading to an increasingly attentive focus on the material traces of temporal conditions in cultural artifacts. Although some of this work reads actual clocks, timepieces, telegraphs, and other modern means of synchronization, the essays that follow take up "history" through the less tangible materials of grammar, of genre, of mood, and of story.
An example: Genette's remarks, above, that "the temporal determinations of the narrating instance are manifestly more important than its spatial determinations," belie how difficult it is to conceive of time without at least the metaphor of space. Consider, then, how emerging nineteenth-century sciences precipitated a radical reconfiguration of the basic two-dimensional timeline. Although it is tempting to point simply to Darwin, the evolutionary biology in The Origin of Species (unveiled the same year as Big Ben) was only one among many nineteenth-century natural sciences that, together, radically altered the conception and figuration of time. Astronomy, paleontology, and most notably geology were already transforming the temporal landscape well before Darwin finally released his work on evolution in 1859. As Paul Ricoeur writes in the third volume of Time and Narrative, these new branches of science effected "not only a progressive extension of the scale of time beyond the barrier of six thousand years, assigned by a petrified Judeo-Christian tradition ... but also an increasing differentiation of the temporal properties characteristic of each of the regions of nature open to an ever more stratified natural history" (89). No longer a flat, linear backdrop against which human beings played out their lives, time became multiple and mobile. Each discipline had an array of temporalities that moved at different speeds against and across one another. Time no longer offered a single, solid ground against which to measure the events of human history. It took on depth, becoming ever more plural, fluid, and uneven. (4) The profound repercussions of these new "shapes" of time appear in the aesthetic grammars of the narratives that emerged in their wake. The essays in this collection attend to such shapes.
This issue began with a set of panels at the 2008 Narrative conference and, before that, with a series of conversations at the Dickens Universe in the summer of 2007. An annual week-long seminar hosted by the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Dickens Universe has long been an amazing intellectual experience--and it has become more so in recent years. In 2007, Helena Michie and Molly Clark Hillard took on the daunting task of assembling affiliated faculty into research clusters. "Temporalities" was one of the largest groups, bringing together a diverse array of Victorianists. Despite--or perhaps because of--our widely disparate approaches and investments, we quickly found inspiring connections among our work.
The task of organizing two panels for the Narrative conference in Austin (Temporalities I and, mysteriously, Temporalities III) proved deeply rewarding in both expected and unexpected ways. Helena Michie, Rae Greiner, Gretchen Woertendyke, Andrew Miller, Molly Clark Hillard, and I presented a series of talks on both "smaller" and "larger" temporal concerns; our papers worked with both literal and metaphorical grammars, zooming in to the level of the sentence, zooming out to look at generic, thematic, and formal structures. Out of the Austin conference emerged the generous invitation to serve as guest editor for this special issue; I am deeply grateful to Robyn Warhol, who suggested the idea, and to Jim Phelan, who extended the invitation and has been so very patient and helpful throughout the process.
This issue contains work from all but one of the panelists at the Austin conference. (5) Wai Chee Dimock, Mark Currie, and Elana Gomel add their voices here, expanding the scope of the collection. Bringing narrative temporalities into conjunction with historiography and counterfactuals; with genre and grammar; with affect and duration; with mobility and stasis, the pieces that follow contribute to an ongoing conversation about the significance of time in narrative and of our own engagements with it. Perhaps most impressively, together they paint a range of new reading possibilities with a span that is both surprising and refreshing.
The first three essays offer three radically different perspectives on history. Wai Chee Dimock's beautiful, experimental meditation on Henry James, counterfactuals, and the traumas of war contemplates what literary works can do when their temporal seams split. In "Subjective Time: Henry James's Possible Wars," Dimock lays out the potential of a subjunctive criticism, finding her way to a plane on which critics, like novelists and poets, might interrogate disorderly histories, lines of influence and conversation untethered from linear timelines. Gretchen Woertendyke's "Romance to Novel: A Secret History" also presses back against standard teleological lines, using the arcs of trade routes and power relations to reimagine the shape of the early republican novel. Drawing upon Leonora Sansay's resurrection of a (supposedly extinct) genre, the "secret history" Woertendyke revivifies a lost form; her analysis of Sansay's displacement and strategic deployment of the "secret history" establishes a crucial Caribbean lineage for the early republican novel, and hence revises the "birth-narrative" of American literature.
Helena Michie's "Victorian(ist) 'Whiles' and the Tenses of Historicism" provides the hinge into a cluster of essays on Victorian (and Victorianist) temporalities. Anchored in specific historical moments and literary texts, Michie's, Greiner's, and Hillard's pieces nonetheless offer portable theoretical paradigms. Michie's elegant, compelling work demonstrates the flexibility of these readings; her analysis of historicizing sentences cracks open the grammars of historical novels and historicist criticism, noting the complex, multivalent work of the "whiles" that strive to locate characters, readers, and novels, in simultaneous time and in space. In "Sympathy Time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the Realist Novel," Rae Greiner also takes up the issue of simultaneity, not to unsettle the ease of histories, but rather to analyze the grammars of sympathy. Arguing that, in order to be effective, sympathy requires active, repetitive engagement on the part of its audience, Greiner's innovative essay demonstrates that uncertainty and suspension, rather than omniscience, are crucial tools for the narrator who would create a productive affective simultaneity between reader and character. The "time" of sympathy, she argues, is necessarily unsustainable, ironically requiring omniscience (and its narrative extension, free indirect discourse) to fail.
In "'A Perfect form in Perfect Rest': Spellbinding Narratives and Tennyson's 'Day Dream'," Molly Clark Hillard analyzes the time-bound uses of a strangely timeless genre, the fairy tale. Through an extended reading of the Sleeping Beauty myth, with particularly attention to its role in Tennyson's "The Day Dream," Hillard elucidates how the return to an old story allows an author, a culture, a reader, to meditate upon temporal boundaries and anxieties about progress. Beauty's suspension in a sleep that precludes her capacity to act and to create describes mid-Victorian cultural anxieties about stasis and determination. As Elana Gomel notes, such anxieties only become more powerful as debates about evolutionary thought take on flesh, so to speak. In "Shapes of the Past and the Future: Darwin and the Narratology of Time Travel," Gomel turns to a more modern tale of time travel, H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. For Gomel, "treating time 'as a kind of space'" provides authors and audiences the opportunity to experiment with issues of agency, to consider the ethical implications of timelines that may or may not be flexible, of futures that may or may not be fixed.
It seemed right to give Mark Currie the last word in this issue, and not only because his essay poses big questions about big categories. In "The Expansion of Tense," Currie juxtaposes the "presentization" of reading and the "de-presentization" of living, tracing a persistent loop between anticipation and retrospect. Appropriate then, that his essay brings the collection full circle, back to the relationship between factual and fictional histories, between pasts, futures, and an ever-mobile present, between reading and living. Currie's attention to the tenses of contemporary literature opens a field of inquiry that, fittingly for a closing essay of this volume, leads into the future.
Many, many thanks to Robyn Warhol and Jim Phelan for their wise counsel and many kindnesses. My gratitude also to John Jordan, to the fine scholars who so generously served as outside readers (you know who you are--and you look fabulous!), to Matthew Bolton and to my colleagues here at the University of South Carolina. Finally, I want to express my thanks to the authors for their terrific essays. It has been an honor to work with them.
This issue is dedicated to the memory of Sally Ledger. Her warmth, her laughter, and her terrific intellectual energy remain inspiring.
Bakhtin, M. M. "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel." In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1982. 84-258.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: The Noonday Press, 1974.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Currie, Mark. About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2007.
Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006.
Fleischman, Suzanne. Tense and Narrativity: From Medieval Performance to Modern Fiction. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1990.
Galison, Peter. Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980.
Grosz, Elizabeth. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2004.
--. "Thinking the New: Of Futures Yet Unthought" In Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures. Edited by Elizabeth Grosz. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981.
Monet, Claude. Monet By Himself. Edited by Richard Kendall. Translated by Bridget Strevens Romer. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.
Newman, Karen, Jay Clayton, and Marianne Hirsch, eds. Time and the Literary. London: Routledge, 2002.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. 3 vols. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984-88.
Sherman, Stuart. Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660-1785. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.
(1.) Through the end of March 1900, Monet's letters to Alice meticulously record the time of day, as he had done in his intimate correspondence for years. However, at some point during this period, clock time falls away from his notes.
(2.) Narrative Discourse is a translation of "Discours du recit," originally published in 1972 in Genette's Figures III
(3.) I offer in the works cited a necessarily partial and inadequate selection of significant works, including Barthes, Ricoeur, Bakhtin, Brooks, Fleischman, Sherman, Newman et al., Galison, Grosz, Dimock, and Carrie.
(4.) For Ricoeur, "the breaking of the temporal barrier accepted for thousands of years and the fabulous extension of the scale of time ... [led as well to a] diversification in the meanings attached to the term 'time' in the regions of nature ... and in the sciences that correspond to them" (90). See also Grosz in "Thinking": "time is braided, intertwined, a unity of strands layered over each other" (17).
(5.) Alas, this reference to Andrew Miller's fine book, The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, will have to supply his place here.
Rebecca Stern is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches Victorian Literature, cultural history, and gender studies. Her first book, Home Economics: Domestic Fraud in Victorian England, was published by The Ohio State University Press in 2008. She is currently at work on a series of essays about nineteenth-century British renditions of presence and the present. Tentatively entitled Conjugating Victorians: Meditations on Grammar, lime, and Other Living Forms, the collection includes pieces on regretting, touching, telling, and withering. When she is not thinking about words that end in "ing," she contemplates the squash, eggplant, and various forms of basil that are flourishing in the garden.