Time is permission. Time allows for events to unfold, for matter to colonize space, for the material to shape the material. In the space between moments the static shakes and the fleeting hovers. Time coerces; Time creates. In the Bible nothing births Time. We do not see God pave the road on which he sets the wheel spinning. In the beginning things happen, events unfold, materials are shaped, but, from the very first phrase, we take Time as a necessary given. Genesis brings us a long way back, back to the beginning, before days could be reckoned, when light and darkness streamed blended — but it can bring us only so far. Nothing precedes Time, least of all narrative. Any beginning, even the Beginning, needs time, because beginnings presume succession.
Because action needs more than space in order to occur. Genesis, in any case, begins where it must, and it describes the first event, a word, the word of God. God does not use, here, that violent fire with which He will later raise up His prophets and smite down civilizations. With a word he creates, and with a mild word at that. A word of welcome. "‘Let there be light,'" He says; "and there was light." It takes nothing more. God precedes all things; and all things that are, He has allowed. God is permission. Indeed the Bible offers no few parallels between God and Time. In the Revelation to John, God is "the Alpha and the Omega . . . who is and who was and who is to come…" (1:8). Beginning and End, Present, Past, and Future. The Great All in which all things are possible. Speaking to Moses in the Book of Exodus, He names himself I AM. He is Being, He is What He is, while all else is what it was not and what it will not be, for Time changes all things. In the Gospels God takes fleshly form as Christ the redeemer, the living dead. Without the resurrection Christ would remain a great prophet; but with it He goes far further. He becomes the union of man and God made manifest. Life and after-Life walk the earth in the same body, the wounds of death etched still in His living hands. The temporal and the timeless share one face. With the resurrection, Christ demonstrates the promise that man and God are, in fact, compatible, that each man passes not just a moment, but can enter into eternity.
The mid-nineteenth century brought new waves in the development of art — word and image sought new subject matter, new symbols and new modes of pictorial composition. And in the midst of this self-evaluation stirred the question of time, of how mankind experiences it and how art can reflect it. For indeed this age represented a great upheaval. New sciences incited waves of religious crisis, redefining concepts of Time and Beginning; new technologies of transportation and mechanization, new routines of urbanity changed the way that people experienced Change itself, and Time as the vessel of Change. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and later the Aesthetic and Decadent movements, confront Time as both a unifying and a dividing force. And oftentimes they do regard It somehow as God, or as godlike, as the force of eternity that infuses all of existence with vitality. Some treasure it as they might a crucifix, some fear it like the tenth plague, and some rebel against it as Satan's Army, seeking a kingdom in accord with their own terms. But in all cases Time is the great bestower, the force before which mankind kneels either in homage or outrage. With a word It allows life, with a word it allows ruin; and these artists seek to communicate with Time through their works, that their voices, too, may be heard amid the Thunder.
Typology as Time Instantaneous
The Pygmalion Cycle by Sir Edard Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Using a visual language of typology, the Pre-Raphaelites succeed in compressing Time into image. In the world of art it generally takes words to tell a story. Sculptures provide glimpses of setting and character; musical tones invoke mood; a triptych, even, can offer at once three related moments. But these moments, these glimpses, remain isolated. In the mid-nineteenth century, before animation has yet imbued the painter's craft with the illusion of temporal progression, each work remains an island, an infinitesimal. Though serially connected, a work like the Pygmalion Cycle of Sir Edward Burne-Jones lacks the pervading unity of Time, each of the four paintings stranded, static, with only imagination to link them. It takes words to compile, to convey development, elaboration.
The Bible does not just tell, with words, a story of events; it tells, with words, a story of how words shape events. God speaks things into existence. Moses bridges the human and the divine when he hears God's plans in the wilderness, but he then requires Aaron's mortal tongue in order to bring about his people's liberation. With Aaron's help, Moses speaks God's plan into reality. Indeed all of prophecy itself represents a reconciliation of word and event — word acting not only as reminiscence of the past, but as active contributor of the present, as contemporaneous phenomenon. As the Gospel of John observes, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Narration occurs not only as an afterthought; Time narrates its own unfolding.
Yet the image, too, can ascend to Time's plane through the use of visual language. The different components of a scene each refer to an established story or idea while still cohering to one another enough that they preserve the scene. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by no means invented such manner of symbolic narrative, but their religious works employ it to great effect. Typological imagery unites past and present, or present and future: the image foreshadows the fulfillment of its own prophecies.
In William Homan Hunt's Christ and Two Marys, for example, Christ stands before a rainbow. In Genesis, God presents a rainbow to the survivors of the Ark, as a covenant with mankind that He will not again destroy them. The Christ of Hunt's painting stands with his arms spread as if crucified, circumscribed in the rainbow's arc. The burial tape hangs from His arms, while still hugging His belly. In one image we have the life, death, and resurrection, all framed in the colorful promise God gave of mankind's redemption. Christ, Who is God made flesh, does not send another flood to erase men's sins, but rather He Himself absorbs those sins, and redeems men. Hunt thus succeeds in conveying over a thousand years of man's covenant with God, linking Christ to that rainbow in the days before even the first patriarchs. As Christ was to Peter on the mountaintop, the painting is itself a transfiguration — God's word, God's deed, God's love, in one.
Another Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, interprets the symbols of his own painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, in an accompanying poem, "Mary's Girlhood." "These are the symbols," he writes. "The books . . . those virtues are wherein the soul is rich . . . .The seven-thorn'd brier and palm seven-leaved / Are here great sorrow and her great reward." Though but a girl, Mary's eventual legacy already lives with her. The thorny sorrow of Christ's passion, the palm-strewn glory of His entrance into God's city, Jerusalem — these show their botanical faces in Mary's home, at a time when the seed of God has not yet even been planted in her womb. The vines outside her window bring to mind the blood of her son, already doomed to death though not yet born. Although this imagery mostly foreshadows future events — as compared with Hunt's rainbow, which recalls past prophets — Rossetti's painting as a whole stands as a reconciliation of Old Testament and New Testament. The first events of the Gospels center around Christ's birth: the annunciation to Mary, the birth of John as portent of Christ's coming. Yet the scene here takes place before the first stirrings of this great upheaval, when the prophecies of old stand only on the cusp of fulfillment. "This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect," writes Rossetti; Mary lives, before being chosen to herald the new way, in accord with the faith of the past centuries. Unaware of God's plans, she sits among the signs of their very fulfillment. The deeds are done before Mary even knows that they have started.
And those books, bound in such a way in which they will not be bound for a thousand years, imply more than the inner virtue that both Mary and the books share. They prefigure the countless readings, writings, recitations, that the coming centuries will bring, concerning Mary and her blessedness. She lives her "faithful and hopeful" life here, and the unwritten accounts of it stand in the same room as her. The narrative of her life accompanies the life itself: in the event is its future telling, in the miracle is its prior prophecy. From the very beginning there is both word and deed, and the word is the deed. In a certain sense this kind of compression anticipates later artistic movements that the turn of the century will bring. For example, cubism offers a synthesis of different perspectives blended as one, grounded in the presumption that one may glean an object's true nature through a variety of experiences of it. One sees from above, from below, from the side, all at once — a compilation of vantage points with the same focal theme. These Pre-Raphaelite works convey a certain idea or heritage, sometimes many years in the making, by depicting the various stages of that idea's development together, simultaneously. Whether the artists were religious or not, they point to the multiplicity of God in each work, they invoke the likeness of God with each painted scene: the beginning and the end of the story bear one countenance; past, present, and future share one image.
A Word on Swinburne
In Swinburne, the sea appears as something of a sister goddess to Time, a force similarly great and persistent, grave and yet welcoming. The sea absorbs all things back into her stormy womb, while upon her surface, as on the surface of time, waves spurt upward and tumble back down, like vain spirits who strive and endeavor. In "A Triumph of Time," Swinburne's speaker entreats the sea's solace, looking to the dark abyss as a remedy for his unhappiness. He exhibits a sadness not of regret — not seeking to bludgeon his sharp woes with the dull waters of Lethe — but of acceptance. His lover having deserted him, he recognizes that for a short spell he experienced a worthy thing, and he knows himself now ready to dissolve into the wake. "Lose life, lose all," he says,
Let come what will, there is one thing worth,
To have had fair love in the life upon earth:
To have held love safe till the day grew night,
While skies had colour and lips were red.
Yet love, though it leaves lasting impressions, ages and withers. The sea, though her waves rise and fall and new bodies sink into her belly — the sea, en masse, remains immutable. The speaker knows that, when dead, he will no longer experience Time and Change as a victim of their harvests, but will toss and swirl among them, a contributor to the very force of Change itself.
I shall sleep, and move with the moving ships,
Change as the winds change, veer in the tide . . . .
death is the worst that comes of thee;
Thou art fed with our dead, O mother, O sea,
But when hast thou fed on our hearts? or when,
Having given us love, hast thou taken away?
Though the poem lacks overt Christian overtones, the great Sea of Time functions as an analogue of, or perhaps a substitute for, a Christian God. She loves with a love unyielding, a love unlike the fickle love of men. She fills the role of mother, of creator, predecessor to all things. Indeed, she is the Alpha and the Omega:
But thou, thou art sure, thou art older than earth;
Thou art strong for death and fruitful of birth;
Thy depths conceal and thy gulfs discover;
From the first thou wert; in the end thou art.
Swinburne echoes this sentiment in another poem, "By the North Sea." Here the sea adopts a more sinister tone; she mirrors Time in the way that Hodgson's night land does, by highlighting its drudgery. "Miles, and miles, and miles of desolation!" he says. "Leagues on leagues on leagues without a change!...Time-forgotten, yea since time's creation, / Seem these borders where the sea-birds range." And yet her vast permanence intimidates only the transient, only the living. Death harbors no fear of the sea, for Death and Sea bear a great kinship, as of soul mates:
For the land has two lords that are deathless:
Death's self, and the sea. . . .
In the pride of his power she rejoices,
In her glory he glows and is glad
While yet still a man, the speaker of Swinburne's poems experiences Time as suffering, Time as loss. For indeed, as a living creature, his very biological intuition instructs him to cling to his small stone and preserve himself at all costs against the great winds and seas. Time, meanwhile, cares only for change. Time is the enemy of the living. Death alone perceives Time as comfort, as comrade. In Death alone does peace persevere, for Death alone perceives peace in change.
Swinburne's Sea presents the central problem against which many decadents react. A godlike force exists in nature, an eternal force, a force of creation and upheaval. Yet, unlike God, this force does little to appease the concerns of the living. To men it appears ugly and unsatisfying, inadequate to exist in accord with their demands. And men may choose whether to surrender, in any case, to that force, to live in fear of it until death — or, to construct a reality of their own, a reality that belittles Time's dominion over man, and that paints with bright colors, like the fleeting sunset, over the dismal shades of the sea. For some, Time suffices as Maker and Taker, the great Reworker; as the vast breeding pool of life after life and circumstance after circumstance. For others, one must become the maker of one's own self and circumstances, and find inner harmony in the aping of God, Time, and Sea.
On Heavy Moments and the Likeness of God
We have examined how the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and other artists sympathetic to the movement, demonstrate Time and narrative visually through typology. But here let us explore how the subjects of such paintings experience Time, and what these works suggest about the ways in which the artists themselves experience it. Charles Collins, for instance, portrays a nun paused in deep reflection in his painting, Convent Thoughts. She stands by a pool within the wall of the cloister, brooding over a flower blossom in her hand — one of many that surround her. In her other hand she holds some missal or pocket-bible, yet it hangs limply at her side; the natural world steals her attention from the world of scripture. But of course these two worlds do not exclude each other; rather, they reflect each other, and one may wonder whether the nun, staring upon the daisy, does not glimpse the face of God.
We cannot enter her convent thoughts, but, since we see what she sees, we can make some good guesses. Though the convent wall separates the nun's world from the mailman's and the milkmaid's, they are each one of these worlds God's world. The wall does not keep out the seasons. Flowers bloom here, as flowers do, and they will wilt, as flowers will. The bud in her hand stands in between these stages: though plucked and severed from its lifeblood, its death mask wears still the beautiful countenance of life. The life cycle of flowers, more than that of most creatures, has attracted attention as a symbol of Time's passing. Spring arrives when the flowers arrive; new blossoms mean yet another trip around the solar system completed. Time marches forward with a basket of rose petals.
Standing by the glassy pool, her likeness etched in the water's surface, the nun reminds one of the line from Genesis, that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (1:27). Seeing her own image in the pool, what must she think? Indeed hers does not differ so greatly from the flower's: they the both of them bear the image of change. In the convent girls become women, women become old. A nun's chief occupation is aging. Undistracted by family, promotion, or traveling circus, a nun deals with Time — to a certain extent, obscures Time — through the routine of prayer and sacrament. Ultimately, the withering of her own body and mind represents the clearest indication of Time's progress. Is this, then, that image, the image of God which He bestowed upon man? This unfolding, this marked progression? Indeed life itself bears such an image, the image not of particulars but of process.
Another painting, made several years later by Augustus Egg, depicts Time as the herald of more spontaneous change than mere aging. The Infidelity Discovered is the caption for the first painting in his series of three entitled, Past and Present. A woman has just fainted, presumably from her husband discovering her infidelity, while her children sit watching by a fallen house of cards. Time is, itself, Event; It is Happening. A man sits on a train stalled at a station; he stares out his window at the platform. He sees the platform, and he sees the platform, and he sees the platform, and of a sudden he sees the platform inch backwards. In the abruptness of a moment the situation changes, the experience evolves. Of course, moments actually succeed one another with great fluidity; Time does not stall and then start again, and no moment arrives more abruptly than another. But the visibility, to men, of one moment's passing changes from situation to situation. Human eyes measure distinction more astutely than similarity. A house of cards, once built, continues to stand and continues to stand as suddenly as it falls, yet through the falling, and not through the continuation, humans experience Time. The discovery in this painting represents one of those moments, a moment apart from other moments. The building of the house of cards perhaps took hours, yet all the while it occurred in the present perfect tense. Now, it exists only in the preterite. Some moments last days and some last but a second. The latter ones one tends to remember, and tends to regret.
The image of the house of cards recurs in a much later painting, John Liston Byam Shaw's Love that Wastes Our Little Schoolgirl's Time. An angelic, Cupid-like figure delicately builds a house of cards before a daydreaming girl. We recognize the implication that this house, like Egg's house, will also fall, that this delicate endeavor will have been done in vain. Yet the title complicates the theme. Here Time becomes a sort of instrument under man's control, which he can use either rightly or wrongly. That one can waste Time implies that one exerts a certain authority over Time, an ability to shape it into something particular. And, as the title indicates, to shape it into something flimsy, into something that will crumble, wastes the opportunities that Time affords. In reality Time does not waste itself, nor can one waste Time; one can only undergo it until one ceases to undergo it. A house built on sand and a house built on stone alike will fall, just as surely as stones become sand and sands become stone. We find in this painting that same decadent desire for permanence — one should only invest one's time in those things which will not crumble. The schoolgirl's wistful love distracts her from a more enduring experience, her education.
As a final analysis, let us examine another of Augustus Egg's paintings, Traveling Companions. Two women in a coach cross through a vivid forested landscape. One sits absorbed in her dreams, the other in the idea or story of some pocket book. Without a glance up along the way, their experience of the journey will hinge on two sights: the sight of the city square when they entered the coach, and the sight of the country manor when they leave it. The change in settings will imply Time's passing — conveyance through space requires conveyance through Time. They will understand the change even if they do not experience the process of that change. In other words, while the one woman's nap and the other woman's poetry may represent the journey's duration to them as only an instant, they will recognize its duration as longer, once they see the new location in which they find themselves. All travel is time travel.
We find in this painting's theme — if we choose to look for it — an analysis of painting itself. The art of painting is an art of relics. Each image implies process, duration; yet the viewer experiences only the final product, as opposed to the blank canvas of the process's beginning. He does not experience, as the artist does, the composition. Other art forms do offer that kind of experience. Film was not yet invented at the time of this painting's execution, but theater, along with any other mediums of rehearsal, conveys art through process. Music is process. In a certain sense, an audience even experiences in a book — or at least a Kerouac book — the process of composition, the sequence of ideas and impressions that contribute to the total work. The viewer of a painting experiences all at once the entirety of the work; he sees no journey, only destination. Of course, one can stand and look at a painting for hours as easily as one could a few minutes or a second, and in doing so see things one might not otherwise see. Yet in the end the painting remains a fixed entity, offering everything up front: hours of frantic brushstrokes and careful touch-ups crystallized in a snapshot. But this painting, composed in 1862, stands on the cusp of certain artistic revolutions, which challenge the notion of painting as mere relic. Impressionism and other, more modern and abstract schools of art succeed in conveying a sense of process. Heavy brushstrokes allow one to trace the image's composition; decomposition of form lay bare the shapes and lines that, compiled, produce a scene. The painting retains and exposes the duration of its composition, instead of just the moment of its completion. And in tracing its composition, the viewer understands, in part, the artist's own experience of Time. For, whether one observes it through aging, through falling, or through creation, Time, ultimately, is process.
Thy relics dost Thou taste with tongue of Seas,
Consume to dust, and forge in fire anew;
With haughty hurricane and subtle breeze
Dost Thou caress, and with their voices coo;
Thy sun Thou givest to warm, Thou takest to freeze,
And with Thy breath all spirits dost imbue;
In House of Cards or Silence, men, on knees,
Pray that Thou heed, when ere Thou didst eschew.
Yet mankind, too, may speak (though with Thy voice),
And, with that speech, may ape Thy holy ways —
An artifice invoke, as Thou the real.
His bosom bears that fearsome, fatal choice:
Yield to Thy Sea, and on Its depths to gaze,
Or make a world, and so his sorrows heal.
Last modified 13 May 2009