A to Z: Time Is…

The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.
Marcel Proust

Time. One dimension, in addition to space, along which everything exists. It ticks, inexorably. We measure it, just like space, using units of our own invention (seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc.), units that obey convention and never vary.

And, yet, our sensation of it depends so much on what’s going on. So, for instance, we say time flies when we’re having fun. Or, time drags when nothing is happening.

We don’t want something (which occurs across time) to end when we’re doing something we love. We want a wonderful experience to spill beyond its natural or predetermined course. I think this is what Proust means when he says passion dilates time.

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, Museum of Modern Art

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, Museum of Modern Art

Contemporary conception of time has gone beyond what Proust thought of it. He didn’t live to see Einstein formulate his theory of relativity which includes a phenomenon called time dilation. According to my limited understanding of it, time can actually be changed by gravity and speed. For instance time runs slower in a spaceship traveling outside the force of gravity of a relatively slow-moving earth.


Nicholas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, The Wallace Collection, London


In his writings Proust is obsessed with time.  In Swann’s Way, the first volume in his masterpiece, he devotes 30 pages to the act of falling asleep.  His masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, translated literally into English, is In Search of Lost Time. It used to be called Remembrances of Things Past, a novel about memories, spread out into several volumes. Aren’t memories, after all, the only thing left of lost time?

Maybe, for Proust, to “dilate time” means to indulge in memories of an experience. We prolong a passion (for a loved one or a madeleine) by reliving it, sometimes through writing about it.

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  1. Pingback: What is your “madeleine”? « expatsincebirth

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