At the top of my list of ‘projects I really wish I’d got around to finishing before it was too late’ is a piece on J.G. Ballard and historical time. I’m a massive Ballard fan, especially of his short stories, and I’ve always been struck by his concern with the human experience of time – explored above all by changing the things that we take for granted, such as when the earth ceases to rotate and it’s always early evening in Casablanca, or when the sleep trigger is artificially disabled in some experimental subjects, or when (for unknown reasons) people start to suffer from narcolepsy, their days getting ever shorter. Most striking – or maybe it’s just because it relates to my research interests in ecology – is his focus in the brilliant ‘The Voices of Time’ on the relation between human time and other times, not only geological time but cosmic time.
There is a strong sense, I think, of the powerlessness of humans in the face of vast aeons and inhuman forces, and of the pitiless way in which everything is tending towards an ending – whether the moment when the interval between waking and sleeping vanishes, or the point in the future when the voices of time – the radio signals being received from other parts of the galaxy – will fall silent. The message of this and other stories, insofar as they have any, is the need for acceptance of this, of the inevitability of change and decay, just as the protagonist of The Drowned World finally responds to global warming by walking south into the inferno. In the face of geology and biology and physics, there is no realistic alternative, even if it appears insanity to those who insist on trying to resist or ignore such forces.
It seems to me that there is a striking resemblance to some of the ideas of Fernand Braudel on the relation between l’histoire evenementielle – the history of events, the level at which we live our lives, oblivious to the real forces in the universe – and la longue duree, the long term of environmental structures, where change is often imperceptible but is vastly powerful. Back when I was doing some preliminary work on this project (having been invited to contribute to a collection on history and science fiction that in the end failed to get off the ground), I wrote to Ballard to ask him about this, and received an extremely courteous letter explaining that he’d never read or even heard of Braudel but could indeed see the connection.
Ballard especially picked up on the fact that both he and Braudel had been in prison camps during the war, and suggested that this might be the key: not so much the sense of powerlessness in the face of more powerful forces (something of a cliche in commentary on Braudel), but the sense of indeterminacy, almost suspension in time. A normal prisoner has some idea of how long his sentence will last, and can adjust his behaviour and attitude accordingly – and that holds true whether it’s a matter of a couple of months or of life. The prisoner of war or internee has no idea whether this will be a permanent or temporary condition; as Ballard’s wonderful memoirs of his time in the camp illustrate, it is equally problematic from a psychological perspective to cling to the idea that everything will soon return to normal or to accommodate oneself completely to this new form of existence.
Another example of the curse of being a historical being, as Nietzsche observed; the cow is not terribly bothered about the fact that another day has passed just like the previous one, whereas for us it is ‘one day closer to death’, another day in which nothing has changed, another reason to wonder whether we will ever escape. At what point can we be absolutely certain that liberation, or Godot, or the overthrow of capitalism, is never going to arrive, so that we can get on with something else instead? Never, of course. I’m reminded of the brilliant opening of Casablanca, depicting another similar situation of indefinite, corrosive hopefulness (as Thucydides observed, more or less, it’s not the despair but the hope that’ll kill you): “And so they wait. And wait. And wait…”
It’s easy to see how contemplation of the serene, inexorable processes of the universe could seem like a welcome alternative to constant anxiety and the desperate struggle not to succumb to excessive hope or despair – and easy to see how one might be led to conceive of natural processes as serene, inexorable and unstoppable rather than chaotic and undetermined. That is, I think, a valid criticism of Braudel’s approach to what we would now call ‘ecology’ – it’s just too stable and straightforward in comparison to the ‘froth’ and changeability of human events. Equally, he seems rather to delight in the powerlessness of his human subjects, whereas Ballard reveals its potential for fear and horror, and perhaps in this way reveals why most people much prefer to think of history in terms of human actions and events.
These are the voices of time, and they’re saying goodbye to you.