The Nick of Time

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017.

For Hampshire Life
Published: 9/13/2019 9:37:53 AM
Modified: 9/13/2019 9:37:41 AM

I’m at an age when people’s faces are measures to time. If someone looks visibly older than the last time we met, I get frightened, knowing, as I do, that the same might be said of me.

So I ask around for a definition of time, just for sheer pleasure. Someone will mention Einstein’s view, “time is an illusion,” then add, “but did he know more than the rest of of us?” This summer, a high-school student of mine told me that time is her. Yes, time, she announced, is “the present configuration of myself as fixed in the coordinate of space. I will be someone else tomorrow, when I’m in another space tomorrow, as I was another self yesterday.”

In physics, time twists and turns and undulates, too. And, of course, it is always relative. Stephen Hawking states in “A Brief History of Time” (1988) that if a pair of twins is separated, one of them jumping on a spacecraft and the other staying on Earth, they would age at differently, one faster than the other.

As far as I know, my wife and I lived on the same planet. Yet she always — magically — looks young to me.

Physics isn’t the only discipline to question the uniformity of time. Culture does it as well and, as far as I’m concerned, more intuitively. It is uncontestable that different societies experience time in different ways. Every time I visit Mexico, my place of birth, I am stunned by how much slower the rhythm of life is, even in contrast to the bucolic town in which I live. The clock ticks at the same speed yet somehow it doesn’t. It isn’t as if people live longer in Mexico; it is simply that they register the world — how shall I put it? — less frantically.

Obsessed as I am with words and their metabolism, I’m convinced that time is a feature of our verbal fancy. That is, if we hadn’t invented past, present and future conjugations, we wouldn’t have any memory of things gone or any premonition of those to come. The fact that we do is because we can use precise verbs to say what has been and what will be.

By the way, I like the expression “the nick of time.” In Spanish, my native tongue, it is “justo a tiempo.” It means “the last possible moment before time is up.” But how can time be up other than with death?

The German language puts verbs at the end of sentences, de facto delaying the action. There are aboriginal languages in which sentences are only in the present. For their users, things exist insofar as they are registered today. When you aren’t seen by your best friend, you don’t exist.

Time is relative in individual ways. When we travel to a destination, usually the way there feels shorter than the return, in spite of the fact that the two are, of course, exactly the same. Likewise, when we’re happy, the clock runs faster; and when we’re in pain, it’s the other way around.

The young believe that time is open-ended while the old are convinced it is finite. Along the same lines, immigrants have a unique awareness of time since they inhabit a double coordinate: how time flowed before immigration is in sharp contrast with how it does afterward. Actually, that might be said in equal terms of anyone who has traveled from one place to another.

Twice a year, I’m amazed that everyone, without exception, agrees to add or give up an hour or more to adapt to daylight savings. What was 12 o’clock not to long ago implacably becomes 1 p.m. Even though I don’t have any control of it, what this means to me it that it’s all a game.

In Western Civilization, we use all sorts of capital-related metaphors to describe time. “Time is money” is perhaps the most frequently repeated. Activist Cesar Chavez believed that the rich have money and the poor have time.

The other day I took a three-hour nap. I don’t often do it. When I woke up, I had the impression that only 15 minutes had gone by, although my body felt utterly rejuvenated. When I looked at the time, I was overwhelmed by a plurality of emotions: I felt I had given myself a superb gift; I also had the impression that I had blown away several precious hours. These conflicted views inspired guilt in me.

For vacation next time, I would like to go to a place — a desert island? — with no time, if such place still exists. It’s a foolish dream since I will surely go crazy very quickly. What I really need, and surely I’m not alone, is less awareness of time. The hell with watches.

In that spirit, I have a personal confession: my watch, a present from my wife I have used for more than a decade, finally stopped clicking a few months ago. I have been close to buying a replacement on several occasions but I have stopped in my tracks — yes, in the nick of time — to ask: really? What’s the rush, Ilan? What if you went without a watch from now on?

I certainly won’t get lost. There are more than enough reminders around me of how time flies, as if it had wings, and no doubt it does. Without a watch, I do feel — ironically — as if things go slower, and, similarly, as if, imaginarily, I am suddenly in a time outside time.

It’s all a gimmick, obviously. But so is time.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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