During my school days, a large chunk of my time went into listening to rock music from the sixties and seventies and trying to sing them. Pink Floyd was a staple diet. Why wouldn’t it be? Any school-going teen who had even tacitly heard the lines “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, No dark sarcasm in the classrooms, Teachers leave us kids alone,” would find it difficult to resist humming to the easily adaptable melody and softly murmuring the lyrics, while covering their yawning faces with both hands in an excruciating mathematics class. It was sometime then, that the song ‘Time’ by the same band left an impact on me that was more sublime than the rebelliousness of the other song that I mentioned.
‘Time’ begins with the sound of multiple clocks ticking simultaneously, before the guitar kicks in. We are instantly induced into a world where time is fleeting. Or more accurately, we are instantly reminded that we live in a world where time is fleeting, that even the time that we spend listening to the song, is still just time that will have passed away by the end of the song. I shall refrain from describing the rest of the song, with the hope that the readers may listen to it and experience it for themselves.
Friedrich Engels, the scientist, philosopher, and economist, who was also the lifelong friend, companion, and benefactor of Karl Marx, wrote of his conception of dialectics as a framework in which “the time of highest development, the time of organic life, and still more that of the life of being conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation.” Dialectics forms the basis for the classical Marxist conception of society and history that is understood to unfold in a specific pattern and direction, by struggling with and negating the contradictions of its time and leading forward to new situations and histories, with newer contradictions.
Human history, therefore, proceeds in a vast framework where it has “periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure.”
The mechanistic materialism of the Victorian age correctly refuted the spiritual and religious notions of natural and human phenomena. However, this materialism could at best perceive phenomena as abstract machinery, which worked with its set of rules which were to be studied and understood. Like a clock, for instance, had a complicated mechanism but followed the same mechanism repeatedly forever. Every phenomenon was to be understood like the working of a clock.
Marxist materialism, or dialectical materialism, went many steps further. As Engels wrote in The Dialectics of Nature, “Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be.” Thus, matter was understood to be in a state of constant motion and change. Even a clock, which the older materialists saw in the abstract, is actually changing. While it follows the same pattern in its mechanism, its gears are slowly gathering rust; they are slowly getting weary, sometimes causing the clock to slow down a little, and eventually to stop working altogether. This applies to a real clock, existing in the real world among other objects.
Thus, it was important for Marxists to consider phenomena in their real existence, as opposed to how they are ideally imagined in the abstract.
The clock that is ticking in a repetitive Cartesian synchrony, is also growing old, ticking away the moments and waiting to find itself in the trash-can, replaced by a savvy digital clock.
To come back to Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’, what sticks abysmally with me are the lines from the second stanza:
“You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.”
What is being described here is the manner in which time escapes notice, and by the time one comes to grip with it, it is already too late. Even though you noticed the qualitative change only now, the quantitative change has always been happening, at every instance, with every ticking of the clock and strumming of the guitar. This, to my schoolboy brain, barely meant anything more than the fact that by the time I could make any sense of the syllabus, the day of the exam would have already arrived. But even those times have passed and the passage of time adds more meaning to it.
My schooldays were also marked by English literature syllabi which consisted of some of the worst works of the best writers and poets of the world. An exception was the poem ‘A Psalm of Life’ by the American writer Longfellow. It was one of his best works. I, however, never took a liking to it. But the line: “Art is long and time is fleeting” stays in my mind like a motto, coupled with the rest of the stanza: “Our hearts, like muffled drums, are beating, Funeral marches to the grave.” Like the rest of the poem, these are just assertions about life that the poet deems necessary to lecture his readers about. But these lines were statements in themselves; the lines are there to remind one that underneath everything is the constant passing of time. Or, everything is in a state of flux, ever-changing, and doing so in a realm that is also ever-changing.
My very understanding of what made poetry the phenomenon that it is, transformed radically when I first heard my father read out T.S Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. Now a student of junior high, I studied in the science stream befuddled with calculus formulae and pentagonal diagrams from organic chemistry.
Poetry became my refuge.
And this poem was more than what I could comprehend. Yet, it charmed me in one way or another, to the extent that I read it aloud almost every single night.
Today, as a student of literature, I can appreciate it not only as an eternal masterpiece, but also as an artifact of modernist literature, dealing with themes of alienation and the inability of expression, or the fragmentation in its form that breaks out of the four walls of poetry into a strange cascade of images, words, and emotions. But back then, all that mattered to me was that Prufrock was a lonely, bald man who desires to confess to his love but fails to muster the courage, and fears that he will be met with complete rejection. He describes his city, which to me felt like a description of the streets and passageways of my own city, Bangalore. I later learned that it was something of a poetic juxtaposition of the cities of St Louis, London, and Paris.
An important aspect of this poem is also its approach to time. “There will be time, there will be time” the narrator (our bald friend Prufrock) seems to say, in self-satisfactory rhetoric. There is no hurry, there will certainly be more time and he will eventually find his time to make his move. “There will be time to murder and create.” But, even as he says this, perhaps he is aware of the passage of time, nonetheless against his will. “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” he says, “And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short I was afraid.” The arrival of the eternal footman signifies among other things, the drawing near death. Time is indeed passing.
Prufrock’s exasperated assertion that “there will be time” always contrasted in my mind with a contrary statement in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Shah Jahan’. In the poem, the narrator addresses the Mughal king Shah Jahan, scorning his attempt to freeze time and along with it the memory of his dead wife by building the Taj Mahal – “to conquer time’s heart through beauty.” But the poem repeats: “you have no time, no time.”
The Taj Mahal, the grand mausoleum built to immortalise the dead queen, will in turn have become a morbid artifact in the sands of time. The unstoppable dialectics of history will run its course. Time cannot be contained, even by seduction.
Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ holds references to the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvel’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. The poem starts with “Had we but world enough and time…” Here, the narrator seems to be addressing his beloved, and telling her how he wishes to love her, through the passing of the centuries. While the lover wishes for time to slow down, and being granted sufficient time to manifest his love, he is conscious of this inevitability, as he says, “At my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” There is no way in which one can escape it. What one can do at best is to keep their ears open so that they can in fact hear time’s chariots coming closer. There lies the magnificence of Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ where ticking clocks, guitar riffs, and resplendent lyrics are there to remind you of this passage of the chariots of time.
The lines towards the end of the song are: “The time is gone, the song is over, thought I had something more to say.”
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Suryashekhar Biswas, a media undergrad who likes to read history and Nazim Hikmet poems.