From a description of the location and appearance of rivers, trees, buildings, people, all would seem common. The Aare bends to the east, is sprinkled with boats carrying potatoes and sugar beets. Arolla pines dot the foothills of the Alps, the trees’ coneladen branches curving upward like arms of a candelabrum. Three-storey houses with red-tiled roofs and dormer windows sit quietly on Aarstrasse, overlooking the river. Shopkeepers on Marktgasse wave their arms at all passersby, hawking handkerchiefs, fine watches, tomatoes, sour bread, and fennel. The smell of smoked beef wafts down the avenues. A man and woman stand on their small balcony on Kramgasse, arguing and smiling while they argue. A young girl walks slowly through the garden at the Kleine Schanze- The large red-wood door of the Post Bureau opens and closes, opens and closes. A dog barks. But seen through the eyes of any one person the scene is quite different. For example, one woman sitting on the banks of the Aare sees the boats pass by at great speed, as if moving on skates across ice. To another, the boats appear sluggish, barely rounding the bend in the whole of the afternoon. A man standing on Aarstrasse looks at the river to discover that the boats travel first forwards, then backwards.
These discrepancies are repeated elsewhere. Just now a chemist is walking back to his shop on Kochergasse, having taken his noon meal. This is the picture he sees:two women gallop past him, churning their arms wildly and talking so rapidly that he cannot understand them. A solicitor runs across the street to an appointment somewhere, his head jerking this way and that like a small animal’s. A ball tossed by a child from a balcony hurtles through the air like a bullet, a blur barely visible. The residents of no.82, just glimpsed through their window, fly through the house from one room to the next, sit down for an instant, shovel down a meal in one minute, disappear, reappear. Clouds overhead come together, move apart, come together again with the pace of successive exhales and inhales.
On the other side of the street, the baker observes the same scene. He notes that two women leisurely stroll up the street, stop to talk to a solicitor, then walk on. The solicitor goes into an apartment at no. 82. sits down at a table for lunch, walks to the firstfloor window where he catches a ball thrown by a child on the street.
To yet a third person standing under a lamppost on Kochergasse. the events have no movement at all: two women, a solicitor, a ball, a child, three barges, an apartment interior are captured like paintings in the bright summer light.
And it is similar with any sequence of events, in this world where time is a sense.
In a world where time is a sense, like sight or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer. Philosophers sit in cafes on Amthausgasse and argue whether time really exists outside human perception. Who can say if an event happens fast or slow, causally or without cause, in the past or the future? Who can say if events happen at all? The philosophers sit with half-opened eyes and compare their aesthetics of time.
Some few people are born without any sense of time. As consequence, their sense of place becomes heightened to excruciating degree. They lie in tall grass and are questioned by poets and painters from all over the world. These time-deaf are beseeched to describe the precise placement of trees in the spring, the shape of snow on the Alps, the angle of sun on a church, the position of rivers, the location of moss, the pattern of birds in a flock. Yet the time-deaf are unable to speak what they know. For speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time.
Imagine a world in which people live just one day. Either the rate of heartbeats and breathing is speeded up so that an entire lifetime is compressed to the space of one turn of the earth on its axis for the rotation of the earth is slowed to such a low gear that one complete revolution occupies a whole human lifetime. Either interpretation is valid. In either case, a man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset.
In this world, no one lives to witness the change of the seasons. A person born in December in any European country never sees the hyacinth, the lily, the aster, the cyclamen, the edelweiss, never sees the leaves of the maple turn red and gold, never hears the crickets or the warblers. A person born in December lives his life cold. Likewise, a person born in July never feels a snowflake on her cheek, never sees the crystal on a frozen lake. never hears the squeak of boots in fresh snow. A person born in July lives her life warm. The variety of seasons is learned about in books.
In this world, a life is planned by light. A person born at sunset spends the first half of his life in nighttime. learns indoor trades like weaving and watchmaking, reads a great deal, becomes intellectual, eats too much, is frightened of the vast dark out doors, cultivates shadows. A person born at sunrise learns outdoor occupations like farming and masonry, becomes physically fit, avoids books and mental projects, is sunny and confident, is afraid of nothing.
Both sunset and sunrise babies flounder when the light changes. When sunrise comes, those born at sunset are overwhelmed by the sudden sight of trees and oceans and mountains, are blinded by daylight, return to their houses and cover their windows, spend the rest of their lives in half light. When sunset comes, those born at sunrise wail at the disappearance of birds in the sky, the layered shades of blue in the sea, the hypnotic movement of clouds. They wail and refuse to learn the dark crafts in doors, lie on the ground and look up and struggle to see what they once saw.
In this world in which a human life spans but a single day, people heed time like cats straining to hear sounds in the attic. For there is no time to lose. Birth, schooling, love affairs, marriage, profession, old age must all be fit within one transit of the sun, one modulation of light. When people pass on the street, they tip their hats and hurry on When people meet at houses, they politely inquire of each other’s health and then attend to their own affairs. When people gather at cafes, they nervously study the shifting of shadows and do not sit long. Time is too precious. A life is a moment in season. A life is one snowfall. A life is one autumn day. A life is the delicate, rapid edge of a closing door’s shadow. A life is a brief movement of arms and of legs. When old age comes, whether in light or in dark, a person discovers that he knows no one. There hasn’t been time. Parents have passed away at midday or midnight. Brothers and sisters have moved to distant cities, to seize passing opportunities. Friends have changed with the changing angle of the sun. Houses, towns, jobs, lovers have all been planned to accommodate no a life framed in one day. A person in old age knows no one. He talks to people, but he does not know them. His life is scattered in fragments of conversation, forgotten by fragments of people. His life is divided into hasty episodes, witnessed by few. He sits at his bedside table, listens to the sound of his running bath, and wonders whether anything exists outside of his mind. Did that embrace from his mother really exist? Did that laughing rivalry with his school friend really exist? Did that first tingle of lovemaking really exist? Did his lover exist? Where are they now? Where are they now, as he sits at his bedside table, listening to the sound of his running bath, vaguely perceiving the change in the light.
A mushy, brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, it turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer’s, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms. In this world, time flows backward.
A withered woman sits in a chair hardly moving, her face red and swollen, her eyesight almost gone, her hearing gone, her breathing scratchy like the rustle of dead leaves on stones. Years pass. There are few visitors. Gradually, the woman gains strength, eats more, loses the heavy lines in her face. She hears voices, music. Vague shadows gather themselves into light and lines and images of tables, chairs, people’s faces. The woman makes excursions from her small house, goes to the market, occasionally visits a friend, drinks tea at cafes in good weather. She takes needles and yarn from the bottom drawer of her dresser and crochets. She smiles when she likes her work. One day her husband, with whitened face, is carried into her house. In hours, his cheeks become pink, he stands stooped straightens out, speaks to her. Her over, house becomes their house. They eat meals together, tell jokes, laugh. They travel through the country, visit friends. Her white hair darkens with brown streaks, her voice resonates with new tones. She goes to a retirement party at the gymnasium, begins teaching history. She loves her students, argues with them after class. She reads during her lunch hour and at night. She meets friends and discusses history and current events. She helps her husband with the accounts at his chemist’s store, walks with him at the foot of the mountains, makes love to him. Her skin becomes soft, her hair long and brown, her breasts firm. She sees her husband for the first time in the library of the university, returns his
glances. She attends classes. She graduates from the gymnasium, with her parents and sister crying tears of happiness. She lives at home with her parents, spends hours with her mother walking through the woods by their house, helps with the dishes. She tells stories to her younger sister, is read to at night before bed, grows smaller. She crawls. She nurses.
A middle-aged man walks from the stage of an auditorium in Stockholm, holding a medal. He shakes hands with the president of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, receives the Nobel Prize for physics, listens to the glorious citation. The man thinks briefly about the award he is to receive. His thoughts quickly shift twenty years to the future, when he will work alone in a small room with only pencil and paper. Day and night he will work, making many false starts, filling the trash basket with unsuccessful chains of equations and logical sequences. But some evenings he will return to his desk knowing he has learned things about Nature that no one has ever known, ventured into the forest and found light, gotten hold of precious secrets. On those evenings, his heart will pound as if he were in love. The anticipation of that rush of the blood, that time when he will be young and unknown and unafraid of mistakes, overpowers him now as he sits in his chair in the auditorium in Stockholm, at great distance from the tiny voice of the president announcing his name.
A man stands at the graveside of his friend, throws a handful of dirt on the coffin, feels the cold April rain on his face. But he does not weep. He looks ahead to the day when his friend’s lungs will be strong, when his friend will be out of his bed and laughing, when the two of them will drink ale together, go sailing, talk. He does not weep. He waits longingly for a particular day he remembers in the future when he and his friend will have sandwiches on a low flat table, when he will describe his fear of growing old and unloved and his friend will nod gently, when the rain will slide down the glass of the window.
A man or a woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses and buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening through Bahnhofplatz and race through the narrows of Marktgasse, their occupants shouting from second-floor windows. The Post Bureau doesn’t remain on Postgasse, but flies through the city on rails, like a train. Nor does the Bundeshaus sit quietly on Bundesgasse. Everywhere the air whines and roars with the sound of motors and locomotion When a person comes out of his front door at sunrise, he hits the ground running, catches up with his office building, hurries up and down flights of stairs, works at a desk propelled in circles, gallops home at the end of the day. No one sits under a tree with a book, no one gazes at the ripples on a pond, no one lies in thick grass in the country. No one is still.
Why such a fixation on speed? Because in this world time passes mere slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.
The speed effect was not noticed until the invention of the internal combustion engine and the beginnings of rapid transportation. On 8 September 1889, Mr. Randolph Whig of Surrey took his mother-in-law to London at high speed in his new motor car. To his delight, he arrived in half the expected time, a conversation having scarcely begun, and decided to look into the phenomenon. After his researches were published, no one went slowly again.
Since time is money, financial considerations alone dictate that each brokerage house, each manufacturing plant, each grocer’s shop constantly travel as rapidly as possible, to achieve advantage over their competitors. Such buildings are fitted with giant engines of propulsion and are never at rest. Their motors and crankshafts roar far more loudly than the equipment and people inside them.
Likewise, houses are sold not just on their size and design, but also on speed. For the faster a house travels, the more slowly the clocks tick inside and the more time available to its occupants. Depending on the speed, a person in a fast house could gain several minutes on his neighbors in a single day. This obsession with speed carries through the night, when valuable time could be lost, or gained, while asleep. At night, the streets are ablaze with lights, so that passing houses might avoid collisions, which are always fatal- At night, people dream of speed, of youth, of opportunity.
In this world of great speed, one fact has been only slowly appreciated. By logical tautology, the motional effect is all relative. Because when two people pass on the street, each perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each sees the other’s time flow more slowly – each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.
Frustrated and despondent, some people have stopped looking out their windows. With the shades drawn, they never know how fast they are moving, how fast their neighbors and competitors are moving. They rise in the morning, take baths, eat plaited bread and ham, work at their desks, listen to music, talk to their children, lead lives of satisfaction.
Some argue that only the giant clock tower on Kramgasse keeps the true time, that it alone is at rest. Others point out that even the giant clock is in motion when viewed from the river Aare, or from a cloud.
Dawn. A salmon fog floats through the city, carried on the breath of the river. The sun waits beyond the Nydegg Bridge, throws its long, reddened spikes along Kramgasse to the giant clock that measures time, illuminates the underside of balconies. Sounds of morning drift through the streets like the smell of bread. A child wakes and cries for her mother. An awning creaks quietly as the milliner arrives at his shop on Marktgasse. An engine whines on the river. Two women talk softly beneath an arcade.
As the city melts through fog and the night, one sees a strange sight. Here an old bridge is half-finished. There, a house has been removed from its foundations. Here, a street veers east for no obvious reason. There, a bank sits in the middle of the grocery market. The lower stained-glass windows of St. Vincent’s portray religious themes, the uppers switch abruptly to a picture of the Alps in spring. A man walks briskly toward the Bundeshaus, stops suddenly, puts his hands to his head, shouts excitedly, turns, and hurries in the opposite direction.
This is a world of changed plans, of sudden opportunities, of unexpected visions. For in this world, time flows not evenly but fitfully and, as consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of the future.
When a mother receives a sudden vision of where her son will live, she moves her house to be near him. When a builder sees the place of commerce in the future, he twists his road in that direction. When a child briefly glimpses herself as a florist, she decides not to attend university. When a young man gets a vision of the woman he will marry, he waits for her. When a solicitor catches sight of himself in the robes of a judge in Zurich, he abandons his job in Berne. Indeed, what sense is there in continuing the present when one has seen the future?
For those who have had their vision, this is a world of guaranteed success. Few projects are started that do not advance a career. Few trips are taken that do not lead to the city of destiny. Few friends are made who will not be friends in the future. Few passions are wasted.
For those who have not had their vision, this is a world of inactive suspense. How can one enroll in university without knowing one’s future occupation? How can one set up an apothecary on Marktgasse when a similar shop might do better on Spitalgasse? How can one make love to a man when he may not remain faithful? Such people sleep most of the day and wait for their vision to come.
Thus, in this world of brief scenes from the future, few risks are taken. Those who have seen the future do not need to take risks, and those who have not yet seen the future wait for their vision without taking risks.
Some few who have witnessed the future do all they can to refute it. A man goes to tend the museum gardens in Neuchatel after he has seen himself a barrister in Lucerne. A youth embarks on a vigorous sailing voyage with his father after a vision that his father will die soon of heart trouble. A young woman allows herself to fall in love with one man even though she has seen that she will marry another. Such people stand on their balconies at twilight and shout that the future can be changed, that thousands of futures are possible. In time, the gardener in Neuchatel gets tired of his low wages, becomes a barrister in Lucerne. The father dies of his heart, and his son hates himself for not forcing his father to keep to his bed. The young woman is deserted by her lover, marries a man who will let her have solitude with her pain.
Who would fare better in this world of fitful time? Those who have seen the future and live only one life? Or those who have not seen the future and wait to live life? Or those who deny the future and live two lives?
A glance along the crowded booths on Spitalgasse tells the story. The shoppers walk hesitantly from one stall to the next, discovering what each shop sells. Here is tobacco, but where is mustard seed? Here are sugar beets, but where is cod? Here is goat’s milk, but where is sassafras? These are not tourists in Berne on their first visit. These are the citizens of Berne. Not a man can remember that two days back he bought chocolate at a shop named Ferdinand’s, at no. 17, or beef at the Hot delicatessen, at no. 36. Each shop and its specialty must be found anew. Many walk with maps, directing the map-holders from one arcade to the next in the city they have lived in all their lives, in the street they have traveled for years. Many walk with notebooks, to record what they have learned while it is briefly in their heads. For in this world, people have no memories.
When it is time to return home at the end of the day, each person consults his address book to learn where he lives. The butcher, who has made some unattractive cuts in his one day of butchery, discovers that his home is no. 29 Nageligasse. The stockbroker, whose short-term memory of the market has produced some excellent investments, reads that he now lives at no. 89 Bundesgasse. Arriving home, each man finds a woman and children waiting at the door, introduces himself, helps with the evening meal, reads stories to his children. Likewise, each woman returning from her job meets a husband, children, sofas, lamps, wallpaper, china patterns. Late at night, the wife and husband do not linger at the table to discuss the day’s activities, their children’s school, the bank account. Instead, they smile at one another, feel the warming blood, the ache between the legs as when they met the first time fifteen years ago. They find their bedroom, stumble past family photographs they do not recognize, and pass the night in lust. For it is only habit and memory that dulls the physical passion. Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first.
A world without memory is a world of the present. The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life. By reading its pages daily, he can relearn the identity of his parents, whether he was born high or born low, whether he did well or did poorly in school, whether he has accomplished anything in his life. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost. In the leafy cafes on the Brunngasshalde, one hears anguished shrieking from a man who just read that he once killed another man. sighs from a woman who just discovered she was courted by a prince, sudden boasting from a woman who has learned that she received top honors from her university ten years prior. Some pass the twilight hours at their tables reading from their Books of Life; others frantically fill its extra pages with the day’s events.
With time, each person’s Book of Life thickens until it cannot be read in its entirety. Then comes a choice. Elderly men and women may read the early pages, to know themselves as youths; or they may read the end, to know themselves in later years.
Some have stopped reading altogether. They have abandoned the past. They have decided that it matters not if yesterday they were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, proud or humble, in love or empty-hearted ?o more than it matters how a soft wind gets into their hair. Such people look you directly in the eye and grip your hand firmly. Such people walk with the limber stride of their youth. Such people have learned how to live in a world without memory.