Study Guide

Paul Ricouer Influences

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The Confessions

Book 11 of The Confessions by St. Augustine figured heavily in my first volume of Time and Narrative. Augustine helped me demonstrate what became the thesis of this study: that philosophical speculation on time has no conclusion. It goes on and on and on, like time itself, or the Energizer Bunny. Why? Because getting all philosophical about time leads to paradoxes—conclusions that seem to cancel each other out.

Basically, we can only think about time so much until we start losing our grip. It's just too big for us.

I still say it's worth the time to ponder the meaning of time, but it's important to recognize that you won't get time all figured out.

If thinking about time is your gig, I recommend thinking in terms of narrative. To be sure, narrative doesn't solve the insoluble, but it does allow us to think in terms of paradoxes. This is why my own philosophizing about time is also a philosophizing about narrative: the two are historically linked.

Mrs. Dalloway

In our day-to-day lives, we go about our business in time, but we're not usually thinking about time itself. We may count down the hours, but we're just uncritically working with the configurations of time in which we were born and in which we continue live. Seriously, when is the last time you questioned why we arrange increments of time into years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds?

Authors of fiction have to think about time more than the rest of us because narrative involves the reconfiguration of time. Take Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, for example. Woolf established particular rules of time in the composition of her novel: she set the action over the course of a single day, but she marked time with flashbacks, tolling of Big Ben, and the untimely news of Septimus's suicide. In this way, time actually shapes the novel's meaning.

The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain is a novel about time, so book nerds like me have to ask, how is it about time? What people like me want to know is whether the novel's other themes—like death and culture—affect the way the novel is about time. This novel is all about death, for example, so what happens to the theme and treatment of time here when death—the end of time, at least for an individual—is also a huge theme?

Basically, as a philosopher, I can't just treat time in some novel, even a novel by Thomas Mann, structurally and thematically; I have to justify my doing it the way I do it. Almost makes me want to read a novel just for enjoyment.

In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)

Well, get a load of that title—of course I would be drawn to a novel about time. Proust's In Search of Lost Time served as a subject of my study in the second volume of my Time and Narrative series. I took an interest in the ways in which time in the novel relates to memory, identity, perception, narration, narrative voices, and the meaning of the work of art as a whole.

I know you kids today like your Inception and your tales of time travel (Dr. Who, anyone?), but you really ought to go read Proust—it's all there.

King Lear

Poor guy, King Lear. He totally wanted to avoid bloodshed, and he still ended up getting just about everyone killed. He's so afraid of a bloody distant future that he takes measures to prevent it—and it's those very measures that turn the present into a bloodbath.

I analyzed King Lear, as well as couple other of Shakespeare's works, as examples of prolonged crisis, or tragedies of the sempiternal (translation: tragedy that goes on forever). In these plays, time is tragic time; it's the passage of terrible moments heading towards a terrible future. There's crisis in the narrative structure binding these moments into a whole, and that tragic whole defines the life of each and every character in the play.

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