We modern folks have a very modern view of time. Having emptied time of transcendence, we think of it as mere chronology or sequence. Still, this sequence can be viewed optimistically; in our culture we tend to find meaning in time in terms of human progress. But there is a darker view of time in the absence of higher things. If God doesn’t exist, are Goodness, Truth, Beauty possible? Some say no, and despair.
This is the case of Maneck in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Time and its relationship to meaning is woven through the novel, most often through the words and musings of this young man. For instance, there is the idea that life is essentially tragic because it is embedded in sequential time:
Our lives are but a sequence of accidents–a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call LIFE.
Why does Maneck see life as tragic and time as meaningless? It’s because for him there is no God who is active in his creation. He has this conversation with landlady, Dina:
‘God is dead,’ said Maneck. ‘That’s what a German philosopher wrote.’
She was shocked. ‘Trust the Germans to say such things,’ she frowned. ‘And do you believe it?’
‘I used to. But now I prefer to think that God is a giant quilt maker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.’
In the novel, we find reflections on the nature of time as we experience it–no minute is like another minute. Where I find this a piece of an argument for meaning in time, Maneck ends up using the same phenomenon as evidence against meaning:
What an unreliable thing is time–when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair. …. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.
On his return home after the spreading of his father’s ashes, Maneck sits on the porch and begins
escorting a hose of memories through his troubled mind.” His mother’s interruption of his thoughts irritated him “as though he could have recaptured, reconstructed, redeemed those happy times if only he had been given long enough.” While he sits in the deepening dusk he spies a lizard. “He hated its shape, its colour, its ugly snout. The manner in which it flicked its evil tongue. Its ruthless way of swallowing flies. The way time swallowed human efforts and joy. Time, the ultimate grandmaster that could never be checkmated. There was no way out of its distended belly. He wanted to destroy the loathsome creature.
In a world where God does not exist, or has gone far away, if we are to find meaning in time we must find it someplace else. Some will find all attempts to find meaning under these conditions impossible. They, like Maneck, may despair.