Philosophy yearns to reveal time in a form that is understandable and universal, its essence scraped away, seized as it were from without and rendered in language. History yearns to move against time, to recover what time has effaced, to enter into the struggle against time on time’s terms. Literature does something else—it is literature that can bring to us the experience of time that is not our own, that is other and distinct in situation and circumstance, but that is nonetheless time itself, the same time all humans live; it sets us apart from one time and into another time and lets me know time as philosophy cannot, from within a particular situation that is other than my own. I might say that with a work of literature, the real is brought home to us, or life is brought home to us; whatever else they involve, neither can be effected if time is not realized; in a work of literature, we are brought home to time, by way of imaginatively entering a particular experience or spot of time that is not our own.
Of course, that is not all that literature does, but it something that literature alone effects; that sets apart literature as itself, that distinguishes its profoundest achievements both from philosophy or history and from one another. Time is the imaginative achievement of the greatest literature. Literature is, in its relationship to time, opposed to religion; or maybe more accurately, the study and criticism of literature is opposed to theology, since the latter seeks an understanding of something beyond time, or for all time, whereas the study of literature studies how time is itself imagined, as time, and how the world and life are imagined, valued, apprehended not only within time but as a function of time. If I offer the apprehension of time as a sine que non for literary value or success, it says little about how that success is effected in language; it is too varied, too general to serve as method for creation or criticism. But it serves as an entry point to attune us to the variety of what literature achieves; there is no time in general in literature, there is this time, or that time, and in each time is found. If there is a lesson in all literature, it is a lesson about how to live with time. (Perhaps what I say is true of all art, even the stasis of sculpture; it seems evidently valid of music).
So vehement an emphasis on time might seem to diminish much else that must matter—place, or space, or substance, or feeling. But feeling is obviously bound up in time, and, with further thought, it ought to be clear that substance and place are likewise. To see the world clearly must mean seeing the world clearly in time, matter itself a matter of time. Where the intensity of vision in literature is so intense as to turn back on itself, literature may become about what is physically commensurate with time: light. And, as we would expect, when the experience of time is least human and most associated with eternity and the eternal, light is often the subject of verse, too.
What I offer here is not criticism, but is instead something like philosophy, aspiring to a generalized account. And yet it is also not yet philosophy, serving instead as an intuitive description of an experience—of my experience—without grounds or argument. It is possible, however, to complete the circuit and suggest a philosophical basis for what I’ve written, by pointing towards a further characterization of time: that of time as the itself the form of thought. Such is the argument of Sebastian Rödl in Categories of the Temporal, with its argument that the thought of past and present is the form that permits thoughts of object, substance, and empirical experience; that past and present allow us to know and judge the world; it’s an argument against Quine, with and against Frege and Kant, with Aristotle and, tantalizingly in its closing pages, Plato. Philosophy, being an account of thought thinking itself, thought knowing itself and its conditions in general, yearns to seize time from without, whenever it makes time its explicit subject; but even when it does not, it cannot but think time, as to think thought is to think something whose very form is temporality.
Literature, being a manifestation and achievement of the judgment, is, as I’ve said elsewhere, quoting FH Bradley, and in line with Coleridge, successful when it gets the condition of the judgment within the judgment itself; when we can infer the grounds upon which a judgment was made, and might infer again from there. Judgment on such a conception is thought: the thought that something is one way rather than another, and that one word is therefore justified rather than another; it is simultaneously a thought of what is and what ought to be given that the apprehension of what is; a work of literature adheres to its own standard of rightness—or not—and also communicates its own standard of rightness—or not. Hence criticism is a hermeneutic entryway: we judge and enter into the judgments of a work, conversing with it, asking what it is doing and why, sometimes dissatisfied by its inability to answer or by the incoherence of what it says; it is capable of being a fallible judgment, as any judgment—being human judgment—can be.
As a manifestation and achievement of judgment, where judgment is a thought, the insight of Rödl returns us to a perfectly generalized notion that the form of literature, and the form of the judgments that constitute a work of literature, are all in some sense forms of the temporal; but we can elaborate upon that notion, and say, drawing on Bradley, that when a work of literature gets the conditions of judgment within the judgment itself, it gets the conditions of temporality within the time of thought itself; more pithily, it gets the thought of time within the time of thought.
Literature brings us home to time by placing its judgments within an experience of time that those judgments likewise communicate; it knows life most fully and richly when it knows the temporality of its knowing, and the temporality also of what it knows (the two merge, their horizons fuse), most fully and richly. Knowing time from within, getting the condition of time within the time of a judgment, is among the greatest technical challenges of literature.