Front Page Reviews & AIR
Of Pie, Time, and Art
When is the last time you were asked to make a pie chart? Let it be now. Make such a chart consisting of three pieces of pie—red, yellow and blue, or whatever crayons you have at your disposal. Let the red piece of pie signify the amount of time you generally spend dwelling on the past. Let the yellow piece of pie represent your time dwelling on the present, and let the blue mark your future-dwelling time. It’s an interesting exercise, makes fine cocktail conversation, and it’s good to keep your crayon skills sharp. There may be other benefits to this exercise as well. It may give you pause to consider whether or not you are comfortable with the amount of time you spend in any one of these three temporal zones relative to the other. It may also give you a chance to think about how your temporal orientation is effecting your life—and how you might change for the better…without getting pie on your face.
Whatever your conclusion is upon the baking of said pie chart—be it "I spend too much time in the past” or “too much in the present” or “too much in the future”—there will be, I assure you, a philosophy of life -- or at least some reputable self-help material -- available to confirm your worst suspicions and challenge you to reposition your loyalties. If the red piece of your pie is too big for you, then you can look to Euripides who said, “Waste not fresh tears over old grief,” or to the AA adaptation of the phrase, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” If the blue piece looms too large for your taste, then follow the path of D.H. Lawrence who said, “I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.” If, however, you find that the landscape of your pie is dominated by a fat yellow piece, and you don’t like that about your damn pie, then at least you can rest easy knowing that you stand with a host of wise people who chastise each other for thinking “only of the moment”—like Aesop’s fabled squirrel who gathered no nuts for Winter.
The point is that there are accumulated bunchings of wisdom around our relationship with these different temporal realms—past, present, and future—and each serves to counterbalance the others. Taken together they show us that much folly and great sorrow ensues when our attention to one realm causes a neglect of the other two. Implicitly they suggest that our relationship to time is a balancing act. Individual temperaments, cultural and sub cultural compulsions, philosophical convictions, practical necessities—these each play a part in swinging our attention one way or another and upsetting the balance. If you live in a Utopian community, or surround yourself with those types, you are being regularly compelled to fix your attention on the future, the site where all will be made right. If you live in a Traditionalist community, or hang with that ilk, your attention is being constantly redirected to the past, generally to the purported golden age of the community—where all was right. If you spend every other weekend at a yoga retreat in Western Massachusetts, and spend your free time reading best-sellers by Eastern religious leaders packaged for Western consumption, chances are you’re being compelled—through gentle metaphors—to dwell in the moment, the point where past and present intersect.
Of course, the families we are born into and our individual temperaments play huge roles in determining which of these communities we associate with. If we are predisposed to overvalue the past—due to something in our formation or some inexplicable aspect of our inner character—we will probably become members of some Traditionalist community, and so our temporal loyalties will become even more skewed toward our original preference, and the balancing act will become harder and harder to maintain. So unless you are the Mary Lou Retton of this kind of beam, you are doomed like the rest of us to wobble and fall—relationship-to-time-wise. Sometimes it seems like there’s not much that any of us can do about this. And maybe there isn’t.
Philosopher with nice glasses who thinks there is something you can do about it.
Paul Ricoeur, a big time philosophy/theology guy who wrote on time, interpretation, and narrative (and recently deceased), thought there was something we could do to balance our temporal loyalties. In fact, he suggested, we are already doing it all the time. Ricoeur was convinced that one of the primary reasons we listen to music, look at art, and read stories is that they help us to deal with the simultaneous push and pull of the past, present, and future. For him, the imaginative activity engendered by the arts “has the power of stringing together the present of a current impression, the past of infancy, and the future of a situation to be realized.” The artwork roots one in the present, dependant as it is on the immediacy of the sensory moment. The artwork gathers up the past, “mobilizing old energies initially invested in archaic figures,” rolling up in its contours a long trail of desire and loss. The artwork orients one toward the future—as a site of resolution. For, as Ricoeur suggests, artworks “are not simply the projections of the artist’s conflicts, but the sketch of their solution. Dreams look backward, toward infancy, the past; the work of art goes ahead of the artist; it is a prospective symbol of his personal synthesis and of man’s future.” The artwork is progression, says Ricoeur, not regression.
Ricouer isn’t saying that listening to Beethoven in the shower and reading For Whom the Bell Tolls on the can will turn you into Mary Lou Retton over night (am I mixing my metaphors?). I think he is just grasping for a way to say that if the arts are drawn from the deepest wells of the human being, and if as human beings we are—in our most far flung corners—shaped by the watery forces of time, and the necessity of our relationship to it—in all of its directions—then it is not unreasonable to assume that there may be a deep interconnection between the two, and the hope, at least, that when we started etching things on the walls of caves, and carving flutes from woolly mammoth tusks we were both expressing this interconnection and ministering to the complex physical and emotional toll it would take on our race.