David Copperfield (which I’m currently reading) is a fictional autobiography. The narrator, David, is a man who tries to reconstruct, and perhaps to recover, his life through memory. In this, he resembles Proust’s Marcel, being, like him, in search of lost time. In the second chapter of the book he recalls events that occurred when he was still a little boy of perhaps six years old and his mother still a very young and handsome woman. David’s father had died shortly before he was born, and David and his mother had been very close until she met a new man whom she would soon marry. The man turns out to be a tyrant, his mother is too weak to oppose him, and David is sent away to a boarding school in another part of the country. Yet the adult David, looking back on his life, remembers his mother as she was before that time, shortly after she had met that man and when she still dared to show her son how much she loved him. And it is in his memory that the person that she once was is kept alive:
“Can I say of her face – altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is – that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, as distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocent and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night? Can I say she ever changed, when my remembrance brings her back to life, thus only; and, truer to its loving youth than I have been, or man ever is, still holds fast what it cherished then?”
David’s mother is of course long gone, and even if she were still alive, she would be old now and no longer innocent and girlishly beautiful. Yet in his memory she still is and will always be, as long as he is there to remember her. What interests me in David’s account is the suggestion that the past is not really gone, that it is not really past at all, except in the sense that we can no longer fully access it, no longer go there. It is rather like a place that we once lived in, but now have been barred from ever visiting again, and which is still out there, somewhere, unchanged. Like a Garden of Eden (though not necessarily a nice one), whose gates have been slammed shut in our faces and are now guarded by a couple of cherubim to make sure that we can never go back there again. It suggests that time is just another form of space, and that is exactly what I feel when I look back at my own life. (I suppose you could say it is a B-Series experience of time, which knows no past or future, but only earlier and later.) It feels as if I had lived in different temporal worlds, as if the boy that I once was still existed in a parallel universe, and the troubled teenager in another, and the student, and the young father in yet another. It is phases of my life (not moments) that each seem to have created their own universe. Each of these phases is connected to particular places, which today are of course no longer the same places, not because they have changed so much, but because I no longer belong there. They would no longer know me. Those creations are not possible worlds of events that have never occurred because I didn’t act in such a way that they would occur (but which could have occurred if I had), but actual worlds, of events that did occur, which my memory (and a strange sort of longing) presents to me as worlds that still co-exist with the world that I am currently inhabiting.
I’m not even sure this idea makes sense, but then again, it is time itself, and not any particular account of it, that seems to defy understanding. How can we understand that there once was a time, not long ago, when we didn’t exist, and that there will be a time, very soon, when we no longer exist? How can we understand that we might easily have not existed at all, and generally, that something that exists at one moment can at some other moment not exist? How can anything ever be lost for good, simply disappear from the world? How can the world itself have a beginning, and how an end? And how can it not have? Perhaps those philosophers, from Parmenides to John McTaggart, who have claimed that there is, ultimately, no time, that time is an illusion, are right after all.