‘Slower,’ said Jalal. ‘In-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. Very good. Slow the stream of your thoughts. Once you are in Slow-Time, everything will seem to slow down around you. But you will be fast. You will be faster than anything. (from S.F. Said’s Varjak Paw, p.129)
We are accustomed to measuring time in a uniform manner. In this sense, time is made up of fixed, repeatable units. Phenomenologically, however, the way we experience time can alter quite markedly – it can seem to stretch, or constrict as if it were hardly adhering to the usual units of time measured upon the clock face. That final hour, when you are desperate to leave work to go and meet someone, time can feel so long. Yet, upon meeting the person you longed to meet, an hour seems to fly past all too quickly. Are these in fact different kinds of time? Or is it simply how we make use of time, how we shape the time we are in?
In S.F. Said’s Varjak Paw, we are told the tale of a small Mesopotamian Blue kitten who, breaking out of the confines of his owner’s home, must learn to fend for himself in the big wide city. In doing so he re-discovers the Seven Skills of a secret cat martial arts called The Way of Jalal. Of these seven skills, the fourth is Slow-Time: ‘everything will seem to slow down around you. But you will be fast. You will be faster than anything‘. There is something quite plausible about a cat with the ability of slow-time, one only has to sit and watch the stealth with which a cat slowly advances upon its prey (or just a shadow even) to recognise a certain potential for an altered sense of time.
In a rather more elaborate fashion, Slow-Time is an effect used in countless films since its celebrated use (and development) in The Matrix. The following clip offers an account of how the effect is created. Given the nature of the movie industry, it is perhaps without surprise that instead of the gentle sounding Slow-Time, the effect is generally referred to as Bullet-Time. Nonetheless, what is apparent in the creation of the effect is – as a theoretical model – the ability to spatialise time, or rather to ‘move’ in time just in the same way we can willfully move in the three dimensions of space. It is a fantasy of time travel used on a micro-level to move about the perspective of a single event.
Concurrent with reading Varjak Paw, I have also been reading Sara Maitland‘s intriguing new book, A Book of Silence. It has got me thinking that perhaps Slow-Time need not be thought of as just a mystical Way, the musings of a theoretical physicist, or the technology intensive illusion of the film industry. Perhaps Slow-Time is equally something quite simple and ready to hand. In her book, Maitland gives an account of an ‘adventure’ she goes on – over a period of 10 years – to experience and chart what we mean by silence (the book reads as of mixture of both personal journey and cultural history). Crucially she seeks to find a positive, affirmative reading of silence, contrary to popular notions, which suggest silence to be boring, asocial and potentially bad for us. She spends six weeks all alone a cottage on Skye. During this self-imposed period of silence (which for her is closely linked to solitude), she notes eight particular experiences: ‘…an intensification of both physiological and psychological sensation; disinhibition; a sense of ‘givenness’ or connection; auditory confusions; an exhilarating consciousness of being at risk, in peril; ineffability and bliss’ (p.78). Not all of these experiences are necessarily relevant to Slow-Time, but they all suggest of a certain mallebility of our own sense of self and our sense or place in time and space. She writes, for example, of a heightened sensation and awareness of the taste of food (even bland food such as porridge), an ability to distinguish various sonics within the rush of wind and rain. And she describes a whole different sense of being in the world, particularly a sensation of blurring with the surrounds, to shed the usual sense of one’s own boundary (of one’s skin etc). Is this how Slow-Time begins, with a re-negoiation with what is going on around you? (…it is worth remembing, the First Skill of the Way of Jalal is Open Mind, ‘only when you admit that you know nothing, can you truly know anything‘!).
Roland Barthes, in his lecture course ‘The Neutral’, devotes a section to ‘Silence’. He begins by differentiating between tacere, which in Latin refers to verbal silence, and silere, meaning stillness, absence of movement and of noise. Sara Maitland’s quest to embrace and understand silence begins more along the lines of verbal silence, but soon (especially following her experiences on Skye) unearths much more of the sense of silere, which, as Barthes explains, generally refers to:
…objects, night, sea, winds … Hence a series of very beautiful ordinary metaphors: the moon turned invisible at its wanning, the bud or the tendril that hasn’t yet opened up, the egg that is not yet hatched: silet, sileunt.
In short, silere would refer to a sort of timeless virginity of things, before they are born or after they have disappeared…
I’d like to think the shift of attention to a silence of things (and not just words, speech), brings us upon a sense of Slow-Time, in that it is about our ability to take up and appreciate shapes within our all too often confined experience of the space-time continnum. Like Maitland, Barthes looks to silence (and more broadly the neutral) in the affirmative. It is precisely its removal from the very structures of meaning we are accustomed to that attracts him and within which he suggests a radical space or time of meaning – or, the opening of meaning. And, there is a underlying interest in Zen for Barthes too, both its ‘suspicion with regard to theoretical verbalisation’ and its undoing of hierarchies: ‘Why did the sixth patriarch succed the fifth: “It’s becase,” he says, “I don’t understand Buddhism.” (p.28). At the close of the section on Silence, Barthes writes the following: ‘This integral silence is no longer simply the tacere but joins the silere: silence of all nature, scattering of the fact-of-man throughout nature: as if man were some kind of noise of nature (in the cybernetic sense), a caco-phony’ (p.29). Perhaps, here, Barthes, is raising Slow-Time to the level of humanity, beyond the singular adventures of a very particular cat!
It might be said bridging between Slow-Time and silence, or to put another way, to suggest a certain silence within Slow-Time (which admittedly is often a feature of the sequences one sees in film, at least in that the soundtrack is ‘slowed’ through the use of different acoustics), is not entirely appropriate. But, if it is a way to relate Slow-Time to our own lives, it might be worth pursuing. At the time of my writing I am caught up in a certain silence. Not of the solitary kind, as Maitland experiences on Skye. Instead, I am surrounded by a host of sounds, but all of which in a culture the language of which I do not speak. I hear everything, but I do not comprehend and crucially I have little means to make the ‘voices’ in my head become understandable to those around me. It is the latter, I feel, that creates the silence I am in. The days are long (but then I have come from a timezone in which the nights grow dark much earlier) and I find myself noticing all sorts of little details (the shape of clouds, the bleeps of domestic appliances, the structural creaks of the house, the patterns on cushions and carpets), which perhaps I would not normally attend to (although some who know me would might say otherwise!). Is this Slow-Time I am experiencing? Or is my current sense of time simply out of joint? Going on an unusual clumsiness with chopsticks I suspect the latter, but I will keep practicing – one never knows when the art of Slow-Time might come in handy!