“The Well of Time”
“Very deep is the well of the past.”
So, in Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann begins his monumental recreation of the Biblical Book of Genesis. In early adolescence, Mann’s Joseph was my favorite book, together with Homer’s Odyssey – both books about involuntary exile and homesickness.
Time, for me, has been a problem. In my childhood, it was not a problem, as I recall. But there came a moment (I have described it in “Kid Stuff”) when suddenly Time “hung heavy.” The minutes, the hours, got soaked with boredom, a sense of restlessness without a ready exit.
When you’re in the company of someone you don’t want to be with – e.g. one of those oversized grownups who used to grab small kids by the chin to express their phony fondness – you look for a way to get out of the room. Boredom had the same features – of being something from which you needed to escape – but without any way to get out of the space where it held sway.
The precipitating event had been nothing great or special. For some reason, the kids who normally played with me weren’t available. So what to do about the Time became a question. An ordinary problem, but unaccountably it came to seem insoluble.
That was when I thought, so this is what the grownups mean when they say,
They would issue these warnings, faintly tinged with their personal bitterness. What would I see? That one would have a grownup’s responsibility for one’s life? That it wasn’t all a well-designed, filled-in space of experience? That one would face choices?
Why did I feel that so threateningly? No clear reason why, but I did.
The next way Time became a problem happened in the years immediately following. Rather suddenly, it occurred to me that
the present cannot stay.
By then, I don’t know why, grownups had become more interesting to me than peers of my own age. Perhaps the sex phenomenon was impinging. Boys and girls had become rivals or prizes to be won in the lottery of life. All that was grotesque to me. I did not warm to competition. I had stopped winning foot races once I realized that everybody who did not win had to lose. Phooey. That’s no fun. By contrast, grownups seemed to be settled figures in the space of social life. If they’d ever had to huff and puff to win the race, they had done it long ago and I did not have to know about it.
Besides, my parents and their friends were really interesting. I would listen to their adult conversations, witty, allusive, opening on corridors of experience beyond what I could see or picture – and I would feel safe.
But then! The party would break up and — where had it gone? Into memory? What was memory? The shades it held were nothing like the substantial bodies, aglow with their intentions, their voices, their accents, their laughter, who had peopled the room only hours before!
My grandfather dominated Time like the patriarchs in Joseph and His Brothers. Once, as I tell in “Tales of Rav Tsair,” my sister and I were sitting on the wine-colored rug at grandpa’s feet and discussing Time with him. Our question was, why does memory capture some moments but not others? Suddenly our grandfather pointed his long, Michaelangelesque forefinger into my small, child’s face saying, as he did so,
“You will remember this moment all your life!
ALL YOUR LIFE you will remember it!”
Why did I? Of course his intervention was unexpected. And grandpa had authority. He had earned it in many arenas, of which I had only the dimmest understanding then. But, beyond what he brought about in me in that moment, what else had he effected?
Memory had got itself attached to eternity in some alchemy known to the writers and redactors of Biblical experience. Time had de-paganized itself. No longer a heathen wind sweeping all that was solid and substantial before it – it had acquired the thickness of a promise. Of covenant. It would be many years before I saw the linkage between Time and covenant, but the pattern had been laid down early.
As I see it, from my present perspective – with a birthday coming up — only the covenant binds the heedless moments together, attaching our years to God’s.
Make of that what you will.