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Edmund Leach “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time”

September 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Leach, Edmund 1971. Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time. – Leach, Edmund. Rethinking Anthropology. London: The Athlone Press, University of London, 124-136.

[…] it seems to me that our modern English notion of time embraces at least two different kinds of experience which are logically distinct and even contradictory. Firstly, there is the notion of repetition. Whenever we think about measuring time we concern ourselves with some kind of metronome; it may be the ticking of a clock or a pulse beat or the recurrence of days or moons or annual seasons, but always there is something which repeats. Secondly, there is the notion of non-repetition. We are aware that all living things are born, grow old and die, and that this is an irreversible process. (125)

I am inclined to think that all other aspects of time, duration for example or historical sequence, are fairly simple derivatives from these two basic experiences: (a) that certain phenomena of nature repeat themselves (b) that life change is irreversible. (125)

In our conventional way of thinking, every interval of time is marked by repetition; it has a beginning and an end which are ‘the same thing’—the tick of a clock, sunrise, the new moon, New Year’s day . . . but every interval of time is only a section of some larger interval of time which likewise begins and ends in repetition … so, if we think in this way, we must end by supposing that “Time itself” (whatever that is) must repeat itself. (126)

Indeed in some primitive societies it would seem that the time process is not experienced as a ‘succession of epochal durations’ at all; there is no sense of going on and on in the same direction, or round and round the same wheel. On the contrary, time is experienced as something discontinuous, a repetition of repeated reversal, a sequence of oscillations between polar opposites: night and day, winter and summer, drought and flood, age and youth, life and death. In such a scheme the past has no ‘depth’ to it, all past is equally past; it is simply the opposite of now. (126)

My own explanation is of a more structural kind. Frankel (1955) has shown that early Greek ideas about time underwent considerable development. In Homer chronos refers to periods of empty time and is distinguished from periods of activity which are thought of as days (ephemeros). By the time of Pindar this verbal distinction had disappeared, but a tendency to think of time as an ‘alternation between contraries’ active and inactive, good and bad, persisted. It is explicit in Archilochus (seventh century B.C.). In the classical period this idea underwent further development so that in the language of philosophy, time was an oscillation of vitality between two contrasted poles. The argument in Plato’s Phaedo makes this particularly clear. Given this premise, it follows logically that the ‘beginning of time’ occurred at that instant when, out of an initial unity, was created not only polar opposition but also the sexual vitality that oscillates between one and the other—not only God and the Virgin but the Holy Spirit as well (cf. Cornford, 1926). (129)

Most commentators on the Cronus myth have noted simply that Cronus separates Sky from Earth, but in the ideology I have been discussing the creation of time involves more than that. Not only must male be distinguished from female but one must postulate a third element, mobile and vital, which oscillates between the two. It seems clear that the Greeks thought of this third element in explicit concrete form as male semen. Rain is the semen of Zeus; tire the semen of Hephaestos; the offerings to the dead {panspermia) were baskets of seeds mixed up with phallic emblems (Harrison, 1912, 1922); Hermes the messenger of the gods, who takes the soul to Hades and brings back souls from the dead, is himself simply a phallus and a head and nothing more. (129-130)

For men who thought in these terms, ‘the beginning’ would be the creation of contraries, that is to say the creation of male and female not as brother and sister but as husband and wife. My thesis then is that the philosophy of the Phaedo is already implicit in the gory details of the myth of Cronus. The myth is a creation myth, not a story of the beginning of the world, but a story of the beginning of time, of the beginning of becoming. (131)

The oddest thing about time is surely that we have such a concept at all. We experience time, but not with our senses. We don’t see it, or touch it, or smell it, or taste it, or hear it. How then? In three ways:
Firstly we recognize repetition. Drops of water falling from the roof; they are not all the same drop, but different. Yet to recognize them as being different we must first distinguish, and hence define, time-intervals. Time-intervals, durations, always begin and end with ‘the same thing’, a pulse beat, a clock strike, New Year’s Day.
Secondly we recognize aging, entropy. All living things are born, grow old and die. Aging is the irreversible fate of us all. But aging and interval are surely two quite different kinds of experience? I think we lump these two experiences together and describe them both by one name, time, because we would like to believe that in some mystical way birth and death are really the same thing.
Our third experience of time concerns the rate at which time passes. This is tricky. There is good evidence that the biological individual ages at a pace that is ever slowing down in relation to the sequence of stellar time. The feeling that most of us have that the first ten years of childhood ‘lasted much longer’ than the hectic decade 40-50 is no illusion. (132)

[…] the regularity of time is not an intrinsic part of nature; it is a man made notion which we have projected into our environment for our own particular purposes. (133)

Now rites de passage, which are concerned with demarcating the stages 1 in the human life cycle, must clearly be linked with some kind of representation or conceptualization of time. But the only picture of time that could make this death-birth identification logically plausible is a pendulum type concept. […] With a pendulum view of time, the sequence of things is discontinuous; time is a succession of alternations and full stops. Intervals are distinguished, not as the sequential markings on a tape measure, but as repeated opposites, tick-tock tick-tock. And surely our most elementary experiences of time flow are precisely of this kind: day-night day-night; hot-cold hot-cold; wet-dry wet-dry? Despite the word pendulum, this kind of metaphor is not sophisticated; the essence of the matter is not the pendulum but the alternation. I would maintain that the notion that time is a ‘discontinuity of repeated contrasts’ is probably the most elementary and primitive of all ways of regarding time. (133-134)

We talk of measuring time, as if time were a concrete thing waiting to be measured; but in fact we create time by creating intervals in social life. Until we have done this there is no time to be measured. (135)