The book I’m working on includes a kind of memory plot: the main character retrieves his lost memories by retracing his steps, moving through the geographical spaces of his past.
This idea is nothing new: pretty much every character who goes through some kind of trauma in literature deals with it by retracing his steps. Telling his story. Beginning with Odysseus, and more recently, Eternal Sunshine, Memento, Time’s Arrow, Slaughterhouse-Five, etc. These great stories do exactly what they’re supposed to: not only do they give us a map and take us on a journey, they give us a new way of mapping our own lives. (I remember stumbling out of the theater after watching Memento, barely able to read the street signs.)
So this morning I’m reading the good ol’ Science Times, and I get another shocker: according to a recent article published in the Journal of Cognitive Science, “the speakers of Aymara, an Indian language of the high Andes, think of time differently than just about everyone else in the world. They see the future as behind them and the past ahead of them.”
It seems that humans began conflating time and space long before Einstein ever picked up a piece of chalk. Instead of equations, however, we use what are called conceptual metaphors, in which space sits in for time.
Most of us describe the future as ahead or in front of us, and the past as behind us. Until the view of the Aymara speakers was deconstructed, no significant exceptions to this way of thinking about time had been demonstrated….
…the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.
…the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes.
The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.
Well, this really blew my mind, and has obvious implications for the story I’m trying to tell. If the future is behind us, and the past up ahead, do we back away from the past, trying to edge closer to the future, but still blind to it? Or do we try to put the past behind us, and are therefore doomed to bump into it in our quest to make it into the future?
I think it also has something to do with comics, another “conceptual metaphor…in which space sits in for time”:
page from REINVENTING COMICS, quoted by Dylan Horrocks
Of course, Dylan Horrocks and James Kochalka toss this theory on its head: comics don’t just spacially represent time, “comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.”
I’m not sure where my thoughts are headed at this point, but how curious to me that we must map time in order to conceptualize it. That we all seem to be cartographers, trying to map our worlds…