Friday, November 20, 2009

Kerouac, Right and Wrong

This entry comes from one of my writing group experiences. We talk, circle around an idea or issue, then write for 20 minutes or so. My response this week still has my head spinning, so with little revision, here's fresh food from the Louisville lovelies group.

"The purpose of art is to stop time." -- Jack Kerouac

Time as a construct makes me dizzy. Painting, photography, sculpture must freeze the scene, make the model pose until captured. Think of those early photographs that required a long exposure, so long that the subjects needed props to hold them in place. And while these visual arts stopped time, did they also warp it? I'm thinking of a studio portrait of my grandmother. She's about twelve, her hair arranged in careful ringlets, her stockings smooth, dress neatly draped over her knees, a perfect lady, and an unlikely role for her, but for the time it took to pose, she was just that, and not the boisterous girl who once left her red petticoat in a confessional.

Borges says that we cannot help but be part of our own time, cannot, as artists, fully enter past or future, so as writers we cannot stop time's effect on us. Maybe this is one of the differences between the visual and literary arts, although a novel, poem, or play from another era, honestly written, carries time forward to us, just as that photo of Gram carries her forward to me, however odd the portrayal.

Kerouac has to be right in one sense, that an honest journal, portrait, or poem catches and immobilizes a slice of time, becomes a freeze frame able to evoke the past. But he's also wrong. Nothing stops time, and time makes strangers of us all. A dozen years from now, my grandson will not know that an old photo in an album has caught a little girl in a nicely dressed lie. And a dozen decades from now, language will have changed so much that these very pages will seem alien, of value only to some pedant studying old words, old phrases and constructions, curiosities as odd as narwhals, as dead as passenger pigeons.

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