Mental Time Travel (2)

This is a follow-up to my first post on this topic. There, I suggested that if you want to understand mental time travel in humans, you need to understand the intricacies of the language in which that time travel is described; and if you want to understand those intricacies, you need to see how they emerge in literature’s many representations of people thinking across time.


Here, I want to deal briefly with the idea that What Literature Knows about this (or any topic) is achieved not just by the writers of literature, but also by their readers, and in particular by literary critics. Literary works are finished by the people who read them. The best critics play a special role in drawing out, fulfilling, and sharing the knowledge that literary works might have about the mind. One of the difficult things about being interdisciplinary as a literary critic may be that, , we don’t quite have a discrete and complete thing that we work on, which offers an inherent set of phenomena that we can discern and account for.


Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis is a history of the representation of reality in western literature, and a classic of literary criticism if ever there was one. It takes representative passages from the whole of the Western tradition, and identifies key developments in the ways in which literature depicted the world. Some of these relate, unsurprisingly, to time, and to mental time-travel. In the first chapter, he deals with two episodes: the moment in Homer’s Odyssey where the disguised hero’s old nurse recognises him by a scar on his leg, and the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.

It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand [Homer], externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand [in Genesis], the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is non-existent; time and place alone are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and fraught with background.
(Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask, 50th anniversary edition with an introduction by Edward Said (Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 11-12.)


In the book’s final chapter mental time-travel comes to the fore again. This next extract shows Auerbach drawing out the possibilities of what is often called the ‘stream of consciousness’ in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. The chapter also looks at Proust.

The two excursuses [i.e. two trains of thought that take the narrative voice away from the present place and time], then, are not as different as they at first appear. It is not so very important that the first, so far as time is concerned (and place too), runs its course within the framing occurrence, while the second conjures up other times and places. The times and places of the second are not independent; they serve only the polyphonic treatment of the image which releases it; as a matter of fact, they impress us (as does the interior time of the first excursus) like an occurrence in the consciousness of some observer (to be sure, he is not identified) who might see Mrs Ramsay at the described moment and whose meditation upon the unsolved enigma of her personality might contain memories of what others (people, Mr Bankes) say and think about her. In both excursuses we are dealing with attempts to fathom a more genuine, a deeper, and indeed a more real reality; in both cases the incident which releases the excursus appears accidental and is poor in content; in both cases it makes little difference whether the excursuses employ only the consciousness-content, and hence only interior time, or whether they also employ exterior shifts of time. (p. 540)

Critical habits change. If a colleague today wrote ‘more real reality’ in an essay I would feel obliged to question their confidence about both adjective and noun. Nevertheless the achievement of Auerbach’s book, arriving at so many nuanced suggestions about how literary works are organising their views of the world, and how different eras portray the mind in action, and how readers are drawn into acts of mental time-travel, remains remarkable. I don’t want to undertake a lengthy evaluation of what he says here, and I’ve battled with this post enough. The point is just to propose that what we see in Auerbach’s Mimesis isn’t just observation of What Literature Knows About Your Brain; it is participation in it, and that’s something to keep thinking over.


I could have done something similar with Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot, Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, and others. Individually and as part of a collective disciplinary process, they know a great deal – an indispensable amount – about mental time travel.

There is the Observer Effect in physics, and perhaps experimental psychologists sometimes help to create the phenomena they are observing in their subjects, but there is still, I’d argue, a clearer sense of something there to be dealt with. Literary critics wouldn’t be alone in the humanities in this respect: history and historiography are entwined; philosophy, I suppose, is the thing looking and the thing looked at. The exception could be a completely historicist approach that only sought to understand what each work meant in its immediate context, with no interest in, or influence from, the work’s life in the critic’s time. That is pretty hard to carry off, I think, and definitely not in the spirit of this blog.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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