Man and Time
by J.B. Priestley
Doubleday, 319 pp., $14.95
Time seems to be in the fashion; having a while ago started to take a special interest in it for what I like to think of as impeccably scholarly purposes, I keep stumbling on books and lecture-series and conversations about “time’s arrow” and so forth, so that it looks as if to be “Time-haunted,” a word Mr. Priestley uses of himself, has become the complaint to have.
The symptoms in his case are copious and graphic; this is a big double-column book with a text, dutifully or compulsively chatty, into which spectacular and more or less relevant photographs irrupt continually. Unperturbed, the author continues with placid thoroughness to discourse on all manner of time-problems; he is a sort of latter-day Addison, an intelligent and urbane middleman with his legs under the coffeehouse table, retailing for the layman his more or less informed views on St. Augustine, McTaggart, clocks, and calendars. At one point he humorously observes that the book should probably have been written by somebody else, and it is true that if you are prepared to accept a little less belles-lettres in the mix you can do better elsewhere.
All the same Priestley is readable, and he injects a certain urgency by making no secret of the fact that he thinks the subject a matter of life and death. So, of course, it literally is. But it is precisely when he is most serious that he drifts off into quasi-philosophical doodling. Admittedly the difficulties are daunting; some of them are outside the range of everybody except theoretical physicists. But we can cheer ourselves up by believing that all that kind of thing has nothing to do with time as human beings invent or experience it. Anybody can be Time-haunted; the question is, who wants to be, and why?
Sometimes it seems that we may be experiencing, a little prematurely, that convergence of historiographical myths which sometimes happens at the end of a century, and which is sometimes called fin-de-siècle, or, in Oscar Wilde’s more extravagant phrase, fin du globe. Somehow it seems acceptable to believe that we, of all people, are in the final age of transition before the ultimate count-down, our drab nuclear apocalypse; hence the resurgence of various eschatological myths, such as decadence and imperialism. The beauty of an historical crisis (and it is some time since we have been able to manage without one) is that it gives you a Pisgah from which to observe the predetermined but inscrutable future. Nobody else has ever been so given to screwing up the stuff of chronology into bundles of crisis as we are. And we suppose that we have the right to call ours the real crisis, if only because we can blow the trumpet ourselves. Since we put nothing after the bang—no millennium—we really have a very final end to think about, with possibly only a very short time in between. And even this time we should like to have some prophetic control …