The Tragic Arrow Of Time


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An analytical paper written for CPLT 3590

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The Tragic Arrow Of Time

  1. 1. Heather HildrethProfessor Renate VorisCPLT 359023 April 2010 The Tragic Arrow of Time Einstein’s theory of general relativity revolutionized the way mankind perceives time.Prior to Einstein, man viewed time as linear and continuous; after Einstein, he views time asnonlinear and relative. In either case, Stephen Hawking asserts that time is defined by memoryvia chaos, a state of disorder. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and in Euripide’s tragic playMedea, time moves forward in the direction of increasing chaos, which is sparked by memoriesshared in dialogue. The sharing of these memories helps define a sense of time relative to eachparticipating character, and it is obvious that time is more linear in the ancient Medea and morecurved in the modern Beloved. Ultimately, sharing memories by means of dialogue increasesdisorder in each character’s universe and results in Sethe and Medea committing murder. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking asks, “Why do we remember the past butnot the future?”(148). Hawking begins to answer this question as he explains that there is a“thermodynamic arrow of time” and a “psychological arrow of time” and that the latter dependson the former (149). He defines the “psychological arrow” as an arrow of time that points in theway people feel time passes based on their memories. These memories help to distinguish thepast from the present, but memory itself relies on the “thermodynamic arrow,” which points inthe direction of increasing entropy. Entropy is the scientific word for chaos, or uncontrolled
  2. 2. disorder. The second law of thermodynamics states that in any closed system, entropy willincrease with time. Unless energy is added to the system, entropy will continue to increase. Thislaw can be applied to broader actions in life: when situations are left unrestrained, chaos ensues.Hawking illustrates the second law of thermodynamics by using a cup falling off of a table(148). As time moves forward, a cup falls off of a table and breaks into pieces, exemplifyingincreasing entropy. It is impossible in our universe to see the pieces falling back up the table andreassemble into a cup. The failure to reverse is not because it violates another law of physics,such as conservation of energy, but simply because entropy cannot decrease with time. In thisexample, an observer would remember the cup being on the table, and then on the floor inpieces. Hawking asserts that this “psychological” arrow will always travel in the same directionas increasing entropy (51). This dependence is due to the fact that remembering an event itselfwill use energy to “order” one’s memory because energy will help to order a system, while lackof energy will disorder it. However, the use of energy used to organize a memory will dissipateheat into the universe, and actually increase entropy, because entropy is directly related to heattransfer. The increase in entropy is always greater than the order in organizing a memory, andthus people will always remember events in the direction that entropy increases. So, even if itwere possible for the pieces of the cup to fall back up to the table, an observer would stillremember the cup falling to the floor. Scientifically, it is clear that time increases when entropydoes, and memory builds when entropy increases. As a result, memory will order events fromordered to chaotic, which defines a past and present for the observer, or the person in possession
  3. 3. of the memory, that correlates with chaos. In Beloved, time is curved as the reader peers into different memories and “rememories”belonging to different characters. Rememories are memories that have been unlocked by a tellingof a memory. A perfect example of rememory is when Sethe shares the story of her mom’s deathwith Beloved and Denver. Sethe begins by sharing her memory of her mother and moves on toexplain how she was killed: “Hung. By the time they cut her down nobody could tell whethershe had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me and I did look”(73). Sharing that one piece ofinformation with Beloved and Denver through dialogue was enough to crack open a lost memorythat occurred after: “Oh, my Jesus,” she said and stood up so suddenly the comb she had parked in Denver’s hair fell to the floor… she was remembering something she had forgotten she knew. Something privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross…”I never found out. It was a lot of them,” she said, but what was getting clear and clearer …was the woman called Nan who took her hand and yanked her away from the pile before she could make out the mark.”(73)In actuality, Sethe did not look for her mother’s circle and cross, but rather was pulled away byNan. It is clear that sharing this rememory through dialogue creates chaos in the presentsituation. Not only is there a physical increase in entropy: “Sethe gathered hair from the comb…and tossed it into the fire. It exploded into stars…suddenly the comb fell to the floor”(73), butthe situation itself becomes disordered, as well. Denver worries over the scattered state of hermother: “What’s the matter with you?” Moreover, the disorder inside the rememory increases as
  4. 4. well, as Sethe recounts how Nan told her about how her mother killed all of her previous babies:“She threw them all away but you…Without names, she threw them”(74). A memory simplyabout the hanging of her mother changes into a rememory of her mother killing babies, and theincrease in chaos in the rememory extends Sethe’s psychological arrow of time forward as sheremembers new things that occur after her initial memory, and sharing this rememory throughdialogue creates chaos in the present and draws the arrow of time to her present situation. Whileher arrow points forward (relative to her), it is somehow warped in her own space-time. Sethe’s first memory of Sweet Home was positive: “suddenly there was Sweet Homerolling, rolling, rolling before her eyes…in shameless beauty”(7), but as the novel continues in aspiral of chaos, she has rememories that drastically change her perception. The arrival of Paul Dsets rememory in motion, which creates chaotic actions. As soon as he spots Sethe, the twobegin to share memories of Halle’s death and Sethe’s escape. Their conversation leads Paul D toremember how the Sweet Home guys waited for Sethe and when he begins to talk to Denver, sheremembers how lonely she was as a child and ignites with vengeful grief as she begins to weep.Immediately after, “Something in the house braced”(18), foreshadowing an uncontrollabledisorder that will soon arise. Paul D resumes his dialogue with Sethe. As she shares her memoryof “whitegirl” and how she had milk to nurse her baby, she is struck with a rememory of whenshe was raped and robbed of her breast milk by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Chaos has increased inthe state of the house in addition to inside Sethe’s rememory, since it starts out with aid from awhite person and ends in abuse from a white person that she cannot contorl. After sharing therememory, Paul D is overcome with an uncontrollable desire for Sethe, and although Sethe
  5. 5. wants to “push busyness into the corners of the room”(21), the house trembles, stirring Paul D toremember how he was chained up and used to shake, like the house. Then, “The house itself waspitching. Sethe slid to the floor and struggled”(21). Paul D tries to calm Beloved’s ghost down,but at the expense of wrecking the house. While one may analyze this situation as a decrease inchaos because Paul D defeated the ghost, it is exactly this defeat that taunts the ghost to comeback in human form, which eventually increases disorder in the 124 system. Like before, thisincrease in disorder dictates where Sethe’s arrow of time points. Chaos increases in herrememory of robbing, and this rememory increases chaos in 124, so the arrow begins at SweetHome, travels through her rape, and warps around to Paul D’s arrival and his “defeat” ofBeloved. Paul D’s arrow has a similar curved trajectory: the arrow begins at Sweet Home (beforeSethe), travels through his days of enchainment, and curves around to the same event of Sethe’sarrow, or the temporary termination of the baby ghost. One may wonder what is chaotic abouthis days of enchainment, but the novel clearly, yet briefly, compares Paul D’s state during hisemprisonment to the uncontrollable disorder in the house: “Paul D had not trembled since1856…locked up and chained down, his hands shook so bad he couldn’t smoke or even scratchproperly”. Travel through time cannot go backwards (unless antimatter or wormholes are involved),so pieces of the arrow cannot be “added on” in the middle; rather, events pile onto the tip of thearrow as it grows. Accordingly, as Sethe and Paul D continue to have rememories, these
  6. 6. rememories will seem closer to the present and they will have the sensation of reliving theserememories as their sense of time spirals outward. Just when Sethe is set on “keeping the past at bay”(51), the family finds Beloved by theirhouse. Morrison uses labor imagery, describing Sethe as containing a bladder “filled tocapacity” after seeing Beloved, who had just emerged from a stream and “had new skin, linelessand smooth”(61). The image of Beloved’s second birth delivers a hint to the reader that thecharacters’ sense of time is about to change again. Beloved’s presence sparks rememories in others through dialogue. After a discussionPaul D has with Beloved, he has “the feeling a large, silver fish had slipped from his hands theminute he grabbed hold of its tail” and begins to have a rememory about all of the AfricanAmericans he ran into after his escape (78). Morrison uses choppy language, “Move. Walk.Run. Hide.” to express the hectic sensation Paul D feels as he ponders a scene of chaos in hisrememory: people who “had hidden in caves and fought owls…who…stole from pigs…who…had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells”(78). Of course, “No sooner did he have thethought than Beloved strangled on one of the raisins…she fell backward and…thrashedaround…on her hands and knees, [she] vomited…and strangled for breath”(79); a clearindication that Paul D has rekindled chaos’s nasty flame with a rememory, and by definition hascurved his arrow of time from his escape to his current situation in 124. Immediately afterward,Sethe argues with Paul D over the consequences of his provoking of Beloved.
  7. 7. Their conversation immediately leads to Paul D sharing a rememory with Sethe about thetime he last saw Halle, and “Sethe was gripping her elbows as though to keep them from flyingaway” after soaking in his rememory(81). While this rememory does not belong to Sethe, thechaos that spawns from it ultimately effects Sethe more than it effects Paul D because thisrememory begins Sethe’s breakdown by leaving her unable “to imagine, let alone plan for, thenext day”(83). As her breakdown progresses throughout the novel, she is unable to controlBeloved and is powerless in her sense of self. One exchange of words is very perplexing. Denver asks a provocative question of herown to Beloved: “Why you call yourself Beloved?”(88) Beloved answers that “In the dark myname is Beloved” and proceeds to describe the place she came from as dark, hot, and filled withdead people (88). Beloved curls up in a tight position that resembles the fetal position. IsBeloved having a rememory about a grave or a womb? Is it a rememory at all? Morrison depictsBeloved’s origins so ambiguously because Beloved was never buried in a grave, hence there isno designated place to remember her. Her appearance in human form is a struggle to maintainher memory, by the end of the novel, she fails. As a result, she has no rememories for herselfand thus no arrow of time to follow. Many critics interpret her origins as a symbol of the originsof slave life in the United States: “I wait; then I got on the bridge…It was a long time”(88).Beloved could be describing the bridge of a slave ship traveling along the Middle Passage, andsince she has no memories of her own, she holds the memories of the slave population. Sincethese rememories belong to the African American population as a whole, she does not have her
  8. 8. own sense of time, which is why she can be a baby and a full grown woman at the same time andmay also be why she appears as different things to different people. As Beloved probes characters to delve deeper into rememories with her questions,disorder in the family builds. Paul D has sex with Beloved. Pieces of Beloved start to fall off ofher. Sethe begins to lose control of herself and starts making sacrifices in order to feed Belovedand keep her alive. However, dialogue with characters outside of 124 also increases disorder at124. For example, after Denver and Beloved have an argument over who choked Sethe in theClearing, Denver begins to remember her isolation as a child (119). Then, she thinks about theshort period where she interacted with children, and she begins to have a memory of aconversation she had with Nelson Lord. Remembering Nelson’s question, “Didn’t your motherget locked away for murder? Wasn’t you in there with her when she went?”(123) unleashes arememory of how she went deaf until she heard the ghost of her sister crawling up the stairs(122). The disorder inside the rememory increases because Denver remembers the growing spiteof the ghost and the fury it bombs onto the house. The rememory creates disorder in the family at124 because after the rememory is over, Denver begins to lose dedication to Sethe and losescontrol in her attempt to please Beloved as she thinks that “the choice between Sethe andBeloved was without conflict,” even after contemplating the danger Beloved has in store forSethe (123). One of the climaxes of the book occurs when Sethe’s arrow of time travels through themurder of her baby. The event first arises when Stamp Paid shares a newspaper clipping about
  9. 9. Sethe murdering Beloved (181). Paul D knows “that it ought to mess him up. That whatever waswritten on it should shake him”(181), a clear indication that disorder is about to increase. In thenext chapter, Sethe shares her rememory of the murder with Paul D. Time travels in the directionof increasing disorder, and disorder is definitely increasing during this dialogue, which results inPaul D leaving, and also results in Sethe murdering her baby. Obviously, one cannot rememberthe future, as this would imply. However, one can remember an event as it is happening. Firstoff, Morrison uses the two chapters previous to the one where Paul D receives the clipping todescribe the event. She places this event right after Beloved loses her tooth and cries in order toemphasize that what is happening is happening in the present time and is not a rememory. Thetwo chapters have no speaker, nor are they limited to only one character’s point of view, whichagain emphasizes that it is an even happening in the present and its memory does not belong toanyone, yet. Morrison does not have Sethe describe these events afterward to Paul D during herrememory because the event is happening as Sethe is remembering it. Morrison also makes itclear that it is an actual event by describing Sethe as “spinning. Circling him the way she wascircling the subject, round and round, never changing direction”(189), implying that her arrowof time is still moving forward despite its seemingly circular pattern. As her rememorycontinues, disorder results, and the events that lead up to her murder move forward. “Circling,circling”(191) through, chaos piles on as Paul D has a rememory of his days in Alfred, Georgia.“[T]he circle she was making around…him…would remain one”(192) as Sethe remembers, andthe oncoming chaos results in Sethe’s murder, then emprisonment, “[a]nd then no words.
  10. 10. Humming. No words at all”(179). Immediately, “a forest sprang up between them; trackless andquiet”(194). The same responses to the rememory and event are happening in these two differentchapters, and the chaos spawned by both Paul D’s rememory and Sethe’s causes Paul D to leave.However, the disorder that caused Sethe to slaughter Beloved did not just arise from thisrememory with Paul D, but also from the already increasing chaos caused from rememoriesbefore that started Sethe’s breakdown of control. Through these chapters, Sethe’s arrow of timeoscillates between event and rememory, but always moves forward in the direction of increasingchaos, as the rememory fuels the already increasing chaos that eventually causes her infanticide.Sethe’s dialogue with Paul D is crucial in advancing time in the novel; and without the exchangeof this rememory, characters would be stuck in their past due to the suppression of theirrememories. While some may consider this event the core of the novel, chaos certainly does not stopat Beloved’s murder. Time spirals forward as both Denver and Sethe lose control of Beloved anddisorder increases at 124. The series of monologues at the end of Part II highlights the existingchaos. Both Denver and Beloved define themselves by their relationship to Beloved: Sethebegins with “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine”(236) and Denver begins with “Beloved ismy sister”(242). The fact that these two women are dependent on Beloved for their definition ofself reveals that each has completely lost control of herself, and an inability of control impliesdisorder. Beloved’s monologues reemphasize Sethe’s loss of control by confirming Beloved’spossession over her: “I am Beloved and she is mine”(248). Her dialogue with Sethe hammers
  11. 11. down the point:”You are mine/You are mine/You are mine”(256). While the first threemonologues are not dialogues and do not spark disorder, the last dialogue continues the story andthe increasing chaos through the novel, but this pattern begins to change slightly when Denverdecides she is tired of Sethe and Beloved “rationing their strength to fight each other”(281).Denver seeks help from Lady Jones, and she regains control. This is analogous to putting energyinto a system to decrease entropy; Beloved is “strengthened by food”(294) her neighbors feedher, resulting in an improvement in her “outside life.” However, chaos for Sethe comes to ahead when Sethe comes face to face with her past when she believes she sees schoolteacher asMr. Bodwin approaches her house. “Sethe flies” at Mr. Bodwin with an ice pick, and whatresults is “[a] hill of black people, falling. And above them all.the man without skin,looking”(309). Beloved disappears in the chaos, and Paul D decides to put energy into the 124system and bring back order: “Now his coming is the reverse of his going”(318). Sincerememory is a correlate to chaos, “disremembering,” or the act of locking away the rememories,is a correlate to order, and the household can finally disremember Beloved and return to anordered state(323). In Medea, time is linear as spectators listen to memories shared by various characters.The first memory, delivered by the Nurse, summarizes how Medea fell in love with Jason andhow he left her for Creon’s daughter. Note that this memory is not shared in dialogue, but ismerely a recitation functioning to provide background information. No chaos ensues because the
  12. 12. Nurse is not dissipating heat trying to order her memory; it is already ordered. Thus, the playdoes not advance significantly in time. When the tutor enters, he shares with the Nurse through the first dialogue of the play thathe “heard a person saying….while I myself/seemed not to be paying attention…thatCreon...intends to drive/these children and their mother in exile”(p. 3). The Tutor is sharing hismemory with the Nurse, which helps him to order it. He needs to order it because while theevent was happening, he was not paying attention. This memory brings a little disorder to thehouse; the Nurse notes that “It’s black indeed for us”(3) and then hurries to remove the childrenfrom their raging mother (4). This increase in chaos causes time to move forward linearly,allowing the play to move in chronological order. The Tutors s arrow of time travels from hisentrance to his exit. The path his arrow takes is not curved because chaos does not increase in theTutor’s memory itself and only increases as a result of the sharing of the memory. Therefore, thearrow cannot begin at the event the memory speaks of and warp around to his exit. The Chorus in Medea shares a quality that Beloved has in Beloved: both ask probingquestions that stir the sharing of memory. After the Chorus needles the Nurse for informationwith questions like “O, say, what has happened?”(5) and “Will she come into our presence”(7),the Nurse shares that “Her husband holds fast to his royal wedding,/While she, my mistress,cries out her eyes”(5). As the Nurse shares the memory of Jason’s speedy commitment toCreon’s daughter and begins to remember “Those poets of old who wrote songs”(7), an increasein disorder becomes evident when Medea comes out of the house and expresses her loss of desire
  13. 13. to live and expresses a woman’s dependency on a man (8), indicating a loss of control overherself. Since she has lost a little control, she has become more disordered; however, hermemories have not. Consequently, her arrow of time travels straight through the scene,mimicking the arrow of time that belongs to the spectator. The chaos continues to increase as a result of dialogue sharing these memories andothers, and time continues to run unswervingly forward. Medea loses more control of herself andbecomes insane. For example, after sharing with Jason her memories of how she “saved [his]life…that snake who encircled The Golden Fleece…[she] killed…[she] killed him, Pelias…and[Jason] took another bride to bed”(16), and after sharing the memory of Jason’s adultery withAegus (23), disorder manifests in Medea’s execution of the first half of her revenge and hergrowing insanity, shown by her exclamations of “I am lost, I am lost!”(33). As the playadvances forward in time, the Messenger comes bearing the longest passage in the play, which ishis memory of the death of Creon’s daughter (37-40). Despite the gruesome details the memoryprovides and the pity the Chorus feels for Creon’s daughter (40), Medea is hungry to finish therevenge by killing her children “and not, by wasting time, to suffer my children/to be slain byanother hand less kindly to them”(40). Medea becomes insane with the increasing chaos, and sheslays her two children. While one may think that chaos increases in the messenger’s memory, theevents that the messenger describes are ordered according to Medea’s plan, indicating that shehad full control over them. She does not, however, have control over herself and her morals,
  14. 14. which is displayed by her hasty murder. Medea’s arrow of time travels through her murder to theend of the play in a straight shot the audience can easily follow. During the final dialogue, Medea taunts Jason with the bodies of his children, implyingthat she is in possession of their memory (43). Medea: Go to your palace. Bury your bride. Jason: I go, with two children I mourn for. Medea: Not yet do you feel it. Wait for the future. Jason: Oh, Children I loved!(45-46)Medea won’t let Jason see his children, hoping that he will forever mourn for them and that theeffect of her revenge is lasting. She also commands him to bury his bride, suggesting that all hewill have to remember her wrath is Creon’s daughter’s tomb and that he will forever be hauntedby the deaths of his children, since he does not have access to their tombs to gain closure. Theplay does not end in an ordered state, leaving the spectator to wonder how Medea and Jason copewith the death of their children. Morrison’s novel form for Beloved is fitting for a curved sense of time, while Euripide’stragedy for Medea sets up the perfect arena for a linear direction of time. It is interesting to notethat Medea was written before Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, which definetime as relative and nonlinear, while Beloved was written after and display’s man’s modernsense of time after Einstein. While both forms rely on dialogue to advance the arrows of timeand move the story, Beloved engages the readers in past and the present by intertwining the
  15. 15. description of events in the present tense with their respective rememories in past tense duringdialogue, while Medea separates the past and the present by not including an event acted out inthe play that corresponds with a memory; for example, there are no scenes where Jason’sadultery, Medea and Jason’s marriage, or even Medea’s murder of Creon’s daughter are actedout. In other words, spectators do not see the events that correlate with the shared memories thatdefine time in Medea, which helps to define these events as strictly in the past and the action ofthe play as strictly in the present. These directions of time in each work help to portray the character’s ending intentionthrough their correlation to chaos. In Beloved, time is curved in the direction of increasingchaos, but at the end of the novel, when energy is physically put into the system, order increases.Just how sharing memories through dialogue creates chaos, disremembering Beloved by makingher “not a story to pass on”(323) is correlated with the final order, and the novel ends implyingthat each character intends to grieve no more for Beloved, despite her lack of grave. In contrast,Medea clearly intends for everyone to remember how she avenged Jason; she even declares thatshe “shall establish a holy feast and sacrifice/each year”(45). Medea wants her story passed on,and the play ends with a dialogue and the exodus of the chorus to emphasize that her storyshould be passed on: “What we thought/is not confirmed and what we thought not god/contrives. And so it happens in this story”(47). While the memory of Medea’s children will live on, what happens when a memory ofsomething dead is disremembered? In the beginning of Beloved, Sethe describes “thoughtpictures,” or images and sounds that a person thinks they made up, as a “bump into a rememory
  16. 16. that belongs to someone else”(43). Can others only see someone else’s rememory once it hasbeen disremembered? Or is it simply a wrinkle in time? Whatever the reader concludes, the factthat unfamiliar rememories may be seen suggests that the memory of the dead is a constant in thetime continuum and does not change, which explains why Beloved never develops as a characterand maintains her same, baby-like personality. The act of remembering something increases chaos, and increasing chaos definesincreasing time. The way in which characters remember events through dialogue in Belovedcreates a warped travel of time, while the way in which characters share memories throughdialogue in Medea define a linear passage of time. Ultimately, the memories shared in dialoguein both works lead to uncontrollable disorder that results in Sethe and Medea murdering theirchildren. What does the inevitability of chaos mean in terms of fate in Greek tragedy? Accordingto thermodynamics, if things are let be, chaos increases; yet if energy is put into the system,chaos decreases. When the gods interfere, there is not necessarily order, but any disorder iscontrolled, resulting in ordered chaos. When things are left to themselves, characters have achoice of whether they want to let chaos increase or if they want to put in the necessary energy tostop it. Medea was clearly presented with opportunities to keep her kids alive, yet chaos droveher to insanity, influencing her choices. The question of the role of fate remains because timepoints in the direction of increasing entropy.
  17. 17. Works CitedEuripides. Medea. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004.