Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Future Tense

part four in an erratic offseason of blogging

Perhaps my recent dream is pulling me back.

Today in my literature class, we continued discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, a novel told (mostly) in the present tense.  I asked students to consider the effect of the present tense on the novel, and then offered my own idea.

Putting something in the past tense turns it into "history;" it crystallizes it, makes it firm.  When something is in the past, one can start to make meaning about it.  And when something is past (especially in a novel that starts in 1968 and continues to locate itself at various points until 2000), and it gets hardened into history, it can begin to feel inevitable (even if it is not).  It is similar to what John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant's Woman:

"You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf--your book, your romanced autobiography."

Locating a novel in a "now" has the effect pushing away immediate interpretations of meaning (for the characters, anyway, if not the readers).  It also leaves open possibility that past tense does not.  You might not think adding "ed" to your verbs could do that, but it can.

To illustrate this point, of course, I brought myself back to the NFC Championship Game.  During the game I was a mess, a nervous wreck, physically and mentally.  While the game was in a "now," the tension and possibility of the moment quite overwhelmed me.  But very shortly after it was over, and yes despair set in, but that tension was gone.  Once the game was over, it became the past, a history, another heartbreaking moment in the team's history, another gut-wrenching disappointment in a long line of them.  Then, I could start to make meaning of it.  Then it was fixed, and if not quite inevitable, it made sense (the fumbles, the 12 men in the huddle, the interception, the coin toss, the bad officiating).  It's not like those things weren't apparent as they were happening; it was that, while happening, we didn't know what they meant.  Now we do.  The book is on the shelf.

For now.  It finally needs to be said.

Maybe next year.

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