Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, ‘Jump right in’
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ it strangled up my mind
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time.
Bob Dylan, ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again’.
Anita Brookner’s 1990 novel The Latecomers tells the stories of Hartmann and Fibich, refugees from Nazi Europe who meet as boys at an English boarding school. Although Hartmann is older than Fibich by a few years, they become lifelong friends. As adults, they start a successful business together, and spend comfortable lives in adjoining apartments, each with his wife and one child. Hartmann remembers but desperately wants to forget his childhood in Germany, and in general avoids thinking about the past. Fibich forgets but desperately wants to remember his Viennese childhood; he thinks constantly about the past. This atypical Holocaust novel – the word Jew never appears – spotlights fascinating aspects of the relationship between trauma and time.
In The Latecomers, as in life, a period of trauma can function as a barrier, desirable or destructive, between pre- and post-trauma temporalities. Some trauma survivors are trapped in the distant past, the time before the trauma occurred. They might continually relive their childhood, unable to traverse the time of trauma to enter fully their adult lives. Other trauma survivors are trapped in the present, unable to return to their past. They may find the thought of reliving the trauma unendurable, or the pain of loss too great to bear. They may fear being unable to re-enter the present if they succeed in returning to the time before the trauma occurred. Or perhaps they fear being trapped in the period of trauma itself.
While a time of trauma is experienced as an interruption of ordinary time, it is not timeless. Trauma time can have a magical or ritual quality, for example by being ‘contained’ and thus limiting the impact of the trauma; by holding the survivor in limbo; by removing the survivor temporarily from the relentless and sometimes unbearable passage of ordinary time; or by allowing space for an artificial temporal rhythm to take the place, temporarily, of life’s usual pace.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s exceptional 2005 book about the year after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack, includes many illustrations of the magical nature of trauma time. For example, she wonders in the heat of the moment if she can ‘prevent’ her husband’s death, which took place in New York, by withholding its announcement in Los Angeles, where they’d spent much of their lives. The three-hour time difference, she reasoned, meant that though dead in New York, her husband might still be alive in LA.
Trauma time often has a strong spatial component, as in The Year of Magical Thinking, and as in The Latecomers, where the past is not just like ‘another country’, it is another country – Germany for Hartmann and Austria for Fibich. This spatial aspect of some temporalities affects the quality of travel between them. It’s necessary to go, imaginatively speaking, to another place as well as a past time.
Time and temporality feature prominently in two well-known trauma narratives: the biblical flood narrative and the rabbinic stories of Honi the circle-drawer. The biblical flood narrative contains three distinct time periods: the time before the flood, the time of the flood, and the time after the flood. Pre-flood time is a naïve, childlike version of ‘ordinary’ time, when the earth was populated by giants and heroes of old, and human life spans were unlimited (Gen 6 1-4).
The transition to post-flood time is marked by the promise of a future temporality characterized by abundance, endurance, and regularity (Gen 9.1-18). These two ‘ordinary’ temporalities feature references to the passage of time marked by human life and agricultural cycles: Their days shall be 120 years (Gen 6.3); These were the heroes of old (Gen 6.4); and This is the sign of the covenant … for you and all future generations (Gen 9.12); Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard (Gen 9.20); After the flood Noah lived for 350 years (Gen 9.28); All the days of Noah were 950 and he died.
The two ordinary temporalities are separated by a period of trauma time, during which the world is almost destroyed by a flood. Only one man, his family, and a few animals survive, the remnant of creation from which life will continue. This period of trauma time is unmarked by agriculture or human life-cycle events. No seeds are planted, and no crops are harvested. No babies are born. Nevertheless, temporality is strongly present in the form of an inordinate number of references to time in the abstract.
For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7.4); Noah was 600 years old when the flood came (Gen 6.6); After 7 days the flood water came on the earth (Gen 7.10); In the 600th year of Noah’s life in the 2nd month on the 17th day of the month … the fountains of the deep burst (Gen 6.11); The rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7.12); The waters swelled for 150 days (Gen 7.24). At the end of 150 days the water had abated (Gen 8.3); in the 7th month, on the 17th day of the month, the waters came to rest (Gen 8.4); the waters continued to abate until the 10th month; in the 10th month of the 1st day of the month, the mountain tops appeared (Gen 8.5); He waited another seven days (Gen 8.10); Then he waited another seven days (Gen 8.12); In the 2nd month of the 27th day of the month, the earth was dry (Gen 8.12); In the 601st year in the 1st month, on the 1st day of the month, the waters dried up (Gen 8.13); In the 2nd month, on the 27th day of the month, the earth was dry (Gen 8.14); never again … never again (Gen 9.11).
Most or all these references to time are superfluous to the plot and reflect three distinct temporal systems: years and months linked to the age of Noah; days and nights; and months not linked to Noah’s age. The overall effect is of temporal chaos during the period of destruction. We experience a period of near-static time, when nothing happens, as hyper-time, when all that matters is how long it will last. It’s reminiscent of prison sentences which, for good reason, are known colloquially in English as ‘doing time’.
These notions of time feature prominently in the commentary of Bereshit Rabbah (BR) on the Flood. The period on the ark is described with reference to the Bible’s clearest mention of time in the abstract.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose (Eccl 7:19): there was a time for Noah to enter the ark … and a time to leave it: Go forth from the ark. (BR 34.6)
And yet there was no change or forward motion.
Rabbi Yohanan said: The planets did not function for the whole twelve months [of the flood]. R. Jonathan said to him: They did function, but their mark was imperceptible. R. Eliezer said: They shall not cease implies that they never ceased. R. Joshua deduced: They shall not cease: hence it follows that they had ceased. (BR 34.10)
On the ark, there were no ‘ordinary’ time markers; most notably, there were no births.
As soon as Noah entered the ark, sex was forbidden to him … R. Abin quoted: They are lonely and want in famine [Job 30:3]: when want and famine visit the world, regard your wife as if she were lonely [i.e., menstruous]’. (BR 31.12)
Nothing productive can emerge directly from trauma time.
Being hyper-aware of time while feeling that time is not passing is characteristic of trauma time. Audrey Niffenegger describes this paradox well in The Time Traveler’s Wife, a 2003 novel about a woman whose husband, without warning, travels back and forth through time. But when he dies, she’s the one who is no longer anchored in or by time.
I sleep all day. Noises flit around the house – garbage trucks in the alley, rain, tree rapping against the bedroom window. I sleep. I inhabit sleep firmly, willing it, wielding it, pushing away dreams, refusing, refusing. Sleep is my lover now, my forgetting, my opiate, my oblivion. The phone rings and rings. I have turned off the machine that answers with Henry’s voice. It is afternoon, it is night, it is morning. Everything is reduced to this bed, this endless slumber that makes the days into one day, makes time stop, stretches and compacts time until it is meaningless (p. 517).
As W.H. Auden said, ‘Stop all the clocks’.
Like the time traveler’s wife’s, Noah’s trauma time features oblivion through sleep, in his case alcohol-induced.
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside … When Noah awoke from his sleep and saw what his youngest son had done to him, he said, Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers (Gen 9.20-25).
Noah’s decision to plant a vine (v. 18) should have signaled the return to temporal normality marked by seasonal and agricultural continuity: As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease (Gen 8.22). This renewed world order should have been linked (as it is by juxtaposition in the biblical narrative) to intergenerational blessings and fruitfulness: God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen 9.1).
Instead, Noah’s planting of the vine led to drunkenness, more than a hint of non-reproductive sex (Gen 9.22), and a curse triggered by Noah’s son Ham that skips a generation to rest on his grandson Canaan (Gen 9.25). All this is followed by the report of Noah’s death (Gen 9.29). Noah survived the near destruction of the world, but temporal order was not restored. Time as he experienced it when the flood waters had receded was not so different from time on the ark.
At first glance, Bereshit Rabbah seems to undermine this reading with its reference to a new world order when Noah left the ark:
R. Levi said: Everyone of whom it is said that ‘he was’ saw a new world. Said R. Samuel b. Nahman: they are five. Noah: yesterday, The waters wear the stones (Job 14:19) for R. Levi said in R. Yohanan’s name: ‘Even the nether millstone was dissolved by the water’ [BR 28.3], whereas now you read. And the sons of Noah went forth (Gen 9.18). Joseph: yesterday, His feet they hurt with fetters (Ps 105:18), while now, And Joseph was governor over the land (Gen 42:6). (BR 30.8)
But in fact, this midrash re-enforces Noah’s trouble with time. Noah is one of five (with Joseph, Moses, Job and Mordecai) said to have seen a new world. Joseph went from prisoner to overseer; Moses went from fleeing Pharaoh to plunging into the sea; Job went from bitterness to reacquisition two-fold; and Mordecai was about to be executed but executed his executor. Noah stands out for having his new world represented by the next generation, and not by a direct change in his own situation.
Finally, Bereshit Rabbah highlights Noah’s inability to make the transition back to ordinary time by presenting Noah’s entire life as static.
R. Yohanan said: Every man of whom it is said that ‘he was’ remained unchanged from beginning to end [literally, ‘that was his beginning, that was his end’]. (BR 30.8)
Before and after the flood, Noah did not march to the beat of time’s drum.
The rabbinic figure Honi the Circle Drawer (who was not himself a rabbi) has a lot in common with Noah. The Mishnah story that gave him his name features an over-abundance of rain.
The alarm is sounded on account of any visitation that comes upon the community except on account of an over-abundance of rain. It once happened that they said to Honi Ham’aggel: ‘Pray that rains may fall.’ He said to them: ‘Go out and bring in the ovens for the Passover sacrifices so that they will not dissolve.’ He prayed, but rains did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it, and he said before Him: ‘Master of the Universe! Your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a member of your household. I swear by Your great Name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your children.’ Rains began to come down in drops. He said: ‘I did not ask [for] this, but [for] rains [to fill] pits, ditches and caves.’ They began to come down heavily. He said: ‘I did not ask [for] this but [for] rains of benevolence, blessing and generosity.’ They fell in their normal way, until Israel went out of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rains. They came and said to him: ‘Just as you prayed for them that they should fall, so pray that they should go away.’ He said to them: ‘Go out and see if the Stone of Claimants is covered.’ Shimon ben Shetach [the head of the Sanhedrin] sent [word] to him: ‘If you were not Honi, I would decree a ban upon you. But what shall I do to you, for you act like a spoiled child before God and He does your will for you, like a son who acts like a spoiled child with his father, and he does his will for him? And about you the verse says: Your father and your mother shall be glad, and she who bore you shall rejoice (Prov 23:25). (Mishnah Taanit 3:8)
The Jerusalem Talmud’s telling of Honi’s story features a confusion between the original Honi and his grandson, and a seventy-year-long sleep during which the Temple was destroyed and rebuilt.
‘And he prayed, but it did not rain’ (M. Taanit 3:8). Said R. Yose b. R. Bun: Because he did not come before God with humility. Said R. Yudan Giria: This is Honi the circle drawer, the grandson of Honi the circle drawer. Near the time of the destruction of the Temple, he went out to a mountain to his workers. Before he got there, it rained. He went into a cave. Once he sat down there, he became tired and fell asleep. He remained sound asleep for seventy years, until the Temple was destroyed, and it was rebuilt a second time. At the end of the seventy years, he awoke from his sleep. He went out of the cave, and he saw a world completely changed. An area that had been planted with vineyards now produced olives and an area planted in olives now produced grain. He asked the people of the district, `What do you hear in the world.’ They said to him, `And don’t you know what the news is?’ He said to them, `No.’ They said to him, `Who are you?’ He said to them,`Honi the circle drawer.’ They said to him, `We heard that when he would go into the Temple courtyard, it would be illuminated.’ He went in and illuminated the place and recited concerning himself the following verse of Scripture: When the Lord restored the fortune of Zion, we were like those who dream (Ps 126:1). (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 3:9, 66d)
The Mishnah’s story about Honi does not mention destruction or the passage of time. The Jerusalem Talmud introduces the theme of destruction, but its perspective is upbeat, both about the Temple and about Honi. It does it not problematize time; the smooth passage of time is indicated by change and by new agricultural patterns. The Babylonian Talmud deals more pessimistically with a practical aspect of destruction: exile.
R. Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like those who dream (Ps 126:1). Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road, and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed him which hid him from sight, and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him: Are you the man who planted this tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: Clearly, I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his ass who had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. He there inquired, Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive? The people answered him, His son is no more, but his grandson is still living. Thereupon he said to them: I am Honi the Circle Drawer, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beit Midrash and there he overheard the scholars say: The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beit Midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, I am he. But the scholars would not believe him, nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying: Without studying together, death. (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)
Time is foregrounded and disturbed: the hero is said to be Honi the grandson of the original Honi; the episode is temporally linked to the exile; Honi meditates on ‘dreamtime’; the Babylonian exile is evoked; a slow-growing fruit-bearing tree is planted and bears fruit; Honi sees the man who planted the tree and his adult grandson; his ass gives birth several times (in two manuscripts); Honi is told that his own grandson is alive; Honi is mentioned by scholars as a long-dead luminary; he dies.
The overall effect is temporal confusion: a man sleeps for too long and thus lives in two periods and at the same time as his grandson; Honi and the scholars experience the passage of time differently and incompatibly. Death was thus not a tragedy or a dramatic response to shame in the Beit Midrash, but the logical end for a survivor who survived too long.
Read together, the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud recall (unintentionally, I think) the Flood narrative and rabbinic commentaries on it: excessive rain; a man whose name is an anagram of Noah; an emphasis on intercession (the fault for which rabbinic authors criticize Noah and which is corrected midrashically as below); passage of time marked by agriculture; sleep; survival in a protected location.
The Babylonian Talmud’s expansions to the Honi story might then be drawn from biblical and rabbinic sources about Noah: Honi becomes a ‘righteous man’, like Noah (Gen 5.9); confusions about Honi and his grandson, and the eclipse of Honi’s son (already dead when Honi awakens) recall Noah, Ham and Canaan; tree-planting (unmentioned in the earlier versions) becomes central, cf. Noah as a man of the land and the first planter of a vine, and a midrash in which Noah provokes questions by planting and cutting down trees (cf. Honi’s tree-planter).
Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Wherever ‘a man’ occurs, it indicates a righteous man. For a whole one hundred-and-twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down. On being asked: Why are you doing this? He replied: The Lord of the universe has informed me that he will bring a flood in the world. Said they to him: If a flood does come it will come only upon your father’s house. Thus, it is written, A contemptible brand in the thought of him that is at ease, a thing ready for them whose foot slips (Job 12.5). (BR 30.7).
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Honi is a survivor, which he is not in the earlier stories about him. Whether because his prototype as a survivor was Noah, or because the Babylonian Talmud’s redactors had their own model of survival which happened to coincide with Noah (because it was based on observation of human nature?), the Babylonian Talmud’s account of Honi’s story fits perfectly with the temporal structures we have seen above.
In the Babylonian Talmud’s Honi story, ordinary time marked by agricultural cycles and the passage of generations, is demarcated by a period of no-time (sleep) in which time-consciousness is nevertheless heightened (the miraculous seventy years of sleep/dreamtime), followed by another period of ordinary time marked by agriculture and new generations.
But like Noah, Honi cannot function in the new temporality, as indicated by the persistence of disturbed time with respect to him. He tries to live at the same time as (interact inappropriately with, cf. Noah and Ham) his adult grandson, and he wants to interact with a scholarly community for whom he is a past luminary. He may also aspire to immortality, hence the possible allusion to Elijah, who in the rabbinic imagination lives forever and will one day come to solve outstanding halakhic problems.
The stories of Noah and Honi are transformed by being read through the lens of time and temporality, and both raise important questions about the role of time in the experience of trauma. That Noah and Honi do not successfully negotiate trauma time is instructive; we are not obliged to try to make something positive out of suffering (thus nothing emerges directly from it). Yet, at the very moment when many people facing trauma would be inclined to ‘stop all the clocks’, in complex ways trauma time helps to keep the clock ticking.