Time and duration. Increments. Segments. Blocks. Threads. We tend to think of time in terms of the astronomical events that govern our existence. The turning of the earth, day and night, the seasons, the passage of a year, the duration of a life.
Time may be an illusion. Try to imagine time without the material clock. Anything can be a clock. The universe is a vast clock--beyond the limits of our comprehension.
Days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia.
We often think of centuries as demarcations of cultural descent--as if human history could be characterized by the familiar qualities we assign to them, in retrospect. The 19th Century is the "Victorian Age." Sometimes, we think of the 20th Century as the "Atomic Age." Perhaps the 21st Century will be known as the "Digital Age."
It's the same with decades, which seem somehow more proximate. A single human life--in the classic phrase "three score and ten" [or 70 years duration, as an average]--encompasses, then, seven decades. Someone born in 1901--as my Stepfather Harry Faville was--who lived for 72 years--could think of the passage of time and fashions as distinct segments of duration, each with its own familiar--
The Roaring Twenties
The Depression Years (the 30's)
The War Years (the 40's)
The Silent Fifties
The Swingin' Sixties
We divide up the passage of our lives into such convenient brackets of time, in order to get a handle on the course of history.
What is it about decades that makes them seem so specific and meaningful?
When I think of my life, it is as a series of stepped ratchets, a progression of rising increments, which are years, months and days.
The year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American to break the barrier of the Big Leagues. The Hollywood "Black List" was created by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Andre Gide won the Nobel Prize. A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, starring Marlon Brando.
In 1957, when I was 10, Kerouac's On the Road, Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle were published. The Bridge on the River Kwai and Peyton Place debuted in theaters. The Soviet Union launched the satellite "Sputnik."
As we grow up, our consciousness of the limits of our attention expands exponentially. As toddlers, our world consists of the dimensions of the world we inhabit. By late childhood, say age 12, we're aware of our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation, the globe, and outer space. Our sense of our place in the larger scheme of the progression of time begins to materialize--we begin to think of years and decades as having almost a physical presence, as if they were plateaus of space, though we know this is only hypothetical, that there is no marked transition between the tenth year of one decade, and first year of the next.
Did I feel anything specific or memorable, in 1970, as the Sixties passed into history? I can't recall. There is often a feeling of a new beginning, of a promise of something going to occur.
Historically, time may be measured in administrations, or in the life of a monarch, or in convulsions, such as the American Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, or great wars.
Technologically, we may measure time through the incremental advance of inventions: The Cotton Gin, The Railroad, The Telephone, The Automobile, The Radio, Television, The Atom Bomb, The Airplane, The Computer, The Pill. These are both mind- and civilization-altering developments, which create their own demarcation in time, after which things can never be the same.
Thomas Wolfe wrote several fictional novels about his own experience. Pouring out thousands of pages, living in New York, the over-riding sensation he felt was nostalgia, a nostalgia which overwhelmed him. His fictional record, which was the only means by which he could revisit the events of his past life, was like a vast project to defeat time by preserving and recreating it. He was only 37 when he died in 1938.