Exploring Time Through Kindred
In The Nick of Time, Grosz, explores the ontology of time through the works of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, in order to examine time from a biological and cultural perspective. She says this of time, “Time inhabits all living beings, in an internal, indeed constitutive, feature of life itself, yet it is also what places living beings in relations of simultaneity and succession with each other insofar as they are all participants in a single temporality, in a single relentless movement forward” (5). In a sense, mankind is united by its temporal relation to time. We are all participants, unwillingly or otherwise, to the arrow of time and its continuous flow forward. But what would happen if we were suddenly removed from the flow of time. I don’t mean by death, but rather repositioned to a different era of time entirely separate from the time we are living now. In Octavia E. Butler’s novel, Kindred, this is exactly what happens.
Dana is a twenty-six year old African American who suddenly finds herself shuttled between two separate time lines. The story begins in 1976, somewhere in southern California. Dana and her husband Kevin are moving into a new house when suddenly Dana gets dizzy, the room disappears, and when Dana refocuses she finds herself by a river where a boy named Rufus is drowning. She hauls the boy out of the river to the sobs of his mother. Using CPR, Dana resuscitates Rufus. When Rufus’s father appears toting a gun, Dana gets dizzy again and wakes up back in 1976 to her perplexed husband. She thinks she’s been gone for a couple of minutes but finds out from Kevin that it has only been a matter of seconds. That same day, Dana travels back in time again and stops Rufus from burning his house down. She believes there is a connection between Rufus and herself, that it is her responsibility to keep Rufus alive. Over the course of the story, Dana travels back and forth through time, each time she goes back to the past, her stay becomes longer.
Grosz’s say, “Time is perhaps the most enigmatic, the most paradoxical, elusive, and unreal of any form of material existence” (4). I’m sure Dana would hold a similar opinion. Through Grosz’s work, I will examine the implications for Dana as she travels between two separate points in time. Using Darwin, Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, as a structural frame, Grosz illuminates three distinct and connected ontologies of time.
“Darwin brings the concept of event to the sciences. Events are ruptures, nicks, which flow from causal connections in the past which in their unique combinations and consequences, generate unpredictability and effect sometimes subtle but wide-ranging, unforeseeable transformations in the present and future” (8). This idea is similar to the Butterfly Effect theory; a small event, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wing, can have dramatic consequences in the future. In the story Kindred, Dana is tasked to keep the boy Rufus alive. We find out later on in the story that Rufus will be the father to one of Dana’s ancestors. In summation, if anything happens to Rufus, Dana will be wiped from existence. This situation perfectly exemplifies the butterfly effect theory, or in terms of Darwin, the unpredictable and transformative power of the past. Throughout the course of the story, Dana must overcome the ruthless nature of Rufus and care for him. She must also learn to balance her identity as a free African American female, and the identity she must wear in the past. If she cannot do this, then her future, the future of her family, will come to an end.
Grosz believes Nietzsche’s philosophy to be centered on the same principles as Darwin, that is, the past and future are bound together and affected by the ambivalent and unpredictable. “Nietzsche wants to provide, active Darwinism, in which life excels, expands, and transforms itself, undergoes or, rather, undertakes, becoming-other and becoming more” (113). You could argue that Dana’s experience of time, although unpredictable, is not ambivalent to her needs. If time were ambivalent, than she probably would not have been transported back in time in the first place. We know from her reactions to time-travel that she has no way of affecting her teleportation through time. Like a force of nature, it just happens. But by going through the ordeal, Dana affirms Nietzsche; she undergoes a transformation, ‘becoming more’ by the end of the book.
Nietzsche also warned about the dangers of being fixated on both the past and future. He believed, “To be mired in the past is to be unable to think and act the future; conversely, to be anchored in the past, to have no connections to or resonances with the past, is also to have no way to see or make a future, it is to have no place from which a future can be made that is different from the present” (116). Dana’s position to this theory of Nietzsche’s gets muddled due her constant flip-flop motion through time. But upon closer examination, we see that Dana achieves a balance of past and future throughout the course of the novel. She focuses on the future when she is in the past and the past when she is in the future. For Dana, the two are tied together in an inextricable way.
Henri Bergson, like the other philosophers mentioned, believed in the connection between the past, present, and future. He believed that the “past and present fundamentally coexist; they function in simultaneity,” and that “the whole of the past is contained in contracted form, in each moment of the present” (183). Dana symbolizes this idea because she exists in both the past and the present. There is a point in the story when Kevin, her husband, gets separated from Dana, while she returns to the present day he stays in the past. In this way, the two experience the past and present concurrently. Another symbolic moment in the story occurs in the very beginning of the novel and gets illuminated by the end of the book. At the start of the novel, Dana is introduced to us in a hospital bed with one of her arms missing. By the end of the book we find out that she lost her arm killing Rufus with a knife. As she is stabbing him, he grabs her arm. A portal to the present opens and closes around Dana at this exact moment, severing her arm. By doing this, Dana coexists in both the past and the present simultaneously. Her arm is left in the past, while the rest of her body exists in the present.
Utilizing Grosz’s, The Nick of Time, we see how Dana’s experience of time upholds the theories of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson.