Lost Time
Antony Densham >


If Time Could Tell

By D. M. Satele

“The hills are alive,” claims Maria, “with songs they have sung for a thousand years.” Alone, on a deserted hilltop, Maria stretches her arms out to the world as she sings. It is as if Maria might encompass the entire cosmos with her open arms, addressing all of nature, inviting all of creation to commune with her open heart. At home in the hills and at one with nature, Maria belongs to a realm unstained by the marks of human social life, a space clear of history’s debris. Maria “speaks” the song-language of this realm. Executed over millennia, this “language” exceeds the mortal bounds of human speech. The sound of a church bell interrupts Maria’s song. The bell’s peal acts as a temporal marker that reminds Maria she is late for prayers at the abbey. Maria enters history running late.

“There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth” (Walter Benjamin). The modern subject, like Maria in The Sound of Music, is a late-comer to the world. She is thrown into the midst of a dense web of signifying objects (things, people, words) piled around her on every side. Each bit of history’s wreckage has been formed through a process she can never fully account for, arriving from the past as though it were a Dark Continent. Just as the tolling of the bell (an extra-linguistic signal) calls Maria into social and historical being, the subject is interpellated by strange calls emanating from the world. She encounters the world under the pressure of her arrival having been expected, her ability to look back on history and inscribe her-self onto the present.

Maria shows that Eden is the space from which any vestige of past human life is absent. The absence of such material traces (which act as temporal markers), like a fetish object, provides the mask that allows Maria’s perfect union with the natural world to take place. It seems that the absence of remainders (acting as reminders) holds from rushing to the fore an unsettling sense of the world’s radical otherness. Eric L. Santner writes:

The opacity and recalcitrance that we associate with the materiality of nature – the mute “thingness” of nature – is, paradoxically, most palpable where we encounter it as a piece of human history that has become an enigmatic ruin beyond our capacity to endow it with meaning, to integrate it into our symbolic universe.

In the enigmatic message of the ruin I am confronted by the fact that the material symbolic forms that make the world up for me lead a life all their own; alien and indifferent to mine. The situation this message places me in recalls the terms on which subjectivity occurs. Jacques Lacan writes:

A lack is encountered by the subject in the Other, in the very intimation that the Other makes to him by his discourse. In the intervals of the discourse of the Other, there emerges in the experience of the child something that is radically mappable, namely, He is saying something to me, but what does he want?

Elaborating on this concept Lacan’s student, Jean Laplanche, states:

[A] signifier can signify to without its addressee necessarily knowing what it signifies. … Lacan suggests the image of hieroglyphs in the desert, or of cuneiform characters carved on a tablet of stone. … It … means that the signifier may be designified, or lose what it signifies, without thereby losing its power to signify to.     





Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.

Laplanche, Jean. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macey. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Santner, Eric L. On Creaturely Life. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wise, Robert (director). The Sound of Music. 20th Century Fox, 1965.



D. M. Satele is completing an MA in the English department at the University of Auckland with a thesis on the voice. His interests include psychoanalysis, ethnography and popular culture. He makes art, most recently showing work in the group show To Say The Least at Newcall gallery in Auckland.