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'Homo Irrealis': André Aciman’s Essay Collection Parses the Paradoxes Of Time

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André Aciman

The Irrealis mood is a grammatical category of verbal moods that even linguists find difficult to define and explain. Author André Aciman in his latest book, the essay collection Homo Irrealis, finds a foothold in pinning down this moving target of a concept of time — the what might have been and could still be. In a series of interconnected essays about exile, migration and cities, art and artists, and living through the stages of a life, André Aciman shows us that we have all lived in irrealis all along.

Highlights of the interview with André Aciman

On the “irrealis mood” of the title

The irrealis mood is a verbal mood. It's not a tense; it's a mood, and it corresponds to such moods as the subjunctive, which almost does not exist in English, aside from, you know, “Long live the King” and that sort of thing. Those are subjunctives, but it's more like, more aligned to the conditional mode, which is, “I would like,” as opposed to, “I will like,” The would form takes on many, many, many sort of functions. It could say something like “I would have been happy had you…” or, “I might have come to the party, had you invited me.” The “might have,” “should have,” “could have,” “would have” — all these are irrealis moods. In other words, they haven't occurred in time. They may never occur. That’s what I was going for. In other words, the present tense, which is a tense that everybody knows, “I am eating. I am studying, I'm sleeping,” Those are definite mood. It's a definite mood. It's called the indicative mood. But most of us, although we aim to live in the present tense, we are actually elsewhere. We're not exactly in the present. We try to be, or we claim to be, but we're not. We’re in the future. Where in the conditional future, we are in the past, we are remembering we're fantasizing. We’re constantly drifting from one tense to the other or from one mood to the other.

On considering the concept of time through art

To be honest, do we know that it exists? Is there such a thing as time, or let's turn it around? That time even cares what we think about time. It couldn't care less… but if we didn't have watches and we didn't have the sun, would we know what time is? What do we know? I mean, if we didn't have calendars, time happens to us. And I think that the only way in which we can register or attempt to register, what is it that happens in time is through art. There is no other medium, no other facility for us to measure what happens to our lives through time.

On considering the concept of time and mortality

The other thing is that when you speak about time, we're really talking about one thing and we speak about time because it's easier to speak about time, but anybody who thinks about time is also thinking about death and about your own deaths, which is totally an inconceivable concept, your own death, Oh, you are going to be the unusual person who will never die because everybody else does, but you won't. And in fact, you can convince yourself of that. The point is that time is how we measure how close we get every single day to the end of time, which is the end of our lives. And so, art is in fact, a way of playing with this, the attempt to get as close as possible to what is it that happens to us as we near death. And I think that Beethoven's is the best [example], because as he's close to death and has just been sick and was given the impression that he had in fact survived, will die soon after he composed this piece of music, which is basically, “I don't want to die. I want this piece of music to keep going for forever. That's why I'm not closing it as soon as I can.”

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.