The Terrible Slopes of Time

Once Geryon had gone

With his fourth-grade class to view a pair of beluga whales newly captured 

From the upper rapids of the Churchill River. 

Afterwards at night he would lie on his bed with his eyes open thinking of 

The whales afloat

In the moonless tank where their tails touched the wall – as alive as he was 

On their side 

Of the terrible slopes of time. What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly

Turning to the yellowbeard who

Looked at him surprised. Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction. 

Just a meaning that 

We impose upon motion. But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean. 

Wouldn’t want to be late 

For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.

Autobiography of Red, 90  

The moment before this passage, Geryon sees a list of names belonging to “professors detained or disappeared” hanging on the wall, and tries not to focus on any one of them in particular. He wonders, “Suppose it was the name of someone alive. In a room or in pain or waiting to die” (90). This thought plunges him into the memory of his fourth-grade field trip, and Geryon sees a connection between missing people, “alive… in a room or in pain or waiting to die,” and the captured whales, who are also alive, in an enclosed tank, their freedom taken from them, waiting to die. I struggled to understand the lines “as alive as he was/on their side/of the terrible slopes of time,” but I think they show Geryon identifying with the whales and their lack of freedom, and places him at the same point as the whales in their respective timelines. I imagine “the terrible slopes of time” as a mountain, or a roller coaster – beginning at the bottom with birth, climbing to the peak, and falling downward towards death. If Geryon is as alive as the whales are, and he is on their side of the slopes of time, does that mean that both he and the whales are on the downward slope, heading toward death? Is that how Geryon imagines his life progressing, as a fourth-grader lying in bed late at night – a captive in a cage, already falling down the “terrible slopes of time”? I’m reminded of the moment earlier in the text when Geryon, his brother, and their babysitter are discussing weapons, and Geryon says his favorite weapon is a cage (33). At various moments throughout the text, Geryon seems preoccupied with cages and captivity, and here he connects that feeling of being caged with ideas about time. 

Geryon’s thoughts suddenly jolt him back to the present moment with a question: what is time made of? I think there is a connection here between time, cages, and queerness, and “the yellowbeard” helps to put it into words. “Time is an abstraction,” he says – time is just a concept, with no meaning beyond that which people impose upon it. This imposed meaning, however, is central to existence within a cis- and heteronormative society. The yellowbeard’s next comment shows that although he recognizes time as an abstraction, he is still bound by its practical purpose: “‘But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean./Wouldn’t want to be late/For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.” The yellowbeard, like the vast majority of people, experiences time as a practical measurement of motion, which he has to adhere to for his own sake and the sake of others. I think Geryon, on the other hand, experiences time in a less straightforward, more queer way. In “In a Queer Time and Place,” Halberstam argues that queer experiences of time oppose a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ timeline of birth, marriage, reproduction, old age, and finally death – Geryon’s “terrible slopes of time.” To a fourth-grader witnessing “newly captured” whales and suddenly aware that they will likely spend the rest of their lives in captivity, this ‘normal’ timeline may feel like a cage. However, the moments of Geryon’s adult life that Carson presents align with Halberstam’s ideas about queer time: “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (Halberstam 1). Autobiography of Red shows Geryon as an adult whose future timeline does not conform to “those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 2); rather than settle down, get married, have children, and eventually die, Geryon travels the world, asks strangers what time means to them, captures his life in photographs, and outlives the end of his biography.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Sex can feel like love or maybe it’s guilt that makes me call sex love. I’ve been through so much I should know just what it is I’m doing with Louise. I should be a grown up by now. Why do I feel like a convent virgin? (94)

The narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is waiting for his/her married lover Louise to make a decision on how to proceed with their relationship. Louise’s husband Elgin is aware of their affair, yet they remain married. However, all three of them have come to realize that something needs to change and the narrator is waiting for Louise to choose between her marriage and her affair.

The narrator is wondering if the love Louise has said she has for him/her is truly love and not just an illusion created by sex. By saying that guilt may make sex feel like love, the narrator is suggesting that we like to hide behind love. We are afraid of the shame we might encounter if we have sex for nothing but pleasure. As Michael Warner points out in his book The Trouble with Normal, we are constantly looking for a way to handle our sexual shame, to get rid of it. We want to “pin it on someone else” (Warner, 3), or in this case something else. If we say we love someone, our sexual shame is automatically reduced because it is far more ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ within our society to have sex with someone you love than having sex for your own pleasure.

Even though the reader still doesn’t know if the narrator is male or female, he/she clearly lives on, as Judith Halberstam would put it, ‘Queer Time’. Indulging in numerous relationships with (married) partners of both sexes, not settling down, and clearly challenging “conventional forms of association, belonging, and identification” (Halberstam, 4), the narrator does not follow the traditional life span of school, marriage, kids, a steady job, and retirement. Instead, the narrator realizes himself/herself that he/she is not yet a grown up, does not fit the norm. He/she is aware that society expects him/her to end the affair; that he/she should know what ‘is right’ by looking at his/her life and the mistakes made, the lessons learned. Nevertheless, the narrator feels like a ‘convent virgin’: childlike, innocent, and clueless.

Although the narrator at one point believes that Louise will not, under any circumstances, choose to end her marriage, the comparison to feeling like a convent virgin furthermore suggests the narrator’s hope and faith that their love will prevail against all odds, against the norm, and against his/her fears. It shows the narrator’s hope that not following the norm will pay off in the end and lead to happiness.