A Serial: Episode 7
K. often indulged in research. He considered it an indulgence not because it interfered with his duties at the self-storage facility - there was little to do, he never felt remiss - but because he knew that like other indulgences, research led him down a path that threatened not to return, like the longest, dark hallways in the building. Each topic stretched beyond his vision.
Although materials in the facility were limited, K. had over time amassed an impressive library of abandoned books. Unlike the paintings he continually found in the hallways, books were almost never left out for the trash – those few that were, he tended to reject as well: beach novels with creased covers; outdated desk calendars; self-help books with broken spines that fell open to what K. took to be the first and last page ever consulted in them.
But more than a few of the units K. opened yielded carefully cared for, even alphabetized collections of books. These were largely hardcover, scholarly volumes - the detritus of academic careers. There were boxes of excess from overfilled bookcases, labeled for future possible use however unlikely; multiple copies of an author’s own works, still unpacked from the publisher; colleagues’ books, personally dedicated on the title pages but otherwise crisply unread; massive, fusty multi-volume sets later reprinted in more convenient but less charming editions; texts for courses long deleted from university offerings, larded with decaying bookmarks and notepapers.
It was in a reference book on literary terms that K. first found mention of mora. Puzzling over the problem of the clock with its two simultaneous times, K. stopped in this particular encyclopedia at the following:
“DURATION: One of the three intonational characteristics of spoken sound, the other two being stress (see ACCENT) and pitch (q.v.). In poetry, d. concerns the timing of syllables, words, and lines, such timing being either actual or conventional – much more so the latter than the former.”
This distinction felt immediately useful to K. – the conventional reading of the clock was one particular time. But the actual reading of the clock was two moments simultaneously, which corresponded to K.’s actual experience of time.
K. was elated at this newfound vocabulary. So much was explained! He thought of the paintings he had rescued: each depicted an image in conventional time. But the object of the painting itself – from its creation to its rejection to K.’s adoption and its present placement in the building – this K. could see in actual time, like a slideshow whose frame kept changing, though the image at its center remained constant.
This adherence to the actual, K. went on to learn, aligned him with musical theorists in an ancient dispute with grammarians:
“At least some ancient grammarians held that certain vowels were long, others short; these metrists (metrici) held that the former were twice the length of the latter; they then devised a set of rules (including other criteria) for classifying syllables as ‘long’ vs. ‘short,’ and on this basis constructed a quantitative prosody (see CLASSICAL PROSODY).
“The ancient musical theorists (rhythmici), however, held that there were more distinctions than 2:1 and that some syllables were indeterminate. But over time, actual vowel (or even syllable) length quickly lost ground to conventional classification. Eventually, auditors no longer heard a long-short distinction at all. Nevertheless, the notion that syllables could be grouped into ‘long’ vs. ‘short’ persisted among grammarians and prosodists literally for millennia…”
Might not, thought K. as he pored over this text, the same have happened to images? Over time, the actual distinctions between them due to duration were lost, and images were left sorted into conventional, motionless heaps. The rhythmici, who saw such fine-grained distinctions in the duration of images that some even became indeterminate to them, disappeared. Did they die out, K. wondered, from their inability to fix on a given moment for their food, their shelter, their neighbors, perhaps even their mates…? Had the metrici, fat and procreating due to steady aim at static objects of desire, taken over?
Nevertheless, K. discovered, certain languages retained an imprint of the durational system argued over by the ancient metrici and rhythmici. And in at least two of these, “long” and “short” are not subtle enough to measure actual duration used by its speakers – for these, grammarians employ the term mora to identify a unit of time that might combine in ways other than 2:1.
“So what did you conclude, K.,” said Frieda, still looking at his files. “Is Barnabas an Estonian, or Japanese?”