To Begin With …

If you’re a cigarette-smoker, you have to make time for it. Years ago smoking was integral to everyday life; you smoked at home, you smoked at the office, you smoked in restaurants and bars and even in shops. Guests on the Tonight Show smoked cigarettes while being interviewed by Johnny Carson. Some people smoked while recovering from having sex. But nowadays you have to go outside to have a cigarette, regardless of the weather. Whatever you were doing, you have to stop and go outside. If you smoke a pack a day, if you assume that every cigarette break takes about five minutes, that means that for one hour and forty minutes everyday you stop doing what you are doing, go outside and take a cigarette break. And as an addict you have gotten used to this. Your day has been fashioned by a persistent rhythm, where sometimes you are doing what you are doing and sometimes you stop and do nothing at all except smoke a cigarette.

   If time were money, as Benjamin Franklin long ago said it was, this business of smoking cigarettes would be costly indeed. But what happens when you quit smoking? If you don’t smoke anymore, in principle you might have an hour and forty minutes a day extra, to use as you need or desire. You don’t do five-minute breaks. You don’t live according to a rhythm where sometimes you are on and sometimes you are off. And from personal experience I can say that, surprisingly, you don’t miss those breaks. You used to look forward to them. You used to like the sense of structure it added to your life. When your attention span was waning, you went out and had a cigarette. When you were getting nervous, you went out and had a cigarette. When you completed a task, you went out and had a cigarette. When you were waiting for dinner to be ready, you went out and had a cigarette. When you finished dinner, you left your dinner companions and went out and had a cigarette. You can’t do that anymore and funnily enough it doesn’t matter. You are not even aware of having gained an hour and forty minutes of potentially productive time every day. Once it was the case that you used cigarettes to produce intervals throughout the day, intervals you counted on throughout the day to allow you to do nothing but take a break. Now you are free; you don’t smoke cigarettes; you added an hour and forty minutes to your day, although you don’t notice it; for the time you have made for yourself slips out of your hands like running water and you are not aware that anything has been gained.

   In ways that are either within our control or out of it, or some combination of the two, we spend our days making time. Frequently we think of time, as Franklin taught us, as a kind of resource, as something to use or use up or else, as we put it, to waste. Wasting time is a misdemeanour in much of the industrial and post-industrial world. We are taught: make time for the things worth making time for, and don’t waste it! But even if time is a resource, it’s not the same thing as money. We make time for leisure. If you are well enough practiced, you may find that you are adept at what the Italians call ‘the art of doing nothing’: sitting in a café, watching the world go by, long after you’ve finished your coffee. If you take Franklin’s maxim seriously, time is something either to acquire or to put to work, and even the acquisition of more time is valuable only insofar as you now have more of it to expend or invest, to use in one way or another. But what are we to say about ‘doing nothing’, or ‘taking a break’, or taking a holiday, or observing the Sabbath? If you are Franklinian, you would say that intermissions are valuable insofar as they make us more efficient when they intermissions are over; they ‘recharge our batteries’, as the common expression puts it. In Scandinavia, where I live, a lot of emphasis is put on ‘work-life’ balance, where ‘life’ is associated with leisure and rest, and work-time is not allowed to impinge upon them. But the idea is in essence no less utilitarian than Franklin’s. In Scandinavia, we may have more time off from work than others, but we’re still making time in order to have more time, and find ways to take advantage of it.

   The time of our lives is not something that can always be measured, however, even if we are constantly measuring it and constantly treating it as a resource to be exploited. Even if it is something ‘made’, as my title suggests, it is not something that can always be treated as a commodity. Moreover, even when it is measurable, what we measure in it is not always, or even not often equal to its value. That time, in my early twenties, when I first read Tolstoy’s War and Peace – I have no idea how long it took me to read that 1100-page novel; I wasn’t counting. But something happened to me that has lasted a lifetime. The effect in reading it had a kind of double life, for I was travelling through Italy and Greece when I read the book; I even remember reading it one late night while on a ferry sailing from Brindisi to Patras, when many of the people around me on deck were sleeping, and I was alone in my lounge chair with the Mediterranean Sea, the moonlight, and the slow surging of the ship through the water. I have no idea what passage I read that night, but that too illustrates something about our relationship to time. I was reading Tolstoy the way Tolstoy intended me too. Part of me was en route to Greece; part of me was immersed somewhere in the days of Napoleon, on the battlefield, or else in the drawing rooms of Moscow, or some dacha in the Russian countryside, or out among the peasants, deep in the mental space of war and peace, of love and hate, of hope and despair, and the private lives of Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre. My travels had nothing to do with any of that.

   There are times, as we all know, of heightened awareness, of prickled intensity, where time seems at once to contract and explode, at once to slow down and concentrate into an elsewhere beyond our control. Many of us live for them. There is a character in Sartre’s novel Nausea who lives for the sake of experiencing ‘special moments’ – like a mystic perhaps, except that her moments involve going to restaurants and having a great meal, or going to the theatre and seeing a great performance. One of the most interesting things about these special times is how they both fit and don’t fit into our utilitarian calculations about the exploitation of time. For they take us beyond time; and yet they are pointless, and practically impossible, without our fitting them into the humdrum of everyday experience, finding the time in which to experience them, and noting by contrast how extraordinary they are.

   Time is not only human, of course, and if we seem to make it sometimes, it is always already making us. We are aware of that. This power, this energy, this inevitable dimension of existence is entirely beyond our control; that is why we are compelled continually try to control it as best we can and make it our own. Moreover, this power is already, so far as possible, organized for us (and against us) by our social and historical situation. There are calendars and clocks, work shifts and holidays, concerts at eight and opening hours at the mall. In some places you can’t buy a can of beer on Sundays, and you can’t throw a loud party after eleven. In many countries, employers have to pay extra for ‘overtime’, and laws strictly forbid employers to exploit any employee more than a certain number of hours each week and day. We have to conform to these social norms of temporality even if, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, we would prefer not to. The struggle to stay alive and prosper and sustain individual freedom often takes the form not of exploiting time but of conforming to the natural and social forces that control it.

   In the next blog I will tell a story illustrating the principle.

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