“Those Were the Days”
“Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is”
Chicago Transit Authority
“Time Is on My Side”
The Rolling Stones
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”
“Time Has Come Today”
Joseph Chambers and Willie Chambers
The Chambers Brothers
Symphony No. 101 in D Major, Hob. I:101, “The Clock”: II. Andante
Franz Joseph Hyden
Johannes Wildner & Camerata Cassovia
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes
“Making time” is one of those expressions that can be something of a self-contradiction. On the one hand, especially when we are trying to arrive at a destination (either a physical destination like New York or a metaphorical destination like the understanding of a concept), when we speak of “making time” we are speaking of how quickly we are getting to where it is we want to go. In this sense “making time” is about speed, which is not always the same thing as efficiency, which is taking no more time than is necessary, but also taking all the time that is necessary. It is just quickness. I may get to New York very quickly, but on the journey miss the Grand Canyon, which, as a visit, would be an efficient use of time, but it would slow me down and so in the interest of speed the visit is not taken.
But there is another sense in which we “make time” and that is when we set aside blocks of time so that we can slow down and think, reflect, and contemplate; so that we can study more deeply or work more slowly and deliberately. This is about lingering, which also may not be efficient, we may be spending more time than is precisely necessary drawing out our investigations; luxuriating in what we have or in the process of discovering. For the astronomer in the painting time seems to have stopped as his hour glass is on its side and the sands are no longer measuring time’s passing. Much of life is spent navigating our way through these two approaches towards making time. Taking things quickly or slowly as the moment demands.
A Cotton Office in New Orleans
The gentlemen in this painting are making time in a different way, many in the painting look like they are “killing time.” Idly waiting for time to pass, waiting for something they expect will happen, to happen. They are not making time in an effort to arrive quickly at a destination, nor are they making time so that a task can be completed deliberately and effectively; they are doing little or nothing with time. In a sense they are killing time while waiting for time to kill them, which, considering the painting was painted well over a hundred years ago, time has had its way with them. I suppose these are three choices we face when it comes to time, we can work quickly toward a goal, work slowly towards understanding and self awareness, or we can do nothing at all with our time, we can bury our talent in the mundane activities that occupy our days.
Saint Paul at His Writing Desk
Rembrandt van Rijn
In music there is the importance of “keeping time” and how each musician must do the different things they do within the same “measure” of time. I think it is interesting that The Chambers Brothers use a percussion instrument in “Time Has Come to Stay” to suggest the ticking of the clock and the passing of time in much the same way Haydn uses the orchestra at the beginning of his “Clock Symphony” to make a similar evocation. But in order to appreciate how the different musical forms use sound and the instruments that make those sounds we must make time to listen to it carefully and reflectively without loosing the joy and pleasure the music was intended to provide. The arts when appreciated fully often make this demand upon us and this demand illustrates that taking things slowly brings its own exhilaration, but in order to experience this exhilaration we must live contrary to the times and move slowly; resist the urge for speed and fight the compulsion to make time on our journey through life.
Jester with a Lute
Ryan Szpiech in “The Dagger of Faith in the Digital Age” contemplates this relationship between time and reading. He looks at the nature of reading; the books we read and how we read them. He is contemplating his investigations of an old and obscure medieval manuscript that has an empty third column that can only be appreciated or even seen when looking at the physical manuscript. The blank space does not appear in a digital representation of the book, the white space on a digital screen, even when the empty column is present, is often interpreted differently from a white space on the printed page. He suggests the rise of the digital book is making us into different kinds of readers, readers who read for information, not to get lost in the world the book creates:
Just as Google Books does not simply strive to augment the reading of a book but to actually replace the reader’s book with the searcher’s book, so the ultimate goal of digital editions and digital facsimiles, I believe, is not only to reflect the “original,” to “capture” or “recapture” it, but to effectively replace it with a better image of itself. Whereas philology, the study of language history through texts, creates (like fetishism) a “desire for presence,” digital philology creates a simulacrum or iconic replacement for this presence. The injunction from Kings against graven images rings in my ears, and I choose a fetishism of the frail human object over an idolatry of the power of the machine.
It is no surprise that the missing third column has been universally overlooked in the Coimbra codex of the Dagger of Faith, because even as it speaks on so many levels of its circumstance and intended meaning and unrepeatable history, it is, in its digital avatar, obscured by the overwhelming presence of its simulacrum. In viewing it from the comfort of a local café, on my own time, at my preferred screen resolution, I am grateful for its accessibility and convenience and I can work more effectively because of it. I am, however, also wary of the dangers it brings, above all the danger of my own complacency before it. I am wary lest I forget that the gleaming digital image of the Coimbra manuscript’s missing third column is a sort of enchanted mirror that ironically reflects back the impossibility of reproduction, of reflection, of control, of total understanding—ironically some of the very things that Ramon Martí (the author of The dagger of Faith) seems to have been coveting in his polemical attacks on Judaism like the Dagger. Yet if we can keep the eyes to see it, the manuscript’s lack leaps out as a stark reminder that reading is an imperfect and imperfectable activity whose final lesson is its own inscrutability, for it bespeaks the inscrutability of all that is time-bound—of history, of fate, of loss—should I say it?—of death. Umberto Eco has stated, “With a book…you are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realize that you cannot change Destiny…In order to be free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death.” In the age of book searching, however, in which books are now the fodder of a few key strokes and the flitting caprice of an impatient mind, it may now be the inviolate manuscript that can, as never before, best teach us this law of Necessity.
Reading in the sense that Szpiech speaks of is being captured by the book and drawn into the world it creates. We have to leave behind what we want from the book and accept what it has to offer. If the book does not win us to its world, we will not be captured by it and will not set aside our expectations. But if the book does capture us we enter its world and leave our world and our expectations behind. As Henry James said of the novel (quoted in “Henry James and the Great Y.A. Debate”), “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone.” We can always let the book alone, but if we read it we ought to read it on its own terms and to do that we need to give the book the time it needs to be properly experienced.
One thing that reading does for me is to remind me of the value of the people around me, that they have worth. I do not need, or should not need, books to remind me of this and I hope I do not depend on books to do this for me; I hope I know, apart from what I read, and that I would know even if I never read a word, that people have value. But the books I read reawaken me to this knowledge. In the course of day to day activity it is difficult to keep this fact of human worth alive. I know in the course of the work I do I get frustrated and angry and in my effort to achieve whatever it is I am trying to achieve that the people around me, at whom for one reason or another I am getting angry or petulant, did nothing to deserve my anger or petulance. In the midst of this I do not stop and read a book in order to regain my bearings, but it often happens that books that I have read come to mind and remind me that the people around me deserve better from me. Marilynne Robinson in an interview with Wyatt Mason (“The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson”) said:
“People,” Robinson said, pausing before she defined that familiar word in original terms: “Brilliant creatures, who at a very high rate, predictably, are incomprehensible to each other. If what people want is to be formally in society, to have status, to have loving relationships, houseplants that don’t die, the failure rate is phenomenal. . . . Excellent people, well-meaning people, their lives do not yield what they hoped. You know? This doesn’t diminish, at all, the fact that their dignity is intact. But their grief . . .”
“. . . is enormous,” I said.
Outside, the Iowa summer afternoon was gathering itself into a storm. Large bursts of thunder began to detonate around us.
“It is,” she said, continuing her previous thought. “ ‘O, Absalom! Absalom! My son, my son.’ The idea that there is an intrinsic worth in a human being. Abuse or neglect of a human being is not the destruction of worth but certainly the denial of it. Worth. We’re always trying to anchor meaning in experience. But without the concept of worth, there’s no concept of meaning. I cannot make a dollar worth a dollar; I have to trust that it is worth a dollar. I can’t make a human being worthy of my respect; I have to assume that he is worthy of my respect. Which I think is so much of the importance of the Genesis narrative. We are given each other in trust. I think people are much too wonderful to be alive briefly and gone. . . .
In the course of our lives we are put in the way of many people, some in more profound ways than others, but many of the troubles of the world find their origins in people’s inability to accept the worth of those around them. The most petty of crimes is at its heart grounded in a belief that one person, the criminal, has more value than another, the victim. We cannot expect nations and states, cities and towns, to recognize this all the time, they are after all artificial human constructs, but each individual has a responsibility to remember this moment to moment as they live their lives.
Woman Handing over Money to Her Servant
Pieter de Hooch
In this painting we see three people, a mother, a servant, and a child. The servant is taking money from the woman she works for. The reason for her being given the money is not clearly understood in the painting, but it is probably not important. What captures my attention, though, is the child. The child is pulling at the skirts of the servant. I wonder is this because the child does not value the servant and expects the servant to serve her, and if this is the case, where was this behavior learned? Probably from the mother. But there is another way to take this behavior on the part of the child and that is that the child has more of a relationship with the servant than with the mother. The child feels free to tug on the servants dress, would she feel as free to tug on the dress of her mother? Has the child’s care been given over to the servant and as a result does the child view the servant more like a parent than the mother? Our relationships often derive their value from the time invested in them. If the care of our children is given to others then it is these others who are investing time in our children and that our children look up to. What we do with our time, how we spend it, is consequential. Where we spend our time reveals what we value. No person is made valuable or assigned worth on the basis of birth, or to whom they were born, or on the basis of a ceremony, such as a marriage or a Baptism. People are made valuable by the time we invest in them because we have nothing more valuable to give than our time.
Rembrandt van Rijn
I enjoy this painting of the scholar. In some ways it is unlike other of Rembrandt’s paintings, which are dominated almost exclusively by dark colors and earth tones. In this painting there is the blue in the draperies and the golden sunlight in the window. If we take the time to look closely there is the suggestion of joy in the scholar engaged in his study. I am not sure this painting (probably any painting) can be fully appreciated without an investment in time. But what about the time we spend with music, art, and literature, or any other of the humanities? What is produced by the time spent with books, listening to music, or looking at a painting? For that matter what is produced by the study of abstract math or science? There may be at some point down the road some use the math and science can be put to, but the study was not engaged initially for what it might produce, but for love of the investigation, for a desire to deepen our knowledge of the discipline. But where the mathematician and the scientist are often forgiven their luxurious expenditures of time because there is the possibility something may come of it (though they are often ridiculed for studying what seems to some as useless, silly and a waste of time) the study of the humanities is often seen as having nothing useful to offer either in the present moment or at any time in the future.
Adam Kirsch and Dana Stevens in a regular feature in the New York Times “Bookends” discuss the usefulness (or uselessness) of literature, “Should Literature Be Considered Useful?”. Kirsch talks about how through time many have sought after a purpose that literature serves, as service it provides, to identify its practicality. He concludes:
To Martin Heidegger, however, this way of looking at art would appear exactly backward. Equipment, tools, “gear,” are for Heidegger what we don’t notice or pay attention to so long as it is working. A hammer in good condition is like an extension of the person using it, a way for him to work his will. It is only when the tool breaks that it escapes the banality of usefulness and takes on determinate existence as a piece of wood and a piece of metal, with its own weight, hardness and luster.
Literature, in this sense, is a tool that is always broken. A functional linguistic tool is like a stop sign, which we barely even read, much less think about; we simply see it and put our foot on the brake. A poem stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from a stop sign, in that it demands attention for itself, its specific verbal weight and nuance, rather than immediately directing us to take an action. Indeed, literature famously has the power to impede action altogether, to sever our relations with the real world in ways that can lead to harm — that is one of the messages of “Madame Bovary,” to use Burke’s example. The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to “getting and spending,” but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.
Reading is an expenditure of time intended to produce no outward result or product. It is the building of an inner life. In some ways it is the building of character, both in the sense that it shapes the people we become and in the sense that we look at ourselves more seriously, that in our studies of the characters on the page we come to a deeper understanding of the character that lives inside us, that defines us. But even if it does not change us, and the history of the world is filled with people who were not changed by what they read, heard, or saw in their experience of the arts, it stirs and develops the imagination.
The Artist in His Studio
Rembrandt van Rijn
This usually produces nothing useful outside of the individual doing the reading or observing or listening. On occasion, though, it develops a different way of looking in the way Galileo, because of his training as a draughtsman, looked at the moon differently than did the other astronomers of his day. I suppose there is little any human does that is entirely useless, though not all may be useful or beneficial. Whatever it is we devote our time to changes us, makes us different. The time spent doing nothing changes the way we look at time and the way we use our time. If the nothing we do is reflective (is this really doing nothing) or relaxing we come to appreciate the need for something like a Sabbath to rest and consider. If we spend substantial quantities of time “wasting time” that changes us too if only in that it creates an empty space that cannot be reclaimed. I suppose it comes down to what we mean by useful and useless, if the definition of a “product” is something I can hold in my hand as opposed to something I hold in my intellect, imagination, or spirit, than Literature and Art are useless. But if there is more to our existence than producing a tangible product it is there that the usefulness of Literature and Art lies.
Little Harbor in Normandy
Dana Stevens sees another side to literature, one that is more essential to a meaningful life and what gets lost the farther away we move from a world in which the humanities play a significant role. She says:
Literature is the record we have of the conversation between those of us now alive on earth and everyone who’s come before and will come after, the cumulative repository of humanity’s knowledge, wonder, curiosity, passion, rage, grief and delight. It’s as useless as a spun-sugar snowflake and as practical as a Swiss Army knife (or, in Kafka’s stunning description of what a book should be, “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us”). All I know is that when my daughter pushes for another chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder at bedtime, I feel a part of something very ancient, mysterious and important, something whose existence justifies in and of itself this unlikely experiment of life on earth. I couldn’t tell you exactly what shelf in the utility closet that equipment for living occupies, but I suspect none of us storytelling apes would survive for long without it.
This is the role that reading often fills for me, it opens my world, takes me out of myself, makes me more understanding of others and of myself. It is a conversation with the dead (or at least, as in the case of living authors, those that are “dead” to me in that they are not people that move in my circles). One of the surprises that comes from reading is how well people that have never known me know me. There is in literature that lives an understanding of life and of people and of the imagination that is timeless. Like Braque’s painting there is something in reading that is on the one hand calming and reassuring, but on the other a bit disturbing, that upsets the way we look at things and presents the world around us in ways we did not expect and with which we are not always comfortable.
From Safety Last
Hal Roach Studios
This film contains one of the iconic images of the silent film era. That of Harold Lloyd suspended high above the city of Los Angeles holding on to the hands of a clock. But for me, there is also the city that is spread out beneath him. In the film I see the cable cars I used to see as a young boy whenever I went into the city which are no longer there to be seen. It brings back a time that is in some ways lost, but through memory and story can still be regained, if only in the imagination. This is the joy that comes from reading Raymond Chandler and recognizing the streets and the parts of the city he describes, that delights in the knowing “I’ve been there, I’ve seen that.” This may be more true of Los Angeles than of other cities because so much of this city’s historical architecture and open spaces has been replaced by modern structures and more “useful” space.
I imagine people living in Boston or Paris or Istanbul experience something similar when they read of their hometown in stories set in their city. But because film came of age in Los Angeles I see much of the history of the city, especially its visual history, how its appearance has evolved, in many of the classical films (and many not so classic films), especially those of the 1920’s through 1950’s. So when watching films like Safety Last or Sullivan’s Travels I have the opportunity in my imagination to ride once again the cable cars of my youth.
But more than nostalgia is satisfied by the time we spend with Literature and the Arts. When we look at a seascape or a landscape (whether in the world or in a painting or photograph) we have to look carefully and if we look there is often something calming and serene about it. But if we look at a forest or seascape in the same way we look at a parking lot, invest the same amount of time in our looking we are not likely to appreciate the difference between a forest and a parking lot. In fact, in looking at a full parking lot some may see evidence that the economy is booming, that people are working or shopping, they are investing in the Gross Domestic Product and to them this is a beautiful thing, something deserving of preservation and replication.
Azar Nafisi in her new book The Republic of the Imagination writes about a meeting she had with another Iranian immigrant at a book signing. He was saying that Americans do not read their books the way Iranians do (and by implication others from totalitarian regimes). Nafisi writes:
Thinking over what Ramin had said, I found it intriguing that he suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western Literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.
But she goes on to say:
My impulse, now as then, is to disagree. The majority of people in this country (America) who haunt bookstores, go to readings and book festivals or simply read in the privacy of their homes are not traumatized exiles. Many have seldom left their hometown or state, but does this mean that they do not dream, that they have no fears, that they do not feel pain and anguish and yearn for a life of meaning? Stories are not mere flights of fancy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi said, “I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.” Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time.
I think there is truth to both. Those who have been denied access to literature and other of the Humanities have an appreciation that those who have grown up with it and always found it to be available do not have. In addition the influence in modern culture of films, sports, games, and other forms of entertainment that offer quick reward while demanding an increasing percentage or our time contribute to an environment where the Humanities are taken more and more for granted and less and less seriously. It is often the denial of access to these things that create a hunger and thirst for them.
Still Life with Curtains
But the other is true as well. One does not need to experience persecution to experience the liberation of the imagination. It is this aspect of the Humanities in general and of reading literature in particular that is currently being threatened by the forces in public education that would seek to remove this “useless” expenditure of time from the curriculum and fill it with more meaningful things like technology, math and science. If the right to a public education does not include the liberation of the mind and the imagination that reading and the Humanities provide than public education is a woefully deficient education. We are making it more difficult for our children to “rejoin the community of mankind.”
Sailing Ships near a Village
Salomon van Ruysdael
Dan Piepenbring writes in “Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero” about the influence of Cooper’s novels and their depiction of the American spirit of independence and exploration on the youth of the Soviet Union. Cooper and characters from his stories even found their way onto Soviet postage stamps. Piepenbring observes:
Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:
What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.” (Sandra Nickel)
There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.
What interests me about this is that this quintessentially American hero moved so profoundly those that lived in a culture so vastly different from that of America. It is, I suppose the same impulse that drives American readers to Greek and Roman epics like The Iliad and The Aeneid. It is important to make time to enter these foreign worlds and to spend time contemplating boats on the water, boats that are doing nothing on the water but “being there,” that merely exist, that remind us that part of merely existing is doing useless things like contemplating words on a page and colors on a canvas.
The Studio Boat