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Reckoning Time & Time as Reckoning

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Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

1,446 words

More than one person I’ve spoken to, both offline and online, has commented on how the passage of time seems to have changed very little in the past two years. Some statements I’ve heard repeated multiple times: everything’s the same, it’s 2020 all over again, it’s like it’s not Christmastime at all. This is curious to me not only because I’ve noticed it myself, but also because I am interested in how people process time, and of course in how it is measured.

When modern man thinks of time, he’ll usually ask, “What’s the time?” But what he usually seeks is not an idea of the thing itself — time elapsed or lapsing — but something else related to the human contextualizing of time. Specifically, one needs to know the time of day because one needs to achieve something related to this human contextualization of time and use it as an aid in order to orient myself within time.

Maybe I am an Englishman set in my ways, and what I want to know is whether tea time is approaching. Tea time in the United Kingdom is famously 5 o’clock in the afternoon (or in the modern day, at any rate, Victorians took their tea at 6 in the afternoon). Even if my expectation is not tea, I might still use “tea time” as a marker and make use of the British cultural context as an ancillary orientation tool in order to determine the time of day with regard to my own needs. Suppose I have a meeting at 6; this is an hour after tea time. The object I seek to orient myself towards is the meeting, and “tea time” or “five o’clock” are what I use for orientation. To draw a spatial analogy, “tea time” is the equivalent of a landmark, whereas “five o’clock” is its street address, or maybe even coordinates.

“Tea time” is a useful landmark because it’s a recurring event at a known temporal position, at least in our time. As recently as 2009, my father would often refer to 3 in the afternoon as “suppertime.” Folktales and older literature will usually tell us the time of day by referencing a recurrent natural event, mostly the motions of the Sun and other celestial bodies. Gunslinger duels usually take place at high noon, which modern terminology calls “solar noon” to distinguish it from “twelve o’clock,” as the vagaries of the seasons and the varying lengths of the day conspire to make sure the two rarely correspond.

The position of the Sun was very important to our ancestors because they spent a good deal of time outdoors. As the saying goes, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday Sun. This is for very good reason. The Sun at noon is merciless in more southerly climes. Part of the reason why the Mediterranean work ethic developed, which includes taking time for riposo [2] after a big lunch (and lunches are always big in the Mediterranean), is because working is impossible for the better part of the day, especially in the summer. Even performing light labor is asking for trouble. Our ancestors would have a big meal, then sit or nap in the shade until the worst of the heat subsided. In the north, it’s easier to defy Father Sun, but in the south, he’s just as merciless as Old Man Winter [3].

I was recently regaling friends with an amusing anecdote about meeting a creepy man while exploring an abandoned swimming pool. I described the period when it happened as “sweater time,” because being an incorrigible dandy, the only period-sensitive factor I could think of was the clothes I was wearing. It occurred to me while I was telling the story that “sweater time” contains far more information than, say, “February.” Indeed, categories of time such as winter, summer, coat time, shorts time, and such refer to periods in the context of observable and measurable effects. The old Slavic calendar, for example, refers to the months with descriptive names. October is Listopad (leaf-fall), November is Studen (cold one), and December is Snežnik (snow bringer).

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You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [5]

Our modern representation and measurement of time would have been alien to our ancestors, who were bound by the rhythms of agricultural life. Agricultural labor was not evenly distributed throughout the year, but rather had extended periods of light labor and shorter periods of intensive labor. Indeed, harvest time usually meant that the able-bodied men and women from several villages would congregate together in order to counteract a local dearth of labor. The rhythms of agricultural life corresponded to periods divided by the eight perennial holidays corresponding to the solstices and equinoxes. As I write these words, we approach the winter solstice, which will see the longest night of the year, and the shortest day. Many people have marked this period with the Feast of St. Nicholas, which Orthodox Christians celebrate on December 19. In the future, when we win, maybe our descendants will honor St. Woes with the festival of Millenniyule [6].

In a world of near-absolute security as a result of modern heating and air conditioning, winter, summer, Father Sun, and Jack Frost have become just words. We use clocks and calendars to reckon time. Unlike his great-great grandfather, who lived according to the movement of the Sun and the passing of the seasons, modern man barely notices them, unless he is inconvenienced by a heatwave or icy roads. He takes antihistamines to fight his pollen allergy and uses a leaf blower, but his workday is always the same: the 9-to-5 grind, regardless of season, a great big 8-hour pie chart taking up three-quarters of the clock’s face, each day a black cell plotted on a calendar. Even the names of the days lose their meaning. What connection does Monday have with the Moon anymore? Instead, we look to Garfield to hate Mondays and corporate restaurants to celebrate (TGI) Fridays.

Modern man doesn’t even genuinely feel time in relation to himself. He passes through life as his body ages — a physical manifestation of the passage of time — and is consistently surprised that this is happening. His ancestors accepted time’s ravages as a fact of life and found ways to live in all stages of life. Boys planned for manhood, young men planned for their adulthood, old men made provisions for their death. Young girls played with dolls, preparing for the time when they would be mothers [7]. They’d string flowers together and dream of the day when they would marry and become women. Fathers would speak to their sons of the times when their grandfathers were children and when they would one day be old men. The passage of time was noted with real things: last summer, when your grandfather was a boy, Bishop Clement’s third year, when the King’s men last passed through the village — meaningful events, landmarks of local history. But modern man will insist that he is young at 55 and refuse to understand that time has passed. The greatest criticism that can be levelled at the Baby Boomer generation is that they stubbornly refuse to admit that it is no longer 1987. Time has no meaning for us anymore.

I guess the answer to my question is right in front of me: We do not feel the passage of time because we’ve insulated ourselves from the thing itself. We hide from the seasons in our heated and air-conditioned pods, we ignore the movements of the Sun and Moon, we’ve decoupled our work and religious cycles from the natural passage of time, and we do our best to ignore time’s effect on our own bodies. We cheat the body’s natural limitations and speeds with caffeine and sleeping pills, we disrupt our circadian rhythm with artificial lighting and screens, and for the past two years, we’ve spent the majority of time indoors, hiding from a disease with a 99.99% survival rate, thus completing the process of severing ourselves from time. Now we cannot even mark its passage with the calendar-based communal holidays. Nobody is in the mood for Christmas because Christmas is something you do with other people, and people can give you the coof.

No matter how much we pretend to ignore it or venerate the clock and calendar as false idols, time is not something that will go away, however. The days pass, the seasons change, and men still grow old and die. Modern man, thinking time is something that lives in the clock, does not fully grasp its inexorable march and omnipresence. We are moving, as a civilization, towards a different time, a time which I predict our descendants, if we indeed have them, will call the time of reckoning.

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