On the Clock

I'm hip about time. ~ 'Captain America ' in Easy Rider

We assume so much in life.

Take time, for instance. We assume, first, its reality, that it has an objective, scientific existence in the world. We assume that the Clock is time itself. We reinforce this objective reality constantly by wearing personal clocks on our wrists and by having so much of our everyday lives tempered and regulated by it. We have clocks next to our beds that wake us in the morning and determine when we will shower, shave, eat breakfast and leave home, putting ourselves at mortal risk on the highways in a effort to get to work. Most of us have clocks in our cars, and if we have the radio on, the announcers make sure we stay aware of the ever-advancing clock. It determines when we stop working to have lunch and when we return to work, and it determines when we'll again challenge fate on our trip home. The clock determines when we'll switch on the television set to have those calming, controlling, commercial concepts and images beamed into our brains before switching it off and returning to our beds, perhaps fretting if we don't fall asleep right away and the clock tells us we're up too late (after all, who in modern America goes to bed 'too early'?).

We assume, too, the Clock's accurate and worldwide uniformity: that if 'the time is' 5:07 PM in New York City , then 'it is' 10:07 PM in London and 2:07 PM in Los Angeles . We assume the reality of seconds, of minutes, of hours and weeks and months, rarely wondering about their conceptual nature or about how these concepts have come to affect our lives so powerfully. Just that phrase ' the time is ' implies the rightness and reality of applying those numbers to the specific moment: first, we're not talking about just any old time but of the time; and, second, we're using the verb 'to be,' which indicates a certain specific, undeniable reality ' the sky is blue, water is wet, and the time is 10:34 AM .

In fact, we've become so used to thinking of time in this fashion that we no longer see the totalitarian aspects of the Clock or how it helps to control us and deny us our individuality, our humanity, and our freedom.

Before the Twentieth Century, we perceived of time much differently. Norman Pounds writes in Hearth and Home: A History of Material Culture that until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, 'life was, so far as possible, passed out of doors.' The sun governed their days, not the clock, and rural people ' which is to say, most people in those days ' 'had little sense of time.' They woke when the sun came up, worked while it stayed up, and went to bed when it went down. 'The passage of time was marked for them,' he writes, 'not by the ticking of a clock but by the sounds of nature.'

Towns, on the other hand, 'were filled with the sound of bells' (p. 199). Pounds points out that these bells had many meanings, that the sounds of the pre-industrialized world, 'unlike those of today, held meaning and significance' (p. 200), warning of danger or signifying births and celebrations as well as tolling for deaths. The desire to provide more than an indication, for instance, of mid-day or the nearest hour came later.

Prior to the 1200s, time related directly to nature: the movement of the sun, the burning of a candle, the trickle of sand in an hourglass. The Thirteenth Century, however, saw the advent of the mechanical clock, and this 'marked a change in the popular attitude toward time' as they began to think more in terms of minutes than mere hours.

The social implications of this over the next few centuries, writes Pounds, 'were immense'. It is significant that clocks became common at the time when the factory crept in as the means of organizing labor, and that they entered every home with the coming of the railroad. The factory had to adhere to a fixed schedule, and once the wheels had begun to turn, the worker had to be in his or her place' (p. 202).

As technology advanced, then, it 'improved' the lives of people by removing them from sovereignty over their own land and turning them into subservient employees, and the clock did much to coordinate this subservience. But the tyranny of the timepiece, as Pounds puts it, could only extend as far as the bell tower or, increasingly, the factory whistle could sound. Stephen Kern points out in his book The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 that 'around 1870, if a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over two hundred times.' Almost every city had its own separate, distinct, individual time. Kern writes that 'cities along the Philadelphia Railroad were put on Philadelphia time, which ran five minutes behind New York time.' In 1884, largely at the prompting of railroad and telegraph companies (those earliest technologies for annihilating our old sense of time and space), representatives of 25 nations who met in Washington 'proposed to establish Greenwich as the zero meridian, determined the exact length of the day, divided the earth into 24 time zones one hour apart, and fixed a precise beginning of the universal day.' Still, the world resisted 'its obvious practicality' (p. 12). Some regions in France, for example, had four different times, none of which easily converted to Greenwich time. 'Each city,' writes Kern, 'had a local time taken from solar readings. About four minutes behind each local time was astronomical time taken from fixed stars. The railroads used Paris time, which was nine minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Greenwich . A law of 1891 made it the legal time of France.' St. Petersburg in Russia insisted on a local time two hours, one minute, and 18.7 seconds ahead of Greenwich, and 'in India, hundreds of local times were announced in towns by gongs, guns, and bells' (p. 13). By 1913, though ' a mere 90 years ago ' idiosyncratic local time had come to an end. 'Whatever charm local time might once have had,' writes Kern, 'the world was fated to wake up with buzzers and bells triggered by impulses that traveled around the world with the speed of light' (p. 14).

But what caused this resistance to what Kern calls an 'obvious practicality,' so obvious to us now that we barely know how to question or doubt objective time? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that each of us experiences time very differently, very subjectively, and that it ebbs and flows within each unique mind, each individual consciousness. We all know how it sometimes moves slowly and other times just races by. When we're young, for example, the summer seems endless. When we're older, though, it zips right past you. We all can think of moments in our lives when time seemed to slow or to stop, or when we seemed almost to stand outside of time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Flow about how an individual's sense of time seems to slow down or even to vanish altogether when he is concentrating on an activity he finds interesting and challenging.

What happens to the individual when society compels him to merge his private, personal sense of time with the Clock and with the one official public time? We don't think about that much anymore, but early in the century these questions about uniform time concerned a number of artists. Giorgio de Chirico, for instance, illustrated in his 1912 painting 'Enigma of the Hour' the way the Clock, with its clearly visible time, now dominated the human life, towering over the tiny, faceless, solitary individual. Interestingly, although the Clock says mid-day, the person's shadow stretches out to the right, as if the sun is setting and the Clock is lying. And notice the static quality of the painting, as if the Clock has somehow frozen life (Leonard Shlain notes on pages 227-8 of his Art and Physics that 'although de Chirico dated all of his paintings, he willfully dated them incorrectly.' After explaining that de Chirico had been reported changing the dates on works of his already hanging in museums, Shlain asks, 'isn't de Chirico's temporal graffiti ' a crime perpetrated against his own work ' really an anarchistic statement whose cause is to overthrow the tyranny of the Western idea of absolute time?').

Notice too, in his Gare Montparnasse (1914) the portrayal not only of the tiny, almost insignificant people (again with shadows that don't match the time indicated) but also of a clock, again with a clearly defined time, and of the railroad train in the upper right, indicating the dominating influence of Technology upon human life.

The poet ee cummings wondered about the meaning of the Clock when he wrote:

what time is it? it is by every star

a different time, and each most falsely true;or so subhuman superminds declare

--nor all their times encompass me and you:

when are we never, but forever now

(hosts of eternity; not guests of seem)believe me, dear, clocks have enough to dowithout confusing timelessness and time.

time cannot children, poets, lovers tell--

measure imagine, mystery, a kiss

--not though mankind would rather know than feel;

mistrusting utterly that timelessness

whose absence would make your whole life and my

(and infinite our)merely to undie

The novelist and Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner wondered about the Clock as well. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson is given his grandfather's watch by his father, who tells his son, 'I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better that it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget about it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won, he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools' (p. 76). And yet, when it breaks, Quentin takes it to a repair shop, noting that 'there were about a dozen watches in the window, a dozen different hours and each with the same assertive and contradictory assurance that mine had, without any hands at all. I could hear mine, ticking away in my pocket, even though nobody could see it, even though it could tell nothing if anyone could . . . . Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life' (p. 85).

What happens to people when they become speeded up and hyper-sensitive to the passing of time? Think, for example, of how the pace of life has increased over the past 100 years. We don't believe anything should take any time at all. Five minutes is too long. We travel now by automobiles or airplanes, covering in hours what once took days. 'News' comes instantaneously from around the world ' live (and carefully crafted) pictures from both Washington and Baghdad. Our culture has conditioned us to think of speed as 'improvement,' as 'advancement,' as 'progress,' but nothing comes without cost. And what psychic costs have we paid for this 'progress'? Think of how impatient cars have made us ' and not just cars: we want fast food, too. We want fast, instant gratification in every way. Comte de Buffon said that 'patience is genius.' Lao-Tzu called patience, along with simplicity and compassion, 'your greatest treasures.' And W. H. Auden called the lack of it the 'only . . . cardinal sin,' saying that 'because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.'

Interesting that so few us of have patience any more. But then, what is patience but a private, personal, individual understanding of time as something organic and natural and relative rather than something invented and manufactured and absolute? And when Technology and its servant the State can take that from you, when it can replace something as quirky and idiosyncratic as your private, relative sense of time with its absolute, public sense of it, then it has taken major strides towards claiming (or, perhaps, eliminating) your very soul. After all, the Clock has no soul and thus makes no room for it. It's relentless. It never stops, never breathes, never sleeps. Natural life can't help but be messy and inefficient, but Technology and the State require efficiency. They demand that life run like . . . well, like clockwork. Remember ' many things bind us mentally and spiritually to the State, and our unthinking acceptance of the Clock, the way we simply assume its Truth and its significance, is one of them.

This does not mean, of course, we should totally ignore the Clock. We should, instead, strive to understand the difference between it and time and remember that they are not the same thing. We should become, like Easy Rider's Captain America, 'hip about time.' We must not let it dominate our lives or strip us of our souls. We must remember what Faulkner said: 'only when the clock stops does time come to life.'

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Craig Russell's picture
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Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.