Novelist, cultural commentator, memoirist, and historian Eva Hoffman examines our ever-changing perception of time in this inspired addition to the BIG IDEAS/small books series
Time has always been the great given, the element that establishes the governing facts of human fate that cannot be circumvented, deconstructed, or wished away. But these days we are tampering with time in ways that affect how we live, the textures of our experience, and our very sense of what it is to be human. What is the nature of time in our time? Why is it that even as we live longer than ever before, we feel that we have ever less of this basic good? What effects do the hyperfast technologiescomputers, video games, instant communicationshave on our inner lives and even our bodies? And as we examine biology and mind on evermore microscopic levels, what are we learning about the process and parameters of human time? Hoffman regards our relationship to timefrom jet lag to aging, sleep to cryogenic freezingin this broad, eye-opening meditation on life's essential medium and its contemporary challenges.
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About the Author
EVA HOFFMAN is the author of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Shtetl, and The Secret. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, and other publications.
Read an Excerpt
Let me begin with a confession: I have always been preoccupied by time. Whether this propensity was temperamental, or whether in some way it belonged to the place and historical moment in which I was growing up, I am not sure. But I do know that it started early, and has continued throughout my adult life.
Perhaps, like the young Vladimir Nabokov, I was simply a kind of chronophobiac.1 Certainly, I was intensely and palpably aware of time’s existence and its ceaseless passage. Reading some childhood story, in which the ticking of a clock measures the silent night, I would start listening to the clock in my own room, aware that each tick-tock was irreversible, and that the stealing of time, second by second, would never stop. When I walked home from school on some warm afternoon, I was conscious that with each step taken a moment was receding behind me into the past, that the number of such moments a life had in it was fi nite and that the only way to preserve them in some way was to hold them in my mind; in memory. I would remember this moment, I would say to myself; that way, it would not be entirely lost.
Children are natural philosophers; I suspect that more of them experience metaphysical sensations than we know. Nabokov became aware that he existed in the “pure element” of time at the age of four, and he compared the birth of this consciousness to a “second baptism, on more divine lines than the Greek Catholic ducking” seen performed on his younger brother. Perhaps my own exacerbated sense of time’s unstoppable passage arose out of the climate in which my childhood took place. I grew up in Poland, shortly aft er the war— that is, on the territory of vast death. Th e presence of mortality was pervasive and inescapable there. We post-war children knew in our bones that life was a provisional condition; that it could be cut arbitrarily; that its finitude was wrested briefly from death’s infi nity.
These, to be sure, were powerful circumstances; but perhaps they suggest that our basic vision of time can be established quite early, and may be informed by the cultural and historical context we arrive into. But there was another kind of time I was aware of (for various temporalities can coexist, and be folded into each other as subatomic dimensions are apparently folded into each other in the cosmos). This was the ordinary time of our daily lives, and of the human activity all around us. That time moved at an unhurried, temperate, seemingly just-right pace. Of course, what I was experiencing was the unrushed time, the tempo giusto of childhood; but even adult time in Cracow during those years seemed to move more slowly than in any of the places I have lived in since then. I don’t think this was merely a lyrical illusion. Rather, as I refl ect on it in retrospect, I see that this earlier, slower tempo was partly a function of the actual conditions of people’s lives and partly a question of cultural ethos or temper.
Poland in the post-war decades was an impoverished country and an economically static society. Under the aegis of centralised communism, there were no great careers to be made, no glamorous possibilities of upward mobility or the seductive temptations of acquiring great wealth. There was really nothing much to hurry towards. The famous motto of those days, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” summarised in a joke what was often a grim material reality, the downside of social stasis.
But the virtue of these defects was the suffi ciency, the plenitude of time. People had time to sit around the famous eastern European kitchen table and talk late into the night; people had time to ruminate inconsequentially during a slow amble in a park. Here’s Carmen Firan, a Romanian poet now living in New York: “For more than thirty years I lived in the opaque world of communism, where time had no value,” she writes. “All we had left was talking. Our conversations, sometimes delightful, were a never-ending chatter over full ashtrays and cheap bottles of alcohol, night-long discussions, and hung-over mornings. Time was frozen for us. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. Neither did we have anywhere to go.”2
People had time for such things. But they also did not question their need or purposes, did not wonder about the returns or the results, or the intrinsic worth of sitting about and talking late into the night. For there was something else in the air of those days, something more elusive than social conditions, and more difficult to demonstrate or pin down: a predisposition to value purely personal and intimate experience, and to savour the textures of that experience; a predilection for a kind of pensiveness, for musing on small things and reflecting on larger ones. In other words, a predilection for taking one’s time about the flow of living.
Th is was the lyrical side of the famous Slavic melancholy. But such atmospheres, too, refl ected deeper cultural patterns. It seems possible that, aside from the effects of communism, the slower time of eastern Europe was a feature of a less puritanical climate, of cultures which (for better and for worse) had never developed a full-blown capitalist ethos, or the idea that time is money. Indeed, the idea of excessive ambition, of running after things, seemed vaguely unseemly and undignified. “When man is in a hurry, the devil makes merry,” was an oft-cited (and here roughly translated) proverb of my childhood; and the devil, in those days, was still a personage to reckon with. The word “fate” was often used; and the acknowledgement of that governing force in people’s lives implied a certain receptivity, a willingness to accept things as they are, which we, in our more activist—or will-driven—societies might call passive, or fi nd diffi cult to imagine.
Dislocation exacerbates the consciousness of time. For me, emigration constituted a great interruption, putting paid to the idea that time necessarily unfolds in a continuous, linear way. The past was all of a sudden on the other side of a great divide, preserved in memory but severed from the present. The future was so obscure and veiled as to have no existence. Straightforward temporal coordinates had become scrambled.
Time, in a sense, had stopped flowing and started to assume more jagged forms and rhythms. My experience in this regard was, of course, hardly exceptional. Migrations, mass movements of populations as well as more routine forms of mobility, are among the hallmarks of our epoch and they inform everyone’s consciousness of lived time. It is geo graphical stability and the continuous life narrative which these days constitute the exception, and various forms of discontinuity and fragmentation which are becoming the norm.
But for me, the impact of cultural disruption had more than personal implications. As I continued to live in America and study and work in its institutions, I began to become aware of the deep differences in the constructions of time prevailing between the two worlds I knew. It was not only that time moved faster in America—it pressed onwards in more stressful ways. People worked much harder, of course; but also, it seemed to me, more anxiously. I was witnessing, even if I did not initially realise it, the phenomenon of “American nervousness” which had been a trope of social commentaries ever since the end of the nineteenth century. The nervousness had always been diagnosed as a function of a peculiar American insecurity, underlying the ostensible confidence; an uncertainty which followed perhaps partly from the country’s perpetually renewing newness, but also from the extreme competitiveness of American institutions and the very possibilities of upward mobility. People worked very hard. But even if not everyone used every minute of their working day to be optimally productive—so I noted during my tenure in some major American workplaces— everyone suffered from the stress of not doing enough, or the possibility of doing more, or at least feeling good and guilty about it. (This soon included myself.) It was as if anxiety were the tithe paid to the gods of the work ethic in lieu of more concrete sacrifi ces. After all, everything was at stake in American careers: big promotions, big money, big homes. And if you didn’t succeed in “making it,” as the colloquial phrase had it, you had only yourself to blame.
All of this meant that, on the whole, people were much more strict in their management of time and much less willing to give it away freely or indulge in an errant impulse. The spontaneous response to a friend’s summons, the leisured conversation which did not fit into anything and led nowhere in particular, the protracted silence between people as they let some thought sink in, or simply sat side by side together, all of this was much less likely to occur in the American context. Time needed to be apportioned rationally, with an eye for its yields and gains—even if these were defined as “productive” encounters or conversations.
Th e different attitudes towards time, I gradually realised, required a diff erent organisation not only of one’s Filofax (the period’s time-management device of choice), but of the self and one’s internal arrangements. I learned quite a few things from American time: the merits, in some areas of life, of effi ciency and rigorous schedules; the need, in a busy and complicated life, to know the worth of one’s hours, and to assert one’s temporal rights; the pleasures of pitching the self towards a directed goal, with a plan and a will to carry it through. I continue to value such attitudes, and the particular kind of self-cultivation—the disciplines of self—they encourage. By the time I travelled through eastern Europe in the immediate aft ermath of the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989, I was no longer willing to wait patiently in long queues, and I contemplated a roomful of Romanians, waiting impassively in a large and dusty room for some documents to be processed, with a kind of anthropological and slightly irritable wonder.
And yet: it often seemed to me that in the insistence on imposing control on time’s shaping, and on optimal efficiency in most of life’s areas, in the subordination of so many activities to the calculations of productivity, and to the pursuit of predetermined objectives, that in all of this keeping of the eye on the ball, something—or even much—was lost. What that something was is rather diffi cult to defi ne. The costs of stress, the syndromes of Type-A personality (that popular archetype of psychological profiling, characterised by such traits as impatience, excessive time- consciousness, aggressive competitiveness and inability to relax), the heart attacks among middle- aged professional men, were all well recorded in post-1950s America. But it also seemed to me, as I watched (and imbibed) the routine tensions of American life, that what was being traded in was nothing more or less than the experience of experience itself. And what is that? Perhaps something like the capacity to enter into the textures or sensations of the moment; to relax enough so as to give oneself over to the rhythms of an episode or a personal encounter, to follow the thread of feeling or thought without knowing where it leads, or to pause long enough for reflection and contemplation. Carmen Firan again: “Time is everything in America. It is sold at each deli and hot-dog cart, on TV and by insurance companies, on slot-machines or in the Have a nice day greeting everyone utters automatically only to get rid of you quickly . . . Time is money. The Soul? It is lying lonely somewhere on a shrink’s chair, in front of a computer screen or in a cell phone.”3
It takes time to penetrate another culture’s sense of time. In my years living in Britain I began to discern yet a different sense and deployment of the temporal medium. The British character (if one can still speak of such an entity amidst the extremely rapid changes in that society’s structures and composition) seems exceptionally activist but less exclusively focused on work than the American personality. The British have been great exponents of amateur endeavours, of lifelong learning, of far-flung travel. In informal conversations, observers who have lived in both countries often note, with considerable surprise, that British professionals seem to engage in a number of activities much greater than their American counterparts; and yet, the word “workaholic” hardly fits here. A socioanthropological survey of the world’s major cities revealed that people walk fastest in London. But this is combined with a projection of a much more relaxed, or at least nonchalant, personal style. Whereas Americans want to show their gods—or their bosses—that they are making heroic efforts, the British prefer to be seen as accomplishing their tasks with no effort at all, and preferably with some insouciance to spare. In a sense, theirs seems to be a more deliberative attitude towards time. They take their time deciding what to do, and set about whatever it may be with a will, but (at least ostensibly) without anxiety. The British stance, their refusal to be agitated or harried, suggests that they are the lords of time and that they’ll be pressed by no man, or career incentive.
These are elusive matters, not easily pinned down, and undoubtedly not completely generalisable. What seems certain to anyone who has lived in diff erent parts of the world, or even travelled extensively, is that cultural attitudes to time can have far-reaching implications for the ways we live, for forms of sensibility, and for the tenor and textures of experience. I suppose that, broadly speaking, what I had been observing in my own trajectory were the divergences between the cultures of fatalism, or accep tance; and those of will, or control. What sorts of difference such diff erences make is sometimes difficult to see from the outside; but in conversations with various eastern Europeans— most of them devoted to living fully intentional lives—a nostalgia for that earlier, more indulgent time sometimes surfaces. It is Milan Kundera, a Czech transplant to Paris, who has written an essayistic novel called Slowness, a sustained paean to languor and the sensuality of an unhurried, preindustrial pace. And on one occasion, a group of assorted Slavs among whom I found myself determined (but gave up aft er a luxuriously prolonged conversation) to write a “Slow Time Manifesto.” That said, the length of those post- war Polish vacations now seems to me not only indulgent but indolent. I could no longer tolerate that much rest, except under extreme pressure. I may have become temporally bicultural.
But in any case, such nostalgia may soon lose its object and address. The patterns of time have changed in eastern Europe, as they have everywhere—including America itself—since I first started observing, and feeling, the effects of the classical work ethic. Many people all over the world, even if they stay in their own countries, are experiencing the tremors and tensions of change as their societies leap from pre-modern rhythms and habits into more productive but more ruthless constructions of time. That was certainly one of the seismic shifts I sensed as I travelled through eastern Europe and the Balkans shortly after the transitions of 1989.
But beyond such changes, and sometimes perhaps obfuscated by them, there is the other kind of time; the one that filled Nabokov with fear and rebellion as he discovered that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”; the one by which I was troubled (in both senses of the word) as a post-war child. That more fundamental entity is both the great ineffable and everyone’s metaphysical medium and element. We live in our bodies and psyches, in families, landscapes and nations; but above all, we
Excerpted from Time by Eva Hoffman.
Copyright © 2009 by Eva Hoffman.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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