Eva Hoffman’s Time, the latest in Picador’s series BIG IDEAS//small books, carefully but playfully examines what time is or might be, how we might measure it, and what it means. Hoffman divides her big idea into four neat chapters, exploring time’s relationship to the human body, mind, culture, and finally, “Time in our Time.” Although the final chapter begins by asking “what kind of social or cultural time do we live in nowadays, and how does this affect the shape of our personal experience?” this question is perhaps at the core of the book, and hence central from its beginning, in Hoffman’s discussion of bodies.
Hoffman’s long essay begins appropriately with a discussion of the human as species, as animal, as a biological entity that must measure the passing of time against itself, against the passing of seasons, and the death of one’s kin. And while Hoffman draws on modern medicine and science in her discussion, citing DNA research and neuroscience, she’s just as likely to search for answers in Shakespeare or Wordsworth. So, while Hoffman brings up current leading scientific research, the heart of the book lies in her ability to temper hard science with what it might actually mean in human terms. For example, Hoffman uses poems by Emily Dickinson (twice) to illustrate the (traumatic) effects that time can toll on the psyche.
This multi-discipline approach has become the hallmark of the BIG IDEAS series, and its exactly what makes the books such a joy to read. Perhaps some might find a discussion of Alzheimer’s disease nestled against a reading of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to be distasteful, for many of us, the key to finding meaning in big ideas comes not just from the sciences, but also the arts. Hoffman might not have definitive answers for her big questions, but she has plenty of salient, concrete arguments, including a few we’re happy to get behind. After decrying the dissolution of the traditional Spanish siesta, Hoffman writes:
The Protestant ethos driving industrial development was grounded in the ideology of progress and a linear conception of time. It carried traces of the religious belief with which it was originally linked, and an eschatological vision of time in which earthly temporality inevitably moved towards a future where all our efforts would be judged. The work ethic at its height required great discipline of personality, and the sacrifice of presentt pleasures for future goals. It involved a systematic commitment to saving money, so that capital would accumulate, as proof of effort and virtue. The capitalist culture was a culture of the future par excellence; it encouraged its adherents to move through time with a long-term goal in their mind’s eye–or, conversely, with a sense of severe guilt and even sin if they failed to meet their objectives.
Not so in our own, thoroughly disillusioned epoch. After decades of expansion and its spoilages we no longer find ideas of human perfectibility, or even progress, sustainable. Rather, we seem to be driven by being driven. This is, no longer the work ethic but the ethos of conspicuous exertion, and under its aegis we willingly submit ourselves to temporal regimes that would have seemed rigid or even tyrannical by the standards of most other places and periods.
I’m not sure if everyone, at least here in the US, is as completely and savvily attuned to our “disillusioned epoch” as Hoffman suggests–surely many people still believe their drives result from a work ethic, rather than some ideological drive to be “driven.” Still, Hoffman’s salient observation points to the relatively recent exponential change in our relationship to time. She goes on to laundry list YouTube, BlackBerry, and other devices that abridge space and time, and therefore project the illusion of immediacy. Perhaps ironically, Hoffman’s essay contains no mention of Twitter, a program inextricably wed to the most incrementally insignificant accounting of time. While her book is brand new, undoubtedly in the time it took to produce her manuscript Twitter rose from fad to phenomenon; perhaps there just wasn’t time to discuss this new measurement of time. In any case, Time is an appropriate and welcome addition to what’s shaping up to be an enduring and noteworthy series. Recommended.
Time is available now from Picador.