Venus and Time — Jacob Hicks

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Venus and Time, 2013 by Jacob Hicks (b. 1985)

“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

Melancholia (detail) — Albrecht Dürer

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Even pain counts (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Second Riff: The Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain)

A. Okay. So I finished the first section of Mason & Dixon a few days ago. I’m now at the part where our titular heroes are smoking weed and eating snacks with George Washington. I can’t possibly handle all the material I’ve read so far—even in a riff (here’s the first riff for anyone inclined)—so instead I’ll annotate a few passages from Ch. 19, one of my favorite episodes so far.

B. Setting and context: 1762. “The George,” a pub in Gloucestershire (Mason’s home county). The patrons at the tavern are heatedly discussing the eleven days that went “missing” when the British moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

One (satirical) source for this controversy comes from William Hogarth’s 1755 painting An Election Entertainment; in the detail below, you can read (barely) the slogan  “Give us our Eleven Days” on the black banner under the man’s foot.

a

A bit more context, via History Today:

In 1750 England and her empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Europe.

Attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to adopt the new calendar had broken on the rock of the Church of England, which denounced it as popish. The prime mover in changing the situation was George Parker, second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was assisted in his calculations by his friend James Bradley…

I emphasized Bradley—Mason’s mentor—and Macclesfield as they are minor characters in this episode.

Basically, the pub patrons demand that Mason explain what happened to the missing eleven days.

C. Okay—so this whole episode, this discussion of time and space clearly helps underline the big themes of Mason & Dixon: How to measure the intangible, the invisible—how to pin down the metaphysical to the physical—how to know and how to not know. (Hence all the paranoia). Continue reading “Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Second Riff: The Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain)”

Detail from Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time — Agnolo Bronzino

bronzino detail

“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

Snoopy, What Time Is It Now?

snoopy

Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

Time Smoking a Painting — William Hogarth

Guy Debord on “Consumable Pseudocyclical Time”

 

Consumable pseudocyclical time is spectacular time, both in the narrow sense as time spent consuming images and in the broader sense as image of the consumption of time. The time spent consuming images (images which in turn serve to publicize all the other commodities) is both the particular terrain where the spectacle’s mechanisms are most fully implemented and the general goal that those mechanisms present, the focus and epitome of all particular consumptions. Thus, the time that modern society is constantly seeking to “save” by increasing transportation speeds or using packaged soups ends up being spent by the average American in watching television three to six hours a day. As for the social image of the consumption of time, it is exclusively dominated by leisure time and vacations — moments portrayed, like all spectacular commodities, at a distance and as desirable by definition. These commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life whose cyclical return we are supposed to look forward to. But all that is really happening is that the spectacle is displaying and reproducing itself at a higher level of intensity. What is presented as true life turns out to be merely a more truly spectacular life.

Guy Debord, section 153 of The Society of the Spectacle

 

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will — David Foster Wallace

Sometime last year, during a rare visit to a big chain bookstore, I was disgusted to see what had happened to David Foster Wallace’s amazing Kenyon College commencement speech, “This Is Water.” Wallace’s speech, about 3,815 words, give or take (maybe twelve standard typed pages), was being sold as a 144 page hardback volume with only a sentence or two printed per page. The book was (and is) a nakedly commercial attempt to turn a text that is widely available on the web into the sort of thing that well-meaning uncles give to their nephews or nieces as graduation gifts. Of course, hardcore Wallace fans might want such a book — and I’d never begrudge them that — but it’s hard to imagine that Wallace would have been comfortable with how his book was marketed.

Which brings us to Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, new from Columbia University Press this week. The book publishes the 1985 honors thesis that Wallace submitted to the Amherst College’s Department of Philosophy, “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality.” The essay’s title alone signals a prohibitive level of academic specialization. In his introductory essay to the volume, “A Head That Throbbed Heartlike,” New York Times Magazine editor James Ryerson points out, “Its obscurity is easy to appreciate. A highly specialized, seventy-six page work of logic, semantics, and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart.” Ryerson then warns his reader to “Brace yourself for a sample sentence,” before offering a sample from Wallace’s essay that I do not have the patience or fortitude to type out (it would take me too long to locate all the diacritical marks and special logic symbols). Ryerson concludes the paragraph with this wry remark: “There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a cruise ship.”

Fortunately, the editors of Fate, Time, and Language make every effort to contextualize Wallace’s essay in a way that explains its aims, strengths, and even shortcomings. There’s Ryerson’s lengthy introduction, which provides an overview to Wallace’s life in philosophy. Then there’s Taylor’s “Fatalism” of course, a short, provocative argument combining six presuppositions that led Taylor to declare that humans have no control — none, whatsoever — over any future event. The volume collects four other essays by Taylor on fatalism, as well as eight other essays responding to his arguments, before delivering Wallace’s essay (the longest in the collection). Here’s Wallace—

So Taylor’s central claim, the Taylor problem, is that just a few basic logical and semantic presuppositions, regarded as uncontroversially true by most philosophers, lead directly to the metaphysical conclusion that human beings, agents, have no control over what is going to happen.

I ain’t even gonna front–pretty much everything that Wallace says after this was lost on me; if you want to read and comprehend the details of his argument you will need to have a grasp on the basics of Montague grammar and tensed modal logic. If you lack these skills, there will be skimming. Lots and lots of skimming. So, in short, I have no ideawhether Wallace’s logic is sound, although I find his conclusion (minus all the modal evidence) quite compelling—

This essay’s semantic analysis has shown that Taylor’s proof doesn’t “force” fatalism on us at all. We should now recall that Taylor was offering a very curious sort of argument: a semantic argument for ametaphysical conclusion. In light of what we’ve seen about the semantics of physical modality, I hold that Taylor’s semantic argument does not in fact yield his metaphysical conclusion.

After Wallace’s honors thesis, there’s a wonderful little memoir essay by his adviser on the project, Jay L. Garfield, who offers up this nugget—

I knew at the time, as I mention above, that David was also writing a novel as a thesis in English. But I never took that seriously. I though of David as a very talented young philosopher with a writing hobby, and did not realize that he was instead one of the most talented fiction writers of his generation who had a philosophy hobby.

These little pockets of insight appeal to me most in Fate, Time, and Language, and as such, Ryerson’s essay “A Head That Throbbed Heartlike” is the highpoint of the book. It weaves together Wallace’s personal life, writing career, and academic pursuits into a moving elegy of sorts, although one more rooted in ideas than feelings. He also spells out the book’s mission quite clearly—

For all its seeming inscrutability, though, the thesis is lucidly argued and–with some patience and industry on the part of the lay reader–ultimately accessible, which is welcome news for those looking to deepen their understanding of Wallace. The paper offers a point of entry into an overlooked aspect of his intellectual life: a serious early engagement with philosophy that would play a lasting role in his work and thought, including his ideas about the purpose and possibilities of fiction.

Many of us might shudder at the idea of our college essays being published posthumously. Of course, most of us aren’t Wallace, but there are undoubtedly critics out there who will cry foul at this publication. Fortunately, the team behind Fate, Time, and Language has produced a book of remarkable integrity, one that understands why it exists, readily acknowledges its obscurity without trying to gloss over that obscurity, and makes every effort to communicate with and engage its readers without sacrificing erudition. To return to my opening anecdote, this is not the naked commercialism that motivated a gimmicky edition This Is Water; rather, this is a book delivered by people who genuinely care about Wallace and his ideas. Make no mistake–it’s very dry and very specialized, but fanatics will no doubt want it.

Point Omega — Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s latest work Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.

Point Omega pretends to be a novel about two subjects: the Iraq War and film. Its narrator Jim Finley is an experimental filmmaker who travels to the Arizona desert in an attempt to convince aging intellectual Richard Elster to participate in a film comprised solely of one long, unedited take of Elster talking about whatever he likes. Although Finley repeatedly claims that Elster can talk about whatever he chooses to in the film, it’s clear that that the younger man wishes for the subject to be Elster’s involvement in the planning of the Iraq War, a sort of mea culpa from the intellectual elite who rolled over to the Bush administration. Elster’s involvement was essentially to provide academic credibility to the invasion:

He was the outsider, a scholar with an approval rating but no experience in government. He sat at a table in a secure conference room with the strategic planners and military analysts. He was there to conceptualize, his words, in quotes, to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as troop deployment and counter-insurgency. He was cleared to read classified manuscripts, he said, and he listened to the chatter of the resident experts, the metaphysicians in the intelligence agencies, the fantasists in the Pentagon.

Elster becomes disillusioned with the whole process soon; he comes to realize the hollowness of his role and soon moves to the desert. “He’d exchanged all that for space and time,” writes DeLillo, announcing his theme. Later in the novella, Elster claims that the geologic time of the desert allows him to feel, “Time falling away . . . Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time.” He contrasts this “deep time” with the time of cities:

It’s all embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers everywhere, he said, train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras. It’s all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives. Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There’s an endless counting down, he said. When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what’s left is terror. This is the thing that literature is meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story.

Elster appears concerned that humanity is approaching Teilhard’s omega point, the maximum level of complexity of consciousness toward which the universe is evolving. He concedes that this idea might be “a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea our experience.” For Elster, the omega point is inevitable and leads to either “a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion.” Ultimately, his viewpoint seems nihilistic: he’d rather human beings somehow be transformed into stones, be somehow absorbed into a new time, a geologic time.

The obsession with time and film literally wraps the book in two short chapters called “Anonymity” (a prologue) and “Anonymity 2” (an epilogue (or a prescient epitaph, perhaps?)). Both sections describe a man who spends all of his time at MOMA’s presentation of Douglas Gordon’s videowork 24 Hour Psycho, a silent showing of Hitchcock’s Psycho over 24 hours. Neither section is narrated by Finley, although it later becomes clear that he–along with other principals in the story–is present at the showing. The unnamed man whose consciousness permeates these chapters finds his own omega point in the crawling pace of the film. 24 Hour Psycho divorces itself from the healing powers that stories give us, the power to narrativize all the gaps and crevices of life. It’s no longer the medicine that Elster suggests literature (or film) might be. It now exists outside of narrative cohesion and somehow resonates with the purity or transcendence of geologic time.

Fortunately, DeLillo is gracious enough to his readers to not attempt replicating the pace of geologic time in his book. Point Omega is particularly slim–under 120 pages in hardback–and reads with a the conciseness and clarity which has been a hallmark of DeLillo’s style. As perhaps the signal writer of post-postmodernism (whatever that means), DeLillo continues to engage and anticipate new and emerging forms of alienation, and he does so without gimmicks or trickery, just the purity of considered ideas. Point Omega works best when he allows those ideas some room to breathe; the late-night scotch-soaked dialogues between Elster and Finley are some of the finest passages of the book and it’s a pity there aren’t more of them.

But it seems like we’ve digressed from some of our starting points, doesn’t it? Many critics will call Point Omega DeLillo’s “Iraq War novel,” which is a mistake akin to calling Underworld a book about baseball or White Noise a book about Hitler. The war is merely an entry point to the greater, more personal tragedy that underlies the book, a tragedy that will perhaps make Elster reassess his own value system. We won’t name the trauma at the core of the book–to do so might spoil a twist in a book largely devoid of conventional concrete plotting–but it is worth noting that DeLillo optimizes suspense and tension as the novel builds to its own omega point. While many will feel left cold by the book’s ultimately ambiguous invocation of personal calamity, we found in it a meaningful counterpoint to Elster’s explicit commentary on time and identity. DeLillo’s novel, in the end, requires an intellectual–or perhaps, dare we say spiritual–leap. Point Omega is hardly a satisfying read, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Highly recommended.

Point Omega is available February 2nd, 2010 from Scribner.

Time – Eva Hoffman

time

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.