In more ways than one are we off the clock. We have been out of time long before Salvatore Dali melted that watch in his 1931 painting. Climatologists have been warning our deaf ears of impending doom for decades. Time and tide are tired of waiting.
The notion of clock came as imposition on the natural rhythm of human existence. Eating, sleeping, and working all yielded to the tyranny of the clock as if to an alarm. Being punctual became a virtue. Pre-literate societies had no such need to punctuate their lives. When Big Ben strikes on the hour, all fourteen tons of it, you’d better check your timepiece and hurry up or else. The great London clock came at the height of the British Empire upon which the sun never set. It could be regarded as the symbol of uniformity and authoritarian rule. Everyone knew their place and when teas served, one lump or two.
Football, basketball and soccer are all played against the clock as well as their opponent. Managing the clock has become the hallmark of a successful team while a baseball game defies it as the great board game moves counter-clockwise into eternity.
Mrs. Dalloway, in Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, measured her life by the gongs of Big Ben. Harold Lloyd hung for his life on the big hand in one of the most enduring images of the silent film era as if to mock time itself. Orson Welles had his licks in a moment of levity during the zither-filled Third Man movie when he ridicules the Swiss for their neutrality and cuckoo clock as their sole contribution to Western Civilization. In fact, everything in that memorable speech was about as accurate as a broken clock.
But Mrs. Dalloway’s noon was altogether different than the other character’s twelve o’clock. Woolf used time was a way of giving relativity its due and give voice to the inner lives of her characters. In her masterpiece, time is subjective; for some an occasion for buying flowers or accepting a lunch invitation; for another a time for dying.
The clock gives us the illusion of quantifying our lives just as commodification monetizes it. It provides us with the idea of our existence being a chronicle. World War I shattered this sequential narrative. The myth of progress was laid to rest along with millions of dead bodies to fertilize the fields of Europe. A generation was lost and survivors were also lost in the stupidity of it all, a life left in fragments and the dread of a world without God to write the fable.
In his review of Erica Hunt’s poetry book, Jump the Clock, Ben Lerner suggests she is leaping beyond clock-time and the logic of society’s givens enforced by racism and violence. She asserts that clocks belong to a culture of domination and her poems redress that imperfect past.
Perhaps time is not of the essence, at least, according to the clock or watch. Both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf took their Leopold Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway through a single day which recapitulated their entire life. History, both personal and otherwise, cannot be dismissed nor the consequences of our behavior ignored as it determines our future on this orb.