Saturday, June 10, 2017

Time by Edward Said

.  .  . my sense of time was essentially primitive and constricting. Time seemed forever against me, and except for a brief period in the morning when I sensed the day ahead as a possibility, I was boxed in by schedules, chores, assignments, with not a moment for leisurely enjoyment or reflection. I was given my first watch, an insipid-looking Tissot, at age eleven or twelve; for several days I spent hours staring at it obsessively, mystified by my inability to see its movement, constantly worried whether it had stopped or not. I suspected at first that it was not entirely new, since thee seemed to be something suspiciously worn about it, but was assured by my parents that it was indeed new, and that its slightly yellowed (tinged orange) face was characteristic of the model. There the discussion ended. But the watch obsessed me. I compared it first with what my CSAC schoolmates wore, which, except the Mickey Mouse and Popeye models  that symbolized the America I didn’t belong to, struck me as inferior to mine. There was an early period of experimenting with different ways of wearing it: the face turned inward; on the sleeve; underneath it; fastened tightly; fastened loosely; pushed forward onto my wrist and on the right hand. I ended up with it on my left wrist, where for a long time it gave me the decidedly positive feeling of being dressed up.

But the watch never failed to impress me with its unimpeded forward movement, which in nearly every way added to my feeling of being behind and at odds with my duties and commitments. I do not recall ever being much of a sleeper, but I do remember the faultless punctuality of early morning reveille and the immediate sense of anxious urgency I felt the moment I got out of bed. There was never any time to dawdle or loiter, though I was inclined to both,.  I began a life-long habit then of simultaneously experiencing time as wasting, and of resisting it by subjectively trying to prolong the time I had by doing more and more (reading furtively, staring out the window, looking for a superfluous object like a penknife  or yesterday’s shirt) in the few moments left to me before the inexorable deadline. My watch was sometimes a help, when it showed me that there was time left, but most often it guarded my life like a sentinel, on the side of an external order imposed by parents, teachers, and inflexible appointments.

In my early adolescence I was completely in the grip, at once ambiguously pleasant and unpleasant, of time passing as a series of deadlines – an experience that has remained with me ever since. The day’s milestones were set relatively early in that period and have not varied. Six-thirty (or in cases of great pressure six; I still use the phrase “I’ll get up a six to finish this”) was the time to get up; seven-thirty started the meter running, at which point I entered the strict regime of hours and half-hours governed by classes, church, private lessons, homework, piano practice, and sports, until bedtime. This sense of the day divided into periods of appointed labor has never left me, has indeed intensified. Eleven a.m. still imbues me with a guilty awareness that the morning has passed without enough be-ng accomplished – it is eleven- twenty as I write these very words – and nine p.m. still represents “lateness,” that moment which connotes the end of the day, the hastening needs to begin thinking about bed, the time beyond which to do work means to do it at the wrong time, fatigue and a sense of having failed all creeping up on one, time slowly getting past its proper period, lateness in fact in all the word’s senses.

My watch furnished the basic motif underlying all this, a kind of impersonal discipline that somehow kept the system in order. Leisure was unavailable. I recall with stunning clarity my father’s early injunction against remaining in pajamas and dressing gown: the combined feeling of time-wasting guilt and lazy impropriety simply overwhelms me. As a way of getting around the discipline, illness (sometimes feigned, sometimes exaggerated) made life away from school positively acceptable. I became the family joke for being especially gratified by, even soliciting, an unnecessary bandage on my finger, knee, or arm. And now by some devilish irony I find myself with an intransigent, treacherous leukemia, which ostrich-like I try to banish from my mind entirely, attempting with reasonable success to live in my system of time, working, sensing lateness and deadlines and that feeling of insufficient accomplishment I learned fifty years ago and have so remarkably internalized. But, in another odd reversal, I secretly wonder to myself whether the system of duties and deadlines may now save me, although of course I know that my illness creeps invisibly on, more secretly and insidiously than the time announced by my first watch, which I carried with so little awareness then of how it numbered my mortality, divided it up into perfect, unchanging intervals of unfulfilled time forever and ever.

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