A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 86

Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

Friday, June 5

“Time…was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate….If Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow?”

 —W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

We humans are hardly the only creatures whose days are linked to the sun’s light. The wild rabbit in our yard has customarily been awake and munching on our lawn when I get up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. But today, he didn’t show his face until around 4 p.m. 

Rabbits are crepuscular creatures, Emily reads to me, generally spending their days snoozing in their holes below ground, only to emerge in the late afternoon or early evening, when the light is low. 

Out here in the country, much more than in the city, my daily habits are linked to the light, which streams in through our large windows in the morning. In Manhattan, you find a way to block out or amplify light, according to your wants. And you grow accustomed to the fact that noise is always present.  

Electric light, of course, made it possible for humans to exert absolute control over time. But before electricity, it was capitalism that prompted an urge toward time management: Workers in early U.S. industrial towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, were quite aware that they were required to report on time in the morning, take no more than 15 minutes to consume meals, and accept the fact that management was always stretching out the length of the work day. In 1856, one mechanic wrote to that city’s reformist newspaper, The Voice of Labor, that bosses had “fixed” the mill clock, so that it slowed down to add minutes to the laboring day, then sped up at night to summon operatives early. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, citizens raised $500 to purchase a town clock that would not be subject to the manipulation suspected of the factory clock.

And it was that quintessential capitalist development, the railroad, that imposed time zones across the U.S. and the synchronization of different cities’ clocks. How else could train timetables exist? 

Does the COVID-19 lockdown threaten to break down the dictatorship of the clock? I doubt it. Probably like me, many folks go about with their watches still strapped to their arms. They may not get out of their pajamas until afternoon—or maybe not at all—but they know more or less what time it is. Their smart phones or computers or smart watches keep them in line.

Just now, I looked at the top of my MacBook Pro and found that it was 5:53 p.m.—time to begin making dinner.

Tonight it will be: leftover lentil soup, corn muffins, and a lettuce salad with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and avocado.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Belgian thriller The Break.