Below is the first of a series of three posts occasioned by my recent reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques André’s Les désordres du temps (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010). I thank Barbara Kowalczuk, one of my readers, for calling my attention to that work.
I. Crossing Time
When we find ourselves having to wait for something–the arrival or departure of a plane, or the ring announcing an expected phone-call, or release from the hospital after surgery: in short, anything that creates a gap in our typically busy schedules—we have the uncomfortable experience of encountering an expanse of what today in our digital age we often call “down-time,” or, using an older locution, “dead time.” It is a time between times, that is, a time between the completion of one activity (say, getting to the airport) and the beginning of another (unleashed by the announcement that we can board our plane, to stay with the same example). Such between-times are times in which we have “nothing to do,” as we often put it—nothing, that is, but wait. Faced with such a time of waiting, not doing, most often we immediately start looking around for something–a newspaper or magazine to read, a computer or cell-phone to activate, a TV to watch, just anything, whatever’s available, or that the more “pro-active” among us have brought along for the purpose, planning ahead–that we can use to “pass the time,” as we say.
That is a fitting expression. What is more, from one perspective worth exploring, it is an apt phrase for describing not only our experience of, and response to, such between times. It proves to be just as accurate when applied to our overall experience of time in general, and response to that experience, in our contemporary daily lives. Time as most of us encounter it in our busy, schedule-filled, everyday lives is just that: time experienced as something we need to find ways to “pass.” It is time experienced as stretching out before us in vast expanses that threaten never to pass, but to become as interminable for us as the prolonged wait for a repeatedly re-delayed flight, if we cannot manage to find ways to make it pass by “passing” it, “passing the time.” It is time itself experienced as a threat. Time threatens, if we cannot quickly find ways to make it pass, to dump us suddenly into what strikes us as an interminable and bottomless boredom, that dreaded “noon-day devil” of the Christian monastic tradition. If we cannot manage somehow first to fill up the vast expanse of time with activities, things that will keep us busy while time passes, we are doomed to fall prey to that devil. Activity—any activity at all, just so long as it keeps us busy long enough for all that time, and the devil who lurks so threateningly in it, to pass us by. We desperately need to pass the time, until it has passed by us.
In a book on “the disorders of time” (Les désordres du temps, Presses Universitaires de France, 2010) French psychoanalyst Jacques André describes how certain individuals and even whole cultures can, so to speak, lose one or another of time’s three dimensions. Thus, there are individuals who have lost or never acquired any ordinary memory of their childhood, but who have access to it only through the accounts of others, or old photographs, or the like. For most of us, that is true for our earliest childhood, from birth until around the age of three, when most of us begin to be able to construct a more or less continuous narrative of our lives since “then.” At any rate, to the extent that we are void of such memories, we may indeed be able to know something of our own past, but that very past itself, our own past, is not there for us as part of our own story of ourselves, what André calls a “history.” Thus, to that extent we do not have our own “past,” in the sense of such a “history.” The past is not there for us.
Similarly, there are those of us who are no longer capable of projecting ourselves into the future by making plans, or never were so capable. Once again, that is true at least at some stages of life for everyone. Newborns, for example, are not yet capable of making any plans, let alone carrying them out (or failing to, for that matter). Some of us return to such a condition in advanced age. At any rate, insofar as that is the case, we do not have a “future.” It is not there for us.
Harder to grasp, perhaps, as André suggests, is that there are people for whom there is no present. However, he offers a wonderfully helpful way of expressing that idea, so that we can grasp it, or at least get glimmerings of it. To describe what it is like to have no present, he writes (page 11) that in such a condition “one lives without being there [être là], life passes, and one passes by beside it.”
We all know what it is like to be somewhere, without really being there at all. Often, for instance, we “listen” to some other person in only the most perfunctory sense, our minds—and us with them—elsewhere, such that we are not really listening at all. There we are, but we are not really there. In all likelihood, most of us actually spend most of our lives “living” them in only the same sort of perfunctory sense. Instead of actually living those lives, we just sort of stand alongside of them while they run their course, as though we are just waiting for them to be over, the same way we wait for the delay of our flight to end at last with the boarding announcement, setting us free from our waiting. We can spend our entire lives waiting around for the announcement that they are at last ready to begin, only to discover to our shock at the moment of death that they have been running their course all along beside us, and we have just let them run out. The time of our lives themselves can run out before we have even begun to live them. It is as if we do not “show up” for our own lives, do not “take part” in them, but just let them unroll beside us, in the time we pass till it passes by, and our own lives with it. In such lifeless living, we live out our lives until they are all lived out, and we can finally expire–ex-pire, to breathe-out, as in a sigh: a fitting word indeed for a life just lived out, a life lived as one long sigh of expiration. (In fact, in our contemporary culture, life lived out in one long, sighing expiration is not the exception but the rule. The mechanisms of the global market economy everywhere institutionalize precisely that form of living with no participation on our part, wherein one lives out one’s life, rather than living it. The evidence in support of that contention is so readily available that it would be otiose to adduce it here.)
In contrast to the compliant time that obediently lets us continue to pass it, while it passes quietly by beside us, carrying our lives peacefully along with it, the time with which trauma confronts us just will not co-operate. The time of trauma is a time that refuses to pass us by, while we pass it. It is a time that simply cannot be passed. However hard we try to pass it and thereby to make it pass by beside us (as quickly as possible, please!), by trying to fill it with all our diverting business–in the literal sense of busy-ness–it will not do so. The harder we try to make it pass into the past, the more tenaciously it clings to us and–like loved ones who insist we actually listen to them and not just hold down a seat while they chatter away next to us–insists that we attend to it, be fully present to it, in its own insistent presence. It will not pass by, nor let us pass it by–while we look the other way, as it were, happily distracted, keeping ourselves busy. Try as we might to guard ourselves against any break in the narcotic constancy of the passing of well-mannered, obedient, everyday time, in trauma we encounter a time that interrupts all our business and disturbs all our peace. It breaches all our security systems, throws us into the anxiety of being stripped of all our defenses, exposes us in all our vulnerability, reduces us to panic-inducing in-security.
Congealing into the troubling moments of such disturbing security breaches, the time of trauma literally punctuates our lives. It breaks our life’s time—our very life-time itself—apart, shattering it into distinct, un-passable moments between which no commerce, no exchange is permitted. In trauma, the moments of our lives become momentous break-points wherein the tumultuous, rebellious time of trauma takes its place and sets itself up to bar the way of any return—at least any without remainder of the insistently nagging memory of our deep and inescapable insecurity—to the unruffled tranquility of the everyday flow of time in its constant, continuous, blissfully obedient passing by. The moments of a time of trauma are eruptive, interruptive moments. They are ill-mannered, unruly children who insistently make demands on our time, showing no respect at all for how busy we are with our important adult business, and insisting that we give them our full attention–whatever form that attention takes, even if it is that of rage and abuse, which for such children is always better than our usual indifference–rather than letting us just pass them by, as all good children should.
When trauma strikes—and, ultimately, that is redundant, since all strikes are, in truth, traumas–we are thrown into a time that will no longer let us live out our lives as prolonged sighs of expiration. Once trauma has struck—“after” trauma—we are no longer permitted to expire. From the first stroke of trauma time on, we can no longer expire, we must die–a much less pleasant, quiet affair than expiring, as much less as a death rattle is than a sigh. The time of trauma keeps breaking in upon us ever anew, catching our sighs in our throat, turning them into gasps for air, struggles for room to breathe. The eruptive, disruptive time of trauma interrupts our living out of our lives as one long sigh and demands of us instead that we begin breathing again, again for the very first time. Trauma insists—and does so insistently–that we stop just living out our lives, and begin at last to live them, live them all the way to the end, when we die, with no expiration.
With the first bell-stroke of trauma time, all of a sudden and for evermore the living out our lives gets broken off, our passing of time gets stopped. Time itself gets torn apart, riven, cleaved. So riven in itself, the time of trauma in turn rivets us; so cleaved, it cleaves us. It rivets and cleaves us to itself–to its own broken, arrhythmic rhythms, the very irregular, pulsating rhythms of life itself, come fully alive at last. The riven, cloven, riveting, cleaving time of trauma leaves us with no choice any longer—no choice except to take up our very lives and live them all the way till we die, rather than just hanging around together beside them, waiting for our mutual expiration.