The year 1999 may eventually be remembered for many reasons, but already we can say that this is the most time-obsessed year in history. Since the Middle Ages, people have been growing more aware of time, and in the 20th century each new industry (broadcasting, airlines, space) has heightened the need for precise measurement of minutes and seconds. But in this matter, 1999 is a record-breaker. Edging toward a new millennium, armed with computerized appointment books, facing the possibility of disaster caused by an oversight in computer dating systems, we worry more about time than anyone ever has.
Our society long ago turned time into an object to be bought or sold. It resembles cash (time is money) and can be given away (I gave you the best years of my life). It is clearly alive, because it can be killed. (What are you doing? Just killing time). The late Nathan Cohen remarked in a theatre review that plays by Agatha Christie are good for killing time, if you like your time dead.
The organizers of the recent Frum Lecture in Toronto asked Eugen Weber, the historian, to speak on how various societies have treated a particular slice of time: the end of a century. But Weber soon realized that most societies haven't really thought about it. In fact, it seldom mattered until the end of the 19th century, when people identified the fin de siècle as a particularly decadent time -- and then they were thinking mainly of France. Weber, in explaining why he chose another subject, left his listeners with a fresh reminder that the past is a different country, where people think of different things.
The word "circa," attached to the birth year of a historic figure, is another frequent reminder. Erasmus, the greatest scholar of the Renaissance, was born in either 1466, 1467 or 1468. He never knew which, and apparently never cared. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, most people couldn't have told you what year they were living in at any given moment, or what year they were born. Walter Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy, explains that it didn't matter: "With no newspapers or other currently dated material to impinge on consciousness, what would be the point for most people in knowing the exact calendar year?" Unlike us, they did not assume the world was constantly evolving. It was possible to live a long life without seeing major changes. One year resembled another.
When they did feel the need to describe time, they often used major events, such as earthquakes or uprisings. In the early 19th century, the French dated everything from the Revolution. This tendency hasn't entirely disappeared. A friend of mine asked his aunt, who is from the Punjab, when she was born. She answered, "Two or three years before the fighting" -- that is, before 1948, when violence broke out between Muslims and Hindus following independence. Last week, in a New Yorker cartoon, one man at a restaurant table says to another, "But that was long ago, before we dipped our bread in olive oil."
Precise years began to matter when business and government started dating their activities: The length of a mortgage or a job appointment was vital, and so was a 99-year lease or a period of indentured labour. Karl Marx spread another view of time: Events followed naturally, one upon another, all of them inevitable. He was so persuasive that Marx-influenced writers still refer to our era as "late capitalism," as if it had a built-in timer. (For all we know, our present system could be early capitalism, or embryonic capitalism.) Since around 1960 we have also learned to speak in decades. In this way we package time, converting it into a product (the seventies) sold by industries that depend on fashion.
Hours are another matter entirely. Marking the hours also became necessary under industrialism, but it was invented earlier, in medieval monasteries. Monks created a world of order and serenity by performing their tasks according to strict schedules. In 1934, Lewis Mumford wrote in his book Technics and Civilization that the monasteries "helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine."
Learning to live by the clock took many generations. How-to manuals of the 19th century are crammed with what the social historian E. P. Thompson called (in his book Customs in Common) "the propaganda of time-thrift," passionate denunciations of sloth and tardiness directed at the workers. Thompson wrote that the transition to an industrial society required new disciplines "and a new human nature." Human nature changed faster in some places than others, and still does. Thompson said that in the 1830s and 1840s it was commonly observed that English workers were more time-disciplined than their Irish contemporaries. The English were more likely to be Puritans, and "Puritanism, in its marriage of convenience with industrial capitalism, was the agent which converted people to new valuations of time."
Today, scarcity is the theme when we speak of time. People complain that their lives are crowded by responsibilities and they have too little time. The other day a typical heading in the National Post described "stressed out, time-strapped workers." In France they call this le stress. A poll published in 1997 in Marianne, a weekly Paris magazine, said that Frenchmen were losing interest in sex. The stated cause was time pressure, le stress.
Many complaints about lack of leisure are fiction, of course. If they were true, then the time-consuming leisure industries, from television to golf, would languish, and they are not languishing. Parents of small children are always severely time-deprived, but most people have more free time than ever. We exaggerate the pressures of time for a reason: The less time you have, the more important you appear. John Robinson, a University of Maryland sociologist, has said that "being busy has become a status symbol." Since 1965 he's been studying how a sample of 10,000 Americans spend their time. Their work week has decreased, by five or six hours, but they believe they're working more.
Time is the simplest subject, and the most complex. St. Augustine said, "I know what time is, until someone asks me. Then I do not know." The greatest living filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, says that in one sense, "time doesn't have any meaning at all." He admits that when working he's "a time pedant," fussing about getting things done. But, I suspect like many of us, he cherishes a place where clocks can't penetrate: "In the childish part of me where I'm creative, time doesn't exist."