Shortly before John Berger died—a mere two days into the beginning of 2017—he had been working on a small book about time. What Time Is It? the book’s title asked, and Berger, who had written so evocatively about how time feels different in different circumstances, was prepared for another entry in his list of short meditations on a subject accompanied by illustrations.
Like Smoke, his musings on the unique, fading intimacies of smoking in a world attuned to the dangers thereof, or Cataract, a reflection on the vividness of colors before and after having his cataracts removed, this final project was meant to be a collaboration with his longtime friend, the Turkish artist Selçulk Demirel. Though Berger and Demirel had begun work on the project the year before, it was left unfinished at Berger’s death.
It would have been left unfinished, too, had it not been for Berger’s Italian translator, Maria Nadotti, who vowed that Berger’s project should be completed posthumously. A few weeks after his death, Nadotti met with Demirel for dinner, where they agreed to push on with the book after all—but in a new way. Because the manuscript was missing text, Nadotti combed through Berger’s work to find passages and quotations about time, arranging them alongside the oneiric illustrations in a way that resembled Berger’s other pictorial collaborations with Demirel. For Nadotti, this project revealed something larger about Berger: that his own grand theme, “his leitmotiv, is precisely ‘Time.’”
What Time Is It? examines the different ways we may think about what is on a chronometer: personal time, clock time, the way time bends and stretches and loop-de-loops for each of us in a unique way as we walk through the world, and how we are always walking in the shadow of our own death, whether or not we know it. Time in one place for one person is not necessarily the same as time for another, even if both may be measured by the same clock—and, of course, as Einstein famously observed, time is relative: clocks tick slightly differently, depending on how fast they are moving in space.
Virginia Woolf captured how Einsteinian relativity feels, in a literary context, in an extraordinary passage in her 1928 novel, Orlando, which features a gender-shifting protagonist who walks, scarcely aged, through centuries, for they age at a different rate from the ticks of the timepieces around them. This led Woolf to argue that each of us, at the end of the day, walks not to the beat of one clock, but to perhaps many shifting, rattling timepieces, some moving fast, some slow, because life-time feels so different—now the push and pulse of a glowing building’s music, now the slow reshaping of a desert’s dunes, now the rush of diving in a cloud of bubbles into a patch of rough foaming sea, or simply that strange indefinable sense of being in a present moment we just think of as now. In Orlando, she writes that
it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six.
The best of us, Woolf, suggests, learn to keep our life-clocks in unison, so that, no matter if we are river-running or stuck in the interminable slowness of an insomniac’s night, we will feel the same. Of course, this is not how most of us live; ergo, Woolf says, some of us have lived out centuries, in life-time, while only registering 36 in human years. Certain persons at 25 feel, already, like old, wizened souls, their inner worlds prematurely smoothed, like long-lost sea-glass; and some septuagenarians feel the sculpted, scalloped youthfulness of someone in their early 30s.
And the truest time of all, Berger might say—the time that we feel the most deeply—is the kind of time we can’t measure on a clock at all.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Berger’s illustrated texts. They feel, to me, more like illuminated manuscripts than picture books or illustrated stories. Unlike most illustrated narratives, Demirel’s art doesn’t serve to explain or show a moment in the text; instead, the illustrations and Berger’s text simply coexist in an unexplained, charming relationship. Demirel’s art is whimsical and ludically surreal, calling to mind the dreamlike atmospheres of Italo Calvino’s fictions. They tell elliptical, almost aphoristic stories, less concerned with narrative than with conveying Berger’s thoughts and feelings.
Despite their format, Berger and Demirel’s collaborations feel distinct from most comics, graphic novels, or picture books. “Even when I was writing on art,” Berger declared in 1984, “it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.” These are puffs of story, clouds of narrative shifting, like soft blue smoke, into the dark, until they fade away.
This is true, too, of Berger’s pictorial work without Demirel, like his literary adaptation of his famous BBC show on art, Ways of Seeing; his many studies of artists; or, perhaps his most magnificent of multimodal projects, A Fortunate Man, his moving, masterful collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, which served to capture the world of the dedicated, empathetic country doctor, John Sassall, through a blend of photographs and Berger’s narrative.
What Time Is It? is a curious coda to Berger’s relationship with Demirel. Its aim is larger than the book’s brevity might suggest: to show that how we all experience time distinctly, filtering it through the curious alembics of ourselves, and that there is no one thing we can properly call time, but, instead, a multifarious set of experiences. And this, indeed, is one of Berger’s great themes, the note he kept strumming.
In Smoke, for instance, Berger reflected, poignantly, on the way that smoking creates a special ellipsis in time and space, when you take a break to smoke, or meet someone else who is doing the same, and this creates a little pause in the world, a pair of ashy parentheses that flicker like embers, then evanesce away when we return, cigarettes out, to the pace the world we’d briefly left behind. (Like Marjane Satrapi, who has also written a defense of smoking, Berger romanticized the cigarette-laden culture he grew up in; I partly understand what he means, having hung out with the smoker kids for years and grown to enjoy the peculiar sweetness of that blue smoke and occasionally dark-kissing a cigarette myself in the past , but I also believe Berger’s defense of smoking seems extremely, frustratingly naïve.)
In A Fortunate Man, too, one of Berger’s central themes—aside from the complex relationships that a physician has with their patients—is time. “It is a platitude,” Berger observes, “that as we grow older time seems to pass more quickly . . . But we seldom consider the contrary effect of the same process—the elongation of time as it must affect the young.”
For Berger, a core difference between children and adults is how they experience time. “If we knew how long a night or a day was to a child,” he continued, “we might understand a great deal more about childhood.” For children, he argued, time tends to move more slowly than for adults, partly because adults tend to be much more aware of the “absurdity” of events that may befall them; this sense of “helplessness” and “anguish” in the face of such painful absurdity causes adults to experience time in a unique way.
The person “in anguish is trapped in the time-scale of childhood,” he says, “without a child’s protection, suffering a uniquely adult agony.” “Adulthood is hell,” Lovecraft famously wrote in a letter, and understanding the absurdity of this hellishness is what, perhaps, separates many adults from children.
When Sassall encounters a patient in anguish, Berger continues, his patients’ despairing questions “tend to present themselves to Sassall in terms of the experience of time. The elemental problem becomes: What is the value of the moment? It is as though time became the equivalent of Conrad’s sea: the sickness the equivalent of weather.” To help his patients, Sassall must confront time, because how he speaks to them can make their future seem peaceful or painfully protracted. He must sculpt their sense of time to put them at ease—but also to make sure they understand the truth of their situations.
In Ways of Seeing, Berger also meditated on time, here through the importance of eras; for Berger, it was critical to remember that we view art in a particular period in time, which influences our assumptions and expectations. In innumerable other essays, too, Berger reflected on time, and What Time Is It? collects some of these ruminations. Set against Demirel’s evocative illustrations, Berger’s ideas about time take on new, curious meanings, even if the book ultimately feels a bit chaotic in its organization.
It’s a pleasant departure from reading about the politics of the world today—and the kind of departure that, for those of us with the privilege to be able to escape for a moment and read for fun, I think is essential to maintaining ourselves in a painful world. Escapism is both a privilege and a form of self-protection, self-care. I like floating away, when I can, to the distant seas and shores of something fun; it feels so difficult to escape, nowadays, particularly with a brown, queer body many lawmakers seem to wish did not exist, but when I can escape, even for a few moments, it feels so lovely and salvific.
Whether or not any time can be measured at all—or if time even exists—is another question. What time is, on a fundamental level, is difficult to grasp. There are essentially three schools of thought that, still today, remain somewhat in contention. One of school of thought argues that time can’t really be measured on a clock, because what matters is how it feels to us, and that experience itself goes beyond scientific measurements; another school argues that time exists, and can always be measured; and the final school of thought argues that time is simply a convenient trick of our mind.
In all of these schools of thought, though, time and motion are braided together. If we can move, we must be moving in time; if we cannot move, and there is nothing changing in any sense, time is not present in any discernible way. This was what paralyzed Zeno of Elea in his infamous paradoxes in the 5th century B.C.E, when he declared that it was essentially impossible to move at all, because the distance from point A to point B—any two points in space—contained an infinity of numbers.
Zeno assumed that space and time could be divided infinitely, meaning that to get from one point to another, you essentially had to cross an infinite distance. If someone wished to walk 60 feet, for instance, they would first have to walk 30 feet, then 15 feet, then 7.5 feet, and so on, and so on, with the numbers subdividing forever. This makes doing anything seem inconceivable; how can one walk an infinity of steps to get across a room?
It was impossible, then, he proclaimed, to move any distance at all. Motion was an illusion, he said, echoing the conclusion of his mentor, Parmenides. Absurd as Zeno’s paradoxes may seem (and many mathematicians agree that calculus provides a compelling, if complex, solution to the paradoxes), it was an early example of just how tightly time and movement are linked.
Einstein maintained that time, speed, and movement were linked, but he went further in this regard than anyone else had, upending a commonplace mistake we often casually make about the nature of the world. Moving very fast meant that time, for us, would move slower in relation to someone moving less fast than us—an experiment-verified phenomenon known in physics as time dilation. We see this clearly in the paradox of the twins, a famous curiosity that emerged from studying the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity pushed to their limits.
The paradox declared that two identical twin boys would age differently if one of them was consistently traveling at a high speed. If one boy stayed on Earth and another zoomed off in a high-velocity rocket, the boy on the fast-moving rocket would seem to age slower than the other boy, simply because time was slowing down for him relative to time for the slower-moving twin. When the boys reunited after a period of time, one of the twins, therefore, would be younger than the other, despite the same amount of time supposedly having passed.
For Henri Bergson, whose temporal views remind me vaguely of Berger’s, these ideas got everything wrong. Our experience of time, he wrote and lectured to packed auditoriums at the height of his career as one of Europe and America’s most popular thinkers in the early 20th century, was immeasurable; time, at core, could be reduced to what Bergson called durée or duration, a deep, unbroken experience that transcended scientific measurement.
For Einstein—who debated Bergson in 1925 and claimed, in a move that arguably led to the demise of the then-immensely-popular Bergson’s career, that Bergson did not understand the theory of relativity well enough to debate him—time was not linear, but, instead, moved relative to one’s speed and position in space, meaning that a lightning strike viewed from a rushing train might seem to hit slightly differently than if one saw that same strike from a stationary position at a station.
In 1908, the philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart went so far as to argue that time does not even really exist, in an extraordinary essay entitled, fittingly, “The Unreality of Time.” Change, McTaggart said, was the essence of time; without change, there is no time. But no way of presenting time—be it as events occurring in the past, present, or future (what he called the “A-series” of time), or events being labeled earlier versus later (the “B-series” of time)—actually shows change, because these temporal relationships never actually shift. (1900, for instance, is always“earlier” than 1905.)
Beyond this, for McTaggart, it was contradictory to claim that an event could be past, present, or future for instance, it was absurd to say that, for example, a presidential election is present, has been past, and will be future, as it cannot be all these things at once. Defending this idea of time, he claimed, led to a circular argument, because one can only define the past, present, and future by assuming these exist in the first place.
Time, in short, was a mess of contradictions; we imagined that time existed, but it was actually an illogical construct when examined more closely. McTaggart’s views themselves have flaws, but nonetheless present a curious, interesting attack on one of the most fundamental things in most people’s experience of life.
McTaggart was far from the last to claim that time was not real. In his knowingly titled book The End of Time (1999), the theoretical theorist Julian Barbour argued—with the smile of a confident funambulist—that we simply live in a constant present, with no past or future, meaning that we are, in a sense, simultaneously alive and dead all at once. This constant present he calls “the Now.”
“If you try to get your hands on time,” he told Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, in About Time, “it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” Our sense of time passing is little more than a grand, convenient illusion. If we are always, inextricably located in the now, there is no such thing, really, as past or future. The idea is as charming as it is disarming.
Time is tough to pin down, particularly in a language so predicated upon its presence, where our verb tenses suggest past, present, and future. This is particularly problematic when people ask such nonsensical questions as what happened “before” the start of the universe, when time itself, in theory, came into being; there can’t be a “before” if time starts with the universe’s formation. Our speech cannot fully capture the nuances of the most confusing aspects of time.
What, after all, is the language of a clock?
Berger’s book may feel slight. It will not teach us anything, really, about the science of how time may work. Its lack of new writing is disappointing. If you enter the book expecting a coherent guide to time, like little letters from a more scientific Screwtape to Wormwood, you will feel cheated.
But this isn’t the book’s point. It seeks, instead, to demonstrate something essential to comprehending Berger himself, which is the peculiar, protean nature of time in his writing. Berger was obsessed with time and his own mortality, and What Time is It? is a testament to how we cannot read Berger without thinking about time. His insights are sometimes astonishing and cryptic, designed to be reread and re-pondered over the course of our life.
“Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens,” he wrote in one of my favorite passages. “This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.”
Death, always, is our boss, looming over those lenses we grind so that we may tell, in the candle-flicker of time we have, our stories. Berger’s braiding of death, storytelling, and time here is typical, as blunt and brutal as it is beautiful.
We may never fully demystify the enigma of time, but if we can capture, like Berger, how it feels, perhaps, in the end, that’s all we need. Learning how we perceive and process time, after all, is to understand one of the most inescapable, if elusive, aspects of being human.