Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



Peter Boxall

Last week my fifteen year old son wrote a short piece of fiction, entitled ‘Thursday’, that reflected on how strangely anonymous the days become when we are cast away, or imprisoned, or quarantined. What kind of identity does Thursday have, it asked, as opposed, say, to Saturday, when the structure of living has been suspended, when we cast off the clothing of the days to reveal the nakedness of their passing?
The question, it seemed to me, is intrinsically literary. It is the question that drives the novel as it comes to prominence in the eighteenth century, as the novel gives itself the task of converting unregulated time into lived time. Think of Robinson Cruse, awash in unstructured time, diligently keeping his journal in an effort to hem time in, to give it narrative shape (Crusoe admits late in the novel that somehow ‘I lost a day in my account’, so his companion Friday, named for the day Crusoe met him, should properly be called Thursday). It is the question that lies always under the skin of novel duration, coming repeatedly to the surface throughout the shifting history of the form. Think of Lauren Hartke in DeLillo’s fin de millennial novel The Body Artist, isolating herself in a country house in the middle of nowhere to spend dedicated time with her new husband Rey: ‘I’m only saying. How does it happen that Thursday seems like Friday? We’re out of the city. We’re off the calendar. Friday shouldn’t have an identity here’. It is the question that choreographs Beckett’s drama, that determines the metronomic movement of Footfalls, of Rockaby, that gives shape to the stage space in Godot. Think of Vladimir and Estragon, faithfully keeping their appointment with Godot, waiting obediently by the tree, at evening, on a country road. 
Estragon: You’re sure it was this evening?
Vladimir: What? 
Estragon: That we were to wait? 
Vladimir: He said Saturday. [Pause] I think. 
Estragon: You think.
Vladimir: I must have made a note of it.
Estragon: [Very insidious.] But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? [Pause.] Or Monday? [Pause.] Or Friday?
Vladimir: [Looking wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape.] It’s not possible!
Estragon: Or Thursday. 
Beckett’s response to the loss of calendrical time is to approach some conceptual temporality that is not measured, that is not meted out, a static duration that appears as a substrate to the diarised days – a duration that is figured in Godot as the time of waiting. When we wait we are exempted from the duty or privilege of living, to involve ourselves instead in the denser business of existing. The collective experience of quarantine that provoked my son’s interest in the existential texture of Thursday has exposed this fold between living and existing, between the political and the ontological. As the spread of coronavirus has brought the business of the world to a standstill, as it has stripped away the timetabled superficies of being, it has delivered many of us to the unmoving time in which Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. The pandemic has revealed the junction between passing time and still time that is the very condition of literary thinking, that is the central concern of Proust, of Woolf, of Joyce. But if literary duration is to help us to understand the temporality to which quarantine has delivered us, the anonymity of the days, we have to reckon with the fact that the experience of unmeasured time produced by quarantine is not simply slack or empty, but bound up with the most grievous of ethical demands. It is easy to think that Beckett’s Godot opposes the unmoving time of existing – the universal or pre-political time of the denuded stage – to the calendrical time that it calls into question, the Saturday or Thursday on which Godot is to appear. But the time we are living through now shows that this opposition is not simple or easy, that literary duration and political duration, unmoving time and diarised time, are bound in a mutually productive relation – the relation upon which the politically transformative power of the literary rests. One of the many eerie things about the experience of the pandemic is that it interleaves stalled time with the time of crisis, the aimless with the urgent. As we are confined to our houses – as we are instructed not to venture out if our business is not ‘essential’ – we know that this slack confinement has its corollary in the harrowing labour of keyworkers, in the brute reality of severe respiratory disease, in the struggle of the dying for breath.  
The pandemic has disarticulated the structure of passing time in this way, broken the bond between living and existing. As a global people we wait for this curse to pass, for the schools to reopen, for lockdown to lift, for time to resume its wonted shape. But if we wait in this fashion, one of the most important things this experience has taught us is that when it is ‘over’ we must not simply restart the clocks, or return to where we left off. Arundhati Roy has recently written that pandemics have historically ‘forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew’. In instituting such a break with our past, this virus shows us that we must rebalance the relation between the political and the ontological, recast the ways in which our global structures convert the biological experience of existing into the political experience of living. I haven’t asked him, but I suspect that my son chose Thursday as the title of his story because this is the only day, under current conditions, on which he has an appointment. In the UK, we have taken to meeting on Thursday evenings at 8pm, to stand on our doorsteps and applaud the NHS care workers who are risking their lives for others. If Thursday has an identity for us now, if it is different from Monday or Saturday, it is because this is the day on which we celebrate our capacity to act as a society which defends the right to life not of some of us, but of all of us. When Thursday has a meaning again, let us hope that it is witness to that capacity.

The Prosthetic Imagination by Peter Boxall
The Prosthetic Imagination by Peter Boxall

About The Author

Peter Boxall

Peter Boxall is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. His books include Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction (2006), Since Beckett: Contemporary Writing in the Wake ...

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