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You just keep me hanging on

Some of the finest art about love has played games with time and the agony of waiting.

“Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute,” said Albert Einstein, illustrating his theory of relativity. That’s fine when the girl (or boy) in question is safely by your side. But what if you have to wait for them to arrive?

In the legend of Hero and Leander, the beautiful Hero lives in a tower overlooking the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles). As a priestess of Aphrodite, she has taken a vow of chastity – a decision she soon regrets when she falls in love with Leander, who, as fate would unhelpfully have it, lives across the water on the opposite shore. But such irritations are no obstacle to young love and so it is that, under cover of night, Leander takes to swimming the six-kilometre stretch of water to be with her, guided only by the glow of the oil lamps that she lights. This arrangement rolls along quite happily until one luckless night, when the lamps blow out in a storm and Leander, left in the dark without landmarks, loses his way and drowns.

Though Leander’s fate is undeniably tragic, to my mind it is Hero who deserves the greater part of our sympathy, as she sets about the daily and unenviable task of waiting. She can never be certain if she’ll be visited at all. And on the night of the storm, her waiting has a peculiarly bitter edge to it: she longs for Leander to swim to her but at the same time she is only too aware of the dangers he’ll face if he does. It is a tension many of us have known – the tension of both wanting and not wanting something to happen, because we are unsure how the story will end.

While uncertainty lies at the heart of all waiting, whatever form it may take, Hero’s variety is arguably the worst, inasmuch as both the manner and the time of her release are hidden from view. In other instances (when we wait for the results of a medical test or school exam), we may know the time but not the manner of release. Even the simplest version (in which we look forward to a special event or wait for the timetabled train to arrive) can make us edgy, unable to focus on much besides the goal.

So, what goes on in this no-man’s-land of waiting? And what happens to time when we wait? The normal rules don’t seem to apply.
In a final variant, the thing that unsettles us most is not knowing when the wait will end. Emily Dickinson communicates this feeling with customary elegance in a poem that opens:

If you were coming in the fall,
I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn
As housewives do a fly

The speaker would gladly extend her wait “if only centuries delayed”. It is not until the closing stanza that we understand the source of her frustration:

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time’s uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

So, to wait is to be partly aware, partly in the dark: we know the what, but the when or the how eludes us. In this unsettling atmosphere
it is impossible to go about our normal business because if we take our eyes off the goal for a second, we are in danger of missing the crucial moment altogether. We have no choice but to remain alert, perpetually watchful, looking out for the first twitch of that sail on the horizon. (Interestingly, the word “wait” comes from the Old Northern French waitier, meaning to watch or attend.)

Like all critical spells of waiting (whether they take place in a pub or in a hospital emergency ward), Hero’s seems endless. Each moment is an eternity because it has no foreseeable conclusion. And as she watches through the prism of her anxiety, she has the strongest feeling that she is impeding the course of time itself.

The feeling would not have been strange to her: the ancient Greeks were after all familiar with the notion that human passions vary the flow of time for each individual. In the Iliad, time stretches and contracts, speeds up and slows down in response to Achilles’s emotions. Sometimes a whole book is spent on a single day; at others, several days go by in a single page. Hero’s predicament – as she begins the long and anxious wait for her lover, veering between hope and despair – seems an equally fitting vessel for the experience. Time isn’t fixed; it’s elastic.

The Greeks had more than one word for time. Chronos is chronological or serial time, of the sort with which we are most familiar today, but kairos is something altogether different. Kairos exists outside the confines of space-time and is therefore unmeasured and unmeasurable. It is a richly textured concept with layers of meaning but refers in essence to an opportune moment, a time in which something exceptional, perhaps life-changing, takes place. In modern Greek, kairos means simply “weather”, suggesting the possibility that time may be a quality rather than a quantity. We see our first snowfall, climb mountains and fall in love in kairos time.

Yet human beings have long felt the need to regulate the passage of time and have used various means over the centuries to do so – shadows, water, sand, wax, oil, quartz, satellites. The function of time measurements is to impose order on human activity. In the days when water clocks were the principal timekeepers, speeches in the Greek law courts were allocated a set amount of water in relation to the importance of the case. Plaintiff and defendant had equal time to speak. It fell to one of the jurors to pour the requisite number of jugs into the clock jar at the start of each speech, and when the clock was empty, the speech was over.

The first mechanical clocks didn’t appear until medieval times, fitted into towers in monasteries and churches and chiming on the hour to call the faithful to prayer. The vocal property of these early clocks was central (the very word clock is from cloche, a bell) because although the new clocks had faces, they were devoid of either dials or hands. As such, their hourly toll was the only means they had of communicating.

It is not impossible to envisage a world in which kairos time dominates, a world where time exists primarily as a quality and where clocks (if they have any place at all) have little need to speak. They are, after all, no more than witnesses of time, mere bystanders. In such a world, the success of a life might reasonably be measured by the quantity of pivotal moments it contained, as opposed to the number of deadlines met, the number of goals achieved.

I imagine living a life this way would feel a little like building a monument – a stockpile of significant moments heaped up like a cairn – to be revisited and viewed in quieter times. And if the moments were to be set in motion again, each one would run at its original pace, powered by the emotion that formed it.

In cinema, so much has been made of the link between pace and sentiment that certain slow-motion scenes have become part of our shared consciousness: the determination on the faces of the runners in Chariots of Fire, the menace of that walk in the title sequence of Reservoir Dogs, the mix of fear and elation that precipitates Thelma and Louise’s plunge over the edge of the Grand Canyon into their final sunset.

Back in Hero’s high room by the sea, time has slowed to such an extent her world seems to have fractured into separate elements. There are the various sea-sounds blown up from the bay, the shadows in the room, the flame of an oil lamp tugging on its stem, an occasional icy draught that slides under the door, and the door itself knocking in its frame. But there is no sign of Leander. As evening approaches, I like to imagine Hero reaching up to close the shutters against the gathering storm, the darkening sky. It’s a task that, in the drawn-out cadence of her waiting, takes all the willpower she can muster.

The final guiding home of the slide-bolt is a moment loaded with import, a film-maker’s dream. Above all, it is an act of defiance: whatever the outcome of her wait, for the time being at least, she is no longer watching.

Julia Copus is a poet, and won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2010

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader