HESP June 3, 2018

“There are dead stars that still shine because their light is trapped in time. Where do I stand in this light, which does not strictly exist?” Don DeLillo

In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography he analyzes his core virtues and examines how he lives by them on a daily basis, the struggles he encounters, and the perseverance that keeps him disciplined in following through. Everything he does is strictly managed and monitored: “Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today”, when making a list of his virtues, he mentions order and describes it as follows: “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

One could say that his biography is one of the first works on time management and productivity. Benjamin Franklin perfectly exemplified the new emerging attitude towards economy and life. Franklin would allow himself only a few hours of sleep, the rest of his time had to be spent productively. When the day was over, he would devote himself to the question “What good have I done today?” In his life there was no room for dreams, speculations, fantasies, fiction. According to Benjamin Franklin time was linear, regular and predictable. It follows the beat of early Capitalist Chronometry, every second equal in length and irrevocable.“The time that’s lost is never found again” or “Time is money” are quotes from his biography that summarize this attitude.

In Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the protagonist Bartleby refuses to be a part of the Capitalist Money Making Machine. He simply refuses to do anything. From the beginning, he is described as a person who seems already dead: as if he were a ghost or a corpse. Pale from work indoors, motionless, without any expression or evidence of human passion in him at all, he is a man already beaten.

Even his famous statement of non-compliance, “I would prefer not to,” is an act of exhaustion and passivity rather than active opposition. It is not “I will not” but “I would prefer not,” emphasizing that Bartleby is acting in response rather than some defined philosophical choice. Bartleby slowly detaches from the world, beginning with this first statement. Every time he repeats the statement, he is renouncing one more piece of the world and its duties. At the end he will renounce living itself, as he finally prefers “not to eat” at all. Bartleby’s work place is an incredibly bleak office: on one side, the windows open onto a light shaft, and on the other, the windows look out onto a brick wall. The landscape is completely unnatural, and one is cut off from nature and almost all living things. The work environment is sterile and cheerless.

It is precisely in this environment that one would expect a person like Benjamin Franklin to thrive and make the most out of his time by acting efficiently and getting “all the good things done” without any distractions. Then later, in the evening, he would be extremely proud his work, and yet it is precisely in this environment that we encounter a protagonist like Bartleby, unwilling to succumb to the Wall Street Money Making Machine and Capitalist Culture, which sees Franklin as one of its early predecessors. Bartleby “would prefer not to”…

Love and empathy don’t seem to animate either Franklin nor Bartleby, for Franklin didn’t include the cultivation of this feeling among his list of virtues, and Bartleby seems devoid of any driving passion or desire. I wonder if Franklin would consider “spending time with his loved ones” as a waste?

Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is the personal tragedy of a young woman alien to a crowded, hard society. The play opens in a business office where typical office employees work to the incessant noise of their adding machines and typewriters. The protagonist of the play is a young woman, who immediately distinguishes herself from the office regimentation by being late to work. When asked why, she explains that she had to escape the airless crowd of the subway and walk in the fresh air. Later on the play elaborates on the theme of “escape”. The protagonists longs to be free from a life constrained by time, incessant productivity, and an excessive emphasis on materialism. When the woman tells her controlling mother, who she lives with, about her Boss’ proposal, (a man for whom she has no feelings but disgust) her mother responds that there is “no time for love”, that all that matters is financial security. Her mother is willing to let her daughter contract a loveless marriage as long as the man she marries is “decent”. In this case “decent” equates with “wealthy”. In her mother’s words “Of course he is decent. He is a Vice-President”.

Later on, when the young woman reluctantly ends up marrying her Boss and they are on their honeymoon, he mentions wanting to buy a Swiss clock. He is pretentious and materialistic. The clock is important to him, perhaps because it symbolizes his efficiency. He is successful because he spends his time wisely, by being efficient and working hard. He doesn’t waste his time.

Once again, we notice the overlapping of these two spheres, success and time management are portrayed as leading to a well lived life. These traits produce a life that one can be proud of when recounting the good deeds of the day, the way Benjamin Franklin would. It is precisely what gets lost, in a life lived purely for the achievement of material success through incessant productivity, that characterizes the protagonist’s longing throughout the play. From the very beginning it is clear that the young woman needs to “escape” into “fresh air”, and that she is willing to arrive late at work, just so she can experience those few moments of freedom, before feeling trapped at her work again. While speaking with her mother, it becomes clear that she wishes to love the man she marries, and not just marry for financial security. However, her wishes for space and time to love, are trampled upon by the demands and constrictions of the hard money oriented capitalist society she lives in, a society that seems to consider love as unnecessary.

A film that made me reflect upon these topics is “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin. In this film the depiction of the modern workplace suggests that mechanized industrial production is unhealthy for workers and generally at odds with the natural constitution of human beings. The clock is seen as tyrannical. Chaplin criticizes the hurried pace of production, the monotony of mindless work, and the dehumanizing aspect of Ford’s production methods. In Chaplin’s idea of these modern times, love seems impossible, or at least difficult to attain. The two characters, the tramp and his loved one, are constantly escaping or trying to fight for a place to live and spend time together, but they are unsuccessful at it, because the capitalist, profit oriented society that surrounds them continues to hinder them. All they are left with are fantasies, it seems, and their imagination is the only place they have left to be free.

There is a scene which sees them sitting on a curb together. The woman who is his romantic interest claims that she lives “no place-anywhere”, and in a way one could say that both characters are trapped in this condition of being everywhere but nowhere, forced to live in a state of perennial restlessness. As they notice a suburban couple parting outside their home the tramp asks “Can you imagine us in a little home like that?” They enter into an idealized dream sequence. It is the everyman vision of the perfect home in a capitalistic society. He plucks an orange from a nearby tree. Grapes are visible beyond the kitchen door, easily picked. A cow is always available for fresh milk. The Tramp feels suddenly inspired to promise: “I’ll do it! Well get a home, even if I have to work for it”. They are then brought back to the rough reality of their situations when a police man motions them to move along. At the end the image of the couple heading off towards an empty horizon together is similar to the iconography of the Western. To fight nothingness is reactionary at heart, but there is something archetypal here about prophets who turn their backs on a corrupt society and go to the wilderness seeking a new vision, a new life.

In Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis time is also a central theme. In one passage he writes “There are dead stars that still shine because their light is trapped in time. Where do I stand in this light, which does not strictly exist?” I felt that this quote summarizes the protagonist’s existential state and overall relationship with time the best. Cosmopolis tells the story of the twenty-nine year old ego-maniacal billionaire currency trader Eric Packer, whose sole raison d’être is to manipulate the electronic flow of capital on global financial markets. The story unfolds mostly from within his opulent high-tech limousine, from which the other characters are introduced, in what feels like a moment suspended in time. Delillo sees time as a corporate asset that belongs to the free market system. The present is hard to find; “it is being sucked out of the world to make way for future uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent.”

At some point the author declares that what humanity needs is a new relationship with time, and that it must stop fantasizing about a future that never arrives, and that will never be able to satisfy individuals, because its promises keep on renewing themselves, fueled by the never ending fantasies of Capitalism: “This is why something will happen soon, maybe today… To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.

When it comes to love, the feeling is reduced to mere sexual satisfaction, but there also seems to be no time for it. Erik, the protagonist, is always hungry, craving red meat, food that is “thick and chewy.” He’s also permanently on the prowl for sex, with his wife (who denies him) and with his female advisors and bodyguards (who don’t). Finally, his inability to feel satisfaction leads him to desire his own death. During the day, he loses his entire fortune, and by evening the losses have become intentional: he wants to be stripped of the power and money that has protected him from himself, his ability to feel alive, real, happy, and loved.

After analyzing the following works, one can come to the conclusion that love within the context of a capitalist society is not “pure”, but rather, restricted by economic considerations, as well as by social pressure. And this is especially true for the working class, for whom material pressures threaten to rip relationships apart due to worry and stress.

In Machinal, the young woman ends up murdering her husband in order to feel free again and finally love the way she wants. In Bartleby the Scrivener and among Franklin’s famous virtues love isn’t even mentioned, there is no time for it. Chaplin has his protagonists flee in order to finally find peace and a place to live and love freely, and in Cosmopolis, Erik ends up desiring his own death in order to escape his enslavement to money markets. Nowadays most people meet online because in their busy work lives. They only have limited time to socialize. A lack of time hinders the options to meet people in real life, so individuals turn towards technology to satisfy their need for intimacy. In Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism Eva Illouz’s writes, “What was once passion becomes calculation. Rather than waiting to be whisked away, we look for matches via cost-benefit analysis. Technology undermines what nineteenth century people called passion because of the way technology forces you to manage your relationships in a completely rational way and because of the way in which it creates a blasé attitude and cynical attitude towards the encounter.”

Analyzing the works mentioned above helped me understand some of the implications that capitalism has on the way we live our lives, the way we spend our time, and the time and room we make for love, for instance. In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, there was no time for dreams, speculations, fantasies, fiction. However capitalism, which counts Franklin as one of its earliest predecessors, has become a master at taking advantage of these very same feelings. By robbing us from the time to dream our own dream, capitalism has created a ready made dream at a cost.

In his autobiography Franklin wrote, “Never leave to tomorrow, that what you can do today”. Perhaps in the time that we wasted, and that according to Franklin is “forever lost”, the time that he didn’t see us productive, there is still something to be found, and it has something to tell us about our most intimate nature. Perhaps it will end up being what prevents us from forgetting who we were before they robbed us from our most intimate “timeless” nature.

Last but not least, in the words of Don De Lillo, “People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night. I carry this thought, the child’s mystery and terror of this thought, I feel this immensity in my soul every second of my life.

Suggest a Correction


Leave a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*