Quelle Heure Est-Il?

In a few short hours, we will lose an hour, through no fault of our own, and the sense of its loss will be dismissed in the name of some greater, more convenient good.  I realize that it’s straying into crank territory to complain about Daylight Savings Time, but in fact there are issues here that have only recently begun to bother me. This post is also, I’ll admit, a form of extended special pleading. But matters of time have been on my mind of late, especially as we edge closer to the annual night without a 2 AM.

There was this one time, many years ago, when I showed up at 1:10 for a standing racquetball date at 1:00 PM.  This was not a unique event.  “Why are you always late?” my friend asked. I mumbled something about having to do something at the last minute, it took longer than expected, I hadn’t looked at my watch, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. “I didn’t ask why you were late today,” he said. “I asked why it is you are always late.”  Well, I replied sheepishly, I guess it’s a bad habit. “No,” he said. “It’s not a bad habit.  It is because you are always trying to get one more thing done before you have to go.  The reason is,” he intoned, “that you are afraid of death.”  Being French, he was given to pronouncements of this sort.

It’s pretty to think of my routine lateness as a symptom of anomie or such, but in my heart I knew then and know now that it’s a character flaw and nothing more. But I do wonder about the culture-wide obsession with timeliness. Is it in fact a morbid preoccupation?  “Punctuality is the virtue of the bored,” Evelyn Waugh once wrote in his diary. Perhaps that is so. It is no virtue of mine, certainly.  But when exactly, and why, did it become a vice not to be “on time”? “The trains… kept the track clear [of snow], by which means they ran regularly, and arrived on time,” states the New York Daily Times in 1854, the earliest attestation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase.  The next few OED instances are railroad-related as well.  Huh.  Trains and timeliness–where have I heard that before, hmmm Benito?  I thought I smelt a fascist rat in all this talk of time, or at least a capitalist one.

108631N01S001_bthumbUnsurprisingly, technology is in the background.  The idea of keeping close track of time arises concurrently with improvements in the capacity for time-reckoning.  Once it became possible, in the eighteenth century, to mete out time with as much accuracy as one could count out cash, the analogy between thrift and prodigality came into play.  Both time and money, after all, could be saved or spent.  Time is money, we read in Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748), by Benjamin Franklin, whose face now graces the $100 bill.  He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, it ought not to be reckoned the only expence; he hath really spent or thrown away five shillings besides, goes the rest of the passage.

Time is money, then, in the sense that wages are calculated by the minute.  To spend one’s minutes not productively employed in another’s service is, in this regard, time and so money wasted.  The true value of one’s time, in this equation, is the amount of cash into which it can be converted.  Conversely, then, not to be punctual is tantamount to wasting somebody else’s time. Now nobody likes to be left standing around wondering if so-and-so is in fact going to show up for, say, a racqetball game. But is this really to be equated with an employer’s worry about “time theft,” that is to say, time not worked hence money not earned and therefore stolen?  Does lateness really rise to the level of crime?

Now I don’t mean to be hating on my fellow Bostonian, as he really is my favorite Founding Father, but it is Franklin who is often credited with the idea of Daylight Savings Time. While that is not entirely true as a matter of national policy, Franklin indeed made note of the possibility of saving daylight while he was serving as an envoy in Paris.  By simply resetting the clock, he noted, it would be possible to make more efficient use of the sun.  All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days, he writes, “after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte.” Mais oui, Dr. Franklin! But what of the time that you once proclaimed was equal to money? Only a shrug of Gallic indifference now?  But I suppose I should let the matter be.  The hour is getting late, after all, those that are left, in any event.

Postscript, March 29, 2014.  A piece in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press this week entitled “Bill to end daylight saving time in Tennessee fails”:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An effort to exempt Tennessee from daylight saving time has failed by one vote in the state House.

The House State Government Committee today voted 6-5 against the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville.

Several lawmakers from the part of the state in the eastern time zone raised concerns that the measure would have caused their region’s time to be mismatched with neighboring states like Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia during part of the year.

Todd amended the bill to exempt East Tennessee from the bill, which caused other lawmakers to raise concerns about possible confusion over only part of the state adhering to daylight saving time.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Boston, Family, Sewanee, Time, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Quelle Heure Est-Il?

  1. gerald smith says:

    And.how was it that time learned to fly?

    • Yes, Virgil writes in the Georgics, Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore, “But in the meantime it flees, time flees irrecoverably, while we go about smitten with a love of details.”

  2. Kelly Malone says:

    Ah, but see As You Like It,4.1:


    Why, how now, Orlando! where have you been
    all this while? You a lover! An you serve me such
    another trick, never come in my sight more.


    My fair Rosalind, I come within an hour of my promise.


    Break an hour’s promise in love! He that will
    divide a minute into a thousand parts and break but
    a part of the thousandth part of a minute in the
    affairs of love, it may be said of him that Cupid
    hath clapped him o’ the shoulder, but I’ll warrant
    him heart-whole.

    The next time he’s running late, he wisely sends Rosalind a bloody clothe to prove that he has a better reason for his tardiness: he was mauled by lion.

  3. Pingback: Behind the Times in Sewanee | uncomelyandbroken

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