Assistant professor examines how 18th-century novels create a sense of time
"Have you ever felt that time flies?
That it's been a short moment,
whereas in fact you've been
reading for three hours? My book
is about such feelings."
- Professor Amit Yahav
Cheers to Assistant Professor Amit Yahav, who this spring published her debut book, Feeling Time: Duration, the Novel, and Eighteenth-Century Sensibility (University of Pennsylvania Press). A scholar of the novel, aesthetics, and theory, Yahav discusses the influence of plot momentum, narrative rhythm (via early musicology), and character logic in how writers explored and invented "qualitative duration," an emotional experience of time, for their readers. "In this innovative and ambitious book," notes Harvard Professor Deidre Lynch, "Amit S. Yahav challenges some overly entrenched critical commonplaces about the Enlightenment roots of modernity while simultaneously elaborating new and compelling analyses of novels and aesthetic treatises that are the well-established mainstays of eighteenth-century literary studies." Professor Yahav describes the book and its inception more below.
Could you briefly describe the focus of the book?
Have you ever felt that time flies? That it's been a very short moment, whereas in fact you've been reading for three hours? Or that time drags on and on? That it's been forever, whereas in fact you've been waiting for only ten minutes? My book is about such feelings, and how they've been explored in eighteenth-century literature and philosophy. The eighteenth century is well known for having developed abstract, disciplinary, mechanical, quantitative time—the paradigm of time-is-money, punctuality, order; or the notion that time is not much more than its conventional notations—clocks and calendars. And yet the eighteenth century is also the age of sensibility, a culture that highlights sensing, feeling, and subjectivity. Feeling Time is about the temporal conceptions developed by writers of sensibility to explain durations that are intensely personal, or that seem to us to have special qualities that clocks and calendars cannot get at. What time feels like, rather than how it is measured or used efficiently. Twentieth-century philosophers have called such duration qualitative or experiential. My book shows that eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers do a great job of defining such qualitative time, and of elaborating the ways in which reading, listening to music, and aesthetic pleasure more generally can shape our durational feelings.
What led you to this research topic?
The beginning of this project, like all of my research projects, comes from my personal life. I had a good friend who insisted that he has his own time, which is different from my time. I didn’t believe him. I thought that clocks and schedules were the only meaningful way to think about duration. We argued about it for years until he convinced me, and then "my time" became a fascinating intellectual problem. What can a duration be if it cannot be measured chronometrically? How can we talk about it, share it, coordinate it? At this point I started seeing non-chronometric time and felt durations everywhere in the books I was reading for work. The most evocative scenes in Defoe’s Moll Flanders involve difficulties of coordinating desires in time; Richardson calls his signature novelistic technique "writing to the moment" (rather than to the minute, hour, or second); Tristram Shandy notoriously cannot match the schedules of representation with the lived duration of its protagonist/narrator; Ann Radcliffe arrests her plots to a standstill thus dilating our reading-time with lengthy accounts of the aesthetic pleasures of her heroines, etc.
Robinson Crusoe was the first novel I wrote about for this time project, in an early exploratory essay that I published separately about a decade ago. Since then my research took me in very different directions, but some of the fascinating experiments with time I found in that novel made their way to the final version of Feeling Time. I even begin my book with an example from Crusoe. [See the excerpt below].
Excerpt from Feeling Time, Introduction:
Soon after discovering a human footprint on his island, Robinson Crusoe concludes that "it must be some of the Savages of the main Land over-against me, who had wander'd out to Sea in their Canoes . . . [and] I should certainly have them come again in greater Numbers, and devour me" (113). While he is right to suspect that the island's visitors are cannibals, he turns out to be wrong about the threat they pose for his life; the natives are unlikely to devour Crusoe upon encountering him, since they arrive at the island already equipped with all they need for their ritual, not in search of supplies for it. And just as they welcome as neighbors the survivors of the Spanish shipwreck (161), they are also likely to welcome Crusoe as a living friend rather than as dead foodstuff. Yet, if contrary to Crusoe's anxieties, other men do not eat and seem to have no intention of eating his body, they do consume his time.
While he thinks he is alone on the island, Crusoe approaches time as an abundant resource and an abstract measure; he enjoys a "prodigious deal of Time" (51), which he fills with a variety of tasks meticulously timed—twenty-four days to rescue supplies from his drowned ship (52), three and a half months to build a wall (56), two weeks for building a bower (75). Indeed, during his initial years on the island, Crusoe feels he has "a World of Time" (79) at his disposal; "My Time or Labour was little worth, and so it was as well employ'd one way as another" (51), he confesses. But once he realizes that other humans are close by—from the moment he discovers the footprint on his island—his time no longer easily circulates among varying purposes, and he instead becomes solely devoted to formulating opinions about his new-found neighbors and devising strategies for an encounter. For "many Hours, Days; nay, I may say, Weeks and Months" (114), Crusoe is immobilized by anxiety, which then gives way to a spurt of defensive action—building a second fortification—and to superman fantasies: "For Night and Day, I could think of nothing but how I might destroy some of these Monsters in their cruel bloody Entertainment, and if possible, save the Victim they should bring hither to destroy" (122), which "pleas'd my Thoughts for some Weeks, and I was so full of it, that I often dream'd of it" (122). This self-aggrandizement then transforms into an effort at toleration, which lasts approximately another year (123), with Crusoe then sliding back to "above fifteen months . . . During all this Time, I was in the muthering Humour; and took up most of my Hours, which should have been better employ'd, in contriving how to circumvent, and fall upon them, the very next Time I should see them" (133). Then another two years of back and forth between vengeful superman fantasies and toleration, finally giving way to a pragmatic approach that leads Crusoe to a year and half's preparation for the opportunity "to get me a Servant, and perhaps a Companion" (146).
What might it mean that an anxiety for one's life and body materializes as an overwhelming of one's time? Or that the proximity of other people takes its toll in the form of an all-consuming duration? Or that one's sense of time comes to be indexed by alternations of mood? What kind of temporal conception supports such equivalences between bodies, life, feelings, and duration? And between one's relation to other people, on the one hand, and one's capacities for temporal command, on the other? Crusoe's conflation of the integrity of his body (his anxiety about cannibals) and the autonomy of his time (his reluctant absorption with his new-found neighbors) underlines a shift within the novel from an approach that takes time as an external resource, one that is especially abundant on the island and thus also circulates easily, to an approach that considers duration as endurance and links time with persons, thus not only impeding its circulation and contesting its abundance, but also endowing it with human, emotional, and embodied qualities. And Defoe's launching of this shift precisely at that point when Crusoe's supreme isolation no longer seems credible underlines how this turn is tied to a recognition of a shared world—that a profoundly human durational experience has much to do with a thoroughly social conception of existence.
I begin with this brief sketch of temporal transformation in Robinson Crusoe as a gateway to the case that this book makes for a wider cultural shift toward identifying duration with human endurance and, as such, increasingly focusing on varying qualities of temporal experience. The cultural shift in temporal attitudes during the eighteenth century has usually been understood as the story of the development of a mechanical technology for counting time that came to pervade public life and individual consciousness. Influential histories have focused on rationalization, promoting a notion of modern temporal consciousness as governed by chronometry and geared to support the efficiency and power of the social totality at the price of thinning, or even fully draining out, durational qualities from personal and collective experience. Programs of isolation and disciplinarity are, no doubt, key to eighteenth-century culture, as well as to modernity more generally. And yet eighteenth-century philosophy and literature have also undertaken extensive explorations of consciousness as a complex and nuanced interface of material, psychological, and social experience. Such investigations focus on the nexus of self and world, though not through frameworks of regimented schedules; and they underline a sociality different from, while also in complex relations with, the impersonal orders of commensurable exchange and print publicity. Feeling Time examines the vocabularies and logics used to explore temporal experience in such eighteenth-century discussions. It demonstrates that these yield accounts of duration that often attend to qualities no less than to quantities, intensities no less than extensities, and variations no less than regularities. It also finds that these eighteenth-century discussions identify felt duration as the crux of aesthetic pleasure and judgment, experiences described more as patterned durational activities than as static states.
2018 copyright Amit Yahav, Feeling Time (University of Pennsylvania Press)