Time is Real!


Not too long ago I reviewed a movie called The Examined Life, by director Astra Taylor, which featured ninety minutes of fascinating, exhilarating discussions with eight contemporary philosophers.

The film left me hungry for more, and recently The New Press answered my wish by releasing a book of full transcripts of Taylor’s interviews with Cornell West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler (in conversation with the director’s sister, Sunaura Taylor).

One of my favorite moments was during Cornel West’s interview, a moment in which he argues that a certain pessimistic way of talking about the world, inherited from Romanticism, is counterproductive to progressive political action. Full quote after the jump.

I’ll pick up on his riffing where he has just finished comparing James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (stay with us here). Joyce was a maximalist, who tried to get the whole world into his art, whereas

Beckett says from the very beginning, “I enact an art and aesthetics of failure.” … [Y]ou see, the language of failure and disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, is a little bit Romantic for me. … [P]art of the problem is that when you have a Romantic project, you’re so obsessed with time as loss and time as a taker, whereas as a Chekhovian Christian, I want to stress time as a gift as well as time as a giver. … Beckett can say “Try again, fail again, fail better” … Fail better — well, OK, but why call it failure? I mean, why not have a sense of gratitude that you’re able to do as much as you did? That you’re  able to love as much and think as much and play as much? Why think you need the whole thing? Where’s the expectation that you need the whole thing coming from? It’s a Romantic project, you see what I mean?

And then West really gets cooking:

And this is even disturbing about America. The paradisial city and all the other mess and lies and so on. I say no, no, America’s a very fragile, democratic experiment predicated on the disposition of the lands of indigenous people and the enslavement of African people and the subjugation of workers and women and the marginalization of gays and lesbians. It has great potential, but this notion that somehow we had it all or ever will have it all — that’s got to go, you’ve got to push it to the side.

And once you push all that to the side, then it tends to evacuate the language of disappointment and failure. And you say, OK, how much have we done? How have we been able to do it? Can we do more? In some situations you can’t do more. It’s like trying to break-dance at seventy-five, you can’t do it anymore! You were a master at sixteen; it’s over! Does that make you a failure? Hell no! You’re seventy-five years old — some things you can’t do. You accept it for what it is. … You don’t need to be disappointed you can’t break-dance at seventy-five the way you did at fifteen. The way you can’t make love at eighty the way you did at twenty — so what? Time is real!

Ever since I saw this film in March, that last line has been my slogan whenever signs of aging have presented themselves (a growing number of white hairs in the beard, a diminished capacity to metabolize alcohol, et cetera.) But having carefully read this passage, I might also start saying it whenever I need reminding that I should just be grateful for being able to do what I can, when what I can do just doesn’t seem sufficient.

Given an honest assessment of how hard I’ve tried, that is.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →