My Futile War Against Time

ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

“Inevitable death is hung above everyone’s head alike. Everyone receives an equal share of it – both the good and the wicked.”


Few forms of aural and psychic violence can compare to that wrought by the alarm clock. They say that no one on their death bed ever thinks, “I wish that I had worked more.” Similarly, no one who hears that piercing and hateful noise wrenching them out of peaceful slumber has ever thought, “Thank God that ordeal is over.”

In Greek myth, Sleep and Death are brothers, but the intended parallel seems hardly suitable. Even the most desperate suicides don’t crave death in quite the same way that one might yearn for a fat nap. The former is a release, but not an anticipated source of pleasure. Coleridge’s ancient mariner had it that sleep is a gentle thing beloved from pole to pole, but his attitude toward death (and Life-in-Death) was somewhat more guarded.

I would do without sleep if I could. Being fond of the artery-splitting caffeine high myself, I would gladly trade the world of dreams for the floating experience of the coffee buzz any day, because I fear that I am too inclined to enjoy spending my life sprawled out unconscious in a kind of dress-rehearsal for death. It just doesn’t feel like living. Actually, maybe the Greek idea of the fraternity of Sleep and Death is not so poor after all.

Horace decried Homer’s nodding, but only the alert reader really feels it. Vergil may have been less prone to howlers (having the benefits of books, writing materials, and the time of the leisured poet), but the most famous literary nap before Rip Van Winkle occurred in his Aeneid. Palinurus, helmsman of the refugee Trojans, fell asleep at the helm, went overboard, and the pleasures of somnolent steering were paid for in blood. Propertius could stay out late for a party, and Cynthia would play the domestic Penelope of a night while she was awake. But once she feel asleep, she repaid the Propertian infidelity in kind. If Propertius had known about coffee, we would have had less poetry.

Every morning, I (like many of my fellow sufferers around the world) am forced to awake and trudge off to a job I hate. Actually, I wouldn’t hate it were it not for this one unfortunate quirk – they insist that I be there at a particular time, and for a fixed duration. It’s the damndest thing, but apparently the whole business of teaching is critically dependent upon a certain semblance of regularly scheduled order. If I were in charge, tempus fugit would become Tempus? Fuck it!

The problem with utopian social planning is not that it’s fanciful, but that no one ever gives it a chance. TikTok may dominate the digital culture now, but tick-tock held sway for centuries before that. Modern chronometry was not required to feel the press of time, and perhaps the death in miniature of the sun upon the dial made one more conscious of what time’s passing really meant, on a personal level. But now, the watch hand offers us the velvet glove over the iron fist. But though temporal demands were in ample supply in antiquity, the relation between events and expectations of punctuality was less rigorously exact than it is today. Reactionary projects are all the rage, but even the most retrotelescopically oriented conservatives never think to turn back the clock by getting rid of it entirely. If Caesar hadn’t reformed the calendar, maybe things would have gone better for him. Perhaps there would have been confusion about the Ides if some intercalary period had intervened. It was not Brutus, but Chronos who drove the dagger into the Julian flesh.

Perhaps Anti-Chronometry won’t ever become a mass revolutionary movement, but forget about utopian scheming – it would be nice to devise a little workaround to this sticky business of the schedule. I love to teach, but it strikes me as an egregious offense to human nature and dignity to insist upon people not only being awake but also busily plying themselves to some task before the hour of noon. Indeed, my students seem to agree with this, so I’m not sure how we find ourselves in this little pickle.

The laws of God, the laws of man

let him keep who will and can…

My relationship with time hasn’t gotten much easier as time has continued to pass me by. To adapt the Heraclitan metaphor, no one grabs the same river twice. Just as I think that I understand time (this is the present – the past is all gone forever – maybe there’s no future), I reach in and grasp aqueous nullity.

The alarm clock rings and that enigmatic little stream of Heraclitus becomes the Scamander and launches a real assault. Or perhaps the river of time is more like the Simois, where

the Simois churns so many shields, helmets, and strong bodies of men, snatched beneath its waves…

ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis

scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit

Seneca writes that the only resource which we can never replenish or recover is our time. He also notes that it is, paradoxically, the one which we are in general the most profligate wasters of. I confess, I didn’t look that passage up for insertion here because I was reluctant to lose time by doing it.

Dr. Johnson once remarked that nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of being hanged. The death of people whom you know is a fair substitute. Last week two of my colleagues died unexpectedly. The first died in a horrific single-vehicle car crash in a ditch half a mile from my apartment. The second was found dead at home. Two instances, even in a short time, don’t make a pattern, but perhaps that’s just the point. Death’s randomness and unpredictability are reminders that there is almost nothing separating us in the realm of the living from those in the land of the dead. It only took Odysseus a bit of light digging and a sprinkle of blood to commune with the dead – they must not be that far off.

I have written about death for Sententiae Antiquae before. So has Joel. Everyone writes about death, and judging from the surviving literature of antiquity, everyone used to do it too. Death is the human subject. Given its universality, we all think about it, we all have our opinions. Yet it is the only subject about which you can say that no living person is an expert. C.S. Lewis likened the return to school following a break to the experience of approaching one’s inevitable death. Sometimes I find the feeling of being jarred awake in the morning to have much the same character. Indeed, the inexorability of the alarm, keyed to a minute on the clock, is the only thing other than the thought of death which keeps me up and anxious at night. What a curious inversion – the prospect of returning to conscious life in the morning takes on the horrible aspect of death. Thinking it over again, maybe that Hypnos-Thanatos connection does need to be cast off.

The technical wonders of modern society have given us two broad, parallel trends: the institutionalization of mass death, and the acceleration of wasted time. For all of the labor we have saved, technology has deprived us of a comparable amount of meaningful experience, and it is hard not to feel at times that social and mass media are a place of purgatory following the death of experience. Our relationship to technology is so passively accepting and yet so naively optimistic. One cannot help but wonder whether our faith in technical progress has enabled  or even caused the mass death event of the pandemic. We don’t listen to scientists’ warnings – but we do feel confident that they will engineer a high tech solution. This same faith underlies the hope for carbon capture technology to combat global warming, the plans to colonize Mars (a currently uninhabitable planet) as an escape route from the world we’re destroying (a currently habitable planet), and the more far-fetched immortality schemes of people like Ray Kurzweil who are just trying to live long enough to reach the singularity.

But to return to the personal. Two totally unrelated people whom I knew, talked to, worked with – two people who were alive just days ago are now dead. That could be me, it could be you. Memento mori and all of that. Somehow, memento mori sounds less urgent as a cliché than it does when reified as the death of people you know. Yet, instead of treating that as a call to live a fuller life, here I sit penning maudlin reflections of the sort we all entertain whenever death strolls within our ambit.

There is a lot of both grandstanding and hand-wringing about the value of Classics, the humanities, and literature more broadly. Joel and I have both written here about the experience of processing and understanding death (and trauma more broadly) through the Classics. I don’t mean to advance the argument that Classics should be studied as a form of therapeutics, nor that it has a monopoly on sensible mortality reflection. This is not a manifesto – simply a confession. I don’t know what I would do with grief and fear were it not for literature. Are the Classics, and literature more generally, printed repositories of bullshit? Yes, but so too is life. Can you manage grief without literature? Certainly. But I don’t think that I could. And reader, I suspect that you have read this far because you, too, feel that literature is not for school, but for life. That behind all of the occasional silliness, or ham-fisted dialogue, or rhetorical trickery there is, as Pliny said, no book so bad that it isn’t useful in some respect.

Time, death, sorrow – these are enemies ranged against us in a battle that we – all of us – will one day lose. Following the old command ‘divide and conquer’, the emperor of time takes us all singly, and allows us space before it happens to us personally. But a losing battle may still have its own joy. I often wondered how Dr. Faustus, after selling his soul to the devil, managed to enjoy any of his supernatural power with the appointment for his eternal damnation so fixedly set. We may not have the prospect of hellflame before us, but permanent nothingness doesn’t seem like a great time either.

I have no illusion that literature is a panacea, but in a world so marred by tragedy, is it not worth pointing out that some things matter? Literature reminds us of those things. Literature is not separate from them, but in some ways an integral part of them, forming a feedback loop of source material and interpretive lens. Here are some things that matter: love, sex, betrayal, hatred, death, sorrow. As Ovid said of Rome, it’s all here. When Seneca complained of people learning not for life, but for school (non vitae sed scholae discimus), he touched upon the point which the detractors of literature and the humanities single out: their apparent divorce from life, whether in the form of pure literary escapism, or in the professorial abstraction of the ivory tower. But when read right, literature offers us more life  – vicarious experience which we could never hope to have. There is no way that I could ever “live life as the ancients did”, but I can glean some insight into their thoughts from reading. In giving us more life, literary and historical study helps us to defy that old tyrant Time, who would never allow us such a rich world of varied experience and insight outside of literature.

I read shelves’ worth of Roman history before I ever went to Rome. That city is so magical that one need know nothing about it beforehand to fall under its enchanting spell, but every moment of my stay there was spent in an intoxicated fever thanks to the richness of my experiences in the armchair. Every time I walked over the Tiber, I thought of all the bodies thrown in that river, all of the political and social passions which it has witnessed in the centuries when this city flourished upon its banks. But then I recall old Heraclitus, and realize that a river never flows over the same body twice, or for more than one instant. The Tiber’s waters are not the waters which Cicero saw, nor is the city, despite its physical continuity with the ancient one, still the city of Cicero. All of that exists only on the page, only in our collective memory as long as we continue to read those pages. Cicero has no real claim on that mental real estate, but in a world which has already lost and forgotten so much, do we really need to lose or forget more?

Everyone who studies the Classics comes to them with some different motivation, but I have long suspected that underlying all of our conscious reasons for focusing on ancient Greece and Rome when there is such a wide field of other interesting humane study available has to do with an unconscious fear of and sorrow about loss. Classics is defined by what has been lost – what is missing – even more than by what remains. Very few of us are just studying what is there, known and available to everyone. The textual critic, the historian, the archaeologist – they may say that they are trying to discover something new (the imperative of research), but what they are really looking for is something old but hidden by the waters of collective Lethe. The Renaissance seems like such a classicizing moment because it was then that Petrarch and co. began to be conscious of and truly concerned about what had been lost. Thanks to the impetus for recovery, there are far more ancient texts available to us today than there were in the Trecento. But the popular feeling of indifference to those treasures is just the same as what prevailed before Petrarch’s time.

Moreover, despite this act of recovery, we have still lost countless voices who never broke beyond the personal and into collective memory.

“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” [George Eliot, Middlemarch]

There are the known unknowns in Classics: lists of published and reasonably popular work circulating in antiquity which we no longer possess. But what about all of those Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns? It barely makes sense to talk about marginalized voices in antiquity. Our literary remains come from such a stratified elite, almost all of the lives in antiquity were in the margin, and those margins have been lost – we barely have a tenuous strip of midsection remaining.

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas

I think instead

Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,

The careless athletes and the fancy boys,

The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics

And the Agora and the noise

Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring

Libations over graves

And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly

I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

[Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, IX]


How many songs were sung in antiquity whose lyrics we will never know? How much was written and recorded, never to be put into broad enough circulation to make us aware of its loss? What a wealth of experience lies forever silent. These are the things which will never be recovered, the lives lost to history forever. One may well marvel at the wealth of information stored in libraries, archives, and databases, but it is the silence of lost experience which serves as the negative space that gives contours to the sum of knowledge as we have it. Everything we know is literally defined by what we have lost.

Horace’s carpe diem and quid sit futurum cras are all very well in their way, but it simply will not do to cast too focused an eye on the ephemerality of our own experience. Every beautiful moment which you share with someone is itself a form of loss. These moments come into being and then cease to be just as our conscious mind has begun to process them as experience.

When we think of loss in the Trojan War, we tend to focus on the immediate and obvious fact of death. The participants in the conflict exist for us as defined by their participation in the war. And yet, war heroes was not what they were supposed to be. We don’t know how many years Odysseus lived. But in the time of the Odyssey, most of his adult life had been spent at war and on the road. Yet he thought of himself as having a home, a story, an identity as king of Ithaca. But that was no more than the idealized projection of the homesick traveler, and seems not to have meshed well with the reality that he experienced upon his return. When he returned to Ithaca, he heard no trumpets blown for the conquering hero. He had to employ a deceit even greater than the Trojan Horse (Athena’s supernatural disguise), and had to kill more people within his own house than he had since sacking Troy. Odysseus, the sacker of cities, was also the destroyer of his own dining hall.

He was totally unwilling to go to the war in the first place. But after all of that traveling, all of that murder, and all of his purported eagerness to be home, he is eager to leave again. Odysseus lost not just a home, but himself – the actualized self that never was. The person he would have been – homebody and conscientious objector – was subsumed in the cunning strategist, the counselor of Trojan infanticide, and the insatiable traveler always roaming with a hungry heart. But a stroke of fate made that previous life impossible. Every moment may present us with choices which entail forever the loss of particular personal narrative paths. Our choices through a lifetime amount to a loss of nearly infinite possible futures. My colleague lay dead in a ditch, but any number of factors (leaving a minute later, going 5 MPH slower, straying offroad 20 feet farther back) would have saved her.

We focus a lot on last words. When I reflect on the last things that I have said to every person in my life who is now dead, I realize that they are invariably inane. Their narratives have reached an end, and my own final contribution was a dead-end or a non sequitur.

Why do I feel enthusiasm for the Classics? In truth, they are just a taste that I developed in my teens. A friend in college told me that he could think of nothing more dreadful than learning Greek, but I thought that his enthusiasm for computer science was curiously masochistic. Would I have developed the interest in Classics today in my mid thirties, had I not become an enthusiast in early life? It is impossible to say. It may even be that my fascination for Classics now has less to do with my concern for world heritage, intellectual history, or even literature itself than it does with my longing to retain a connection to my former self. Except for my family, Classics is the only thing that remains of myself as a teenager.

The Trojan War imprinted itself on Odysseus, but at the same time, he projected himself forth into the Trojan War narrative. He was the clever one, the sacker of cities, not just the schmuck who got duped into going against his will. His beating of Thersites reveals that he was all in. On his travels, the only time that Odysseus tells the truth about himself, he disregards his life story for everything preceding his part in the war – maybe it’s just not important anymore. I always think of myself as a Classicist despite shrinking from the commitment to graduate school, despite the fact that I now read Latin and Greek with less of the enthusiastic zeal which I once felt. But all of this Greek and Roman shit became a part of me then. I can never read Ars Amatoria or The Satyricon without reminiscing of my year learning those texts in an informal seminar over wine and dinner on Tuesday nights – the first time I ever felt like I had arrived at adulthood, experiencing a meaningful literary life. I remember the jokes, the wine, the snacks, the mistakes I made construing passages. The gossip, the route to the house, the enchantment of stepping out into the warm Texas evening at 10PM into a neighborhood I could never afford to live, with a head throbbing from a fresh accession of Latin knowledge. It was the last time I remember feeling that I had a future, that the possibilities for my own narrative still lie wide open. I will never feel that again. It was just one of the infinite Heraclitan rivers which once rushed over my feet, never to return.

Portrait of the author as a young man. The book on the bottom is a mid-size LSJ. Some Greek text or other on top. My fondness for napping has not abated.

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