Picador: 214 pp., $14 paper
"When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second," Albert Einstein said, by way of explaining relativity. "When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour." Such a notion resonates throughout Eva Hoffman's slender reflection on the chronological conundrum, "Time." Not because Hoffman deals much with Einstein (he merits only two references), but because at the heart of her book is the idea that time is what we make it, that it is not just fluid but impossible to pin down.
"[O]ur existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness," she notes, quoting Nabokov, yet all the same, she continues, "we live in time." How we reconcile those two opposing visions -- the abstract and the concrete, the cosmic and the quotidian -- says a lot about who we are, not just as individuals, but as members of a species that has never fully come to grips with evanescence, with the discomforting reality that, in the flicker of an instant, each of us will be gone.
If that sounds like a philosophical conversation, it is and it isn't, which is one of the peculiar tensions of Hoffman's book. By turns meditation and social commentary, essay and observation, "Time" is a work that, like its subject, is difficult to categorize. Hoffman begins by noting the ways time works differently in different societies, comparing the anxieties of the industrialized West to the "slower tempo" of life in Eastern Europe, where she grew up in, as poet Carmen Firan has written, "the opaque world of communism, where time had no value."
This is relativity on the cultural scale, but Hoffman is more concerned with practical matters, particularly quality of life. Indeed, life is at the center of her inquiry, which ranges from a discussion of biological time to the effects of technology not only on our psyches but also on our brain chemistry. In places, her approach is problematic; there are stretches -- digressions on longevity, for instance, or anthropology -- where she seems to lose her focus, and when she writes about ADD, which she dismisses as a condition of modernity, or the drug culture of the 1960s, the "chief attractions" of which she describes as the "ability to alter perceptions and sensations of time," she comes off as woefully out of touch. That's surprising, for Hoffman is nothing if not experienced; a former writer and editor at the New York Times, she has taught at Columbia and MIT, among other places, and written on a wide array of subjects, including immigration and cultural dislocation, with acuity and grace. The trouble with time, though, is that it's so amorphous, and in her efforts to encompass the nuances, Hoffman occasionally stumbles into territory beyond her ken.
Such an issue is not minor; it makes "Time" uneven, lumpy in spots, some of its arguments not fully formed. But all that fades when Hoffman returns to the broader questions, which bring her interpretive abilities into play. Writing about Freud, who believed "not only that our ephemeral nature has to be accepted, but that it is a guarantee of human meaning," she cites his meeting with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "who experienced a terror of mortality and who disconsolately felt that the transience of all things human meant that, ultimately, they had no value; they didn't count."
Here, she deftly dramatizes the essential contradiction: How do we find meaning in what doesn't last? "It is to cope with what time takes away from us," Hoffman writes, "and what it devours, that humankind's first philosophies -- its religions and myths -- created alternative temporal topographies of eternity and the afterlife." But for all that these topographies once offered solace, implicit in her argument is that they no longer do. Instead, we have the twin mythologies of art and science: on the one hand, a writer such as Samuel Beckett, whose "allegories of existence as nothing but time passing -- his 'Endgame' and 'Waiting for Godot' -- may be quintessential, if very bleak, representations of time," and on the other, "the ruthless laws of evolution," by which "species exist not for the sake of individuals, but in order to perpetuate themselves."
At first glance, such ideologies might appear in opposition, yet Hoffman finds a balance that makes sense. Beckett's investigations, after all, are rooted in the existential question of identity, of what, if anything, a single life can mean. Evolution is a more collective process, in which the individual is subsumed into the good of the group. Although it seems a cop-out to suggest that this is enough, to Hoffman, the real cop-out is our unwillingness to face the facts. "For all that humans have wished to live forever," she writes, "for all that our own extinction is, to most, a frightening and unacceptable prospect, for all that, the knowledge of our finitude has been nothing less than the condition of human identity. . . . If we want to make sense of our days, if we want to fill them with something more purposeful than mere existence, if we wrestle with our own significance and insignificance, that is because we are conscious of our own impermanence."
Of course, if making sense of our days is ultimately what time -- and "Time" -- is about, we face new challenges amid the acceleration of contemporary life, where "[s]peed becomes its own self-justifying value." In the last of her book's four sections, Hoffman considers where this leaves us, returning, not surprisingly, to the ethos of slowness with which she was raised. "[I]f we do not want to live meaninglessly," she suggests, "then we need to give ourselves over sometimes to the time of inwardness and contemplation, to empathy and aesthetic wonder. We need to mull and muse, to reflect on our experience and interpret it. . . . We need occasionally to go with the flow."
Hoffman's right, for without that stillness, that reflection, we lose a key component of our humanity. It may be true that we live in time, but time lives within us also, moving through us as we move through it. We define it, for ourselves and for our culture; we decide to what we want to turn our minds. That, I suppose, makes for another kind of relativity, regardless of whether we find meaning in the moment or choose to live unreconciled.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.