In the following text I will compare two kinds of waiting, the first, which agitated and anxious, is written through Roland Barthes’ scenography of the waiting lover as seen in his book A Lover’s Discourse (1990). The second kind of waiting, which is bland and uneventful, is drawn through an alternative kind of time, the kind that often slips by unnoticed and is easily lost or forgotten.
1. The Time Of Suspense
In his book A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes demonstrates how the experience of waiting can have a seemingly unerring capacity to disarm the one who waits, to render him or her close to delirium. In a fragment of his book entitled Waiting, Barthes describes the plight of the fretting lover as he or she is forced to wait for his or her date to turn up. According to Barthes, as the anxious frenzied lover contemplates the possibility that he or she has potentially, if somewhat inconceivably, been stood up, he or she begins to act out a well-rehearsed, tried and tested drama:
treading the boards once more!
he looks at his watch, time then time again
where could the loved one be?
the look of disbelief, the furtive glance
he spans the room, scours each face, anyone who enters the establishment, anyone who is already there, searching for the faintest resemblance, that transitory likeness
you begin to see her everywhere
‘in the middle of a crowd amongst strangers, you may be struck by a certain blondness’ (Butor, 1995,p.9)
mobile attributes, dismantled and unstuck, begin to multiply in fragments around you. It is impossible to determine, to make him out from a distance but
IN LONG SHOT: ‘seen from across the room his expression is one and the same […] it is him’ (Duras, 1987,p.69)
instant recognition, like a love struck junkie you hallucinate
For Barthes’ spurned lover waiting is animated by the (im)possibility of waiting any longer, I can’t wait, I won’t wait, I simply shall not wait any longer, not another second, not another minute, not another hour. And yet, as the suspense filled possibility that something could happen permeates every sinew of his tensed and strung out body, the anxiety of anticipation renders him incapable of moving.
Barthes’ spurned lover is left with various ‘predicted’ outcomes undecided, hanging. In this kind of time he or she experiences an almost unbearable wavering, an in-betweenness within which this or that might happen, the emphasis, the moment, its intensity, depends upon the future, the outcome of which is eagerly pre-empted. The time of the drama that Barthes sets out is a time that is full of suspense generated by anticipation and expectation, a time within which the waiting lover attempts to place certain foreseeable limits upon the future. The question consistently posed, and upon which narrative resolution depends, is ‘what is going to happen?
2. The Time Of Suspension
The second kind of time I want to explore is bland and uneventful, no peaks, no troughs, just a steady invariant monotony. It’s the kind of time you experience in dreary airport terminals and empty hotel lobbies, a loose unresolved kind of time, vague and nebulous. Time within which you wait while nothing in particular happens. Waiting in this kind of time tends to rule out, or dissolve any trace of choice, that element which is usually called volitional i.e., ‘I am going to wait for a bus’, or ‘I will wait for the coffee to cool down before I drink it’. I am not suggesting that the experience of waiting could ever be described as entirely intentional, only that, in this second kind of time, it almost always seems to be completely unintentional. No narrative justification, no explanation, just waiting. Waiting in and for itself, a far more mundane affair, positively un-dramatic. You could say that, in this kind of time, the sensation of waiting becomes engrained in your viscera, that the attitudes and postures most usually associated with it wash over your body, porous and pliant, they bore into it, so that each time you proceed to sit down, or lie prostrate on a bed, each time you prop your weary body up, or slouch against a wall, one shoulder jammed into the cold pitted brick, you almost automatically adopt the manners most often associated with a particular kind of waiting:
you see her now in profile, a small languid figure, seated and seen from a distance. The shot has a sort of crude quality marked by its low resolution, hand-held and roughly hewn, an image scorched by sunlight. It’s the kind of shot your eyes strain to make out
she sits alone at the edge of her chair and you wonder if you’ve caught her sleeping. Now and then pockets of light flicker across her face, a soporific effect
and you watch her features dissolve in the brightness, and you watch them reappear
she sits alone at the edge of her chair and her body feels spent in the waiting
limbs knit, loosely attached
barely hung together
‘nailed to their sockets’ (Duras, 1987, p.9)
a vacant inanimate stare
time coursing through her viscera
breathing in she absorbs the atmosphere around her
perhaps it is here in the dead time that she began to lose herself?
More often than not, in this kind of time, you are unaware of proceeding that would usually concern or involve you: making a phone call, slicing some bread, pealing an apple, eating. Routine activities, the kind you perform without thinking. The time of everyday habit and repetition, time within which nothing stands out as important, time within which you are effectively rendered:
bereft of a subject, unfocused
oblivious, indifferent to what goes on and on around
fail to consciously register
has anything actually happened?
time left uncounted
tugging wearily at her necklace, she laces her fingers around the cold metal chain
beads scatter in random patterns across the smooth polished floor, a hard pitted sound punctures the air locked silence
she wakes up with a start, looks around her, surveying the room, its nooks and its crannies;
furniture writhing in slow revolutions around her weary head, a mobile constellation of shifting walls and receding floors
a room, no longer her room, infused with time in motion
it takes a few minutes before things start to fall into place, before you begin to recall where you are
In their book A Thousand Plateaus (1988) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call this kind of time: ‘a floating time that is no longer our time’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988, p.283). A featureless time without direction, time that is no longer subordinate to human action, time stripped of point or purpose, devoid of that dramatic something that sustains interest and fuels the intellect. It’s the kind of time that induces in its victim a trance like stupor, a daze, a blank, a black out, an indefinite period of amnesia. In it one could say things have a habit of becoming a little less exact, a little less precise. Vast stretches of unremarkable time, time that you are unaware you’ve forgotten because there is nothing in particular to mark it. This is not clock time, you cannot count it, there is a gap in your day that cannot be recounted:
alone at night you try to recollect her expression, to recapture the pitch in her voice, find a tic that will fix her in memory
he says: She has a habit of twisting the broken hair that hangs loose at the base of her nape, of binding her fingers quite tightly
he says: She would do it several times a day, repeat then repeat once again, uniform rhythms regulated by rote
but he can no longer recall the exact moment, summon up or identify the day
each movement, now merged, remains tenseless
Far from clarifying or stabilizing the order of things the uneventful time of habit and repetition makes it difficult to pinpoint the moment that a specific incident occurred, to fix a time or place in your memory. You try to recall but the logic of recall escapes you. Vast stretches of time simply missing. You missed them. So what happened? Time within which ‘you’ were unconscious of what ‘you’ were doing, a momentary lapse into languor. When I left the house did I pick up my case? Did I bolt the door, or did I leave the keys in the padlock? Maybe you did, or maybe you didn’t? The gap in your day starts expanding. So, what exactly happened? ‘In truth’ Deleuze and Guattari say, ‘nothing assignable or perceptible’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988, p.198), because nothing has consciously registered in thought or experience.
Seen from this angle it is possible to say that this second kind of time works in contradistinction to the dramatic clock watching, goal orientated time that Roland Barthes draws out in his Lover’s Discourse. You could say that in it you are more likely to lose your watch then you are to spend time counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours. The question that characterizes this second kind of time is not ‘what is going to happen?’ the future orientated drive baiting Barthes’ anxious breath, because in this second kind of time, a time within which the event itself gets lost or goes missing, the supposition that nothing much has happened collides with the question ‘what has’?
1. Barthes does point out that waiting has its matte moments (Barthes, 1990).
Barthes, R. (1990) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. St Ives: Penguin Books Ltd.
Butor, M. (1995) Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Ape. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press.
Deleuze, G. (1989) Cinema 2: The Time-Image. London, 2000: The Athlone Press.
Deleuze, G. (2006) Occupy Without Counting: Boulez, Proust And Time, in Two Regimes Of Madness: The MIT Press.
Deleuze, G & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. London, 1999: The Athlone Press.
Duras, M. (1987) The Vice-Consul. New York: Pantheon Books.
About the Contributor
Imogen recently completed a practice-based PhD at Chelsea College of Arts, my practice being writing. My thesis focused on the ways in which film has been used by novelists as a resource to transform their writing practice, and on how the non-conventional writing techniques generated by film could, in turn, produce alternative forms of readability.
Reading The Remove of Literature - Nick Thurston.
In his book Reading The Remove of Literature (2006) Nick Thurston removes the central text of Maurice Blanchot’s book, L’Espace Littéraire (1955), leaving only the running header, pagination, and his own annotations, in so doing he encourages the reader to attend to the often dismissed marginalia that surrounds the erased text, the space where the reader becomes a writer.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds