During the recent crisis, we’ve been haunted by reports of doom—of the pandemic, and the chaos in its wake—but also of the catastrophe of spending too much time with those we love. In China, the Global Times quotes an official from the Beilin district of Xi’an who credits the epidemic’s enforced seclusion for a surge in divorce rates: “Many couples have been bound with each other at home for over a month, which evoked the underlying conflicts.” For this official, it is not the stressors of the illness, the fear of contagion, the mourning over the dead, or the anxiety around feeding and educating children that spark marital discord. Rather, the conflicts already existed, lurking beneath the surface. When couples were forced to spend all of their time together, within a home filled with floors to be swept, dishes to be washed, photos of past glories and disappointments always before their eyes, and children whose wails evoke their own unmet needs—then, as a virus in a petri dish, their discontentment multiplies, speeding along the progression of a split was inevitable but might have taken years of quiet anguish to be spoken about aloud.
It’s strange, though. During our typical days, our hectic, fervent march from the office to the gym to the school to the kitchen and, lifeless, into bed, we beg for more time with those we love. We break our hearts when we send our five-year-old to kindergarten on Monday, knowing that we’ll only see her for an hour or two each evening until the weekend. We whisper to ourselves, If only I had the afternoon with him. If only we had one quiet day together. If only… We imagine the gardens we would plant, the books we would write.
Perhaps, as Wilde’s Robert Chiltern has it, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” But maybe what we fear most is neither the lack of time with our loved ones, nor an abundance of it. Perhaps it is rather our relationship with time itself that troubles us most deeply right now. That is, we cannot but ask ourselves, over and over: How long? How long will this last?
Ordinarily, nearly everything we do has an expiration date. Each vacation day is marked by its proximity to the last day—only four more days in Paris, on the beach, on the slopes; only three more days. We’re given showtimes by the minute. Sit back, relax—we plan to entertain you for 127 minutes. Even the most blissful, transcendent evenings, the first kisses, the declarations of love—even the ones that last all night—see a sunrise. We’re comfortable with our telos, with our structured linearity, because it means that any moment, whether joyful, desolate, or, perhaps most importantly, mundane—will be counted in seconds, will pass and eventually be filed away.
When the pandemic began, businesses, organizations and individuals created deadlines for the virus. Universities closed through spring break. Performances were suspended until mid-April. Major League Baseball pushed back its opening day two weeks. Even as the pandemic ravaged the nation and the death toll climbed, President Trump brazenly declared Easter an end date for the national crisis. This “beautiful timeline,” he thought, would get the economy back on track and bootstrap the American public past a health emergency unprecedented in our time. We know that these dates, as comfortable and as comforting as they may be, are arbitrary—notches drawn on the wall of a prison cave, threads on Penelope’s loom. Yes, we can count our days. No, it doesn’t matter. None of us, with all our projections and all of our hard work, can say exactly how long this thing is going to last. That’s terrifying because the longer the virus rages, the more people will get sick. But it’s also terrifying because we can’t count on time the way we want to, the way we have become accustomed.
And our days, too, are meted out differently. The usual markers—the train we take in the morning, the school day’s end, the babysitter’s schedule—are gone. Without them, time begins to fold in on itself, to dilate and expand, like a childhood summer with nothing planned—except with no lakes to swim in or fireflies to chase after. We are caught up in a caesura, in the stolen breath between lines of an aria; we’re stuck. And so, instead of asking “how long?” we now begin to simply ask, “how?” How should we act, now that we can’t depend on our routine? How should we spend our time, now that we can feel the uselessness of all the deadlines that used to hang over our heads?
Trump’s Easter prophecy, however misguided and damaging, evokes those earliest moments of the Christian tradition, when similar questions arose. After all, Easter is an annual reminder that we live, that we have been living, in a strange new time, in a time inscribed by the messianic event, but before the end of days. This is not true only for Christians—the year we currently live in, the strange number we write above every letter and every set of notes, is based upon a (mis)counting of years since the birth of Jesus. Anno Domini—the year of our Lord. Every year since that first year bears the same name. And every year since the messianic event, since the resurrection, which Easter celebrates, is evidence of a schism or rupture in the plodding march of time.
Giorgio Agamben, in his love letter to Saint Paul entitled The Time That Remains, reads the apostle neither as the architect of a new religion nor as an eschatological doomsday salesman. Instead, Agamben understands Paul to be taking up the question of how to act in a moment in time that represents a break from a teleological linearity, and gestures toward an end of days, but, importantly, has not reached that end yet. For Agamben, Christ’s life, death and resurrection marked a schism in the progression of time that had begun at creation, and took the human creature through the history narrated by the Hebrew Bible. That progression of time, from creation to Christ, seemed naturally linear. One event follows the next, one victory eclipsed by the following capture, one prophet bearing witness to the one to come. But the birth and death of Christ, and the resurrection, rupture the march of time, the narrative of progress. With the coming of the Savior, his embodiment of the human form, and his sacrifice and return, the longed-for event, the one that drove the progression of time since creation, has occurred. Paul cannot be called a prophet, because he is not proclaiming the coming of one after him. He is an apostle, bearing witness to that which has happened now. It has happened; He is risen.
And yet, the messianic event did not immediately bring forth the end of days. That is, the Easter miracle did not immediately call forth a final judgment, a division of the wheat from the chaff, and a final resolution for human beings by which the righteous receive their final reward and the others are cast into everlasting suffering. Instead, unbelievably, almost ludicrously, life continues normally. People get up, and eat breakfast, and gossip over the Tiberius treason trials, or over what Simon told Rachel at the beach last weekend, and go about their day. People are married, people get buried. People fall in love, and exchange stolen glances, furtive smiles, across the well.
So, the “ho nyn kairos,” the time of now, is also, strangely, tragically and yet joyfully, the time that remains. The time that exists between the coming of the Christ, and his return. “What interests the apostle is not the last day, it is not the instant in which time ends, but the time that contracts itself and begins to end (ho kairos synestalmenos estin, 1 Cor. 7:29), or if you prefer, the time that remains between time and its end… it is a remnant.” The question, then, for Agamben and for Paul, as it is for us, is what shall we do with this time, the time that remains? Here we are, caught up in the pause between the tides, held in the moment of weightlessness before the bird beats his wings. And we don’t know how much time there is. In fact, that question begins to feel less and less important. Instead, we turn toward ourselves, our actions. What shall we do? How shall we behave in this moment? Which laws still apply, which norms should still govern us, and which should we set lovingly aside?
There seem to be two options. The first: do nothing. Stay. Sit still. Remain. Keep teaching your classes, writing your essays, working your job from your kitchen table. Make dinner every night. Vacuum the floors. This option can be understood by what Weber read as Paul’s “eschatological indifference.” Because this strange time has an end point, there is no need to diverge from what you have already chosen or, importantly, have been called, to do. Stick with it.
Another option, to which our Xi’an marriage official can attest, is to use this moment to make a radical change. Break things open. Refuse to stay stuck. Convert. Change. Leave behind those things that no longer serve, and choose a new path. This, in a way, is the path of the apostle. It’s practically a love language. Rather than leaving their parents to cleave to a bride, Jesus exhorts his apostles to choose him: “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life! Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower (Luke 14: 26-27). Put down those everyday tools, those quotidian thoughts, and come with me.
But Agamben, reading Paul, shows us that this clear choice, this delineation between two paths, is a fiction. There is, he supposes, an alternative, one that makes use of the strange potentiality of the messianic moment and of the time that remains. First of all, in the condition of messianism, change is inevitable; there is no standing in place. Instead, “every juridical status and worldly condition” is transformed, irrevocably altered, “because of, and only because of, its relation to the messianic event.” So much for indifference. We can understand this idea of transformation and orientation toward a particular event, toward a period of waiting. No matter how lucky, or unlucky, how privileged or overlooked, we have been in this pandemic, our everyday patterns, our professional and personal goals—from getting a raise to getting pregnant, and, most importantly for this comparison, the ways in which we spend our time—have all been irrevocably transformed because of their relationship to the virus and its wake.
The transformation is not, however, the same kind of radical change of the apostolic call represented in Luke. The idea is not to give up everything that mattered to you before this moment and embrace a whole new set of laws and ideas. Instead, the action is something more like reorienting your vocations or pursuits toward the messianic event, understanding how it fits into this new framework, rather than choosing a vocation or pursuit that is entirely new. Agamben beautifully names it an “almost internal shifting … by virtue of being called.”
Agamben understands Paul in the Letter to the Corinthians to show us that the primary result of this reframing action is nullification or canceling out. Paul tells us, “But this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is that even those having wives may be as not having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up. For passing away is the figure of this world. But I wish you to be without care” (1 Cor 7.29-32). Paul employs the construction hos me, not having, as the primary negation mechanism here. Those having wives both have them and do not have them, or rather, neither have them nor have them not. Weeping is not weeping, rejoicing is not rejoicing. The binary distinctions here fold into one another, just as time has folded in upon itself. It is important, Agamben notes, that we not mistake Paul to be asking all of us to give up our families and our jobs—we are not seeking a “truer vocation” to supplant a false one. Instead, this is an action that takes place within the vocation or path itself, within the marriage, within the weeping, which transforms it organically, powerfully, toward the new reality.
It is ironic that Agamben has risen in infamy for claiming that Italy’s response to the coronavirus was a damaging overreaction. He reads the mandated restrictions as the paternalistic exertions of a greedy state. He has been roundly chastised by mainstream sources, and by his philosopher friends—and rightly so. Agamben’s transcendent reading of Paul and his powerful, nuanced interpretations of Pauline orientation toward vocation and toward time could have offered him, and perhaps can still offer us, an alternative, and vastly superior mechanism by which to understand the intersection of his writings with the contemporary moment. In fact, Agamben’s recent critiques of the Italian response and his attendant suggestion that an alternative path of action would be better, fall into the very trap he warns readers of Paul to avoid. We are not to eschew one path for a truer one, or one pursuit for a purer one. Instead, the transformation is primarily a nullification, a means of emptying out the familiar. Quarantine as not quarantine, marriage as not marriage, state as not state. Weeping as not weeping. We are not exhorted to change; we do not rage against the iron grip of the state. Instead, we are invited to a reorientation, to a transformation, to an internal shift that reframes our work and our goals in terms of their relation to the present moment.
For the couples in Xi’an, then, and in New York, and Rome, the suggestion we can take from Agamben and from his Paul is neither to overlook the problems that rise to the surface nor to immediately end the relationship, but rather to experience the transformation of the relationship as it orients toward the virus and toward this new, dilated, nonlinear function of time. We don’t stop vacuuming. But we also don’t expect each other to behave normally. When we weep, we don’t weep the way we used to. When we rejoice, we don’t rejoice the same way. Perhaps we experience this emptying out, this nullification of time, and of purpose, not as a loss but rather as a reorientation toward the present moment, which is upon us, like it or not, and which we cannot wish away, even by excoriating the state. Perhaps for us, rebirth is not dramatic. Perhaps it is a gentle turn toward that which we cannot avoid. Perhaps that is the Easter prophecy. After all, we are still living in the time that remains.
Art credit: Rembrandt, St. Paul in Prison, 1627.