The Way We Wait Now

My first camera was a rectangular box you had to hold in front of you in order to see a reflection of the scene you wanted to shoot; occasionally, strange ghosts would appear in those photos. That was a long time ago, and I still don’t know why the camera so often turned reality into a palimpsest.  More perfect models soon replaced that old-fashioned camera – it vanished, along with its double exposures.  But the fact that you could never really be sure what the finished photo would look like – that fact has only recently been eliminated by the digital camera.

But what happens when the time-span completely disappears during which the negative in the darkroom turns into a picture? When the unexpected, slumbering in the developing bath of our consciousness – like those ghosts in old photographs – simply no longer turns up? The incalculable threatens to disappear altogether – along with the element of uncertainty as such. The surprise of seeing something unexpected – a striking facial expression, an inexplicable emotion immobilized, a lopsided constellation –  has no longer a chance against the beautifully arranged image. But the harder we work at avoiding accidents, the bigger becomes the swarm of ghosts we don’t see.

Waiting is an imposition.  And yet it is the only thing that makes us experience the relentless chipping-away of Time, as well as Time’s promise. There are an infinite number of ways to be kept waiting: in love, in appointments with higher authorities, in traffic jams. We wait: for someone to show up, for an offer to be made, for “Mr. Right”, for Godot; for a letter, for sport results, for a medical report; for a signal, for the second act, for laughter after we’ve told a joke. We wait for pain to stop and for sleep to find us, or for the wind to die down. Idleness, detours, boredom – in our appointment calendar waiting is the empty page that must be filled, and will reward us with freedom, if we are lucky.

Waiting also plays an important part in periods of growth, such as pregnancy or puberty; such as the concentration and hesitation required of creative work. Franz Kafka called it “the hesitation before giving birth”.  The one who waits anticipates something that is about to happen, often including the possibility of its not happening. In everyday life it is usually something that needs to be done, most often something dictated by commonplace expectations.  Life’s vicissitudes generally consist of a rhythmically irregular sequence of moments – and of those instances when the flow of foreseeable events is interrupted and suddenly everything comes to a halt.

Man is the waiting animal, capable of anticipating death.  But, just as shrinking distances and shortened intervals attempt to eliminate the unforseeable, so have our partings adjusted to that incessant change that affects even the scenario of death.   At one time, every farewell seemed like a small death – or, at least the possibility that one might never see each other again. These days, technology having established the kind of permanent bond that keeps us firmly attached to the umbilical cord of the attainable, we have almost lost sight of the fact that there will come a time when we won’t be around any longer.  But waiting is a state in which time holds its breath so as to make us keep death in mind.  Not Carpe diem but: Warte nur, balde. (As in Goethe’s poem “Wanderers Nachtlied”).

A Geniune Piece of Anxiety

Perhaps it is not altogether wrong to ascribe a physical sensation to the experience of waiting: something hurts when we wait. It is like having a cramp somewhere in our body, like standing in a draft between two doors some careless person has left open. Waiting produces a change in temperature. We wait with a freezing heart, with burning desire. But it is by no means easy to say exactly what it is that hurts, what inflames our spirit or coats it with ice. Waiting is always both real and imaginary: a fantasy based on an unknowable reality.

Waiting rises to the level of longing, sometimes of mania when we are waiting for someone we love. Yes, love provides waiting with a dynamic that reaches into the very depth of existence.  “The pitiful identity of the lover is nothing else but this ‘I am the one who waits’”, says Roland Barthes in his “A Lover’s Discourse; Fragments”, an erotic alphabet in which waiting and love are almost identical.

Longing always arrives punctually; it is a sister of anxiety. The one who waits always subconsciously suffers the pangs of one who has been abandoned. While waiting, a lover re-experiences the primal scene – the first overwhelming absence of the mother. It is said that it is a mere fraction of an instant between the time when the small child thinks of his mother as absent and the moment when it believes she is dead. Every kind of waiting for a beloved person is somehow related to that experience. The act of waiting contains a menace, a curse that has its roots in childhood.

The Silence of the Sirens

Before portable telephones were invented, waiting for a telephone call was the quintessential image of being in love – most of the time: unhappily in love. Literature has mined that theme since the beginnings of telecommunications. Waiting is the imaginary side of love and longing the essence of imagination. From Jean Cocteau’s one-act play “The Human Voice” to Nicholson Baker’s novel “Vox” the modern Odysseus is tied to a telephone pole, exposed to the same “sad, powerful song” that Kafka heard, coming from a telephone receiver, in his dream.

Even the cell phone has not liberated us from the helplessness of waiting. True, you no longer have to circle around the telephone in a senseless ritual of incantation.   Yet, even today, someone waiting intensely and vainly for the thing in his pocket to ring, seems to be running in circles, like a trained circus horse. Waiting, we revert to a childlike state in which things happen by magic: waiting first becomes incantation, then litany. In any case, we struggle against waiting with infantile means, perhaps that is why we so often become childish. “Please, God, make him call” – Dorothy Parker has addressed that half tragic, half comical theme in her short story, The Telephone Call – a classic telephone monologue consisting almost entirely of a single phrase.

“PLEASE, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now.  I won’t ask anything else of you, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask.  It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing.  Only let him telephone now.  Please, God, Please, please, please.

If I didn’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring by that time.  I’ll count slowly.  I won’t cheat.  And if it rings when I get to three hundred, I won’t stop; I won’t answer it until I get to five hundred. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty… Oh, please ring. Please.”

In the drama of waiting, the telephone is still the most frequently used prop.  Because it brings the other’s voice and breath so close, it creates an intimacy that seems to annihilate distance. Just like Freud’s famous roll of yarn, which compensates the child for the Mother’s absence, the telephone is a kind of umbilical cord, designed to prevent separation. Basically, he who waits keeps repeating the same prayer: let postponement not be the end.

Tomorrow is Christmas, My Children 

“In my opinion, children are so good at waiting because they have not yet become suspicious (of the waiting process), because they need not judge it culturally worthless,” says Wilhelm Genazino in his Essay “The Extended Gaze”. But, even if children don’t regard waiting as a waste of time, they do experience it mainly as a form of helplessness. After all, the first thing we are taught in life is to accept delay: we must follow an imposed timetable, regulate our physical functions, and accept the rhythm of day and night.  The first power struggle in human life takes place in the area of waiting, when the body is encoded. In those very first moments of life, the body is turned into an instrument that obeys the clock. At the very start of this our earthly existence we undergo patience-training.

Having to deal with periods of waiting has always been one of the special aspects of childhood.  Looking forward to our birthday, waiting for  Santa Claus, the thrilling moment when the lights went on in the room where Christmas gifts had been laid out – we remember those moments as childhood idylls. Waiting and pleasurable anticipation, it seems, were still one and the same thing.  But even in the case of pleasurable anticipation, waiting was never entirely without its educational side.  The waiting room of childhood has always been an endangered idyll.  Consider the advent calendar: it closely associates waiting with temptation and interdiction – and if temptation (to open all the little windows at once; to ransack the little packages) wins out, it teaches us the bitter lesson that those who can’t wait, deprive themselves.

The Limbo of Waiting    

To keep people waiting is a privilege of power. Those who keep us waiting, keep us in our place. To prohibit people from moving about freely has long been a patriarch’s prerogative.  It was thus in paradise and the breaking of that commandment ended in expulsion.  Someone – a person or an institution – makes us assume a tempo that is not our own.  The most depressing thing about this is, that our emotional life is subordinated to a foreign regime. Waiting is impotence; and our inability to change that situation is humiliating, which makes us feel that the world is – for the moment – out of joint.  This is why the one who waits so often feels he has been treated unfairly; he is being punished for something he didn’t do. He sits in his waiting as if blows were raining down on him. It is this passive attitude, this feeling of having being judged, that the pain and shame of waiting imposes on us.

When waiting is in league with pain – for instance, in the emergency room of a hospital – its predatory nature is especially apparent. Nowhere else do we feel the power held over us by others more keenly than in the long moments during which we yearn for pain relief.  If there were an angel of waiting, he would be an anesthesiologist. Afterwards, when anesthesia has sent us into oblivion, the pain of waiting assaults the others; now, they are waiting for us to wake up. Suddenly we have burdened them with a piece of our own life, which has continued without our conscious presence.

But when we come out of anesthesia, we realize, once again, that to live also means to wait for death. The exact opposite is equally true: a threatening diagnosis often motivates us to take more intense advantage of whatever time we still have left.  We try to cram as much as possible into that remaining time span, first and foremost those things on which we have missed out, and which now can “no longer wait.” As if they had always been there, ready and waiting for us.  That this is not so becomes clear to anyone who has ever tried to grab Kairos by the forelock:  where the lucky moment is grasped by force, it wears a wig.  The things we have missed have had their own time-span, too.

In Dante’s Purgatory, the slothful are condemned to broil in the Limbo of Waiting for as long as they have led their slothful lives on earth – unless some pious people redeem them from their torment. But every conspiracy, every act of vengeance requires a background of waiting. The god of anger has placed a period of hesitation between the paroxysm of hatred and hate-based action. Which also means: waiting makes guilty. The first step from flareup of affect to planned intention creates a drop in temperature – into the frosty realm of calculation- to the zero point where strategy and deception come together at the right moment.

The Hesitation before Birth

Since the dawn of postal service, waiting for a letter has represented the essence of unappeased longing. Writing a letter meant sending one’s pages on a long journey, often by train or plane, towards their destination, where they would spend some additional time in a mailbox. The very physicality of a letter, the lines of penmanship or print, the envelope, which raised every telegram to the status of a secret message, – all those things were part of the trip through time and space. And to this day the recipient feels the concentrated promise in such sealed material – as if the letter had grown more compact in transit.

Online communications, amounting to near-simultaneity, have accelerated the pulse of our personal exchanges. Of course, that has not liberated us from the agony of waiting. On the contrary: the synchronicity of expectation and fulfilment has made us more impatient. Not only do we expect an immediate answer, we even resent the time it takes us to write an e-mail message.
What happens when our words are stripped of their travelling time, that period during which they acquire a meaning we may not even have thought of when we wrote the letter? Don’t they also lose a whole lot of possible meanings? Sending a letter always meant a magical step into the future, and we usually anticipated the time lag in that sort of mail. As in a palimpsest, that time-span was there, underneath the actual message: all those surprising events that might have occurred while the letter was in transit; events, which we may actually have caused ourselves – as the butterfly in the Brasilian rain forest causes a hurricane at the other end of the world.

Time is money

The amount of time saved through modern communications technology thus presents itself as an unproductive waste of resources.  And in this mobile society, more people are compelled to stand in line than ever before.  At railroad stations and airports, in official reception rooms and at the receiving end of an e-mail message – the basic experience is that of time  being wasted. “Please wait” is the mantra of appeasement that – with its relentless repetition – has raised patience to the cardinal virtue of our service society.

The jetsetter, for whom the globe has turned into a collection of airline routes and air terminal lounges, is today’s prototype of the traveller. The distance from A to B is merely a dumb interval for him.  Mobility is the magic word, which, in the name of work-force flexibility, has turned even wanderlust into a business proposition. But the traveller, who considers his time in transit an annoying interlude, denies himself the desire that lies at the heart of every journey: to return as a different person. Travelling is still one of the few modes of existence in which the travelled road is experienced as a goal in itself; and if the journey is unexciting, the arrival is often empty and stale as well.  Eros is transitory. He comes to life in no-man’s-land, in the vivid interference between departure and arrival.

Time off from our daily activity now takes place in fitness studios and spas, where “relaxation” is part of the feel-good package offered to the work force.  Whereas the Protestant work ethic castigated idleness as a cardinal sin, Capitalism has discovered “downtime” as one of its genuine resources.   But only when idleness truly becomes leisure is downtime more than a mere breathing space within (and therefore still part of) the work process; only then is it really free time, the best part of our existence.

Dreaming of castles in the air as we float downriver in a boat, rocked by the waves, gazing at clouds – suddenly, surprisingly we have reached the end of waiting. At its very core, waiting contains not only anxiety and deprivation: it also gives us those moments of elation when it cancels itself out – a presence without consciousness.

Let there be light, said God at the start of creation and behold! It happened without delay. Thus, instant gratification – fulfilment without delay – is our basic idea of happiness.  With every instantly granted wish we put a toe back into paradise.  But, since man is the creature – according to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg –  “whose desires are infinite in a finite lifetime”, we never rise above the proliferation of our desires.  Having to renounce the simultaneity of desire and gratification (if such a thing is even possible) is as much part of the human experience as the birth process: the navel through which milk and honey once flowed was permanently capped when man appeared on earth. And every time the wait between a wish and its fulfilment is reduced to a minimum or altogether eliminated, a vengeful god demands its price: he who has everything and always gets everything instantly, is cheated out of the joy of a wish coming true.  Kairos, the moment of happiness, requires waiting:  an often painful, sometimes joyfully squandered, always essential gift: the gift of Time.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1