A 1953 poem by the British poet Philip Larkin asks the apparently simple but shockingly confounding question: ‘What are days for?’ It gives an equally simple but also unfathomable response: ‘Days are where we live’. This apparent certainty is immediately undone by the irritated rhetorical question, ‘Where can we live but days?’ Such a riposte, of course, is not much of a solution. And so the poem has recourse, by way of conclusion, to merely sketching the dire consequences of asking questions that admit of no answers:
Larkin’s poem dramatizes the inscrutability of time, rendering it both more pedestrian by reducing it to ‘days’, but also more strange by the absence of any qualiﬁer. He suggests that asking about the nature of time, one of the age-old questions of philosophy, may be a wrong-headed, Sisyphean endeavour: so much so that
interrogating time’s enigma may herald intimations of mortality, an impending sense of the end of one’s days, or worse, may unseat reason. The raising of such imponderable questions is sanctioned by the authority of the church or by the threat of medical intervention. Larkin seems to be implying that the interrogation of such a fundamentally self-evident and thus unquestionable cornerstone of human existence may in some mysterious way constitute a threat great enough to trigger the immediate invocation of authority and repression. Larkin’s poem links two salient points: the self-evidence of
time, manifest in the blank incomprehension aroused by this simplest of questions; and an only vaguely articulated threat which appears to respond to the question. This book seeks to link these two aspects by embarking upon an interrogation of the selfevident nature of time and of the coercive forces which may lurk behind the façade of common sense time. Common sense may be one of the most powerful instruments of ideology, allowing habits of thought to anchor ‘false consciousness’ deeply in our sense of what is natural, normal and invulnerable to scrutiny. And yet the questioning of common sense may be one of the most pressing of intellectual tasks, and time one of its most urgently beckoning sites of enquiry. Characteristically for Larkin and his refusal of highbrow
themes, the poem does not answer the question, but merely deﬂects it. The poem’s own texture is bafﬂing in its simplicity – but is equally bafﬂed itself, whence the abruptness of its conclusion. It seeks to close down the interrogations it has raised, forcing the reader either to turn the page, moving on to the next poem, or to seek to go beyond its gruff dismissal of the very questions it throws up. The poem triggers what chaos theory calls a ‘bifurcation’: an unpredictable moment of decision, in which the various factors at work in a dynamic process act upon each other in apparently only marginally varying ways, but with signiﬁcantly divergent consequences (Gleick 1988: 70-75; Bennett 2010: 7). The interaction between these extracts from Larkin’s poem, my
discussion of them, and your reading of both the extracts and my comments are the constituent elements of a moment of ‘bifurcation’. You may merely shrug your shoulders and hasten on to the next
section of the introduction. Or you may begin to wonder what ‘Days’ (the poem) and ‘days’ (the temporal segments) are really all about. And that, in turn, may have quite various effects upon how you live your own days. This, I suggest in the book you have before you, is what time is ‘for’, to take up Larkin’s turn of phrase. Time is neither for calibrating the progress of existence, nor for containing its forward movement (‘where we live’). Rather, before and below any utilitarian ‘for’, time is the very dynamic of existence, the pulsating drive of the unceasing transformation of being itself.