When the Clocks Stop

How I learned to stop, kill, and save time while working at a watch shop.

By Elias Altman

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Norman Rockwell, from an advertisement for The Watchmakers of Switzerland, 1953.

Norman Rockwell, from an advertisement for The Watchmakers of Switzerland, 1953.

At the center of many philosophical systems are insights into the human condition so fundamental that one might wonder if the great thinkers were stoned when they dropped-jaw at something so obvious and built a worldview around it. Take Henri Bergson. In his first work, Time and Free Will (1889), the French philosopher and future Nobel Prize–winner posited that there were two types of time: the first was scientific or mathematical time, discrete and measurable and consistent, the time on a clock; the second was “pure time” or duration, flowing and active and indivisible, the time about which you might say after it was over, “Hey, where did the time go?” That there’s a difference between time measured by the clicking of little wheels and time lived out of mind would seem obvious to anyone who has lingered in a lover’s eyes, lost it on a strobe-lit dance floor, or worked so intently on a page of prose that only descending dusk can reveal that you’ve been at it all afternoon.

I’m not knocking Bergson for the simplicity of his observation, but it is a simplicity worth dwelling on because his conception of dual time influenced the conscious complexities of writers such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and Marcel Proust. What was it about Bergson’s insight that made it so appealing to the originators of modernism?

I first learned of Bergson in my senior year of high school in two different classes on the same day: “World War I and Its Literary Aftermath” and “American Voices: Twain, Eliot, and Faulkner.” In the morning Mr. Spengler took us through the second section of The Sound and the Fury, where Harvard student Quentin Compson cuts class to visit a clock shop in Harvard Square; the hands on his grandfather’s watch have come off, and he’d like to get them fixed. The mechanism still runs, though, and while in his dorm Quentin muses that when you’ve been in a room for a while and suddenly become aware of a watch’s ticking, “it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.” He recalls his father having once said that time was “that constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind function.” It’s a line seemingly plucked from the middle of Time and Free Will. Quentin then goes to the repair shop where the watchmaker, loupe screwed into his eye, is bent over the innards of a small universe. For some reason, Quentin opts to keep the broken watch, perhaps because he remembers something else his father once said: “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

In the afternoon Ms. Wood reinforced Bergson’s disdain for mechanical time, its effects evident on page two of Mrs. Dalloway as the narrator relates the intrusive striking of Big Ben: “There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.” The “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing” of clocks that “upheld authority” in the book were opposed to the flowing thoughts of the shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Smith or to what Woolf called “moments of being,” times out of time much like Bergson’s duration. On a London street, amid the day’s tumult, there were “windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding…conversations between men and women…stockings drying, on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.” Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary—or, rather, it all existed simultaneously, with neither before nor after.

Bergson, I thought—sort of a big deal around here. There were also T. S. Eliot’s early poems: he attended Bergson’s lectures at the College of France in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Time marches on in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”—from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m.—while the poet’s mind retreats back into the past, “the floors of memory” dissolving. And there was Marcel Proust’s madeleine, catalyst for literature’s best-known paean to man’s inner experience of time, no leaden circles or mechanical hands to speak of. Proust was the best man at Bergson’s wedding in 1891.


I didn’t know about Eliot’s Parisian sojourn and hadn’t read any Proust—I’d all but forgotten about Woolf and Faulkner—when, in the early days of summer after my high school graduation, I ran into Mr. Spengler on the streets of Harvard Square. In desperate need of a job, I held ten résumés in my tentative hand. He understood my plight but insisted I instead accompany him to inquire about the status of a mantle clock, which he’d brought into a repair shop some months prior.

“Clocks slay time,” he said, grinning and pulling open the door.

Everything happened very quickly—clocks chimed, Mr. Spengler laughed with and then chided the sales clerk, two watchmakers paid us no mind—and when I was back outside the well-lighted little store I was one résumé lighter.

“You remember the watch shop Quentin goes to?”

I nodded.

“This is the same one. It’s changed owners many times, of course; but this is the location.” He winked and we shook hands. “Good luck,” he said. I never saw him again.

If it really was the same shop as in The Sound and the Fury—set in 1910 but published in 1929—then I wondered, behind the counter on my first day of work, how much had changed. Its mission, to keep time, was as constant as time itself. People came to buy it or make sure they were on it—and they had been, and would be, for years. Sure, now, in the very early twenty-first century, instead of one watchmaker there were three hunched over their benches: an aged and hulking Ukrainian and two gleeful Vietnamese cousins. The track lighting, display cases, and wooden surfaces were new, but everything about the place felt old. People came to the shop for that, the anachronism, the jeweled pocket watches against the red velvet, the Westminster chime tolling for its owner to return it home to the study, the onsite artists (or were they doctors?) tending to the most minute adjustments to a mainspring.

I used to wonder if any of the two hundred or so clocks and watches in the store agreed with one another, and when a customer asked, frantically looking around, what the time really was, I shrugged and replied, “I have no idea.” I used this line early and often. The joke took a second to land, but when it did the customer’s forehead relaxed, like sand smoothed by a receding wave, and a smile graced his or her mouth. I took this is as proof I was a good sales clerk, a funny guy. I pointed to the wall-mounted clock with Roman numerals. “I like to go by this one,” I said, knowing not to leave the customer hanging for too long. Time is a serious matter.


In the beginning there were the harvest cycles and lunar months, water clocks to time speeches in Athenian law courts and sundials in public places in Rome. Then St. Benedict and his monks devised monastic hours for prayers that would later be regulated by the first mechanical clocks; city-square bells tolled the hours of the workday, and eventually time came home in the form of grandfather and mantel clocks, pocket- and wristwatches. All of these disparate devices needed uniformity—ergo synchronized railway clocks, Greenwich Mean Time, time zones, and daylight savings. And just before the turn of the twentieth century, when Bergson was composing Time and Free Will in Paris, engineer Frederick W. Taylor was developing his “time study” in a Philadelphia steel factory. With his system of scientific management, a worker’s actions—opening a drawer, tightening a bolt—were measured by stopwatch so that management could devise more efficient means of production.

Against this trend was Bergson’s emphasis on pure duration, appearing when “our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former state” like “the notes of a tune melting, so to speak, into one another.” The presence of such an unconquerable psychic life underwrote Bergson’s belief in man’s free will, which he defended against what he saw as a rising tide of determinism in the fin de siècle. Bergson held that man’s vital impetus (élan vital) allowed him to escape the forces of mechanized modernity and the march of progress that scientists and politicians trumpeted as a new world order. It was this dubious double-step march that led European boys the same age as Eliot and Faulkner into the splashing murk and flickering horror of World War I trenches in fields once filled with poppies.

With timepieces and attack plans set, General Douglas Haig and his English officers ordered their boys over the top at exactly 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916. The Battle of the Somme was on. Within an hour, maybe a few, some thirty thousand were dead or wounded. A ways back from the front, poet Siegfried Sassoon could see the shrapnel bursting, noting that “the birds seem bewildered; a lark begins to go up and then flies feebly along, thinking better of it.” 

This was what modernity wrought and what modernism sought to reckon with—in fragments, streams of consciousness, epiphanies, allusions, and moments of being. It was an attempt to refute that pledged allegiance to linearity, to inevitable progress, to the old lies. These writers saw where the century was headed and, like the lark, alighted in a different direction. Their results did not silence the rifles' rapid rattle of the platoons or prevent humdrum life from being measured out in coffee spoons, but simply because they were licked before they started was no reason not to try.

Bergson argued that when you start to represent time, thinking of it spatially as, say, a series of points in a line, you already stand outside of it, no longer part of it, casting the present into the past. So too with emotions, which, like duration, ought to be indivisible and shifting. In the middle of Time and Free Will, Bergson noted that if “some bold novelist” captured the flow of an emotion like violent love or deep melancholy, he would still spatialize it; the fact that he must express “its elements by words shows that he in his turn is only offering us its shadow.” And yet, Bergson conceded, such a bold novelist would have “arranged this shadow in such a way as to make us suspect the extraordinary and illogical nature of the object which projects it?…Encouraged by him we have put aside for an instant the veil which we interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. He has brought us back into our presence.” It’s as good a reason to write as any, and no doubt the thought directly or indirectly spurred the modernists, in the midst of their machine age, not to cease from exploration amid the tolling dingdongs of doom, but instead to examine the luminous halo that is life, in all its varieties great and small.


So it was in the watch shop, surrounded and bound by time, that I began to feel the slipperiness of it all, the fallacy of a monolithic clock dividing and subdividing the day. I knew in my gut that the first four hours of work—each supposedly comprised of sixty minutes—between ten and two always passed with greater speed than the back four, which slouched toward the promised land of six o’clock, a dimming of the lights and a locking of the store’s front door. The flow of customers didn’t matter, nor my attempts to wait until three to take lunch. Only through concentration, opening up a beautiful pocket watch or changing a battery after cleaning the contact, did time cease to be of the essence.

Because there were so many reminders of time around me—as there surely were in those Parisian and London streets—their effects diminished over time, not increased. I came to realize that my little joke about not knowing the actual time was less clever to my customers than simply cathartic. Somehow, in this little shop dedicated to upholding time’s scientific basis, my customer and I could momentarily stand outside of it, suspended in our own moment of being. The customers weren’t laughing at me, but at time, its arbitrariness, the faith we placed in it—if only for a second. Their brows furrowed, smiles faded, and the woman set the hands of her Tissot or the man his Omega, and it was back to business.

Like Quentin Compson, I too remembered in the watch shop something my father had told me long, long ago. I was six, and it was the first joke I ever really laughed at. “How do you make time fly?” my father asked, trying to cheer me up. I shook my head. “Throw a clock out the window.” I howled with pleasure; even Bergson might have chuckled. You have to be able to laugh at time, even toss it out a window, or it will grind you down, slowly but surely.