I just finished reading On Waiting by Harold Schweizer. This is part of Routledge publishing’s “Thinking in Action” series (I also have On Humor, which I want to start reading soon). 

This is a fascinating book, and I haven’t been able to stop talking about it. Schweizer’s prose are clear and concise, and he uses vidid and clear examples. It is refreshing to read such a nicely written book dealing with philosophical issues. Schweizer takes a phenomenological look at waiting and what we go through when we wait, but first he states what he considers waiting to be– to paraphrase he says that waiting is not just time to be “traversed” but is something rather that must be endured. He elucidates this point by giving us the metaphor of: if time is a door or hall way that we pass through unaware, then waiting is a door jam– a moment we cannot pass through unaware. 

This conception of time began, he sates, during the rise of modernism and industrial society. A time in which pocket watches became popular, and “Rather than becoming masters of their own time, the bearers of pocket watches were mastered by it” (4).  Time, which was once inconceivable (and here I think of Alan Watts in The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, in which Watts explains the eastern conception of time as just an arbitrary thing that we use to know at what time to meet on what day, but not as an actual “thing” that exist– Watts explains how upset people were when the time changed and they had “lost” a week or something, I don’t remember. You can read about it here). 

Schwiezer does an excellent job of weaving in material from philosophy, art, literature, and everyday experience to make his points understandable and clear, looking at Paul Virilio, a newsweek article (about the death of the comma because we don’t have enough time to pause in our reading), and Daumier’s painint, “Un Wagon de Troisieme Classe.” Schwiezer then goes on to point out the lucrative business of keeping people from waiting– cell phones, computers, internet access everywhere,–constant distraction from the existential experience of waiting. 

He goes on to say the wait as lived-experience is: “This wait is the basic way to live what-has-to-be-lived” (10). This idea makes me think of Eastern philosophy again; after all, isn’t this what the art of mindfullness is preaching. To be fully aware of the moment rather than letting it pass you by. You can check it out here.

There is so much more I want to say about this book, but I realize I have rambled on this long and I have barely scratched the surface. I will try to keep it short. 

Schwiezer then goes on to outline a theory of waiting using Henri Bergson’s lump of sugar as his basic premise. Basically there are two temporalities: one thought and one lived (time and duration). Clocks give us thought time– an abstraction that is measured. But watching a lump of sugar melt in a glass of water gives us lived time– time that must be endured– a time that must be watied “willy-nilly.” This willy-nilly implies vacillation, which Bergson terms “impatience” (16).  It is in this lived time, this time that is not calibrated to our will, that time becomes “time as the other than.” Duration then seems “other than” as in other than can be measured; therefore, it is time that is consciously endured rather than the time in which things get done (16): “In waiting, the hour cannot be turned into lunch; the waiter must live the hour” (Ibid.). 

What is implied here is that in waiting the waiter cannot defer or prolong, shorten or lengthen, his time and thus his “being.” In waiting the waiter feels his own being. I get here a feeling of Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.” From what I understand of Heidegger’s anxiety:

Heidegger argues that our ontic feelings of anxiety testify to the “groundlessness” of human existence, revealing an ineradicable insecurity which Heidegger connects to the fact that our existential trajectories – the life-projects, roles, and identities that define who we are – have “always already” been shaped by a past that we can never get behind and head off into a future in which these self-defining projects will always be incomplete, cut short by a death we can neither avoid nor control. In Heidegger’s famous phrase we exist as a “thrown project”: thrown out of a past we cannot get behind, we project ourselves into a future we can never get beyond. “Existence” (from the Latin Ek-sistere, out-standing) is this standing-out into time, a temporal suspension between natality and mortality (http://www.philosophers.co.uk/cafe/phil_mar2003.htm)

So, if anxiety arises out of our existential trajectories, then wouldn’t we feel that groundlessness more when we are forced to endure time? If the anxiety is a result of being always-already shaped by a past we cannot get behind and being thrown into a future we can not head off, then wouldn’t we feel this anxiety in moments when we, as Schweizer puts it, “feel our being” in waiting– because in waiting our being cannot protract or contract, we vacillate, we are in this state of willy-nilly “will I, won’t I.”  This dithering is made manifest in our pacing the room; The walking back and forth is the waiter wanting to get away from a body that endures– the body is always a reminder of mortality. (Again, I think of a “Being-towards-death”).

The next portion of the book mixes Walter Benjamin, Bergson’s comparison of of the totality of music to the totality of living being, makes a distinction between boredom and waiting, and further explains the manifestations of waiting. 

in music we do not hear the pauses or notice the subtle individual parts, but rather we experience music as a whole. Waiting is like being made acutely aware of the individual parts of the music. Boredom is compared to sleep if sleep is the apex of the body in relaxation, boredom is the apex of mental relaxation. Waiting, on the other hand, must be endured. In waiting the waiter is not fully self forgetful nor fully self-conscious: “The waiter hovers and shuttles between absorption and awareness […] between the spell of the story and the spelling of a word” (20). 

The waiter waits willy-nilly, vacillates, “tarries,” the waiter constantly glances at his watch and is caught in its increments, but then has moments of forgetfulness. 

The book goes on in this manner to look at the waiter’s objects. Again, things become out of synch when waiting: the magazine, the watch, the chair the waiter waits in, the waiter herself (the book looks at Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room”). These objects must perish, and we are reminded that we, too, must perish as we become objectified by time:

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes.” Waiting, then, allows for the sudden realization that, like things, we are (29). The body, like things, is the embodiment of duration (manifest in looking at watch, closing eyes, pacing, smoking, magazine, etc). 

The book then looks at the waiter’s gaze, and then through looking at different examples (Penelope’s wait in the Odyssey; Bishop’s wait in her poetry”– The books then looks at lingering and the particulars of lingering. When we wait, obhects become particular. Here again I think of the distinction Heidegger makes between “ready-at-hand” and “present-at-hand.” When things are ready-at-hand, they are ready for our use, and we use the tool without thinking about it, but when something is thrown off, broken (the broken hammer), it becomes present-at-hand, a thing of contemplation in which we notice all the particulars, in which the object becomes strange to us. 

There is also a section on the ethics of waiting… and much more…. But this is why the blog is called fragments because you are only going to get a [long] fragment. This is a really fascinating read and I suggest people pick it up.