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constrained time

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busdriver reading at finsbury park

So I’m going to be writing a piece this summer for a very nice collection indeed (I’ll be the guy readers are like “who the fuck?” when they check the table of contents) on the theme of, well, urban waiting, on the sort of waiting that happens in cities. So, yes, Lefebvre-type constrained time, definitely: bus stops, underground trips, the walk to work. But not just that, not just that at all, as that’s been worked over quite a lot and there’s probably more interesting forms of waiting out there to discuss.

(Oh, and it’s supposed to be a personal essay cum lit crit and history type paper. Yum. Maybe even with photographs. Double yum. There’s a question in this regard at the very bottom of my post, so if you’d rather not read, would rather write, skip to the very bottom…)

For instance, there’s the implicit waiting that is the flipside of the shock, the event, in Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” the waiting that’s condensed in the imparfaitness of the first line: La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait. How long has he been standing there? How long as the street been roaring? How long do you have to stand around on a street corner before you get an un éclair? That sort of thing.

“Un éclair… puis la nuit!” The evental moment passes so quickly that there’s not even time for verbs. All the rest is waiting, compositional and retrospective waiting.

And then there’s my absolute favorite moment of literary urban waiting. Forgive me, a long quotation from a shady on-line translation is coming. It’s the bit of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale when Frederic is waiting for Madame Arnoux to show up while at the same time the revolution of 1848 is starting up just around the corner.

It was the students’ column which had just arrived on the scene. They marched at an ordinary walking pace, in double file and in good order, with angry faces, bare hands, and all shouting at intervals :

” Long live Reform ! Down with Guizot ! ”

Frederick’s friends were there, sure enough. They would have seen him and dragged him along with them. He quickly sought refuge in the Rue de l’Arcade.

When the students had taken two turns round the Madeleine, they went in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. It was full of people ; and, at a distance, the crowd pressed close together, had the appearance of a field of dark ears of corn swaying to and fro.

At the same moment, some soldiers of the line ranged themselves in battle-array at the left-hand side of the church.

The groups remained standing there, however. In order to scatter them, some police-officers in civilian dress seized the most riotous in a brutal fashion, and carried them off to the guard-house. Frederic, in spite of his indignation, remained silent ; he feared being arrested along with the others, and thus missing Madame Arnoux.

A little while afterward the helmets of the Municipal Guards appeared. They kept striking about them with the flat side of their sabres. A horse fell. The people made a rush forward to save him, and as soon as the rider was in the saddle, they all ran away.

Then there was a great silence. The thin rain, which had moistened the asphalt, was no longer fall- ing. Clouds floated past, gently swept on by the wind.

Frederic began running through the Rue Tronchet. looking before and behind him*

At length it struck two o’clock.

” Ha ! now is the time ! ” said he to himself. ” She is leaving her house; she is approaching,” and a minute after, ” she has had plenty of time to be here.”

Up to three he tried to keep quiet. ” No, she is not going to be late a little patience ! ”

And for want of something to do he examined the most interesting shops that he passed a bookseller’s, a saddler’s and a mourning ware-house. Soon he knew the names of the different books, the various kinds of harness, and every sort of material. The persons who were in attendance in these establishments, from seeing him continually going to and fro, were at first surprised, and then alarmed, and finally they closed up their shop-fronts.

No doubt she had met with some obstacle, and must be enduring pain at the delay. But what de- light would be afforded in a very short time ! For she would come that was certain. ” She has given me her promise ! ” In the meantime an intolerable feeling of anxiety was gradually seizing hold of him. Impelled by an absurd idea, he returned to his hotel, as if he expected to find her there. At the same mo- ment, she might have reached the street in which their meeting was to take place. He rushed out. There was no one. And he resumed his tramp up and down the footpath.

He stared at the gaps in the pavement, the mouths of the gutters, the candelabra, and the numbers above the doors. The most trifling objects became for him companions, or rather, ironical spectators, and the uniform fronts of the houses seemed to him to have a pitiless aspect. He was suffering from cold feet. He felt as if he were about to succumb to the dejection which was crushing: him. The reverberation of his footsteps vibrated through his brain as he tramped to and fro.

When he saw by his watch that it was four o’clock, he experienced, as it were, a sense of vertigo, a feeling of despair. He tried to repeat some verses to him- self, to make a calculation, no matter of what sort, to invent some kind of story. Impossible ! He was beset by the image of Madame Arnoux ; he felt a longing to run in order to meet her. But what road ought he to take so that they might not pass each other?

He went up to a messenger, put five francs into his hand, and told him to go to the Rue de Paradis to Jacques Arnoux’s residence and inquire ” if Madame were at home.” Then he took up his post at the corner of the Rue de la Ferme and of the Rue Tronchet, so as to be able to look down both of them at the same time. On the boulevard, in the background of the scene before him, confused masses of people were gliding past. He could distinguish, every now and then, the aigrette of a dragoon or a woman’s hat ; and he strained his eyes in an effort to recognise the wearer. A child in rags, exhibiting a jack-in-the-box, asked him, with a smile, for alms.

The man with the velvet vest reappeared. ” The porter had not seen her going out.” What had kept her in? If she were ill he would have been told about it. Was it a visitor? Nothing was easier than to say that she was not at home. He struck his forehead.

” Ah ! I am stupid ! Of course, this political outbreak prevented her from coming ! “

Mmmm. Yes. I was going to attend the G-20 festival of media-anticipated ultraviolence next week until I remembered that I might be having a kid, any day now, and my services could well be required at home.

But here’s the big question for all of you: do you have a favorite episode of literary or filmic urban waiting? I think, per the Flaubert, I am most (but not exclusively) interested in scenes of waiting that are bound up with sexual or romantic frustration: waiting for the lover, waiting because there’s no venue for love, that sort of thing. Or perhaps scenes of waiting, like those that I’ve described above, that seem to undercut or satirize the political event.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 27, 2009 at 12:01 am

Posted in cities, waiting

9 Responses

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  1. Yes. I was going to attend the G-20 festival of media-anticipated ultraviolence next week

    Are you familiar with Richard Grusin’s idea of premediation?

    On the waiting thing, assuming you don’t want to go with the grandaddy of them all and straight for the Godot, I seem to recall that Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (therefore perhaps also the remake, You’ve Got Mail, although I refuse to see it) was all about the waiting, and the deferral of sexual fulfillment inherent therein.


    March 29, 2009 at 9:03 pm

  2. Yes, Godot will have to figure but it’s not really “urban,” and this piece is about cities and waiting. The Lubitsch rec is excellent – thanks for that.

    Yeah, the g-20 press is really interesting – I’ve been trying to figure out something to say about it. “Premediation” is an excellent term… But the stuff to figure out in every case of this stuff is why and how… Very very tricky. What, exactly, is in it for the cops and the government in “premediating” massively violent riots? Sure, I can think of a few reasons… But I’m not convinced by the relatively obvious ones I can come up with.


    March 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm

  3. Yes, Grusin suggests novel ways of looking at it, but I’m still struck primarily by the old, time-tested reasons: intimidate, antagonise, exacerbate, control the message by announcing the bad news before it’s had time to happen. That sort of stuff. And sometimes it can be useful to divine what kind of police you’re going to be dealing with – I can think of at least a couple of demonstrations where shit happened absent the usual noises in advance by the liaisons and we were just unprepared, or not prepared enough.


    March 29, 2009 at 10:29 pm

  4. Yes, that’s right. I mean, though, the interest to me is the relationship between the govt and pseudo governmental players and the media that does the trumpetting. As easy as it is to believe, given what’s happened, that the latter is simply the mouthpiece of the former (or better yet, that both are just communications technologies for capital), the story is a bit more complicated than that. And the complications of the story are what interest me…

    In the specific issue here, I still can’t see why the police would want you to know what sort of police you’re going to be dealing with. It seems to me that the best practice of the forces of order lately has been to ignore and permit rather than intimidate and obstruct. Let kids take over the Uni – they’ll get bored and go away in three days. Go in with truncheons and you spawn something else. In general, this seems to have been the overall strategy with big rallies lately. I’m wondering why the change – especially political atmospherics at play.


    March 30, 2009 at 10:12 am

  5. In the specific issue here, I still can’t see why the police would want you to know what sort of police you’re going to be dealing with.

    I can’t really speak to that, not living in the UK. It used to be that it was a (mostly) unintended consequence of those other less admirable aims, in Italy at least. Although for a while we had a questore in Milan who did actually believe in letting you know in advance what boundaries the police would let demonstrators cross, and that was about as close to a constructive relationship as I’ve seen. But that was a while back and then since I’ve left the country we’ve had Genoa of course, and then Rome this year when the police let a (non-figurative) truckload of fascists with bats through their cordon so they could whale on junior high school kids who were there with their teachers. During the recent school occupations the preemptive intimidation has come straight from the minister of the interior – “we regard the occupants as guerrilla fighters”.

    They’re not really taking anything approaching a “ignore and permit” route back home, it seems.


    March 31, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  6. I’d have to think about it more to say whether or not these are my favorites, but here’s a few film scenes with those themes that immediately spring to mind.

    1) the scene near the end of Annie Hall when Allen’s character fly’s back to LA to try to get back together with Annie, even though we know it won’t work out. he waits for her at that ridiculous health food cafe and orders a plate of “mashed yeast.” somehow the absurdity of the yeast nicely balances the waiting and disapointment.

    2) Bergman. Here its hard to pick just one instance of waiting. waiting permeates his films. time and clocks almost always add a sense of urgency to this waiting. so, altho i haven’t seen it in years, ill have to pick the silence. this is because of the way it juxtaposes your themes in a claustrophic almost unbearable manner thru its setting in the anonymous imposing city, the story of thulin’s character’s death as the event her and her sister are waiting for but trying to resist, her sisters tryst as a way to embrace life to try annihilate the waiting and the inevitable. but also the kid who is left to his own devices who as a kid seems oblivious to grand theme of waiting for death and like a kid just seems to be waiting for something to do. i can’t think of specific scene but theres gotta be some great waiting scenes.

    there’s also gotta be great moments in Hitchcock and Antonioni etc. interesting theme thats for sure.


    April 11, 2009 at 7:50 pm

  7. co,

    What excellent suggestions. You get what I am after, and that is both helpful and makes me confident about what I am doing. Thanks so much and if you think of anything else, do definitely let me know. These, I bet, will go in!


    April 11, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  8. no problem. its definately an interesting topic. glad i could be of help. two more that popped into my head.

    the first is that mike leigh film naked. i haven’t seen it for years, but i remember quite a lot of waiting in nocturnal london interjected with sex and arguments.

    the other is the taste of honey. it has the incredible shots of tushingham’s character jo waiting by the harbor.

    oh, and julie christie waiting for billy to catch the train at the end of billy liar!

    all vague memories from days when i used to watch films instead of tv series on dvd. gotta go back to that.


    April 14, 2009 at 12:29 am

  9. Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue. Novel of overheard dialogue from an endless queue. Excellent.

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