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Momo and the True Nature of Time
Commonplace Newsletter #96
‘Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time. And all the time they fail to appreciate is as wasted on them as the colours of the rainbow are to a blind person or the nightingale’s song on a deaf one. Some hearts are unappreciative of time, I fear, though they beat like all the rest.’
~ Michael Ende, Momo
I rarely begin with quotations, in fact I generally avoid them all together, but as with everything, sometimes exceptions must be made. Because if, like me, you believe that many of our modern mistakes and our errors in living stem from our misconception of the true nature of time then you must quote one of the all-time great novels to tackle this subject- Michael Ende’s1973 children’s classic Momo.
In our modern world there is essentially one primary mode of dealing with time: time is seen as something to be saved and maximised. This is misguided, of course, and leads- as the quote has it- to the heart growing steadily less appreciative of time. Momo elegantly tackles this fundamental error, in the way that only fiction can, by showing rather than simply telling. This example is vital especially as this time-saving and time-maximising route is extremely prevalent and highly lauded in our current society.
What the story of Momo shows, then, is how to move from wanting to somehow save time and maximise it for some hypothetical future benefit and instead learn how to cherish time for then gift that it really is. And it does it in a way that a bright ten year old can understand.
But this in no childish matter. Learning to cherish time is an individual mission and a project that will take us a whole lifetime to truly master. It is thus vitally important to draw on every resource at our disposal to do this- personal experience, real life accounts, history, and indeed underappreciated children’s literature- to make sure that we can truly see this problem of misunderstanding time for what it is. And from this learn how to better navigate our way through life.
I’m hoping that today’s discussion here will also serve to be a resource along this path.
‘Once there, they were naturally forbidden to play games of their own devising. All games were selected for them by supervisors and had to have some useful educational purpose. The children learned these new games but unlearned something else in the process: they forgot how to be happy, how to take pleasure in little things, and, last but not least, how to dream.’
~ Michael Ende, Momo
I have been thinking recently about what these essays are for. And I have realised that if there has been any goal behind writing these dozens and dozens of essays over the past couple of years it has been to attempt to provide ideas and provoke discussions that will help undo the kind of real-life damage that the quotation above alludes to. The kind of damage that comes from always blindly going along with the sensible, rational, grown-up world of contemporary Western professional adulthoodwith its clock time and its deadlines and its productivity hacks.
Because many of us seem to be operating under a shared assumptionthat clock time is the only form of time that there is or was or ever could be…
The clock tick ticking, the clock ticking us off on our wrists and on our screens as we rush from one obligation to the next is in fact a relatively new phenomenon. Greenwich Mean Timewas only invented in 1852 when the Greenwich master clock in South London began sending signals to the dependent slave clocks in its network. The title of master clock feels somehow telling as we can often feel this impersonal mechanical system ruling over us, a giant clock in the wider mechanical machine of the Industrial Revolution, constantly pulsating the time to our own personal slave clocks day after day.
It wasn’t always this way. Before the spring up of Blake’s dark satanic mills, time was local and so work and days were dictated by the less imposing and more forgiving dials of the sun and the seasons. In some ways life back then was harder but in other ways it was easier, or at least simpler. Yes, the winters may have been cold and dark and uncertain and food was neither hyperabundant or hyper-palatable in ways that we have no come to take for granted. Everything was less convenient and harder won. This is true. However, there was no hour-long commute in darkness to then spend all of the precious daylight hours doing mostly sedentary, mostly screen-based work. There was no post lunch energy crash, there was no need for perpetual caffeine hits to push you through a workday in which the hours fly in the face of what the winter sky outside the window is dictating you should do. So in those pre-modernity days food and money were scarcer but those increasingly rarer commodities of sufficient (indeed abundant) sleep and the ability to have autonomy over how you spent much of your time were not only prevalent, but entirely commonplace and unremarkable.
For all of its big talk of progress then, we can say that modernity gives with the one hand while taking away with the other. You get money and consumer goods but only in return to conforming to clock time and the whole rat race apparatus that comes with it. To many, when they truly start to think about it, this appears to be more of a sleight of hand confidence trick than a truly fair exchange.
Now the following is an often-repeated idea but there are anthropologists who have made the case that hunter-gatherer societies were in fact the original ‘affluent societies’. The Inuit, for example have referred to themselves as being ‘rich in knowledge, meat and time’. Again, there have been claims within the field of anthropological study that many nations of indigenous peoples only needed to work for four hours per day to secure their food and survival. Indeed the Inuit didn’t have a separate word to distinguish work from non work. Now, I don’t want to romanticise and oversimplify here and I’m not necessarily saying I would switch places if given the chance, but this should be enough to make us at least stop and think. Four hours per day to secure survival needs, the ability to set their own schedule, ample sleep, ample family time, ample leisure time if not the toys and equipment that we would now consider essential for making that leisure time fun (and of course visually documentable). And not a single clock or calendar or alarm or notification anywhere to be seen. Does that not sound intriguing?
Could it be before the clock and the calendar gave birth to the schedule and the appointment diary that life was more integrated and more fun day to day?
I mention fun because if work- in our modern sense- is bound up with the clock and the calendar then the antithesis of that would be spontaneous play, which brings us back to the two quotes I have cited from Momo.
Now, I don’t need to closely lay out the story of Momo or analyse it in depth. In fact, to do so may well diminish your experience of reading it which I hope that you might do after you have finished with this essay. All you need to know is that the once happy Momo’s carefree, play-centred world is turned upside down, and once the shadowy figures of the Men in Grey come to town and trick all the adults into investing their time in the Timesaving Bank under the false promise that the simple, honest city folk will receive interest on it and somehow gain more time back at some unspecified future date. And so the town becomes drab and boring as the grown-ups become harried workaholics and play is seen as unproductive and a ‘waste of time.’
And so, being concerned with play and freedom versus the dour, life sapping forces of productivity and corporate logic, the story naturally casts children as the ones who see through the lies and subterfuge as they cannot be fully convinced that play is merely a waste of time. And yet for many of us supposedly intelligent adults (both in the book and more tragically in the real world) we have indeed been successfully duped by the Men in Grey to conform to the idea of sacrificing our time and our lives for some hypothetical (and often never to materialise) better tomorrow. In the book the Men in Grey need to consume other people’s time, they literally roll it up and inhale it in under to survive, and so they will perpetrate any fraud necessary in order to acquire larger and larger amounts of it. I’m still not sure what the real-life Men in Grey- those who push the endless optimisation and work ethic for its own sake and renunciation of play and fun- get out of it other than mere money and fame. Maybe that’s enough for them. Maybe they themselves think that their own deposits into the Timesaving Bank will pay dividends any day now.
So in both the story and in real life, the adults are tricked into giving up their precious time by appeals to their greed and fear. The con only works because- unlike children- the adults (now) lack imagination, contentment, and a love of play and an ability to exist in the moment. Both our master clocks and Momo’s Men in Grey must firstly divorce us from these things, must make us see these simple and freely available pleasures as not being enough although they are precisely what makes life worth living.
Once you see the trick, once you see the lopsided nature of the trade-off, it is as disappointingly simple as a rudimentary sleight of hand card trick. All you have to do is ignore the consumerist pressures and realise that speed and productivity and the oppressive nature of clock-time do not have to be the only game in town, the only mode of existence.
This is the project of a lifetime, and no one has ever said that freedom comes easily, but its pursuance seems a lot more fun than what the Men in Grey seem to be offering.
I’ll finish up with a final quotation from Momo:
‘They [the Men in Grey] exist only because people give them the opportunity to do so. Naturally, they seize that opportunity. Now that people are giving them a chance to rule their lives, they’re naturally taking advantage of that too.’
There is always a choice.
Until next time,
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Yes this is the same Michael Ende of The Neverending Story fame, although for my money Momo is the superior novel and should be much better known.
I would say this book is for older children and being half a century old it is not written under the assumption that the child in question has a fairly poor attention span. But that being said every child over the age of say 10 should be able to enjoy this book.
Though of course its beliefs and methods and attendant maladies have long since spread all over the world.
I was tempted to say delusion.
And when you are in the thick of the Rat Race it can often feel very mean indeed.
One thing I have noticed about working for myself is that my sleep pattern has become way more seasonal. Early starts and later nights in the summer and way more time in bed in the winter. My caffeine consumption is now virtually nil as a result too.
I recently found this quote in an old notebook of mine which led to the idea for this piece. But sadly I didn’t think to include where I first read it, so it may well be apocryphal. But even if it is not actually true, it has the unmistakable feel of truth and so is still useful for our purposes here.