The enjoyment of time: literary time and capital time

Martin Disler, untitled, 1981


Time-averse narratives of the commodity form make remember that the guy holding the book is not producing anything that accumulates value

“[…] time is an invisible fabric in which everything can be embroidered, a flower, a bird, a lady, a castle, a tomb. You can also embroider anything. Nothing above the invisible is the subtlest work of this world, and chance of the next.”

These words that close chapter XXII of the novel Esau and Jacob by Machado de Assis mark what the narrator calls a “leap”, that is, a movement of suppression of the narrative, not very different from the “transition” of chapter IX of the The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, or from chapter LIV of Dom Casmurro in which Bento refuses to tell his entire experience at the seminary. This is a literary device, among others, in which Machado de Assis's narrators highlight an obvious trait that perhaps did not want to be highlighted in itself: it is a writer with a pen in his hand and a certain mastery over the book .

This metalinguistic statement, however, does not end there, having numerous consequences for the work. Among them, there is one that may be of interest now for this essay, hence the writer has a certain domain, not full domain: the writing of the book implies a reader of it. Even though Brás Cubas disdains him from the prologue, Bento treats him as naive and the counselor Aires sees him from the top down of his intellectual position, he is there and more: he is inserted in the book itself, in the narrative, as one of the structures of meaning that are fundamentally present. We could remember how the narrator of the Quincas Borba reaches the end of his novel only to suspend the meaning of his book through a question that accompanies the reader throughout his reading: does the book have this title because of the demented philosopher or the dog? This meaning must be given by the reader, diminished by the distance of the stars that the beautiful Sofia did not want to look at as Rubião asked her to.

It would be seen, therefore, how Machado de Assis's narrator-writers are, in truth, playing with the meaning of the book itself, which directly implies a certain falsification of it, forcing, consequently, attention and manipulation from the reader , and producing a certain difficulty that slows down reading. This, we could say, entails a transformation in the reading time: the reader is forced to dilate, delay, go back: read, reread, reread, as Brás Cubas writes; making light of the world calculated in clock time. The reader is forced into the structure of the book in a game that sometimes advances, sometimes stretches, sometimes suspends time through interventions and digressions. Note, however, that the reader, unlike the narrator, has his materiality in the world outside the book, and his enjoyment in modern capitalism is very limited by reification — as has already unfolded argumentatively at least since Lukács in his History and class consciousness. “Time passes, but the book remains. The reader's life is measured in hours; that of the book, in millennia.”[I] Capital's time management — which is, in truth, the management of the inner lives of those subjected to expropriation — takes away from subjects the possibility of them actually becoming readers who are part of the process of meaning of books. The person who suffers such expropriation is cut off from the possibility of integration and crossing of a literary discourse that may have the capacity to significantly change their psychic life — and, therefore, have profound consequences on the materiality of the world, an argument already made in the 1980s by Antonio Candido in his famous essay “The right to literature”. What we would be interested in noting is how there is a literary apparatus that seems to force a break in this process of subjectification of modern capitalism: digression.

If the modern novel dialectically engendered a discursive change that was felt in the social fabric during the 19th century, it is perhaps through an apparatus that is not modern that it deconstitutes time during the consolidation of the management of minutes in the world of Capital's work. A literary device such as the digression, see, is used systematically in the Homeric epic: the deviations in the narrative mark the Iliad and Odyssey, so that the narrator opens veins in his poetry towards other myths. This practice is also not strange to the ancient novel, the medieval Romanesque narrative or even the forms of the novel from the 16th century onwards — let us remember Rabelais, Cervantes or even Jacques, you fataliste by Diderot.

This path, however, seems to have been placed in the background in the histories of literature and in the great theories of narrative during the 20th century, even though they played a central role in the great novelistic form of the same period — just remember the prose of Woolf, Broch and Proust. Especially regarding the historical novel of the Walter Scott type, the narratives of formation according to the taste of wilhelm meister or to the great social panoramas of nineteenth-century prose of the English model of Thackeray, Austen and Dickens, that realistic narrator who weaves his fabric in a more or less linear and distant way seems to have assumed a degree of centrality for the analyzes of the form of the modern narrative, and , consequently, for the way you remember them in literature manuals. This is the case, for example, that it is due to the (often superficial) interpretations of young Alencar's novel, as luciola, or the prose of Júlia Lopes de Almeida, as The bankruptcy. Interestingly, the theory of the novel developed by Lukács gives this emphasis by contrasting the totality of the narrative of the hero of Antiquity with the disoriented fragmentation of the modern subject, and what's more: such an analysis seems to forget how time also undergoes a profound change with regard to this subject as reader, which constitutes, in short, a fundamental literary function, whether in the lyric or in the modern novel. It is Lukács himself who develops, when delving deeper into the phenomenon of reification, that there is an internalization of a rationality in the calculation of time in modern capitalism, and subsequently a psychic splitting of the subject. In the case of understanding this as a reader, the calculation of reading is placed in relation to working time and free time — which is actually a false dichotomy in modernity, insofar as the second exists as a function of the first: there is the rest to the work.

In this sense, the calculation of reading (be it in pages, in hours, in periods) is based on a classic logic of linear premises that lead to positive conclusions — it reads for this purpose positively identified (in general, mind you, related to the production of a positive meaning in the material life of work and capital accumulation — whether symbolic or not). It is no coincidence that self-help books are structured around this model (although it is distorted by misleading premises and even more misleading conclusions), and the cultural industry has produced its own line of prose that works, roughly speaking, as pre-ready scripts for film adaptations. millionaires — the Harry Potter case is perhaps the most notable.

This is where it would be worth remembering that there is another form of narrative, which shapes the reader's time by reminding him of being a subject implicated by the book, not just a spectator of spectacular images identical to himself, as Guy Debord discovered. A reader who integrates the book as a sensitive operator of a temporal flow that cannot be linear, but rather multiple: it drags, suppresses, jumps, lengthens, twists. At the Tristram shandy by Sterne there is already this comment in one of his several digressions, when the narrator-author of these memories suggests in the last chapter of volume VI that his narrative proceeds as in the illustration:

What can we say, further, about chapter LXXI of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, in which the late author draws attention that

“(…) the biggest flaw in this book is you, the reader. You are in a hurry to get old, and the book moves slowly; you love direct and nourished narration, regular and fluent style, and this book and my style are like drunks, they lurch to the right and left, they start and stop, they mumble, they make mistakes, they laugh, they threaten the sky, they slip and fall …”

And in the chapter that follows, entitled “The Bibliomaniac”, the narrator will precisely bring a reader who “reads, re-reads, re-reads” his book in search of a meaning that he does not find in words alone. Brás Cubas, ironically — as is to be expected — displaces the meaning for this reader, and highlights the book's meaninglessness on him. Of course, as he himself mentions, this means “losing another chapter”, which is, in short, nothing more than natural for this drunken way of thinking. A narrative that goes in and out of itself, that pulls the reader towards itself, and that, in its aversion to aging, slows down the very subject who holds that copy in his hands.

Such practice, remember, will become a fundamental driving force in the great prose of the 20th century: Clarice Lispector makes d'star hour a game with the writing of a man who can't even give a title to his narrative, and Proust spends thousands of pages trying to discover writing in the intricacies of mundane life, passion and art, only to in the end rediscover the narrative shaping in Time which guides the symbols of the work in transformation in memory.

Contrary to the time of the commodity form, such a narrative deconstitutes it to remind us that the person holding the book is not producing anything that accumulates value. This time is just the fluid plasticity of a non-identity being formed and deformed, which can only operate in another type of discourse. This is perhaps a horizon of freedom, in which the subject does not exist in relation to working time, but which, instead, traverses a meaning that is not its own, but constitutes it in some way, and ultimately forming a possibility of another world.

* Guilherme Rodrigues He holds a PhD in Literary Theory from Unicamp's IEL.


[I] Steiner, George. “The unusual reader”. in: ____. No wasted passion. trans. MA Maximum. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2018, p. 15.

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