What are we doing when we aren’t doing anything?
We’re waiting. Or, as Köhler would prefer, we’re passing time. As Mark Lilla notes in his foreword: “Man is the waiting animal….What exactly is it to wait?” Köhler, the cultural correspondent for a Swiss daily newspaper and winner of the 2003 Berlin Book Critics Prize, posits, “waiting is a state in which time holds its breath in order to remind us of our mortality. Its motto is not carpe diem but memento mori.” Now available in English, her extended essay is a hybrid: part meditation, part philosophy, part autobiographical musings. One comment about waiting leads to another, which leads to some author’s comment on the first comment, which leads to another comment. The book reads like a string of epigrammatic musings. Köhler goes on to describe all manners of waiting and their significance, creating a sort of taxonomy of waiting. There’s anxiety, hesitation, expectation, laggardness, etc. She draws on a wide variety of writers, mostly European, to help her along the way: Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault, Camus, Blanchot, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Peter Handke, the self-proclaimed “lover of waiting.” Köhler describes him as “one of the staunchest defenders of slowness in our time.” As she sees it, waiting is a good thing. It’s not a waste of time but rather a use of time. She also references Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset, both of which address an ages-old question: is there someone out there, waiting for me? Of course, Waiting for Godot makes an appearance. Poor Vladimir and Estragon “practice waiting for its own sake and with no particular goal in mind.” We wait with them, confronting matters of existence and eschatology while time is passing. As Vladimir says, “it would have passed in any case.”
A lovely jeu d’esprit for those waiters who like their abeyance with a touch of the metaphysical.