Make Time Read John Berger and Selçuk Demirel’s ‘What Time Is It?’

Although the topics in John Berger and Selçuk Demirel's excellent What Time Is It may instinctively feel morbid and fraught, the overall effect is quite satisfying, even tranquilizing.

What Time Is It?
John Berger and Selçuk Demirel
Notting Hill Editions / New York Review of Books
September 2019

The problem has always been time, hasn’t it? Space expands and contracts; it can be bought or sold or moved or secured. Everybody needs space, but we worry about it much less than we worry about time. Time marches coldly and impersonally forward, linearly skewering our existence with its unceasing arc no matter how much we’d like to freeze a moment and live in it forever, no matter how often we’d be willing to pay for a 25th hour in our day.

It’s very difficult to think through any alternative methods for engaging with time. Most of us are not Einstein and time doesn’t feel very relative when you’ve got a pressing deadline on Monday morning. We’re no better than the wish-fulfilling idiots in Zemeckis’s Back to the Future or Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and though a time-traveling car or phone booth or hot tub seems like an ideal solution to all our problems, we’d probably screw it up.

We have no confidence in our ability to negotiate time, and yet we must constantly do so. Especially toward the end of our lives, if we’re fortunate (is it fortunate?) to have some sense in advance that the end is near. John Berger, the famed painter and intellectual, died in 2017 at the ripe old age of 90 after a very prolific creative career. You can be forgiven for not knowing his name if you don’t keep up on art history, even though Berger is sort of a more generalized intellectual along the lines of Chomsky or Barthes. Maybe all I need to do to convince you to dip a toe into his work is to tell you that Tilda Swinton spent five years directing a movie about his life, 2016’s The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.

Shortly before he died, Berger chose to use his time in one last artistic collaboration—about time. He was very fond of collaborations, having worked on dozens of book projects with family members, artists, and other writers over the course of more than five decades. The last project was his third book in cooperation with Turkish illustrator Selçuk Demirel. In 2012, they published Cataract, with Demirel providing the drawings that would help illuminate Berger’s thoughts on the increasing loss of his eyesight.

The pair have never shied away from public confrontation with human deterioration, making rather soothing and whimsical approaches to concepts that ordinarily overwhelm us. In 2016, their second book was Smoke, a paean to the cigarette and forthright engagement with the thing we hypocritically prefer to banish from public life even as factories continue to pollute the air. These two will gleefully pet a paradox when they find one.

Their current book is What Time Is It? and Maria Nadotti writes in her brief introduction that Berger unfortunately passed away before the two men could complete their “four-handed adventure”, which is “how the hands became six” (8). Nadotti assisted in piecing together the remainder of the text from Berger’s notes, and the book is truly seamless. It seems that Berger was an excellent collaborator even after his death.

Beginning from the notion that time is precious, the text works through the narrative or historical value of time, then on to the commonplace that time is money and often has a steep exchange value. Finally, time morphs into the surreal dreamscapes of creativity as Berger reckons with his own death and legacy.

Although these topics may instinctively feel morbid and fraught, the overall effect of What Time Is It? is quite satisfying and even tranquilizing. Here’s my personal favorite snippet, which falls somewhere between prose and poetry like all the text in this book:

“Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses” (16).

What a tightly packed sequence of ideas! Each page is like this, able to stand alone on the merits of its thinking, but then also reaching across to an image on the adjoining page and further to grasp the text on a preceding or following page. The above quotation then meets with this observation on the next page: “A room needs an awareness of the passing of time. Otherwise it risks becoming inanimate. Or, to be more accurate, its silence risks becoming inanimate” (18).

The image next to it—also printed on the book’s cover—is of a clock face slipping down through an hourglass, its parts liquidly twisting and loosely dissipating in a way that evokes the surface content of a Salvador Dali painting, albeit without any of Dali’s accompanying paranoia or anxiety. Demirel is skilled at interpreting the text in an appropriately metaphorical way, with designs that are nevertheless precisely tuned to the same state of minimalism and clarity as the text, and with similarly smooth tones that lend a sense of peace to the reader on what is otherwise a difficult subject. And it’s a subject that necessarily never concludes, so neither really can the book.

What Time Is It? is only a hundred pages long, but the temptation to linger over each text and each image is extremely strong. It’s a book that would be easy to return to over and over again as an anchor point for renewing reflection. I think the most delightful sense of closure comes across in the middle of the thing vis-à-vis the radical openness that would seem to be its opposite: “Meaning and mystery are inseparable, and neither can exist without the passing of time” (54). If time is too often our open mortal wound, this book is a solid salve.

RATING 9 / 10