Time: Control and Illusions of Order in Michel Tournier’s Friday by Leslie Hammer
“…he contrived a primitive clepsydra, or water clock, out of a glass demijohn in the bottom of which he pierced a very small hole through which the water escaped, drop by drop, into a brass bowl beneath it. By trial and error he found the precise amount of water needed for it to empty itself in twenty-four hours, and he then marked the hours in rings round the jar, numbering them with Roman numerals. This water clock was an immense comfort to him. Listening by day and night to the regular “plop” of water dropping into the bowl, he had the feeling that time could no longer slip away from him, that he had regulated and mastered time in a word, tamed it, just as the whole island was gradually to be tamed by the strength and resolution of a single man.” –From Chapter Three of Michel Tournier’s Friday (65)
Michel Tournier uses the agency of time in Friday to reveal the absurdity and delusiveness of absolute assumptions. As the bedrock of Western science, our concept of time suggests progress, order, and controlled measurability—the very notions Tournier despises and thus seeks to debunk. Time, as an axiom, unquestionably moves forward linearly with calculable precision; that is, a day always equals twenty-four hours, an hour 60 minutes, a year 365 days, a week seven days, and so on. Nature is assumedly systematized with calendars, dates, watches, and predictable equations. Moreover, the clock—the master of the work schedule—traditionally plays a pivotal role in the colonizer controlling the Other. In short, time is the quintessential ordering agent of the West. As a product of his European culture, Robinson then predictably surmises a calendar, clock, and work schedule are necessary to keep himself “sane” and “civilized” during his enduring solitariness on the deserted Speranza. Yet through Robinson’s unusual and changing relationship with time, Tournier effectively reveals that the arrogant Western male notion of ordering his world is only an illusion—a manmade construct, a flimsy theory, at best.
In the same vein, Robinson senselessly feels secure and regains his supposed sanity after building a water clock and discovering writing tools that enable him to maintain his purported much-needed calendar. He records in his journal, “When I began a calendar I regained possession of myself,” suggesting his situation on the island has somehow improved by him being able to keep a calendar (60). Likewise, he later notes how the water clock brings him an enormous amount of solace. Tournier demonstrates, however, that Robinson’s false sense of comfort, as common of the presumptuous Western colonizing mentality, is mutually based upon arrogance and illusion. He presumes he can win control over even the most uncontrollable of forces—time: “Robinson’s omnipotence over the island, born of his solitude, extended even to the mastery of time! He reflected with delight that he had only to plug the hole in the water clock and he could suspend the passing of time whenever he chose!” (89). That Robinson could use the rising and setting of the sun instead of a water clock to tell time is insignificant to him because of his egotistical need to order the world—his right to play God—inculcated into him by his Western culture. The clock deceptively implies he commands time. Yet in revealing that the manmade device does not provide any additional insight into time that Robinson could not already attain from nature, Tournier deftly demonstrates not only how increasingly divorced from the environment man is, but more profoundly, he exposes the pernicious purpose of the clock: to master.
Indeed, Robinson attempts to dominate Speranza, Friday, and oddly even himself through the inane laws he draws up, all based upon dates, specific times, and work schedules. His Charter, for instance, specifically shows in capital letters it is has been inaugurated on the “100th day of the local calendar” (69). Robinson, moreover, meticulously designates specific times for work to begin and end, writing in Article V, “Sunday is a day of rest. At seven o’clock on Saturday evening all work on the island will cease […]. On Sunday morning at ten they will gather in the Meeting House…” (70). His careful attention to days and hours—him creating, in essence, a Western work schedule—is ridiculously laughable and one of the most humorous aspects of the novel, since he, at this point, is the sole inhabitant on the island and has no reason to follow such a rigid plan. By showing the extremity of Robinson’s behavior, Tournier seduces his readers into questioning Robinson’s sanity and thus the general saneness of any time enslaved system. He shows that Robinson purposefully imposes and constructs these time dominated laws, calling attention to the fact that that is all they are: manmade and absurd. Furthermore, Tournier mutually reveals not only how Robinson uses time to govern his “community,” but he also disturbingly demonstrates how blindly dominated Western man is by time. The time-enslaved Robinson is so controlled by the illusion that time, as an entity, somehow brings order into chaos that he enforces it on the isolated Speranza where his Western chronometers—calendars, clocks, and schedules—serve absolutely no purpose. Tournier forces his readers to recognize the nonsensicalness and pernicious power behind the manmade clock; a power problematically left so unquestioned that it deludes a man stranded on a deserted island to indulgently revel that “he was on holiday!” when his water clock stops, despite the fact that he could choose to not work at anytime or sleep in whenever he feels like it (89).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Tournier most blatantly calls attention to the Puritan work ethic by opening Chapter Seven with Benjamin Franklin’s epigram, “Do not waste time, it is the stuff of life” (131). It is in chapter seven, ironically, that Robinson “saves” and enslaves Friday, who is remarkably free from time constraints. Tournier purposefully uses the epigram to strategically demonstrate the astonishingly vast difference in how Robinson and Friday treat time. Of Friday, Robinson records in his journal, “I must fit my slave into the system which I have perfected over the years” (138-39). As a master, Robinson wants to control Friday with the clock—his time-based work schedule; he intentionally manipulates time to shackle his subject to labor. He even names his “South American Indian crossed with Negro” after a workday, “Friday.” Yet Friday, to the chagrin of Robinson, is a complete foreigner to the Western time-based work schedule. Friday feels entirely comfortable lounging in his hammock all day, not diligently working towards the future as Robinson feels so compelled to do. Robinson, in his Eurocentrism, assumes he is lazily wasting away precious time, complaining that “Friday was utterly docile” (139). But, Tournier shows it is Friday who reveals to Robinson that “the stuff of life” is not related to time, and that it is Franklin’s epigram that is nonsensical and illusory.
It is significantly when Friday intentionally stops the clock in Robinson’s absence that he “breaks the established order” and hence blows up the cave (154). This explosion is the catalyst for Robinson’s epiphany wherein he is released from his Western time constraints and embraces Friday’s uncontrolled lifestyle. He accepts Friday’s perception of time as not necessarily being a linear motion in progress, noting that “at the heart of Friday’s way of life there was an underlying wholeness, an implicit principal. Friday never worked in any real sense of the word. Unconcerned with past or future, he lived wholly in the present” (182). Robinson’s relationship with time changes significantly from when he, as the European colonizing explorer, first arrives on the island. Robinson now tries to mimic Friday’s lifestyle of what he perceives as living in the present, only for the moment. Early in the novel, Robinson believes, “Only the past had any worth or existence deserving of note. The present was valueless except as the repository of memories accumulated in the past, and to add to that increasing fund was the only reason for living. In the end came death” (41). This linear notion of time as constantly moving forward is destroyed with the destruction of his precious cave, jolting him into recognizing that his cherished clock is only an illusion of order. Robinson realizes, as Tournier hopes his readers understand, that only the present reliably reveals “truth,” so to speak. He no longer is fixated, as he once was, on drawing from the past and working towards the future. Rather, the present, like the out-of-mind timelessness he experiences in the mire and cave, become legitimized and his only reality. That there are no truths—past knowledge to draw from and future progress—is in a sense the only “reality.”
Furthermore, Robinson actually illustrates through his personal “aging” experience that the linearity promised in the time axiom is a fallacy. That is, he grows younger as his years stack up, escaping the purported inevitability of getting older. Following his “astonishing metamorphosis,” the narrator notes, “the first thing to be affected was Robinson’s appearance […] it also made him look ten years younger” (182). That he becomes younger, not older, demonstrates the abstract complexity and unreliability of how time operates, and that it is far from being a simple predictable progression that can easily be measured. Robinson becomes, in a sense, liberated when he accepts he cannot understand or control time, as the rationality of the Enlightenment promises. Didactically, he records in his journal:
What has most changed in my life is the passing of time, its speed and even its direction. Formerly every day, hour, and minute leaned in a sense toward the day, hour, and minute that was to follow, and all were drawn into the pattern of the moment, whose transience created a kind of vacuum. So time passed rapidly and usefully, the more quickly because it was usefully employed, leaving behind it an accumulation of achievement and wastage which was my history. […] For me the cycle has now shrunk until it is merged in the moment. […] Since the explosion destroyed my calendar mast I have felt no need to record the passing of time. The memory of that accident and the events leading to it is imprinted on my mind with a vividness which in itself reveals that time stopped when the water clock was shattered. (204)
Robinson indeed indicates in his journal excerpt to no longer be the all-knowing, controlling European colonizer he once was.
Yet what is perplexing is that, despite Robinson’s “astonishing metamorphosis,” Tournier ends the novel with Robinson gaining another “slave” named ironically after a Western calendar day, “Sunday.” Sunday certainly is, as Robinson notes earlier in the text, the “day of rest” (70). However, that Robinson feels the need to name him after a day at all suggests that perhaps Robinson has not matured as “linearly” as we might surmise. In addition, Robinson does not seem, at the end of the novel, to be as unfettered as his earlier journal entry implies. Though Robinson claims he is free of recording time, he notes, “December 22, 1787. Twenty-eight years, two months, and some twenty days. The figure still amazed him. If he had not been cast ashore on Speranza he would now be in his fifties, a graybeard with creaking bones. […] The truth was that that he was younger today than the pious and self-seeking young man who had set sail in the Virginia” (226). Robinson’s excerpt is noticeably dominated by details of time and dates, not much different than the style of the Charter he draws up when he first arrives on Speranza. That he claims he has found “truth,” furthermore, is perhaps evidence that he is still deluded and not as free from his Enlightenment Age mentality as he believes. True to Tournier’s philosophical narrative style of challenging his reader to question all assumptions, he significantly ends the text by posing more unanswered—and perhaps intentionally unanswerable—questions. He beseeches us to not hastily attempt to bring closure to his text by casting a conclusive assumption of progress—a narrative that leads us to “truth.” Rather, Tournier’s fragmented nonlinear novel asks us to ponder whether Robinson truly freed himself from the constraints of time or whether his purported growth is yet another illusion of false progress.
Tournier, Michel. Friday. (1967) John Hopkins UP: 1997.