Toward A Better Eternity: COVID-19 and The Recovery of Time

Ahmed Elbenni on COVID-19

Lately, I’ve taken to counting in Fridays. It’s been ten Fridays since the coronavirus made my body home and nine Fridays since I began quarantining in my bedroom; six Fridays since the first night of Ramadan and two Fridays since its last night. It’s always been a special day, Friday: the observant Muslim’s Sunday, and the true final day of the week.

Modern people don’t believe in inherently special days, or so we tell ourselves. “Empty, homogeneous time”—this is how German philosopher Walter Benjamin characterized the modern conception of temporality. We think of time as colorless and flat: devoid of intrinsic content and essentially uniform in elevation. We might prefer Friday to Thursday, but only because it happens to immediately precede the weekend, not because its seconds are literally superior. Time differs in number and sequence, but never in quality. It is but a train in which we ride, racing inexorably across a horizontal plane with no horizon.

Yet while we say that time is linear and undifferentiated, we live as though it is neither. Like our forefathers, we still measure time in cycles: days, weeks, months, years. We elevate certain moments above others—birthdays, holidays, matchdays—and sacralize them with elaborate rituals (Super Bowl Sunday, anyone?). We have bought into the Promethean myth that we can, through our routines, give meaningless time meaning. COVID-19, by suspending society and the routines it enables, has stripped us of this coping mechanism. “During a shutdown,” Heidi Pitlor recently wrote at Literary Hub, “the things that mark our days—commuting to work, sending our kids to school, having a drink with friends—vanish and time takes on a flat, seamless quality.” We think this strange, even unnatural. In reality, the pandemic has simply stolen the coats we’ve used to protect ourselves from the existential winds that were already there.

We’re shivering and sniffling because we have forgotten that our temporal cycles are not about differentiating the undifferentiated. As philosopher Charles Taylor noted in A Secular Age, cycles have meaning because “they connect us in a continuity, and thus knit together their different instances in a larger single pattern across time.” Cycles, in other words, are reservoirs of memory—the key to continuing our sense of continuity. Memory enables our experience of the present through the past and vice versa, and of our future through both. But unless cycles are embedded in an overarching narrative, they are mere repetition, a re-iteration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “eternal return,” the idea that everything that ever happened is recurring in an infinite loop. This is how Damon Linker, in The Week, once described life in the Trump era, where every day is a new scandal: something is always happening, but nothing is ever changing—or even remembered. We have tried to avoid this kind of tortured eternity by anchoring our cycles in grand stories of Progress, personally and societally, while we grow ever more obsessed with narratives provided by history.

We wear MAGA hats and visit museums and major in Medieval European Studies, but we have lost our history. Our relationship to it is analogous to our relationship with tradition. As Aziz Esmail has astutely observed, “Traditional societies are the one kind of society which are singularly free from the idea of tradition.” An artisan uses his hammer almost unconsciously as a natural extension of his body; only when the hammer breaks does it become perceptible as a distinct thing. In a similar manner, “tradition” only becomes an object of nostalgia “when it ceases to work.” A “traditionalist” orientation can only ever arise in a society that has ceased to embody tradition. Only a society without tradition speaks of tradition; only a society without history speaks of history. We masquerade at remembering even as we systematically forget. What we are left with—a past from which we are divorced and a boundless future beyond definition—is a painfully perpetual present.

Eternity, as experienced in modernity, is an outcome of historical amnesia. In Islam, eternity springs from historical memory—a kind of memory that has not stopped unfolding. History, in the modern sense of an objectified “then” severed from the living “now,” does not exist in the Qur’an. Recounted are the stories of Adam and Noah, Moses and Jesus, yet they are never distanced from the believer the way that “1918” distances the Spanish Flu from the coronavirus pandemic in “2020.” Why? Because these stories are framed as memories.

Humanity is exhorted to recall these stories, as though we have collectively experienced them and can re-experience them through the act of remembrance. Hence the annual Hajj pilgrimage, when millions reenact the life of Prophet Abraham, whose call to a singular monotheism found its culmination in Islam. Time is history and history is memory, and memory is still occurring. There is no past or future, only a present that approaches eternity. This is God’s Time, cascades of untold millennia gathered in a suspended instant. Thus we find God, in the Qur’an, describing “future” events in the “past” tense, demonstrating that such temporal distinctions are meaningless when all of time is a single, eternal moment. The Muslim accesses this eternity by remembering, and remembers by worshipping in tandem with the cycles of higher times.

My time in quarantine has allowed me to recover this sense of eternity; not as an article of belief, but as a fact of experience. Infected with coronavirus and confined full-time to the cave of my bedroom, away from the fog of my once-daily cycles—the morning commute up Garden State Parkway, the munching of tuna salad at QuickChek, the scramble to meet the evening deadlines at my newspaper—I perceive more clearly the true crests and valleys of reality’s spatio-temporal terrain. The only cycle that remains is a realer, higher one engraved in nature itself: the five daily prayers. My clock becomes the sunbeams streaming through my windows’ broken blinds, the hour hand their slant and the minute hand their shade. The carpet on the floor is my mosque, a serene summit miles higher than the bookshelves and bed it rests between. When I answer the call to prayer, I participate in a temporally universal act, one that links me to every believer there ever was and ever will be, our submission simultaneous before God. This perpetual present differs from the one in which we are currently trapped, as it is defined by continuity rather than discontinuity. In quarantine, I trade one eternity for another.

COVID-19 might very well give our society a chance to make the same trade, to recover a sense of inherently vertical time and thus recover cycles that don’t just differentiate time, but unify it. Or, perhaps, unify time by differentiating it. So now I count in Fridays, a day and a cycle that is special both for what it has recently meant for me—a marker of the major stages of my illness and isolation—and for what it has always meant for humanity. The former is a meaning that I have ascribed to it; the latter is a meaning that it has imprinted upon me. My personal time, as is each of ours, is imbricated in a higher time beyond my choosing. Time is weightiest, and most fulfilling, not when we give shape to it, but when it gives shape to us.

Ahmed Elbenni is the managing editor of Union County LocalSource in Union, New Jersey. He graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, with a focus on intellectual history and political philosophy. You can find other samples of his work here and here. Tweets @AElbenni.