Searching for lost time: The Bather by the Belgian Painter Léon Spilliaert

Time is elusive. It slips through our fingers unrelentingly, with cold indifference and an unwavering sense of superiority. We chase it, always a step behind, enthralled by the glances it throws back at us.

Memories, regrets, promises, moments tinged with joy or sadness, all fill up our reservoir of time. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle has argued that time is tied to change, that is, to temporal relations that occur between events. In this sense, time is characterized by its journey. The passage of time, subject to variation and transformation, and we, eager to get as many glimpses of it as possible. It is perhaps because we cannot fathom time without change that we scroll repeatedly through social media feeds, even if a feeling of ennui ultimately creeps up on us. The constant newness, the large chunks of information that we ingest might contribute to the impression that time lasts longer. Until we slip into the familiar, and time shrinks up considerably.

The neuroscientist David Eagleman said that the difference in how we perceive time consists in the way we process information. The unfamiliar requires us to break down many tidbits of information, and this prolongs time. The familiarity of the world does exactly the opposite. Memories are scarcer, less noteworthy, so the allotted time decreases as well. There is a painting at the Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels that depicts the comfort of monotonous routine quite accurately.



In The Bather (1910), the Belgian Symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) pictures a woman sitting on the edge of a street staircase. She gazes into what seems to be the sea. We cannot see her face, but from her slightly crooked back and right arm propped on the greyish-blue stair stone, we can sense a feeling of weariness invading the space around her. The waves resemble the passing of time, in a circular, linear, fluid motion. She does not seem to care either way, avoiding any direct involvement. It is only the little dog next to her, ears pointed up, that is curious enough to be a part of whatever happens around it.

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much,” said the Stoic philosopher Seneca in On the Shortness of Life. He is a proponent of otium, leisureliness devoted to meaningful activities. Although Seneca encourages a retreat into philosophy, where introspection and intellectual pursuits are highly ranked, his primary focus is on leading an authentic life, free from vices that sink us into oblivion.

Procrastination is just one vice that we indulge in. The frenetic urge to do what does not need to be done is a welcome respite from the burden of busyness, the badge of honour we proudly display. Or so we tell ourselves, until procrastination and busyness become indistinguishable from each other.

We trifle with time at our behest. In the background, we hear the ticking sound of Mad Hatter’s watch from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. When we glance at it, we see that instead of the hour, it shows the day of the month, passing before our eyes.