The Reform of Time by Maureen Perkins presents an interesting idea: that 18th and 19th century England drove the death of everyday magic by changing the way they saw time.  Over that century, Perkins writes, the British came to think of time as a ceaseless march of progress.  They started thinking of time as something that could be saved or wasted.  They started using calendars as day planners and not just as reminders of saints’ days and lunar cycles.  They thought that the future could be planned for and problems could be avoided by making correct decisions about future events.

At the time, there was a great deal of magic being practiced by society at large.  People, especially women, sought fortune tellers and astrologists to help them determine their fate.  And that was the heart of the conflict: fate versus free will.  If people thought their future was set in stone, they wouldn’t (the upper classes thought) work as hard or try to improve themselves the way “good” people ought to.  (They thought the same of the peoples they conquered who didn’t share that view of time: that they were lazy and too “primitive” to have any sense of time at all.)

Fortunate telling became illegal, and centuries-old magical practices were written off as mere superstition.  Perkins makes a good case for the obsession with planning for the future being a type of superstition, too.  Because if we just structure our day planners the right way, nothing bad will ever happen to us.  Right?

You still see some white Americans referring to “Latin time” or “Arab time” in a condescending manner, simply because many cultures don’t subscribe to the idea of time as currency to hoard.  Things like global time zones are useful, sure, but there’s this desire to make everyone see time as a commodity.  Perkins speaks of the WASP concept of time as a hegemony, and I’m inclined to agree.

There’s a lot more to the book — issues of gender being chief among the topics I’m not going into — and it’s worth a read if you can get it through your library.  (It’s $80 on Amazon.  Ouch.)

Note: I’m not saying it’s bad to plan ahead.  I don’t believe in fate.  But thinking that nothing will ever go wrong if life is planned down to the minute requires a faith that’s just as strong in some people as faith in the daily horoscope is in others.  Sometimes bad things happen for no reason, and many people don’t want to acknowledge that.  And I’m going to shut up now before I start going down the rabbit hole of existential philosophy!


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