December can feel like a tangled string of lights stuck on a maniacal strobe setting: shopping, rehearsals, parties, the “busy” time at work. Whatever else it may be, the oft-maligned commercialization of Christmas is a temporal phenomenon. It intensifies the hustle and bustle of daily life. You search for an elusive parking spot so you can search for an elusive gift. You grit your teeth beneath a forced smile of holiday cheer. The whole experience is more Sisyphus than St. Nicholas.
But December can also offer a radical break with the hustle and bustle. Advent promises a fuller sense of time. Contemplating Christ’s Incarnation in a particular time and place can help us be more fully present in ours. While it is a commonplace to contrast these two Decembers, the vita activa of the “holiday season” and the vita contemplativa of Christmas, our active and contemplative lives are not necessarily opposed to one another. In fact, they need each other. In Advent, prayerful expectation can lead to purposeful action, including service to those in need and grateful attention to friends and family. Without contemplation, action devolves into mere activity.
This last claim is at the heart of Byung-Chul Han’s philosophical project. A professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Han gained international attention in recent years for his diagnosis of the twenty-first century “burnout society.” In The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (translated by Daniel Steuer, Polity, $45, 120 pp.), Han explores a widespread experience of time “whizzing without a direction.” He advocates a renewed vita contemplativa that restores time as duration. We need to learn how to linger, how to be patient, how to be still. Against our instrumentalizing tendencies, we need to recover a “contemplative gaze” that “goes easy on [things,] letting them be in their own space or radiance.” Han writes short, dense chapters of philosophical exegesis, but some of his books’ best moments are poetic and evocative.
While Han draws on Martin Heidegger throughout The Scent of Time, he is more appreciative than Heidegger of Christianity. He takes Heidegger to task for failing to grasp the mystical tradition: “Heidegger does not address the mystical dimension of contemplation at all, according to which—as a lingering with God in loving attentiveness—it does not possess the categorizing and securing intentionality Heidegger supposes it has.” Han suggests that we need meaningful narratives and rhythms to counter “whizzing time.” He notes how “the medieval calendar did not just serve the purpose of counting days. Rather, it was based on a story in which the festive days represent narrative resting points. They are fixed points within the flow of time, providing narrative bonds so that the time does not simply elapse.” Again, Advent is a good time to recover the bonds still provided by the liturgical calendar. Han is perhaps ultimately more “post-secular” than religious, more interested in drawing resources from Christian tradition than in presenting it as a living faith, but he does commend its mediation of contemplation and action.