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English review -The Rhythms of Life and Death

“To be honest, I had hoped that you could’ve been physically present, that we could’ve had a normal physical interaction and that we could’ve had a beer together afterwards.” These were the words with which Marli Huijer, professor emeritus of Erasmus University Rotterdam and former Thinker of the Nation, started her talk. After nearly two years of the pandemic, all of us have heard this frustration expressed in countless ways. It has become an everyday disappointment, a recurring feeling that things are not as they ought to be. This is why the subject of Huijer’s talk, rhythm, is vital for our current predicament. In 2011, Huijer wrote a book on rhythm, Ritme, that has only become more relevant in times of covid. Rhythm, we discovered, is what binds us, what gives us structure and what allows us to deviate.

Rhythm is everywhere

Time is so fundamental to our way of life that it can be difficult to see its cultural dimension. Ideas about time have differed immensely between cultures and throughout history. Of course there is the kind of time physicists talk about, but this is not the kind of time that we actually experience. Time, Marli Huijer reminds us, is about the question “when are we doing it?” Some of the answers to that question have to do with our biological make-up. Humans are animals that are active by day, and accordingly all societies are structured around the idea that this is when things take place.

Other aspects of our time perception have a cultural origin. For instance, Marli Huijer pointed out that the industrial revolution and the labour movement have given us the classic distribution of eight hours work, eight hours free time and eight hours sleep in a day. Or think of the weekdays, all of which have a special significance in our lives. According to Huijer, it is important to remember that the week was thought up by humans. The seven days refer to the seven gods of the Sumerians, who adopted that system 3000 years ago. Our ideas about time seem as natural to us as gravity and their importance cannot be underestimated.

So how do these ideas about time relate to rhythm? Marli Huijer talked about the fact that all of them entail repetition. Our 9-to-5 is the same every day, on the same five days of the week. Life has a particular rhythm, built out of many different rhythms. The bus is scheduled to come by every hour, but you might only use it to visit family once a month. People coordinate their lives through this complex intersection of rhythms. Everyone has to depend on other people to keep to the rhythm. And, as Huijer pointed out: “this means no element has ultimate say about the rhythm”. But rhythm is not all repetition, you also need variation. We know this from music, nothing more dull than listening to perfect repetition. It is the same way with our life rhythms. “The important thing is that within a rhythm, something new introduces itself”. This is how Huijer stressed that the creative element always emerges from a background of repetition.

Rhythm and coronavirus

In the second part of her talk, Marli Huijer shifted to the loss of rhythms due to the pandemic. Two years ago, at the start, many people were optimistic about the lockdown giving us more spare time. We would not have to commute and we could divide our time as we wished. For most of us it has not turned out that way. We can no longer rely on the preordained order of life and we have to make an effort to organise things ourselves. Huijer talked about the great number of students who, because of the pandemic, no longer see the importance of writing a thesis. The self-evident meaning of a thesis is without the collaborative process that helps you write it.

There are many more problems connected to loss of rhythm that Marli Huijer talked about. She stressed the importance of social equality, social cohesion and the cultural sector and how all of these things have been harmed by the lockdowns. Huijer is not one of the intellectuals that thinks that the disruption of our daily rhythms will have some positive consequences. In the conversation after the talk, philosopher Wouter Veldman suggested possible upsides to covid. Didn’t the pandemic give people more time to be creative, to reflect and to write? Huijer pointed out that the people that were able to benefit from the peace and quiet were mainly the old garde. Young people, and particularly those from marginalised groups, need the social rhythms in order to develop themselves. And covid has severely disrupted this development.

Life after covid

Questions from the audience were mostly concerned with the question of what would happen after covid. Can we, as a society, bounce back? The first time this question was asked, Marli Huijer responded bleakly. Think of the Spanish flu, a hundred years ago, which was followed by the Great depression a few years later. Pandemics have serious long-term consequences. But when asked about young people in particular, her answer was more optimistic. Huijer has passed sixty and as she said, her days of clubbing and dancing to punk music all night are well over. But she was very concerned about the fact that young people are not able to go out due to covid restrictions. For many young people, clubbing is a way to structure their lives, it provides the variation that gives them the energy to participate in daily life. This means that a return of the night life might trigger the covid generation to bounce back quickly.

At the end, Marli Huijer invited the audience to think about the composition of their lives. What are the habits that make life worthwhile? How much repetition and how much variation do we want? What kind of structures do I need to function at my best? Despite the many downsides, covid has given us cause to reflect on these salient questions.

By Mathijs Geurts, Research Master Philosophy 2022