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SHORT TIME

Dreaming of time

By Claire Castillon, illustrations : Anta/Oxy illustrations

In the late 19th century, all of France lived on solar time. With this institution as springboard, Claire Castillon takes us diving into her dreams, where the curse of desynchronization gradually fades, supplanted by the synchrony of time.

There is something really wrong with my dreams. In the past, my dream life was subject to the usual mechanisms. I moved around, I condensed and, if the alarm didn’t erase everything, I sought to understand. Now, though, I’m really worried about my dreams. The very clock of my dreams is broken. Usually, in my dreams, if lovers missed a date, or happened to arrive late, sometimes so late that they ended up alone at the café table, it wasn’t because they were moving across differing temporalities, or because their watches were severely desynchronized. No, it was never about time itself, merely the abuse of time. That was the source of all lateness and delay, especially in love: like in war movies before the nocturnal attack, the couple, faces smeared with soot like His Majesty’s commandos, synchronized their watches and uttered the sacrosanct martial expression: “Honey, it is now eighteen-twenty-eight, I’ll be at the restaurant in one hour and oh-two minutes.” Nor is the problem the oft-used explanation of the narcissistic overconfidence of the latecomer, wrongly credited with caring about his partner’s feelings. For this latecomer simply thinks he can bend time at will, slow it down when necessary. When he is rushing to catch the subway, even for a regularly travelled route whose fifteen stops he knows well and which typically takes him thirty minutes, he always gives himself fifteen additional minutes to fuss with his attire. Because he has no doubt that, over the usual fifteen stops – the train’s doors opening and closing thirty times, departures sometimes delayed because the conductor, more observant than he looks, willingly waits for feeble women lugging huge suitcases to board –, such time-devouring events will not take place. Of course, that is never how it happens. All things that usually happen also happen when they are hoped not to.

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© Anta/Oxy illustrations

In addition to those insignificant faux pas that desynchronize men and hearts without decoupling their watches, my previous dreams indulgently welcomed a plethora of missed opportunities, often drawn from bedside novels or classic movies. But everything has changed since that terrible dinner with those young whippersnappers, one in particular with an advanced mathematics degree and a soapbox who, instead of just playing a few scientific games that might brighten a gloomy evening, spent his time describe the temporal inequality of France before development of the railway. He invited the guests to imagine the consequences – sometimes minor, sometimes severe, sometimes shocking, but rarely fortunate – of these disconnections meaninglessly imposed upon each village, each farm, each traveller by a slippery temporal mindset leading to endless aborted encounters, trains caught by a nose, by a whisker, or when the passenger was too sure of himself, thinking he had won the race with the locomotive and could jump on a step and open the door. Unfortunately, often out of breath, it was not uncommon for him to slip or find his footing too precarious and end up on the tarmac, or, scarier still, under the train’s wheels. It was obvious to this learned interlocutor that there had been a great many deaths during those disparate times and that this hecatomb had been swept under the rug and there were thousands of dead and train-maimed, martyrs of a time warp about which he understood nothing.

No, it was never about time itself, merely the abuse of time.

Since then, contaminated by his words, my dreams wander through that other time, the one in which the hours are misaligned. I keep waking up, soaked in sweat, with every failed encounter in my failed dreams. My doctor, who stuffs me with sleeping pills, prefers the theory of severe sleep apnoea and prescribed a ridiculous orthosis that deforms the bottom of my lower jaw, then a complex apparatus, a bottle of oxygen connected by a long tube to a fighter-pilot mask. Do not imagine that the device is silent. I was careful not to reveal the content of my dreams to my doctor, especially not their obsessive quality. The end result is that, at night, I am condemned by my temporal ironies to remain a dreamland bachelorette, while, in my bed, I am doomed to remain truly single and unattached, not due to time, but due to medicine and its attachments. Because, much as watches do, therapeutic improvements form insurmountable walls between lovers-to-be.

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© Anta/Oxy illustrations

Every morning, I remember that a calamity from which there was no escape happened in the night and humanity plunged into the abyss. Every morning, I get up exhausted, frustrated; I spend the morning identifying all the women whose paths I have not even crossed and I sense that nothing of import will happen to me in love if I cannot overcome this cursed dream of the monads, to each his or her own time. In the past, I was satisfied with regularly saving those working in the Twin Towers – because the planes hit the towers at night, when deserted – even humanity as a whole sometimes, like the Lilliputian hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man who, at the end of the movie, rather than resisting his undesired destiny, yields to amor fati and sets off, valiantly, to conquer the infinitely small. I am at the point of simply giving in to the resolving power of my dreams, to the dissolving force of soft watches, drooping in all directions, but never in the same direction. I look at my flat watch, the key to love, and I begin to understand that I have only one solution: to successfully reset my dreams of separation, go back in time, run against time, not before that fateful dinner that ransacked my nights and ruined my life, but just after. After the sundial, the clepsydra, the hourglass. I bet first on atomic time, the contemporaneousness of caesium clocks, whose standard metre since the 70s has been the second, the equivalent of the standard metre of Rue de Vaugirard in Paris. I can recite its implacable definition by rote: “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom”. No, I don’t understand that either, and since I learned that these nuclear second power stations vaporise this caesium using an oven, and although their margin of error is one second every three million years, I fear a temporal Chernobyl. Is the game worth the candle? Millions of deaths for one second every three centuries? Then I dream, a waking dream, of being a surveyor. Telegraph, railroad, they must be synced: I crisscross France with a huge clock, proof of its precision; I am the master of clocks, watches, chronometers; I synchronize everything with everything, it has become my nickname, “The Synchronizer”. In fact, I annihilate regional times, village times, city times, the trains run and the telegraphs thrum with textbook timeliness. I am the most powerful man in France. I would like to work at the BIH, the International Time Bureau, but it no longer exists. I apply for an internship at the IERS, the International Earth Rotation Service. Conquering single time is more complex than colonising Mars.

I am the master of clocks, watches, chronometers; I synchronize everything with everything

My dreams are slowly improving. But the measuring instruments remain mechanical, uncertain. I have not yet switched to quartz. As for meeting women, that’s still not happening. Let’s even say that it’s still nothingness. Until the day I pass in front of a watch shop. In the window, a young woman seems to be synchronizing all the watches on display, regardless of their mechanism. I wait in front of the store. When she has finished, they all display the same time, miracle of miracles. For all of them, time unfurls at the same speed, no doubt at the price of daily adjustments, since the atomic watch that only loses one second every twenty centuries does not yet exist. I invite this young woman to have a drink. Our conversations would only be watch-related. Then she invites me to take her place in the display-window work and synchronize her collection of measuring instruments every day. Synchrony exists; I have the power to impose perfect congruence on precision mechanisms that are notoriously intractable. One evening, while the display-window night flows at the same reassuring pace, she kisses me. She talks about telepathy, our thoughts are aligned, she says, she’s sure that’s all our bodies were waiting for. On this night, I know, for the first time in a long time, the trains will arrive on time, lovers will not wander without hope over this vast planet, civilisation will survive and I will overcome the curse of desynchronization.