Do you ever feel like your time is being nibbled away – like no matter what you do, how carefully you plan and manage, something is always inexorably eating at the time you thought you had? It’s a familiar feeling for academics, and it’s also part of the inspiration behind one of the most striking pieces of public art in Cambridge – the Corpus Clock, or Chronophage:
See a video of the clock working here: The Corpus Clock & Chronophage in Cambridge
This startling and baroque timepiece is embedded into an outside corner of my new academic home for the year, Corpus Christi College. It was officially unveiled in 2009 by Stephen Hawking, having been funded, designed and its creation overseen by a former member of the college, inventor John Taylor. It catches your eye whenever you pass, gleaming and ratcheting, the locust-like creature on top fixing you with its beady gaze. It’s astonishing, and hard to use to actually tell the time at a glance. It means I regularly have to fight my way through crowds of picture-snapping tourists.
The wikipedia page and its references are worth a read if you are interested in the unique mechanics of the clock; the locust or grasshopper creature is a sculptural literalisation of a part of the mechanism known as a ‘grasshopper escapement’. But its jagged black shape, sharp teeth, and grasping claws make it a deliberately frightening, almost Gothic addition to the otherwise rather futuristic face of the clock, as Taylor described:
“It is terrifying, it is meant to be […] Basically I view time as not on your side. He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next. It’s not a bad thing to remind students of. I never felt like this until I woke up on my 70th birthday, and was stricken at the thought of how much I still wanted to do, and how little time remained.”
The name of the creature, the Chronophage, brings together the Greek roots for ‘time’ and ‘eater’. And just to make sure you’ve got the point, underneath the clock is a quotation from the Bible in Latin: ‘mundus transit et concupiscentia eius’, ‘the world and its desires are passing away’ (1 John 2:17). The whole installation is a vivid reminder that time waits for no one: every moment, whether used or wasted, brings us a step closer to the end.
The tourists may love the clock, but as Taylor’s words suggest, its message is targeted perhaps most pointedly at the students studying in the college library into which the clock is set. Ars longa, vita brevis – craft takes time but life is short; ‘of the making of many books there is no end‘. The culture of the university, from the undergrads in essay crises through to the most distinguished professors, is very often characterised by this awareness that time is limited and it is difficult, maybe impossible, to fit in everything to which intellectual ambition or curiosity might lead you – not to mention all the other things you need to do each day, paperwork and marking and emails and the dishes. The Chronophage expresses that idea in its common form of anxiety and fear, a grinning locust gnawing its way across our attempts at time management and career planning.
As I considered the clock recently, however, another Bible verse came to mind – Joel 2:25: ‘I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten’. In its context in the Hebrew Bible, this is a promise from God to bring back prosperity to his people after disaster. In my own life, it was also a precious word preached in the first months of the pandemic. The world was struggling through disaster and all kinds of hope deferred; in the midst of it, I had finished my doctorate with no prospect of further academic work and I was struggling with a sense of deep anxiety and shame that I had wasted my time, that there was no time left, that the clock was ticking on my twenties and on the window of opportunity to find a foothold in the academic world. A church devotional on Joel 2, with that promise of the locust-eaten years accounted for and repaid by God’s lavish grace, was a profound consolation.
We so often try to exert control over our time, and our lives, out of the panicked awareness that they are slipping away. This promise from scripture offers the insight that even years of spun wheels and frustration matter to God, and are held in his hands. That means that they can be restored; that nothing is ultimately wasted; that life is not simply a precious commodity always slipping out of our grasp, but is finally and mysteriously a gift that God promises to give us back, through Christ.
So now when I pass the Corpus Clock I look the locust in the eye and think, ‘God will give back the years you have eaten’; and I head into the library and get to work.