By William Deresiewicz
“Faced with the thousands of petty annoyances and grievances encountered in the course of a week … ” writes Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage. Not “day,” but “week.” Erma Bombeck had a collection, Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, whose subtitle was “How to Get from Monday to Friday … in 12 Days.” I remember writing to a friend, “I meant to be in touch a lot sooner, but the weeks keep spinning around, as those little bastards tend to do.”
What is it about the week? Of all of our calendrical divisions—day, month, year—it is the only one that’s not connected to the movements of the sun or moon. There are theories that the seven-day week is based on the quarter-lunation, but they aren’t supported by a lot of evidence. (The lunar month is about 29½ days in any case, so the two periods would quickly get out of synch.) No, the week appears to be the only major division of time that is purely human, as it were, purely cultural.
The seven-day week is not universal. Other societies have had weeks of anywhere from three to 10 days. But most of those appear to have been employed for ritual or administrative purposes only. In other words, there was no Sabbath, no weekend, no division between work and rest. Is a seven-day week the “natural” one? It feels right, but the two-day weekend feels right, too, and that became standard in the United States only in 1940, less than three generations ago.
Whatever its origin, the week has acquired a uniquely powerful place in our imaginations. The month is virtually vestigial now, in terms of having any real presence. It furnishes the peg for various forms of payment—rent, salary, credit card bills—but unless you’re strapped enough to have trouble “making it to the end of the month,” this is merely an accounting issue. The year is the frame of the seasons and the odometer of our age, but as the annual effort to drum up enthusiasm for the passage from one to the next, mainly via way too many Ten Best lists, shows, it doesn’t mobilize a lot of emotion.
The day, of course, is ubiquitous as a unit of organization, regulated by our cycles of waking and sleep. But when we think about work, the dominant fact of our lives, we think about the week. Just consider the feelings the words arouse. Day: nothing much, except a little bit of hopefulness, maybe. Week: dread, languor, tedium, woe. Yes, we sometimes speak about making it through the day, if we’re having a bad one, but as Erma Bombeck knew, we always speak about making it through the week. Despite the etymology of the word, it is the week, and not the day, that has become the repository of the quotidian: of triviality, of drudgery, of routine. Days differ; weeks are always the same. Days begin with dawn; weeks begin with Monday. “Thousands of petty annoyances and grievances”: that’s the week all over.
The Sabbath grew into the weekend as industrialization made labor increasingly arduous, persistent, and oppressive. No more seasonal rhythms, farm work subsiding in winter, no more profusion of saints days. If the week expresses something natural—in the sense, at least, of an instinctive response to circumstances—it is the weariness of the spirit under the regime of modern life.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.