for whom the bell tolls

October 5, 2010

In 19th century French villages, church bells held many functions. In one way, they were calls to prayer, rung to signal the start of religious services. In another, they acted as a prayer itself, rung during thunderstorms, their sonic vibrations were thought to dispel lightening or torrential downpour. In a third way, they acted as the voice of God, itself. an omnipotent sound with no specific visible source that, according to Alain Corbin, wielded “the power to subdue the tempests.”

As modern life infiltrated these villages, however, the significance of bells began to shift from a sound denoting qualitative time to one controlling quantitative time. In today’s sacral world, we are accustomed to hearing church bells ring every hour on the hour like a grandfather clock on the wall. But this only started in the 1800s, with the increasing “requirement that everything be understood in terms of continuous clock time.”

Much like the bells atop VKC now ring out the tune of Beatles’ “Yesterday” (or the fight song) every afternoon at 5 p.m. (thanks to the ’09 senior class), bells in French villages began to play a part “in the construction of the temporal markers of individuals and communities.”

I became all too accustomed to the idea that “bells dictated the meaning of delay, the sense of being ahead or behind” last school year when I was an editor at the Daily Trojan. Our daily editors meetings began at 5 p.m. my editor-in-chief constantly reminded us that our asses were to be in the seats in her office before the bells started ringing, meaning that every day I found myself rushing to the office, dreading the sound of the VKC bells as I ran across campus.

The class of 2009, however, wasn’t thinking about temporality in 19th century French villages. All they wanted to do was revive a tradition and give Trojans a sense of pride. In this sense, the bells (well, it’s actually an instrument called a carillion that is comprised of a bunch of bells) serve to also “define a territory” and “preserve a sense of community.” Fight on!

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