I really seem to have no idea of the passage of time

Michel Siffre writing in his diary underground in August 1962
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Michel Siffre’s intrigue with caves took root when he was just ten, and in 1962, aged twenty-three, he embarked on a bold experiment in the French Alps. Descending deep into an ice cavern via a 130-foot vertical pothole, he found himself in an environment devoid of sunlight, clocks, or calendars. Stripped of these external cues, for sixty-three days Siffre relied solely on his internal sense of time, chronicling his days and emotions in a diary that would provide a window into the human experience when disconnected from the world’s natural rhythms. Maintaining a link to the surface, he communicated with his team each time he woke and before surrendering to sleep. Yet, the depth of his temporal disorientation became clear when his team informed him it was time to come up. Convinced he still had another month of isolation, Siffre was astounded by how askew his sense of time had become.

The Diary Entry

[30th August 1962]

Forty-second awakening.

I cannot sleep tonight, so will give myself over to dictating in the darkness my thoughts on time and other things.

I really seem to have no idea of the passage of time.

This morning, as an example, after telephoning to the surface and talking for a while, I wondered afterward how long the telephone conversation had lasted, and could not even hazard a guess. ( . . . ) As I stare into the darkness, flashes of white light occur in front of my eyes. ( … ) I cannot keep my eyelids wide open in the dark; they shut of themselves, stinging a little.

I believe it might be interesting to add some sugar to the molds; then next year we could see what had happened. And why not give some sugar to the mond-milch; this would bring a nourishing substance to the bacteria which are probably the source of the phenomenon.

Time does not seem to pass slowly, but on the contrary passes quickly.

The cave-ins are now so rare that the silence is complete. ( … ) Now I am going to make a serious effort to estimate the time I have spent here underground. Soon a month will have passed; this will be the first time a man alone will have remained isolated in a cave for that length of time.

Intuitively I feel that the date must be about August 20.

According to my reckoning, I have wakened forty-one times, which means I have passed forty-two physiological days here. Yet sometimes I conclude that I have been here only twenty-seven days of twenty-four hours each. If I add 27 to 43 I get 70. Dividing that by 2, I get the mean time, or thirty-five days. I came down July 16, so it must be approximately August 20. My surface expedition, with Abel Chochon at its head, must now be on site. But I will not be informed of it until September.

Further Reading

In 1964, Michel Siffre’s cave diary was published by McGraw-Hill Book Company with the title Beyond Time, translated and edited by Herma Briffault. I found this book, and the experiment itself, incredibly compelling, and as diaries go it’s like no other. Highly recommended, if you can get hold of a copy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *