..only the pyramids: the perception of time in literature

Durham 019

Taking a country walk in the early morning, or before dusk, it is not hard to believe that the sun rises above the distant eastern hills and sets, in an orange glory, below the western ones. But in reality we know that the earth rotates as it orbits the sun and consequently it’s not too difficult to convince those with the slightest astronomical interest that sunrise and sunset are miss-perceptions, however real they may appear. Space flight now offers an external perspective on the true situation but the fact that the world is spherical was appreciated long ago by earth-bound observers. I do remember meeting convinced ‘flat-earthers’ in my teens but not recently. Despite all this the concepts of sunrise and sunset are useful and are probably immoveable from our language in any case. Are there any other parallels in which knowledge obtained from physics appears to fly in the face of common sense? One example is that we continue to call solid objects ‘solid’ although we have known since the discoveries of Lord Rutherford a century ago that the atoms and molecules of which they are constructed consist largely of empty space.

The reality of time’s ‘ever-rolling stream’ seems so manifest that to doubt its existence would at first sight appear bizarre in the extreme. Yet our appreciation of the passage of time is quite evidently relative. Albert Einstein, I believe, compared the perception of time when talking to a pretty girl with that experienced when sitting on a hot stove. Frank Muir once said that the problem with Wagner’s operas was that ‘the first ten minutes took an hour and a half’. More seriously the effects on time of near light speed and intense gravitational fields were consequences of Einstein’s theories of relativity. I cannot claim to fully grasp the mathematics and even if I could it would take considerable gifts as a science writer to make these consequences even faintly entertaining. Gifts which I certainly do not possess. Investigating how time has been treated in some works of literature seems more attainable.

The poet A.E. Housman is a good example of a writer who subscribes to conventional appreciation of time flowing. When describing his ‘blue remembered hills’ Housman wrote:

It is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

I think that the implication is certainly that it is the passage of time which keeps the happy highways at bay. Houseman writes most movingly and beautifully about the changes of the seasons and the years: ‘to-day the Roman and his trouble, are ashes under Uricon.’ The miseries of human existence may be timeless and universal but the Roman of the poem who experienced them is very definitely in the past.

An exactly opposite view of time was expressed by HG Wells in his famous 1895 novella The Time Machine. The inventor of this device evidently conceived time as a fourth dimension in which, with the appropriate technology, one could move as easily as in the other three. Wells was interested in social developments; the divergence of a far future society into clever subterranean Morlocks and their food source, the artistic but infantile Eloi, reflected divisions which he already saw in his own society. Surprisingly perhaps Wells did not deal with the paradoxes of time travel. A notable example of a time paradox would be an individual who journeyed into the past and murdered his or her own grandparents, thus rendering impossible the traveller’s own existence. This type of paradox is good evidence, for me at least, that temporal anomalies involved in entry into the past make travel there impossible. For the moment there is no realistic theoretical scenario suggesting any change in this situation, so the profession of archaeology seems safe.

Naturally, were they possible, even less drastic changes in the past might adversely affect the present. Ray Bradbury in his short story A Sound of Thunder fully embraces both this and ‘the butterfly effect’. A man participating in a safari during the remote past attempts to kill a Tyranosaurus rex, and in so doing crushes an insect accidentally. This act changes the future, rather for the worse, when the time traveller eventually returns to it. This story was written in 1952 and the insect was indeed a butterfly. Did Bradbury actually coin the phrase?

It would be onerous to identify every SF writer who has employed time travel as a plot motif but I do have some personal favourites that I should like to mention. The genius of Douglas Adams placed a restaurant witnessing the end of the universe at which only time travel would enable you to eat dinner. R.A Lafferty in his whimsical story Rainbird reminds us that a protagonist offered excellent advice from the the future may simply prefer to ignore it, and go hawking. Finally Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse 5 wrote a significant American twentieth century novel in which time travel, and space travel to the planet Tralfamadore, are vital plot elements. So it goes.

I don’t think that it would be correct to describe The Time Traveler’s Wife as science fiction. The author, Audrey Niffenegger, has devised about the least feasible mechanism ever for involuntary travel in time, namely an inherited DNA abnormality. The plot strongly suggests that the abnormal gene is dominant which makes its evolution and frequency rather hard to explain. The novel has been much criticised but, after learning to ignore the improbable genetics, I personally found its exploration of loss and love rather satisfying. At least the author avoided one mistake; the hero’s clothes do not travel with him and he always, and awkwardly, arrives at his temporal target naked. The traveller’s actual destinations are seemingly related to his subconscious mind.

The author and playwright J.B. Priestley was one of Bradford’s greatest sons. Several of his plays involve ideas of time. An Inspector Calls was his most successful, and my personal favourite. Clearly some events relating to the suicide of a young women are described to the Birling family before they can be said to have been completed in the real world, and to that extent the nature of time is a plot element. Although the play was profoundly influenced by the author’s socialism it is hard to interpret the central role of Inspector Goole, and his evident deep interest in the relationships of Eva Smith with the Birlings, without involving an additional mystical or supernatural element.

A second play of Priestley’s, Time and the Conways, is often considered a failure, although I disagree with this assessment. We first meet the titular family in 1919 when the future seems full of promise for a mother and her talented offspring. By 1937, in the second act, all those lives have been most movingly and profoundly shattered. Many commentators have noted that the seeds of the subsequent disaster were present eighteen years earlier and that family members were wholly complacent concerning their future, a complacency that was echoed in British society. The play is not simply about unrealised dreams and thwarted ambitions. Alan and Kay Conway are its most sympathetic characters. Alan believes he understands the nature of time and that its perception as linear is false. He conceives time as eternally present, that at any given moment we are seeing only part of our lives. His perspective was not purely an intellectual judgement since in the final act, now back in 1919, he warns Kay that he will tell her something of importance in the future. How he knows this is not clear and in that respect there is again a slight mystical element to the play. Is the author telling us that there is a transcendent element in human existence?

In his novel Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clark proposes that human consciousness, and indeed the consciousness of other intergalactic species, might eventually become subsumed in part of some overall greater consciousness or ‘overmind’. This idea is superficially rather attractive, although it does constitute a profoundly gloomy end to the novel. Other authors have worked with an overmind. If a highly gifted astronomer and scientist turned to fiction it would not be surprising if something of interest was said about the nature of time. So it proved: October The First Is Too Late was written by cosmologist Fred Hoyle together with his son Geoffrey. Over a brief period in the 1960s it is discovered that different portions of the earth consist of epochs from the past, present, future and very remote future. This temporary fusion is effected by an incomparable universal mentality. The how and why are unexplained, or inexplicable, but may involve time reversal of some type. I suppose here we are back with science fiction but the novel offers insights into music and the effects of population growth on human society. The theory of time presented is of great interest. A physicist, John Sinclair, explains what might have happened. He imagines that every moment of time is a state rather like a pigeon-hole illuminated by an external spot of light. The sequence in which the holes might be accessed need not be in time sequence. ‘our consciousness corresponds to just where the light falls, as it dances about among the pigeon-holes’ he suggests.

To fully comprehend this theory you will have to read the novel but the authors clearly envisage an overarching intelligence, possibly outside our universe and its dimensions, although one that has to work through the physics of our universe to bring about its desired effects. The intelligence does not seem otherwise to have spatial or temporal limitations. I get the impression that while the authors consider it to be beyond our immediate understanding, it would not necessarily be outside the laws of nature entirely. Ordinary human beings living several thousand years in our future, for whose benefit the fused earth is probably being created, share Alan Conway’s feeling that all times are equally important and that the past is not lost. The most difficult part of the novel to understand is that human lives can ‘fork’, and thus be represented by two distinct sets of pigeon-holes between which no communication is possible.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges developed and anticipated this concept in his rightly acclaimed short story The Garden of Forking Paths (1941). During the Great War a Doctor Yu Tsun spies for Imperial Germany against England. To avoid capture he visits a distinguished sinologist, Dr Albert. In a remarkable coincidence Albert has finally solved a literary puzzle concerning a distinguished ancestor of Yu Tsun. This ancestor constructed an infinite labyrinth of a novel, the garden of forking paths of the title. To fulfil his intelligence mission Yu Tsun, with infinite reluctance, is forced to kill the sinologist who has performed such an enormous service for the spy’s family. Albert has realized that the ‘garden’ was the novel with the forking taking place in time, not space. It describes a perception of the world in which all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further possibilities which may, or may not, eventually converge again.

It’s not easy to draw this account to a satisfying conclusion. A famous metaphor for human existence is contained within one of the greatest product of Anglo-Saxon society, Bede’s History of the English Church and People. These thousand year old words reputedly spoken at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria are surely an unequalled description of the uncertainty of life:

Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall, outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. Whilst he is inside he is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Time is not directly mentioned here but I guess it is beyond the understanding of the sparrow. In Burnt Norton by TS Eliot the present and the past are already part of the future and all time is eternally present. But does the passage we never took in actuality have an existence?

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
	All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction 
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

It is interesting that Eliot chose a word with musical associations, quartet, for this set of poems. Music can be a metaphor for time perhaps because our psychological appreciation of music is as puzzling as our appreciation of time itself. Notes played in sequence are harmonious and offer meaning while played simultaneously they do not. Yet after each short sequence of notes a tune may ‘fork’ into various possibilities. Even if played in reverse a musical piece may be recognisable from the timbre of the instruments, which unlike the notes are unaffected by time. But if our appreciation of the direction of time is purely a mental construct and not a quality of reality then explaining the how and why will be very challenging. It may be solved in time, naturally.


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