"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Time Travel–H.G. Wells, Nabokov, And The Permanence Of The Past

“How come we can’t travel back and forth in time?”, Belinda asked her mother.

“Oh, but we can, dearest. What else is memory but time travel?”

When she was a young girl she had read The Time Machine and seen the movie.  She had no interest in the contraption itself, very Victorian and mechanical; but was fascinated by the idea of leaving the present for the distant future as Wells’ Time Traveller had. There was no more frightening vision for Belinda than the lifeless sea, dimming sun, dark, cold, and featureless landscape than he observed after travelling millions of years in the future. If one believed the laws of physics, everything tended towards this empty equilibrium. Colors would eventually become indistinguishable.  The temperature would be uniform and cold.  The sea would be motionless and landscapes worn smooth and uniform.

The Time Machine

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, she had learned in Sunday School as the inevitable transformation of life from nothing to something to nothing again.  According to the laws of entropy all energy systems tend towards equilibrium, and it is logical that eventually the regeneration and renewal process will slow, degenerate, and eventually cease. The world itself will be a pile of ashes with no energy left for recreation.

Father Brophy had talked endlessly about the cycle of life, death, and transfiguration; and how the soul never dies but lives temporarily in its human temple until it either rejoins God or is banished to the eternal fires of Hell.  That Belinda could understand.  Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Augustine, and the other theologians of the Early Church were logical, disciplined, and slavish to text, context, and history. The eventual canon of the the Bible was clear and unequivocal about one’s spiritual trajectory, how it could be altered through faith and the bestowal of heavenly grace.  It made sense on theological grounds.  There was an afterlife and access to it was conditional on faith and to a lesser degree works, and adherence to the Law.  Belinda knew that she might or might not see God (her understanding of Christian doctrine and her faith were both shaky), but at least she had a grasp on the concept of life, suffering, redemption, salvation, and eternity.

Image result for images st. augustine

When it came to H.G. Wells’ cold, spiritless, dark, and unremittingly brooding end of time, she was unsettled and unsure.  Could time itself be extinguished along with the sun and the stars?  Would time still exist when the last light was turned off in the universe? Was time only useful when measuring change – when objects degraded over time or altered the relationship to one another?

The remembered past was static.  Although bits might be forgotten or transformed over the years through telling and retelling, embellishment, and distortion; it was still was more real than the present – which was only momentary – and the future, which was only possible.  Memorists like Nabokov who understood this not only committed important events to memory, but deliberately, methodically, and insistently recalled them frequently in order to fix them indelibly.  The more memories we retain, said Nabokov, the richer the past, the more full and complete our lives.  The here-and-now, he went on, is only a mechanistic device useful for generating memories.

Image result for images nabokov
Yet, Belinda thought, Nabokov was missing something.  Everyone knows that time accelerates or slows down depending on one’s perception. The time spent waiting for a lover to arrive is painfully slow; but standing on the train platform seeing her off, one wonders where the time went; how time could have passed so quickly. Einstein and Relativity aside, wasn’t there something to the perceptual dimension of time? Couldn’t one therefore manipulate it?

Many years later Belinda worked at an international development bank in Washington, and found that time had accelerated more quickly and unnoticeably than ever before.. As she she walked down the 7th floor corridor from the elevator to her office past the pictures of rural women drawing water, children tending goats, and men building bridges, she had the uncomfortable feeling that she had just walked down the same corridor, past the same images, towards her familiar office.  A day had passed without her noticing it. She knew that she had met her Department Director, discussed budgets with Accounting, and planned her travel to Angola, but could that have been yesterday?

She decided to alter her route – take a different bus, walk down 19th Street instead of 18th, go to the 8th floor and walk down, change corridors and passages daily – but the intensity of the day seemed to erase the differences, and no matter what she did, she found herself experiencing an existential déjà vu.

She deliberately bored herself, and indeed the time between her short siesta and dinner dragged on interminably.  The afternoon was parsed in minutes, not quarter- or half-hours. Yet purposeful boredom made no sense.  It defeated the intention of slowing time to have more of it to do more things.

So perhaps Nabokov was right, she reasoned.  In the absence of actual time travel to the past and revisiting, re-energizing, and consolidating it, memory would have to do.

On one of Belinda’s trips to Pakistan she met a Danish man with whom she had an affair.  It was the only time she even considered leaving her husband and would have if her lover had not moved to Indonesia for a new job with a new woman. During the best years of the relationship, Belinda replayed the scenes of their time in Copenhagen as deliberately and carefully as though she were spooling, running, and rewinding an old film.  She was so attentive to detail that her memory was fixed with baggage handlers, carousels, car parks, Italian children, the smell of picked herring, and diesel exhaust. She replayed her mind-movie over and over again, adding bits and pieces of forgotten images until it was a complete record of their weekend together. By running the film she was reliving the Copenhagen days in such perfect and accurate detail, it was as though she were actually there.

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She extended her access to memory by watching films that had been shot at important times in her past.  The French Connection, for example, was shot in New York City at the time she lived there.  William Friedkin, the director, was known for filming exclusively on location and for ‘stolen scenes’ – scenes in which the action of the film went on amidst the movements of New Yorkers who were unaware they were part of the movie.  The French Connection, therefore, was as accurate a depiction of life in the City in 1971 as any other film.  It captured the texture of New York.  When Belinda watched the film everything was familiar – the cars, luncheonettes, delis, horns, steam fittings, and the sounds of taxi horns and trucks.

Image result for images movie the french connection

Thanks to Friedkin’s movie, Belinda was able to fill in the interstices of her memories of New York.  She could run her mind-reels enhanced with Friedkin’s images. Watching the movie or reflecting on 1971 alone became interchangeable; but the result was the same.  By adding to the past, recalling it in the present, and reflecting on the future suggested time travel – or the closest thing to it.

As she got well into her 70s, Belinda, like everyone, wondered how she had gotten there so quickly.  The end of her life was far closer than its beginnings; and she became even more insistent on recreating her past.  She went through boxes of old photographs her mother had stored in the basement of her childhood home; and she spent weeks organizing them in a narrative order.  She was less interested in chronology than an event history which corresponded at least indirectly to her own memories. 

She combed Internet archives for photographs of New Brighton, Connecticut where she grew up; and thanks to them, she was able to complement her family photos. Trips to the 5-and-10 with Janie Booth, chronicled by Belinda’s mother (the girls leaning out the window of the Chevy coupe) were completed with historical photographs of the store itself, shots down West Main Street, Beech Hill Park, Memorial Hospital, and the public library.  Her reconstructed photographic narrative matched her personal memories almost exactly; and she could reflect, look, and recreate at will.

By the time her mnemonic project had been completed – or at least suspended – she had chronicled six decades of her life; and indeed as Nabokov had observed the past became far more real and permanent than the present.  She put up with the present as her special ‘generator of the past’; had no use for speculation or prediction; and lived quite happily with her reflections and recreations.
“You always were a dreamer”, her mother said to her shortly before she died; and although Belinda had to agree with her in once sense – recreating the past was certainly akin to a daydream – she disagreed in many more.  Her venture was no idle; and was as philosophically important to her as any inquiries of Sartre or Kierkegaard.

Image result for images sartre
This focus on slowing, stopping time and recreating the past had an important by-product. Since everyone would end up en un tas pêle-mêle as Francois Villon had written reflecting on conundrums of time, impermanence, and death; and since no one could escape the ignominious end of being dumped together randomly in a pile, the peculiarities, awards, or successes of life meant nothing.

Image result for images francois villon
Belinda was very content with her life and its trajectory; and she died a happy woman in her mid-nineties, surrounded by her pictures and running her reels until the spools ran out.

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