The Human Experience of Time
To say that human beings are incapable of Time Travel isn’t quite true, for what is a dream but a journey across Time and Space without boundaries? We dream of school days, of homes no longer lived in, of grandmas and grandfathers many years buried. In dreams Time becomes fractured, compacted, divided and all mixed up and jumbled about. And it’s not just Time that is messed about with, for does Space and what’s in it. You’re at home at one moment, on the beach the next, then people you don’t know suddenly turn into people you do. Dreams are like a hundred random photos of our lives blown about in the wind and lived as one exhilarating experience. And in those dream scenarios, the shadow of Time Past mingles with The Now of the Present and, sometimes duantiningly, the concerns of Time Future are played out as either tragedy and farce.
The uniqueness of dreams is that they are thoughts experienced as action – and that’s a strange concept when you think about it. Thoughts as action. And while it is correct to say that dreams aren’t real, they are lived as real when we dream them. That’s why they are so powerful. And in that sense they are no different to the experiences of life itself.
Dreams allow The Commonality, as Granny calls human beings in the SWIDGERS book series, to live for a while in that strange and surreal ‘second world’ of theirs. And perhaps it’s this very possibility of a second world that has led human beings to be so willing and keen to believe in Time Travel. Or at least to desire it.
Of course it’s not just in dreams where thoughts of the past come to life, for what else is Memory? To get poetic, Remembrance is Time’s winged chariot that gives us the chance to travel back to those blue remembered hills of the past. Memory is, as has often been said, is that which allows us to smell the roses in December. It is our waking Time Machine.
Memory can be our friend, but an enemy too, for Memory can play tricks on us when we get things wrong and Memory is a cruel hole to fall down if what is remembered is only grief and loss. And worse, dementia can take the time of our lives and trash it, stealing our future by dissolving the memories of the past, and leaving us in extreme cases with only an ever disappearing present.
But on a more positive note, let’s not forget Imagination either, for from that fertile soil of the mind comes all Time Tales. Yet here’s the strange thing: there is no time fiction where a human being travels to the past or indeed the future until the nineteenth century. Not in Homer, not in Shakespeare, not in Beowulf, not in Gilgamesh, not in Dante and certainly not in The Bible. Even the bringing back of Lazarus from the dead is not a reversal of Time, but rather a reversal of Entropy, where disorder is mystifyingly reversed. God Himself it seems doesn’t mess with Time,
In fact, it is Mark Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1889) that has a story where someone goes back in time. It’s not explained how Hank Morgan’s hit on the head inexplicitly sends him smack bang into the middle of sixth century England, it just does. Twain’s tale is essentially a take on Thomas Malroy’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but not everyone was happy with this for doesn’t altering the past undermine what God has decreed to be? Then just a few years later in 1895 there was that famous journey into the future with the unnamed Time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE. Perhaps it took the imagination of two nineteenth century and social reformers and religious sceptics (and openly atheist in the case of Wells) to dare break that Time Barrier and go boldly, to borrow a phrase, where no other writer had gone before.
But what of regret? Isn’t that a form of time travel in a way? Perhaps the caveman who first dropped a big stone on his toe wished at that moment he could go back a few seconds and not make such a silly mistake. And don’t ancients stories with genies who offer you three wishes often have the third wish being putting right the consequences of the first two? And isn’t that going back in time? All this may indeed be true but the point of regret is that it is the mind dwelling on a past that cannot be changed. The past cannot be put right, yet oh, if it could… what a wonder that would be.
So much for regret, but too what of worry? Isn’t concern over the future so often its troublesome and nagging companion? We spend so many wasted hours on future projections. Will we make it there in time? What is your cousin going to say at the wedding? If we don’t win the deal, we might lose the house. Yet somehow you get there, the cousin says little that upsets the guests and the deal is won, and even if it isn’t, you somehow find a way. As Mark Twain famously said, perhaps speaking for many of us, “I’ve spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.” Or, as the actor Anthony Hopkins observed quoting his father, “Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday.”
Human beings are good at dividing things and separating them out into boxes with labels. We do this of course with Time and associated with these divisions are distinct emotions and feelings. Time Past has its contentments and its gratitudes, but also its misgivings and its grudges. Time Present is more about pleasure and fulfilment or despair and misery, but maybe sometimes pride and joy too. Time Future offers fear, doubt, hope and… anticipation. Time Present’s greatest gift is choice, but Time Future’s Curse is the loss of what might have been. The Past is known for hiding many secrets, while The Future can be a betrayer of all our hopes. And it’s often these feelings and emotions – regret, loss, hope, fear – that are explored in the dramas of Time Tales.
Drama and art both offer windows on the past and, occasionally, visions of the future. There’s a misunderstanding that Aristotle in his Poetics insisted on events in drama happening within the so-called Unity of Time, meaning essentially there is no break in time once the action has begun. In fact, such as concept was never actually mentioned by Aristotle but was rather invented by the French classicists. However, some dramatists and filmmakers do occasionally present their stories in what has become to be known as ‘real time’, that is where there is no ellipsis or fracturing of the action. This convention is common in theatrical farces but most drama and comedies leave out whole sections of time. On the whole, drama for the last two and a half centuries has had a fluid relationship with how time, action and space is presented. Opera with all those arias tends to temporarily stop time, as the Greek choruses did in ancient Athens. Some dramatist mess with the temporal order of events, notably J. B. Priestley (TIME AND THE CONWAYS) and Harold Pinter (BETRAYAL). Presenting a story backwards is rare but it has been done, for example, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart which was later turned into a musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. The point is that anyone watching a drama is witnessing time being chopped and split up or even mixed up or jumbled.
Time of course has its own associated professions. The Past has its historians, detectives, psychiatrists and archaeologists. The Future too has its disciples, and these go back to Pythia, the high priestess at The Temple of Apollo at Delphic who gave out all those troublesome oracles in the Greek myths. And while on the subject of predicting the future, let’s not forget Cassandra, Mother Shipton and good old (but not always reliable) Nostradamus. As for The Present, there are those always keen that everything should run on time, railway station masters and so on, but perhaps here we should also include professions associated with the pleasures of the Now such as the cook and the gigolo. Time Tales in fact frequently make use of certain Time professionals – consider the historians Lucy Preston in TIMELESS or Philip Pearson in TRAVELERS. And for soothsayers, think of the PreCogs in MINORITY REPORT. Often without these Time professionals there wouldn’t even be a story.
Our human biology gives us a degree of understanding that time is passing. We have, for example, our Circadian Rhythms, those physical and mental changes that follow a twenty-four hour cycle that are primarily prompted by light and dark. Circadian Rhythms are dependent on the circadian biological clock and this is governed by an area in the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), which is essentially a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signal inputs. Cortisol, the stress hormone that increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, is released when sunlight hits our eyes and this is what essentially wakes us up. And it’s this kind of change in the chemistry and biology inside human beings that has given us the colloquial expression ‘body clock’. Perhaps you could even go further and say that our bodies have an inbuilt time machine, not of course a time machine that allows us to travel to last year or next year but one that nevertheless gives our bodies the understanding that we are living through the natural passage of time.
Human beings have over the centuries found different ways to measure Time. Once it was the movement of the sun and moon across the skies – we even named days of the week Sunday and Monday after these solar orbs. Days turn into years and these too must be measured. First we had the Julian calendar (thank you Julius Caesar) and later this was modified into the Gregorian calendar (thank you Pope Gregory XII), which slightly reduced those 365 days by nearly eleven minutes to be closer to the actual solar year itself. But then Time became measurable to within seconds with the invention of clocks and watches. And that’s when Time really began to boss us about with its factory whistles, alarm calls and school bells. The ultimate timekeeper nowadays is the atomic clock and in America Tom O’Brian is that nation’s official overseer of time keeping at The National Institute of Standards and Technology (or NIST for short). Yet even Tom finds defining what Time actually is very difficult. “My own personal opinion,” he says, “is that Time is a human construct”. Tom adds that minutes, hours, years are simply there to “put some order in this very fascinating and complex universe around us… We can measure Time much better that the weight of something or an electrical current, but what Time really is, is a question that I can’t answer for you.” It seems Time keeps its mysteries. Even from timekeepers.
Time’s big joke on human beings is the ageing of our bodies. We have everything we always had before, says the comic, only now its several inches lower. Not that those things hanging off us are that much use as we get older. And whether they do work anymore doesn’t often matter for we all reach a certain age when the biggest problem with temptation is finding it. Ageing can be a bit of a shock for human beings, especially on that day when you look in the mirror and see in the reflection not your own face but the face of your mother or father. Or if you had a really late night, your Grandpa or Grandma. And Times’ final joke on us is that we humans like to think that Time goes on, only in truth it doesn’t: for it’s we who go and Time that stays. As Philip Larkin said in Aubade, with a dark twist on Mark Twain’s observation of life, “Most things never happen: this one will.” Death. And as several of the quotations on Time show, poets of often talk of ‘midnight’ as a metonym for Death, for midnight is that dark hour of our day end, and though another begins it is as yet shadowy and unknown. “We have heard the chimes of midnight,” says Falstaff. Or, as Walt Whitman’s poem The Clear Midnight has it: “This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, / Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done, / Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best, / Night, sleep, death and the stars.”
Time has other tricks up its sleeve. Coincidence. Randomness. Déjà vu. Unintended Consequences. Chinese Whispers. Fashion. Time of course goes fast when you’re with a lover, and oh, so very slow in that dentist’s chair. That’s true Relativity for you, as Einstein himself observed. But we human beings can fight back with our own magic. I know that vase is about to fall and smash on the ground… so I grab it and so alter what could have been. And that magic we call instinct. For what is instinct but a lifetime of experience and time compacted into a single moment?
The universe may have Past, Present and Future, but verbs in the English language can do much better than that. The way English language verbs work is that they change slightly depending on the degrees of completeness. There is Simple Indefinite, Continuous, Perfect (sometimes call Pluperfect or Past Perfect) and Perfect Continuous. A quick look at the Present Tense and its variations. First, the Simple Indefinite: I jump. Well, it is ‘Indefinite’ because you haven’t told us yet if it’s stopped. The completeness of the jumping isn’t absolutely clear. Second Continuous: I am jumping. Ah, you’re telling us that you are jumping, so obviously you haven’t finished jumping yet. Next there’s Perfect/Pluperfect/Past Perfect: I have jumped. Evidently have jumped, which means, I suppose, you’ve definitely stopped jumping. Then there’s Perfect Continuous: I have been jumping for hours. Clearly you started jumping in the past and you are still jumping now. Will there be no end to it! There’s the Past and Future variations: Past: I jumped. I was jumping. I had jumped. I had been jumping. Then there’s the Future: I shall jump. I will be jumping. I will have jumped. I shall have been jumping. Oh yes, what an energetic people we are. However, from a linguistic point of view not all cultures think the same way about Time. Chinese, for example, has no grammatical verb tenses. Other languages, such as Indonesian, express Time only through adverbs – there are no changes to the verb form.
How human beings use the word ‘Time’ in language and metaphor, at least in English, is incredibly wide-ranging: ‘It’s such a waste of time…’ ‘Oh how time flies!’ ‘We had a hot time!’ ‘We’re just here killing time…’ ‘All in good time…’ ‘Albert Einstein’s theories have stood the test of time…’ ‘Five, four, three, two, one… you’re out of time!’ ‘We had the time of our lives…’ ‘Reggie is in Wormwood Scrubs doing time…’ ‘Let’s make it quality time…’ ‘When our eyes met… oh… it was as if Time stood still…’ ‘Eva arrived in the nick of time.’ ‘He’s going through a hard time…’ ‘I’d love to learn French, but where would I find the time?’ ‘Adele is one of the greatest singers of all time.’ ‘Six o’clock! I’ve lost all sense of time!’ ‘Time is a great healer…’ ‘Time will tell…’ ‘It’s just a matter of time…’ ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…’ ‘He’s behind the times…’ ‘She’s ahead of her time…’ ‘He’s past his time…’ ‘She was of her time…’ ‘He’s a musician who can’t keep time…’ ‘It’s always good manners to be on time…’ ‘My grandma lived beyond her time…’ Time is indeed a malleable and ever changing concept within language and how we express ourselves.
We are all Pilgrims of Eternity. But can human beings ever find any comfort and meaning in the inevitable passage of Time? There can be the sense of a life lived well. You did your bit. Contributed in some way. Left your footprints in the sands. And something else too. The Time we experience in Life is uniquely ours and always will be. The fact that it existed cannot be taken away. Not even by Death. Whether the days we have, or are given, depending on your beliefs, whether they are “three score years and ten” (Psalm 90, verse 10), or less or more, what matters is they are ours. There may be no map in life, not even a clear pathway, but those years we live will be untouched and, in their own way, eternal. They’re ours. Enjoy them. Use them well. And have some fun along the way.