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? Time in dreams is not linear or consistent, it’s bent, malleable and elastic. 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 dauntiningly, 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. A bridge to the past.
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 destroying that bridge to 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 living human being travels to the past or indeed the future until the eighteenth 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 going back in Time, but rather a reversal of Entropy, where disorder is mystifyingly reversed. For even God Himself, Eternal though He may be, doesn’t mess with Time.
A qualification. It was said that there was no time fiction where a living human being travelled to the past or indeed to the future until the eighteenth century. This is correct but Christopher Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS, written somewhere around 1592/3, is worth a mention. In the play, at the request of the Emperor, Faustus asks Mephostopheles to summon characters from the classical world, including Alexander the Great, Darius and Helen of Troy. However, it is important to note that what are conjured up are essentially manifestations of spirits in the shapes of Alexander the Great, Darius and Helen of Troy. Even so, the scene raises an interesting question: Are ghosts time travellers? And this is a question that will be addressed in TELLING THE TALES OF TIME. As for famous characters from the past, real of fictional, well there are those who wish they could time travel. After all, who would be your favourite dinner guests from history or literature is often the failsafe livener at dinner parties when conversation begins to fall a bit flat.
Anyway, early actual Time Tales include MEMORIES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Samuel Madden, published in 1733, the play ANNO 7603 by the Norwegian playwright Johan Herman Wessel written in 1781 and THE CLOCK THAT WENT BACKWARDS, a short story by Edward Page Mitchell published in 1881, which is thought to be the first to use an actual device as a means of time travel. However, it wasn’t until Mark Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT which was published in 1889 that the concept of time travel began to make its impact. It’s not explained exactly 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 essential a take on Thomas Malroy’s Le Morte d’Arthur and, like his ‘switch comedy’ THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT is in part a social commentary on a how person’s progress in life is so often dependent on their position in society. But not everyone was happy with this seemingly harmless tale, for many religious clerics pointed out, doesn’t time travel undermine God in that to suggest that one can alter the past, a past that God has already decreed to be, challenges to will and power of Good Himself, and is, therefore, surely blasphemous? Such theological questions were of no concern to a young radical British writer called H.G. Wells, for just a few years later in 1895 Wells wrote the most famous of all Time Tales with the journey into the future of the unnamed Time Traveller in 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 few writers had ever gone before. And it was, of course, the fancy of the imagination which took them there.
But what of that less rewarding trick of the mind we call 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. As Cher said, or rather sang, “If I could turn back Time, if I could find a way, I’d take back those words that have hurt you and you’d stay.”
So much for past regrets, but too what of worry for the future? Isn’t concern over what may or may not be round the corner so often regret’s 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 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).
Christopher Nolan’s movie DUNKIRK is a non-linear narrative where the events as they are presented in the film do not occur in strict chronological order for Nolan was telling a multi-strand story with complex and interacting cause-effect connections. 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 usually witnessing events in time that have being chopped about, split up and, on occasion, even jumbled with or reversed.
Aside from those in the artistic and creative sectors, Time, in a way, 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 we’re on that subject, let’s not forget Cassandra, Mother Shipton and good old (but not always reliable) Nostradamus. On a less cosmic level, you could argue that gardeners and certainly environmentalist are more concerned about the future than almost anything else. As for The Present, there are those who like it best when everything is kept to a strict routine or timetable, railway station masters, prison guards and so on, but perhaps for The Present, or at least a sense of The Present, we should also include professions associated with the pleasures of The Now such as the cook and the gigolo. Of course, Time Tales frequently make use of certain Time professionals – consider the historians Lucy Preston in TIMELESS or Philip Pearson in TRAVELERS and the PreCog soothsayers in MINORITY REPORT – for often without such Time Tale professionals there would be no 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’. Then there’s hunger. And each meal has its own time of day, be it breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner or supper. 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.
Then, of course, there is nature and the universe itself. The phases of the moon and the changing tides. The sun’s position in the sky and those lengthening shadows as our day comes to an end. The seasons as well help with our human understanding of Time. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter. And often the seasons bring with them anniversaries or moments of cultural or religious significance and human beings, naturally enough, like to mark and celebrate these with special occasions. Birthdays. Christmas. The Solstice. Passover. Diwali. Thanksgiving. Another anniversary has passed, another year has gone. But the seasons reflect something bigger too. Birth. Life. Ending. Death. This Cycle of Time is the Cycle of Life itself, for when each comes and goes what we are witnessing is ultimately our own mortality. For Time is Life and Life is Time. Or the Time that we’re given.
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 it’s 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 and permeates across so many different ideas and concepts: ‘Algebra is such a waste of time…’ ‘Oh how time flies!’ ‘Winnie and me had a hot time!’ ‘We’re just here killing time…’ ‘All in good time…’ ‘Albert Einstein’s theories have stood the test of time…’ ‘Can England reach the final? Only time will tell.’ ‘I’ve told time and time again to stop doing that.’ ‘Human beings have known how to make babies since the dawn of time.’ ‘Five, four, three, two, one… you’re out of time!’ ‘How long have we been given to deliver this project? What’s the Time Frame?’ ‘I didn’t know him well but we would pass the time of day.’ ‘We went to Paris for a month and had the time of our lives…’ ‘Formed when this world came into being, diamonds are like a window in time.’ ‘Peter’s only two but he’s already picking every up, even the bleach bottle. But luckily we got there in the nick of time.’ ‘He’s 78 and his legs are none too steady. Well, time catches up with us all.’ ‘Reggie is in Wormwood Scrubs doing time…’ ‘Let’s make it quality time…’ ‘I loved you once… but times change.’ ‘When our eyes met… oh… it was as if Time itself stood still…’ ‘How many times do I have to tell you, no smoking in the library.’ ‘Alice and Bernard have been living together for eight years and now you tell me they’re getting married. Well, that’s good and not before time!’ ‘We’ve travelled all that way and they’re not even in – what a waste of time!’ ‘I’m playing Solitaire, well, it passes the time.’ ‘It’s already half past five. Where does the time go?’ ‘We must learn about computers and move with the times.’ ‘Be quiet in class! 4 Alpha, it’s your time you’re wasting.’ ‘Will the hero save the world from certain peril? All will be revealed in time.’ ‘Stop pestering me! I can only do one thing at a time.’ ‘How you spend your time is entirely up to you.’ ‘Margaret Thatcher once said she didn’t think there’d ever be a female prime minister in her life. Well, time makes fools of us all.’ ‘There was a time when I would have wanted him back in my life, but that time has now passed.’ ‘The ambulance arrived in just 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?’ ‘Elvis Presley is the greatest singer of all time.’ ‘Six o’clock and it’s already getting dark. Do you know, I’ve lost all track of time!’ ‘Only forty seconds left… time is running out.’ ‘The hands on the clock hardly seem change. It’s as if Time itself refuses to move on.’ ‘You’re flying to Wisconsin. What Time Zone is that in?’ ‘We fell out after an argument. Since then we haven’t even passed the time of day.’ ‘Time is a great healer, but a terrible beautician.’ ‘Time will tell…’ ‘It’s just a matter of time…’ ‘And about time too…’ ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…’ ‘The paintings of Rembrandt are timeless.’ ‘Oh, your father-in-law, he’s so behind the times…’ ‘Virginia Woolf was ahead of her time…’ ‘Oh, as a singer, she she’s way past her time…’ ‘Mae West was of her time…’ ‘The examination is over. Pens down. Time’s up.’ ‘We went for a walk round the shops – well, it killed some time.’ ‘Can it wait till tomorrow? I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment.’ ‘He’s one of those musicians who can’t keep time…’ ‘It’s always good manners to be on time…’ ‘May you live in interesting times…’ ‘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.