Monday, April 16, 2012

Meditation on Time

A fairly long breakfast essay, but there's Dr. Who in it if you read until the end.

I am teaching, for the first time, a course on historiography. I’ve wanted to since Odai Johnson turned me on to the subject in grad school. Students of historiography quickly learn to distinguish between the past and history. History is stories we tell about the past, based on things that remain in the present; while the past is… well, who the hell knows what the past is? We could call it events that happened before now, but then, what does before mean? The past, whatever it is, is gone. The great minds of physics tell us that time doesn’t pass, but we live in all points of it at once – whether that’s true or not, we perceive time to be passing, and our senses are configured in such a way as to keep us firmly in the present, although the Buddha remarked to what immense lengths we will resort to avoid dealing with this. We cannot sense the past, the past is insensible. Senseless. What can we perceive? Things in the present: memories – incomplete, distorted, and highly corrodible; documents – out of context; bones in tar pits; stories; fragments (no one understands this better than the theatre historian, who is always reaching backwards towards the one thing that she knows is permanently lost – the performance). Made of fragments, fused, hybrid, the past is a monster, and just as imaginary. But these fragments are all in the present. What historians do is look at things in the present and try to craft stories that help us make sense of the insensibly senseless.

It’s an absolutely futile enterprise, and yet an absolutely critical task to do, because history is identity – as social beings, we are nothing except the stories we tell about our pasts (national, tribal, religious, personal, political, global, what have you). No one understands this better than theatre artists generally. “You cannot hate someone whose story you know,” Lue Douthit told our grad students, “and we tell stories.” So this futile enterprise results in Lessing’s Mitleid, compassion, and helps us live better in the present; and that is the purpose of history, imho. It’s the Promethean understanding that a dogged pursuit of futility is the only hope for genuine advancement of the species.

I’ve been looking into the new eco-criticism and among the many things that intrigue me about it is its recognition of the individual organism as indiscreet. That is to say, my body is not a fixed, hermetic structure, but actually more like your house. You wish it were discreet, but it ain’t; mice in the walls, spiders and roaches fighting silent wars in your basement, termites relaxing in salons a half-inch from your head, rot, rust, decay, mold, your garden in bloom – always changing, always interacting with its environment. The corpus is like that: several interlocking systems of chemical reactions that include millions if not billions of organisms both within my body and without – although “within” and “without” become problematic as well, as the boundaries of my body are really permeable membranes, open borders, really, with the rest of my environment. Plus, my body is in a permanent state of transformation – some obvious, some not so much – some transformations taking seconds, some eons. Considering that we understand the effects of food, poison, illness, and reproduction pretty well, the “indiscretion” of the body is, actually, so frikkin obvious that what really needs explaining is why it’s so hard to recognize it. One answer may lie in the observation that fish probably have no word for “water,” but my studies lead me in another direction – fear. If there is no self, we cannot know ourselves, which was the Delphic Oracle’s (and Alexander Pope’s) only command. The next best thing is to know the boundary between self and other, to be able to, in Hayden White’s words, ostensively self-indentify through negation. “I do not know the felt content of my own humanity,” writes White, “but I do know I’m not THAT,” pointing to something in the environment. If THAT is also ME, if I am also YOU, then there’s nothing left to alleviate that anxiety – or is there?

Anyway, if I were to ask “what if time operates in a similar fashion?” I would hardly be breaking some kind of genius barrier – Einstein frikkin’ proved this with his General and Special Theories of Relativity back in 1920. Now, I’m seriously out of my depth here, but I believe that Einstein pretty effectively demonstrated that time moves differently for different objects (and subjects) moving in different ways through the universe. Two events that are simultaneous for one observer may not be simultaneous for another, if the other is in relative motion, says Wikipedia. Moving clocks tick faster than stationary ones. Clocks tick more slowly closer to the center of the earth, more quickly when in orbit. Time moves differently inside the event horizon of a black hole, distorted by the curvature of space in the gravity well. Okay, we are now standing on the edge of my intellectual universe – a few crumbling cliffs that extend over a huge void that I know is well-explored by others, but if I take another step, a plummeting I will go. But I think I found what I was looking for.

How might relativity look in the trenches? Let’s say two people perceive the same event, but they are moving differently through time. They might perceive it extremely differently, and record it differently – and of course this is notwithstanding whatever personal axes they may be grinding while they record. If we admit that possibility, then why not the possibility that time is as permeable as the body is? That it flows differently in different places for different people, like this new awesome map of wind behavior that Nasa just put out.

Living in Western Pennsylvania one can become acutely aware of this phenomenon, if one is awake enough. Cross a river or a particular street in this town and you are in another time, another culture. Ghosts are everywhere – murdered union organizers hanging from what used to be the crossbeams of steel mills still dangle silently in the darkness of a Lowe’s movie house in Homestead. Look at the battlements and crenellations of the monstrous PPG tower – a modern monument of mirrors and steel in the shape of a medieval keep, and you can be struck with a sense of temporal collision. Step across the street and you enter a monastery in 12th century Alsace – the politics conducted there similarly medieval. Cross Smallman street and buy meat from 1935. Get off the bus in the Hill District, once a major African-American cultural and economic center called by Claude McKay “the crossroads of the world,” and you’ll find a community frozen, like the castle in Sleeping Beauty, at the moment in the 1960’s the city displaced 8000 residents and 400 businesses. I do mean frozen – there hasn’t been even a new grocery store built there in 30 years. And like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, time didn’t just collapse forward – in some ways, it began to run backwards, urban decay and crime and poverty snaking its way through the neighborhoods like the vines and streets in Beauty;s castle. August Wilson captured the collapse of time there in his Pittsburgh Cycle more brilliantly than we historians, who are still struggling with chronologies, can do.

Mrs. Doc has long been aggravated by a phenomenon I think may be unique to the city, which is that motorists on highways tend to rapidly decelerate before entering tunnels. As a result, there are often huge backlogs approaching tunnels, and there are a lot of tunnels. The real noodle-scratcher is that when you get to the other side of the tunnel, the road is clear, with only a few unalarmed taillights scattered around to spoil the view. Sitting beside her in the passenger seat with the grace of not having to deal with it all directly, I am afforded the luxury of musing on the problem. Initially, I diagnose fear, as I am wont to do – Pittsburghers, with a cautiousness that a crueler man than I might attribute to a certain autistic outlook, perhaps acquired by growing up in an environment heavily poisoned by a century of largely unregulated industrial by-products, are not 100% sure that the tunnel they’ve driven through every day of their adult lives might actually still be there today, and they may crash willy-nilly into the side of a mountain, despite the overwhelming evidence of the thousands of other cars disappearing ahead.  Or perhaps the tunnel has been replaced by an eternal nothingness, or the Leviathan, or the British Army has finally regrouped and is taking Fort Pitt back. But after a few years of living with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which appears to operate in a time stream wholly unique in the universe, I started to see there might be some practical use for such fear – it happens a lot that PennDot slips in by night and rearranges the city into something unrecognizable. Tunnels do become blank walls, without warning. Streets once merely landmined with potholes become impassable barriers, asphalt scored away to expose the old cobblestones. The wormholes that lead through the labyrinth sphincter up, possibly never to return. The city transforms, reveals itself to be a different city, sometimes an older version of itself – a ghost.

But you know, I’m now entertaining a third theory, which is that due to the time collisions of the city, more people live here than are actually present any one time. Perhaps I should say, there are more cities here than Google earth would have us believe. Some Burghers live in future versions of the city, some in past versions, and some in alternate versions. When we enter the tunnels, we divide as we move towards our various destinations. Like electrons bouncing around a civic atom, we live our active electric little lives, but to a casual observer it might appear as if we are constantly winking in and out of existence on various timelines. Occasionally we wink in together and pass each other, and so sustain the illusion that we are all living in the same space-time continuum, when actually we are on our own trajectories that only marginally, even perversely, intersect. Of course, these discrepancies are so minute that it really takes a keen eye to spot them, but since we live at the interactions of these subtle forces, the evidence is really all around us.

I know this sounds like it’s a really out-there theory but anyone who has ever been to a faculty meeting has seen this phenomenon at work. Clearly, time has passed differently for each of us since last we met – some have made progress, others appear frozen, and a few have moved off in strange directions which are unaddressed on any compass. That’s relative to the observer, of course, but sometimes I feel like the one frozen as well – how did you guys get over there?

Maybe I’m aware of this because I’m preparing to move, and I am starting to realize that I’m not moving merely in space but also in time. I called an old highschool buddy, haven’t seen him in about 18 years, and we both told the stories of our lives since with some sense of anxiety about it – as if a portal to the past had opened up and we’re not sure whether we can, or should, step through it. Our relationship is history – we look forward to creating a new one, but it will be new. He tells me stories of other pals from those days – some still working part-time as web-designers and writing bad poetry, which is exactly where I left them. They haven’t moved through time, at least, not in the same way as I have. I’ve lost 50 pounds – my doctor says this will add decades to my life. Clearly I now have MORE time than I did before. Or is it just that I am I moving more slowly through time now, relatively speaking? If that isn’t true, then why has my schedule suddenly loosened up? Because as I leave my dear friend Dr. Arons takes over more of my responsibilities – I am leaving not only the dynamic space of Carnegie Mellon University, but its time-stream as well. A part of me will remain here and for that part of me, time will stop. They will talk about “When Doc was here, we did it this way.” Memories. Stories. Secret Histories. Fragments. What I leave here will be a monster. When I return to visit, or reenter the time-stream for whatever reason, people will struggle to reconcile the monster with the living human, as if I were the Doctor stepping unchanged, or remarkably changed out of a police box. I’ve seen it before.

Whatever – it’s time to stop thinking and start moving, once again.

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