Experiments with Time


Salvador Dali: ‘The persistence of Memory’

 ‘An Experiment with Time’ is a book I have mentioned before by that interesting Irish inventor and pioneer aeronaut, JW Dunne. It was very popular once and for a time you could almost guarantee that you would find at least one copy in any second-hand book shop you cared to visit – in the days when there were second-hand book shops.

Dunne’s basic premise is that our experience of time in everyday consciousness disguises its true nature from us: whereas we perceive it as a succession, with the future to come, the present here now and the past now gone, in reality all time is simultaneous: it is all present. Only in dreaming are we able to free ourselves from the limits of our consciousness and this makes precognition possible – in fact, the experiment in Dunne’s book involves recording dreams, sifting them for any content that might be construed as precognitive, then watching for any possible confirmation in coming events.

Dunne is far from the first to find Time a puzzle, and indeed I would hazard that anyone who has made any effort to think about it has found it so. (There is an International Society for the Study of Time – its first president was GJ Whitrow, author of a fascinating book, The Natural Philosophy of Time, a scholarly examination of the many diverse concepts of time that we actually use)

For me, Time is chief among the ‘mind-forged manacles’ I considered in my recent post – although ‘manacles’ is not quite the proper image, as it puts all the emphasis on restraint: we should not overlook the fact that our invention of time gives us a great deal of freedom and room for manoeuvre. Time is more like a great edifice we have erected around us, and like any building, it has a dual nature: it gives us shelter and protection, leaving us free to move within its confines; but at the same time, it interposes a barrier between us and the outside world. Whether we feel it to be a palace or a prison-house depends on our outlook.

Though we identify ‘living in the moment’ as an ideal to be aspired to, and relish the quality of timeless absorption that we experience when wholly engaged in some activity (I have experienced this myself in using a jeweller’s piercing saw to cut a complex shape from copper, and in drawing) the time-structure that we have created, with hours, days, months and years, is of great practical value in day-to-day living, which is why it has become so ingrained in us that it seems a natural thing rather than a mental construct.

With our genius for measurement we have evolved a calendar that we have now refined to the point of being accurate within fractions of a second, and that sort of precision (based on atomic clocks) strengthens the illusion that we are refining something real and independently existing rather than an invention of our ingenious imagination.

The conventional, man-made character of calendar time was more obvious before the coming of the railways, which did a great deal to standardise time, hitherto a local affair related to sunrise and sunset, which vary with your place on the earth’s surface. It was more obvious still in the early seventeenth century, when Europe was divided on which calendar it used, with some retaining the Julian while others had opted for the Gregorian, giving rise to the anomaly that, though Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (23 April 1616) about 820 miles apart, it might  have been possible (with fast horses and a fair wind) for the same person to attend the deathbeds of both, since the events were eleven days apart.

As a further reminder of the conventional nature of calendar time we have the various attempts – some more successful than others – to mark a new era with a new dating system: the infamous Pol Pot declared 1975 to be Year Zero in Cambodia, in imitation of the similarly bloody-handed National Convention in France, who declared Year One from the abolition of the monarchy in 1792 (they also renamed the months and decimalised the week (10 days) and the day (10 hours of 100 minutes each of 100 seconds). They retained 12 as the number of months (each three decimal weeks or 30 days long) but started them at different times (about three weeks into the traditional months) adding the balance of five or six days between one year and the next. This arrangement operated for some twelve years (variously modified – decimal time was shortest lived, being officially suspended in 1795, though some kept it till 1801; the traditional days of the week were restored in 1802) till Napoleon abolished it at the start of 1806; it was revived briefly during the Paris Commune in 1871.

The Islamic dating system takes the Hejira (622 AD) as its starting point, and was brought into use about 17 years after that event, unlike the Christian reckoning of Anno Domini, widely used throughout the world, which was not devised till the 6th century AD, by Dionysius Exiguus or Denis the Small, and is basically inaccurate – it is now generally agreed that Jesus was born some years earlier than 1 AD. In Denis’s day the Julian Calendar was used, but years were reckoned from the reign of the Consul, though an Anno Mundi (year of the world) calendar had been calculated using the Old Testament, which gave the time from the Creation to Jesus’s birth as 5500 years.

It is easy to ridicule that figure now, given our knowledge of geological time, but to do so is to overlook the fact that we have very little natural sense of time as a quantity at all – I remember thinking as a child that the First World War was an impossibly distant event; yet 1964 – as distant now as 1914 was then – falls easily within the compass of my memory – I am more inclined to think ‘that was never fifty years ago, surely?’ than to reckon it a long time ago. In actual fact, we have difficulty reckoning much shorter lengths of time without the aid of watches or the like – has an hour passed since we did that? or thirty minutes? or ninety? it will depend very much on how we have been occupied (or not).

What constitutes ‘a long time’? Twenty centuries takes us back to Roman times, when Herod was Tetrarch in Galilee and Augustus was Emperor in Rome; another three or four takes us to the golden age of Greece, with Plato and Aristotle; ten more takes us to Homeric Troy; the Pyramids are as far before the start of the Christian era as we are after it; yet in the tale of years, that is a mere 4000 or so. 100 centuries is reckoned the sum of civilisation, yet the earliest known paintings (thought to be by our Neanderthal cousins) are four times that, 40,000 years ago…

Four hundred centuries! It sounds a lot, till we consider the dinosaurs, lords of the earth for more than a million centuries (which puts our own hundred-century civilisation in perspective) – and their time ended more than half a million centuries ago.

Yet all this is mere mental trickery, substituting arithmetic relations for temporal ones, and treating time itself as if it were length – we imagine a line drawn out with various events marked on it, though we would have the greatest difficulty drawing it to scale – at a millimetre per century, it would have to be 2.314 kilometres (nearly a mile and a half) long to take us back to when the dinosaurs started, and our own period of civilisation would take up only ten centimetres (about four inches) of that.

But the flaw in such reckoning is that we do not experience time as a constant quantity at all: one minute is not as long as another minute; an hour can pass slowly or quickly; in sleep we may have no sense of time at all (we can wake with no idea of how long we have slept – minutes or hours) though in dreaming we can experience what seems (in recollection, at least) great tracts of time, far in excess of the actual time spent dreaming it.

At the heart of this is the difficulty we have in describing consciousness – a strange thing, when you think of it, since we all experience it. St Augustine sensed the difficulty sixteen centuries ago – if the future is yet to be, and the past is no longer, what is the present?

‘For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?’ (Augustine of Hippo, Confessiones lib xi, cap xiv, sec 170)

Augustine’s solution is interesting. He was struck by the fact that such things as music and the spoken word are, literally, comprehended  – i.e. ‘seized together’ or taken as a whole, despite the fact that logic tells us they must be experienced sequentially, with each note or word passing away before the next is heard. He proposes that time is (a) subjective and (b) has a threefold structure, consisting of expectation, consideration and memory:

‘But how is that future diminished or consumed which as yet is not? Or how does the past, which is no longer, increase, unless in the mind which enacts this there are three things done? For it both expects, and considers, and remembers, that that which it expects, through that which it considers, may pass into that which it remembers. Who, therefore, denies that future things as yet are not? But yet there is already in the mind the expectation of things future. And who denies that past things are now no longer? But, however, there is still in the mind the memory of things past. And who denies that time present wants space, because it passes away in a moment? But yet our consideration endures, through which that which may be present may proceed to become absent. Future time, which is not, is not therefore long; but a long future is a long expectation of the future. Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; but a long past is a long memory of the past.

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention is extended to the whole; but when I have begun, as much of it as becomes past by my saying it is extended in my memory; and the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory, on account of what I have repeated, and my expectation, on account of what I am about to repeat; yet my consideration is present with me, through which that which was future may be carried over so that it may become past. Which the more it is done and repeated, by so much (expectation being shortened) the memory is enlarged, until the whole expectation be exhausted, when that whole action being ended shall have passed into memory.’

I think that the inclusion of memory as a crucial aspect of time – or our experience of it (insofar as we experience anything at all) – is illuminating. It explains why the fifty years that take me back to my childhood strike me as wholly different from the fifty years that ‘stretched’ between my childhood and the start of the First World War. I have an actual (if mysterious) relation with my younger self of 1964 – there is some sort of continuity that connects us, that makes me able to say ‘I remember thinking then that 1914 was impossibly long ago’. My father, who was born in 1913, remembered witnessing the launch of HMS Hood, which took place on 22 August 1918; for him there was a connection with that time that did not exist for me.

Thinking of that brings out the real sense of the expression ‘time out of mind’: we can go so far back on our own recollection, then a little further using the recollection of the oldest people we know; after that we are into what others have written, and even – in the remote past – what our ancestors have painted. Up to that point there is still a connection: we know that those distant Neanderthal painters were conscious as we are, and must have felt something of the same puzzlement we still feel now when thinking of what was, what is, and what is to come. Beyond that is ‘time out of mind’: it has length, maybe, but no duration.

‘Them was the beds I saw!’ (as th’oul’ gunnock said)

When young, my brother and I had a book called (I think) The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (indeed I believe it was this one), which dealt with the life (and somewhat unpleasant death) of Kenneth Mackenzie, also known as Coinneach Odhar or the Brahan seer, who was celebrated for having what in the Highlands is called ‘the second sight.’

It came to my mind because of a family saying associated with it, which seems to me to shed light on some of the things I have been thinking and writing about, particularly in relation to language and metaphor.

The family saying, ‘Them was the beds I saw’ (as th’oul’ gunnock said) is best explained by giving its history. I had thought it had its origin in the Brahan Seer book, but since that was written in 1899, I think it could only have been in some later commentary added to the text, perhaps as a footnote. As I remember, this concerned a man who was credited with having the second sight. In his youth, he had a dream of looms flying in the air; in his old age he lived long enough to see the first primitive aircraft thrashing through the sky, all wings and wire and canvas and whirling propellers. Whereupon he asserted, pointing at them, ‘those were the looms I saw!’

(By the same whim of disrespectful youth that branded the gentleman ‘an old gunnock’ we converted ‘looms’ to ‘beds’ for no better reason than to mock further one we clearly thought an old chancer, desperate to get credit for his ‘gift’ on the strength of a highly fanciful resemblance. From then on, any attempt to ‘draw the long bow’ or tell a tall tale on the part of one of us would be met by the other’s pointing at some wholly unbedlike object and proclaiming, in a rustic peasant accent, ‘them was the beds I saw!’)

Now that I am getting on myself I feel that old gentlemen should perhaps be treated with more respect; in any case, I think the story casts light on a number of things now of interest to me.

First, it touches on the ambivalent nature of ‘seeing as’ which I began to deal with here. But it also touches on another ambiguity which might not seem relevant, though I think it is, namely the different senses in which we use the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’.

It is evident that in our youth we were deeply sceptical both about this man’s supposed gift and the sincerity of his claim to have predicted the coming of the aeroplane – and of course, the two go together: if you don’t believe it possible to foresee the future – or that a particular person can – then you will approach anything that is offered as proof of that with a mind already closed and looking to find ways to ridicule and dismiss it.

As a matter of fact, I think we were willing to entertain the general possibility of seeing into the future, if only because it made life seem more exciting; but about this man, we clearly had our doubts, and thought his identification of a loom and an aeroplane more than far-fetched.

I have to say now that I think we were a little hard on him. As I said elsewhere Vita Sackville-West defined metaphor as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Now here is a man who knew nothing of aeroplanes but was familiar with looms, who has a dream of some complicated machinery flying in the air – it seems perfectly reasonable that he will describe them in those terms.

What interests me here is the twofold process, first of interpreting something you do not understand in terms that you do (and the limitations that imposes), next of recognising that same thing in an unexpected guise, and identifying the two.

It seems to me that the very ambiguity that here makes ‘seeing as’ vulnerable to scoffing – that it leaves open the possibility of interpreting any future event as the fulfilment of any past prediction (and we see this in play with notoriously obscure predictors like Nostradamus) – can also be a strength: it allows us to accept that our expectations may be satisfied in a wholly unexpected way; it gives us flexibility and interpretation as weapons against a rigid dogmatism (often backed by vested interest) which insists that ‘this, and only this, is what is meant here.’

Where we need such flexibility is at exactly the point where we have begun to outgrow ideas that are important to us – or, more accurately, have lost our sense of the language they are expressed in. These ideas have been valuable to us, they inform our culture and we have a strong attachment to them, yet now they have begun to seem hidebound, mere empty words; we can no longer relate to them. Is our only option to abandon them (and all that they stand for) or can they be revived, refreshed? we might find an answer if we think a bit more about the old man and his looms. In his youth, the man interprets his dream in the only terms that make sense at the time: what he dreamt was complex machinery that flew through the air; the only complex machinery that he and his neighbours know is the loom; so that is how he describes his dream to them.

We could imagine that a cult might grow up, predicated on the man’s dream, so that people live in daily expectation of seeing looms in the sky; they invest a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy in it, discussing it, writing poetry about it, painting pictures, writing songs and music – and because they know a great deal more about looms than they do about aerial flight, it would be no surprise to find that the loom-like aspect of the vision predominates and features in all sorts of elaborations derived from it, perhaps about the wondrous material that will be woven on these aerial looms, and the properties that might have.

Against that background, picture what happens on the day the loom-cult-folk are out on the hillside at their toil (cutting peat, probably) when of a sudden a great noise makes them all look up and over the brow of the hill comes a fantastic contraption, a Bristol Boxkite perhaps, accompanied by an equally fantastical Avro Triplane. The pilots give a cheery wave as they sweep overhead at no great height. The old man, now revered as the founder of their cult, dozing amid the bog-cotton, squints upwards from his deckchair at the sound, then cries out, with a laugh of recognition, ‘those were the looms I saw!’

Consternation! one can imagine that a great many people will not be pleased, the marvel of the aircraft notwithstanding. ‘Those are not looms,’ they will say. ‘We know what looms look like! and where is the wondrous sky fabric that was to be woven on them?’ It may be that among them weaving has become a very profitable activity on account of the curious cult that attaches it, and people come from far and wide to buy their products. Now, with this frankly insane outburst from their revered – but, it must be said, somewhat senile and doddery – founder, all that is in jeopardy. Those people will be more likely to hush the old man up and lock him away – ‘for his own good’ – than pay heed to what he says.

But there will be some – delighted, perhaps, by the sheer marvel of the aeroplane – who take the old man’s part, and insist on the legitimacy of his interpretation – ‘yes, we can see it like that, that is what it meant all along.’ To them, all the weaving lore and the rest will fall away like so much chaff, a discarded husk now seen as of no relevance: they will be for building an aeroplane factory or becoming pilots; they will see that it was not weaving but flight that was the thing of real significance; they will alter their poetry, their music and their art accordingly.

Hmm. I think there might be the possibility of a short story there, or better still, a film. As for prophecy and the second sight, that will have to wait till another day –  yet there is a curious link to them, in the person of JW Dunne, an Irish aeronautical engineer and pioneer aviator, who enjoyed a great vogue at one time for his attempt to provide a theoretical footing for his personal experiences of prescience in dreams, An Experiment with Time.