Memories of the Future

In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” He decides that time is an idea, unique to humans, and also unique in that we can simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation. In our minds, but only there, we are not locked to one perception of one reality.

Earlier, I deleted everything that I had written up to that point by dragging my unbuttoned shirtsleeve across my laptop’s touchpad while reaching for my coffee. (No, I can not replicate the results in an experiment; yes, like an idiot, I have attempted to replicate these results in an experiment.) In a feat of memory, I retyped all that I had written to that point: simultaneously, I remembered what I had written, was super-present and typed it attentively in the moment, and I lived in expectation of a future in which I regularly saved my work, a lesson I first learned, oh, 20 years ago.

I was in three specific time-experiences at once, and each one sucked.

* * * *
For decades, it has been known that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time. In yet more recent (2014) experiments, physicists have “simulated” time travel. Science reporters tell us that time travel is in the “near future,” or, more prosaically, “just around the corner.” If this is so, of course, no one from the future has yet visited us, because if it truly is something that we will invent or discover in the future (near or not-so) we would thus know all about it already.

This is because, oh, you get it.

Many therapy techniques suggest remembering oneself in a childhood moment and reaching out to that younger self; the thought is that we carry each and every self we have yet been in our lives forward into our psychological present and we can communicate something of a healing nature to those past selves. Whenever I have attempted anything of this sort, I have cried. That may indicate healing or something in my eye. On the other hand, I have received no reports, that is to say, I have no memories, of a time in my past in which my younger self experienced the unexplained appearance of an older man leaning on a cane.

* * * *

How the false truths of the years of youth have passed!
Have passed at full speed like trains which never stopped
There where I stood and waited, hardly aware,
How little I knew, or which of them was the one
To mount and ride to hope or where true hope arrives.
— from “I Am A Book I Neither Wrote Nor Read,” by Delmore Schwartz

* * * *
The thought experiment of time travel has a long history in popular culture. Fantasists invent tools (a jet-pack in every garage) in novels and movies, tools which actually only address the needs of the present moment and do not attempt to imagine the future needs that will be answered by the future tools. In almost every science fiction work that uses the device of time travel, the several paradoxes of “a visitor from the future would certainly influence current history and thus change our present” or “if I go back in time and change a mistake, erase an error, will I not change who I am now?” are usually addressed.

Many of the heroes decide or discover that the path that brought them to where they are and to the person they are now was always worth taking, errors and all. As long as one is breathing, lessons can be learned and applied. (Ebenezer Scrooge, for example.)

It is a seductive thought experiment, though. Offer a person a time machine to return to a specific moment in the past and take up residence there, from that moment onward, and relive one’s life so one can fix whichever errors and enhance whichever successes that followed, well, it is seductive. Offer a person life from a future moment from which they can see it all unfold, … well.

* * * *

delmoreschwartz

Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz’s heart-rending short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” opens with the narrator in a movie theater as he realizes the feature movie is his parents on their first date; he becomes frantic and yells at the screen, “Don’t do it!” and gives a list of reasons.

(Oh, to have been Delmore Schwartz’s mother. He was 21 when the story was published. Life seems to have felt like an indictment for him.)

The audience hisses him down, as he is ruining the movie for them, but he alone knows how it ends.

My father tells my mother how much money he has made in the week just past, exaggerating an amount which need not have been exaggerated. But my father has always felt that actualities somehow fall short, no matter how fine they are. Suddenly I begin to weep. The determined old lady who sits next to me in the theatre is annoyed and looks at me with an angry face, and being intimidated, I stop. I drag out my handkerchief and dry my face, licking the drop which has fallen near my lips. Meanwhile I have missed something, for here are my father and mother alighting from the street-car at the last stop, Coney Island.

At the end, the narrator is thrown out of the movie theater while up on the screen his father is refusing to have his fortune told by a Coney Island fortune teller. And then the narrator awakens to “the bleak winter morning” of his 21st birthday. It was all a dream.

* * * *
As Augustine saw, way back in the 4th century, we always live in the three time zones of our experience and psyche simultaneously: past, present, and future. Always.

I no more wrote than read that book which is
The self I am, half-hidden as it is
From one and all who see within a kiss
The lounging formless blackness of an abyss.

 
How could I think the brief years were enough
To prove the reality of endless love?
—from “I Am A Book I Neither Wrote Nor Read,” Delmore Schwartz

* * * *
This is a slight revision of a column from last year. Three time periods at once.

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8 comments

  1. lifelessons · July 24, 2016

    This one is masterful, Mark. I seem to have missed it the first time, but i’m reblogging it this time. A thought, though. Perhaps the complete mess our world is in at the time has been caused by time travelers! That would be such a relief as none of us would need to take responsibility for it, unless we are those time travelers and just very tight-lipped about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · July 24, 2016

      Thank you, Judy!

      And I love that idea that maybe we have been visited …

      Like

  2. lifelessons · July 24, 2016

    But, I’ll reblog later so it won’t come up in the Reader right next to yours.. That would be a waste.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lifelessons · July 24, 2016

    I keep having thoughts so sorry about filling up your comments, but it occurs to me that what may be true for subatomic particles may not be true for us as a human mass of such particles. But, it does make a good case for reincarnation as individual subatomic particles could amass at different times to create new identities. Does this make sense? We are the stuff of the universe and as such need to have been present at all times since its inception and until its end But not necessarily as ourselves. Like scooping a cup of water and pouring it back. Okay. I’ll shut up.

    Like

  4. odonnelljack52 · July 24, 2016

    I enjoyed reading this and I hope when I come back, if I come back, I’ll enjoy it as much the next time, but only if there is a next time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Leigh W. Smith · August 25

    I love, love, love this topic, Mark, even though it confuses the hell out of me.
    Carl Sagan, perhaps by way of Stephen Hawking (I’m not remembering at this moment where I read this in the last 6 mos or so), addressed this idea of why we’re not awash in future time travelers. I think it’s called the grandfather paradox, about changing the past, which thereby alters your future. I might have also read a recent editorial in Analog about it, along the lines that Fate (or math or whatever controls the logic and synchronicity and predictability of our universe) will control for time travel(ers) such that we cannot go back and kill our own grandfather—some little (or big) wrinkle always happens and it’s thwarted or otherwise impossible. Thanks for the reminder of the Delmore Schwartz stories, too. I don’t think I’ve ever read him, but it sounds like something I’d enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · August 28

      Delmore inspired art around him. He is Saul Bellow’s Herzog. (Need to re-check that.) Lou Reed was a student of his at Syracuse and wrote about him. He died alone and unknown and mad.

      The grandfather paradox is I guess why the Terminator movies always leave me rubbing my eyes, perplexed.

      Thank you, Leigh

      Liked by 1 person

      • Leigh W. Smith · August 29

        Unfortunately, Mark, I am embarrassingly un-well-read in terms of Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc. I must rectify that! Yeah, at a certain point, I just have to agree with myself that I probably won’t understand time/time travel and enjoy suspending disbelief without having deep(er) insight. Goes for Terminator as well; all those John (and Sarah) Connors tripping around through time . . .

        Liked by 1 person

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