Playing With Time
Time flies, but as we all know, it can also proceed at an excruciating crawl. Our subjective experiences of time find parallels in theoretical physics: Einstein’s special theory of relativity, presented in 1905, demonstrates that time indeed hurries up and slows down. But just how malleable is it? Can time travel backward? Writers and other artists have joined physicists in playing with time for centuries—and will likely continue until the clock runs out.
British physicist Stephen Hawking’s phenomenally best-selling book A Brief History of Time (1988) sets out to explain advances in physics—Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, quantum mechanics and the potential for reconciling relativity with quantum theory—to a general audience. Frankly, it’s rough going, though an intrepid lay reader can grasp some essentials—for instance, that the Big Bang brought time itself into being. But Hawking, a good interpreter of Einstein for the nonphysicist hoi polloi, clearly explicates why relativity overturns the concept of absolute time—that is, time that constantly proceeds at the same pace everywhere. In Einstein’s universe (i.e., ours), time does quicken and slow.
The idea that time can be squashed or distended seems to be what those melting pocket watches in Salvador Dalí’s iconic surrealist painting The Persistence of Memory (1931) express, though Dalí denied any connection between the image and Einsteinian theory. (An oozing round of Camembert was, he said, the inspiration for the watches.) Later, though, Dalí was influenced by nuclear physics; witness The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954), in which the earlier painting’s landscape explodes into blocklike particles, some morphing threateningly into missiles.
Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory may be the best-known surrealist work; its slithery pocket watches are recognizable to millions. The painting’s popularity rests partly on its fundamental conventionality. Yes, Dalí plunked weird objects into a dreamlike land-and-seascape, but there’s no true pictorial experimentation there, no deep questioning of received notions about reality. Dalí was capable of more inventive art; for example, “Un Chien Andalou” (“An Andalusian Dog”), the nonchronological 1929 surrealist short film on which he collaborated with Luis Buñuel, boldly subverts conventions of causality and temporal coherence. In Persistence, though, Dalí isn’t playing with time; he’s just messing with timepieces. By contrast, contemporary artist Christian Marclay, in his video installation The Clock, messes with both to profounder effect. The Clock splices thousands of time-related shots from movies and TV shows into a remarkable seamless collage in which every minute of its 24-hour running time is represented by a clock or watch on-screen; every 24 hours, the sequence repeats. Philosopher Alain de Botton has remarked, “Marclay lifts the routine act of looking at the time into a piece of metaphysics, connecting it to the great themes of love, death and the meaning of our lives.”
Physicists love to debate whether time travel—especially travel backward in time—will ever be possible, though the idea of travel to the past does seem to violate the laws of causality and the rules of reason. One logical snafu is evident in the “grandfather paradox,” which imagines a time traveler going back in time and killing his paternal grandfather before his father is conceived—neatly eliminating the possibility of the traveler’s own existence. Time travel into the future is somewhat more easily envisioned: According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, time slows down as velocity increases; passengers on a fast-moving spaceship could therefore speed away from Earth and find on their return that many more years had passed at home than aboard their vessel.
Stephen Hawking has offered humorous “proof” that travel back in time is impossible. If it weren’t, he says, we would already be hosting “time tourists” from the future. As Hawking quipped in a 2012 interview, “I have experimental evidence that time travel is not possible. I gave a party for time travelers, but I didn’t send out the invitations until after the party. I sat there a long time, but no one came.”
Though the laws of nature may forever forbid our traveling in time, the idea of it has, in the century-plus since the publication of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine (1895), become ordinary—grist for the mill not only of countless science-fiction works, good and bad, but of cartoons (the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments of the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows), chick lit and flicks (Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife and its 2009 screen adaptation), video games (many, many) and romantic comedy. To that last category belongs Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, which takes its present-day hero, bumbling would-be novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, not remotely believable as a writer), on magical late-night escapades to the Lost Generation Paris of the 1920s and, once, even farther back, to the same city during the Belle Époque. In 1920s Paris Gil hangs out with the era’s leading literary and artistic lights, including surrealists Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Salvador Dalí, played with panache by Adrien Brody, who physically resembles the young artist. Ray offers the surrealist perspective on time travel: “You inhabit two different worlds,” he tells Gil. “I see nothing strange.”
Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock isn’t just a clever mash-up; it’s a painstakingly calibrated actual timepiece: The time of day displayed on the watch or clock face shown on-screen is always identical to the time being lived by the viewer in the real world. Forcing people to “watch the clock” in this unremitting way can, by Marclay’s own admission, heighten anxiety. To focus with such concentration on time’s passing may induce a hyperawareness of time’s flight—and of death’s relentless, second-by-second approach. Unsurprisingly, the movies from which Marclay lifted his images include thrillers in which shots of ticking clocks are ubiquitous. The graphic novel Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s extraordinarily faithful film adaptation, set in an alternate 1985 when the United States and the Soviet Union are engaged in a nuclear showdown, use the most anxiety-provoking ticking clock of all: the Doomsday Clock. Introduced in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the real-life Doomsday Clock measures the number of metaphorical “minutes to midnight”—that is, the world’s estimated proximity to nuclear armageddon. In recent years the Bulletin has added climate change to nuclear arms proliferation as a force pushing the Doomsday Clock’s hands ominously forward.
Jorge Luis Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths” is cosmological speculation masquerading as a tale of espionage. Set during World War I, the story recounts a last-ditch plot by Yu Tsun—a Chinese academic living in England but spying for Germany—to transmit vital information to the German military before being overtaken by the British agent pursuing him. Within that frame, though, is another, vertigo-inducing tale: that of Yu’s great-grandfather’s plan, a century earlier, “to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.” The labyrinth is an immense hermetic novel called The Garden of Forking Paths, whose characters pursue every alternative among the available paths of action, creating a story that branches, then branches again and again into an endless, crisscrossing multiplicity of plots. Somewhat less vertiginously, the creators of Watchmen employ a similar idea—that of “alternate” or “counterfactual” history—in constructing their graphic novel. Watchmen’s main story line is set in 1985—but a 1985 that differs in important particulars from the historical year. In Watchmen’s “What if?” world, the U.S. won the Vietnam war (with the assistance of a mutant superhero), and a tyrannical Richard Nixon has been elected to the presidency for five consecutive terms.
Even if no one will ever travel back or forward in time in reality, fiction lets all of us do so imaginatively. And time travel, in this sense, isn’t just the province of science fiction; techniques like foreshadowing, flashback and flash-forward are the stock-in-trade of writers across genres. Some of the most interesting manipulations of chronology appear, in fact, in tales that have nothing at all to do with distant pasts and futures, alien worlds or space travel. Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978; film, 1983) mostly moves backward in time, telling its story of commonplace marital infidelity from a love affair’s aftermath to the affair’s beginning nine years earlier. Mystery thrillers like Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) and Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) complicate the whodunit by continuously moving both forward and backward in time. And director David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, delivers its substantial emotional wallop via an even more unusual temporal strategy: Though the story moves forward chronologically, the life of its main character (played by Brad Pitt) travels in reverse, from Benjamin’s birth as an elderly man to his death as an infant.
About David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott astutely observed that it “owes more to Jorge Luis Borges than to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald.” Indeed. A sequence midway through this time-obsessed film meticulously lays out all the chance occurrences leading up to an automobile accident that will end the dancing career of Button’s heroine, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). The effect of this passage is not just to underline the fatedness of that terrible event but also to undermine it, since at every turn we are invited to imagine that—had only this or that happened an instant sooner or later—the accident would have been avoided. Fincher deftly conjures the notion that time need not move in a linear, straight-ahead fashion but may at every moment branch into innumerable futures. A version of the same idea, sometimes referred to as the many-worlds interpretation, is played with by Borges, whose stories are often metaphysical puzzles, in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The story envisions a labyrinthine novel in which every possible outcome of every event is recounted ad infinitum. What this novel is about, said Borges, is time itself.