in Opinion | 13 OCT 05
Featured in
Issue 94

Cause and Effect

With its terrifying philosophical possibilities, time travel is still the most excellent adventure

in Opinion | 13 OCT 05

Three excursions into time travel have recently appeared in three different media: Shane Carruth’s film Primer (2004), Lydia Millet’s book Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005) and Rirkit Tiravanija’s radio play Please do not turn off the radio if you want to live well in the next 15 minutes (2005). Each one toys with a different aspect of time travel, either by studying its metaphysical implications, by using it to examine present-day cultural predilections or by viewing it as an extension of individual memory.

Perhaps the most ambitious, and yet the most traditional, of the three is Primer, an unusually rigorous discursion of the perils and possibilities of being a chronic argonaut. Two young computer engineers accidentally create a box that can transport whoever is within it back in time. For many films this would be the start of a special effects-laden romp through history, but through both design and necessity (the film was shot very cheaply) Primer prefers to dwell on the philosophical and paradoxical conundrums of the time travel genre, in a manner similar to Chris Marker’s La Jetée (The Pier, 1963).
The device in Primer is not a time machine in the traditional sense: the users must spend as much time in the box as they want to go back in time. To begin with the pair use it to exploit the stock market, but the more they travel into the past, the more alternative timelines they create (as well as creating more duplicates of themselves travelling within these new timelines). It is not long before the two engineers are desperately attempting to pre-empt each other’s actions, and those of their past selves. What is revealed is not so much the nightmare of the unknown as the terrifying possibilities of complete knowledge.

Ever since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine (1895) the fracturing of causality has been a favourite authorial conceit, and not just in science fiction – Henry James dabbled with time travel in his unfinished novel The Sense of the Past (1917). Nevertheless it is science fiction that has stretched the paradox to its most illogical conclusions. The classic time conundrum ‘What would happen if I travelled back in time and killed my own grandfather?’ has been answered and expanded on in any number of ways, although perhaps never more pithily than in Robert Heinlein’s All You Zombies (1959), in which the central character moves back and forth in time (as well as undergoing a sex change) in order to become both his own father and mother. The story’s protagonist and the reader are thus caught in a closed and infinite loop as the story continues to act itself out regressus in infinitum; cause follows effect, and the reason for the journey is the consequence of the journey.

Yet while Wells created the idea of a time machine, the notion of time travel had already existed for some time. Until Wells’ invention, dreams or mesmeric trances acted as the prime literary device in breaking up temporal structure. In the case of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), for example, the narrator is beaten unconscious in a fight, only to awaken in Arthurian times. A similar, non-specific device is used in Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, in which a combination of the first atomic bomb test and a New Mexican librarian’s waking dream transports the Manhattan Project physicists – J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard – into contemporary America. The resulting story concerns their moral negotiation of their work’s repercussions.

In these books time travel is a facilitator, a chance to inquire into contemporary consciousness. They are romances in which the actions are marvellous, but the heroes all too human. Twain’s story rebels against the Victorian glorification of Arthurian legend, The Time Machine expresses contemporary evolutionary postulations regarding the fate of the human race, while Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is, at its heart, a disquisition on America in the 21st century. The fact is that time travel sheds light best on the present, no matter whether the time-travellers are transported to the age of dinosaurs or to the end of time. Perhaps, however, the time machine, the dream and the mesmeric trance are little more than additions to a much older form of temporal shifting.

Tiravanija’s Please do not turn off the radio if you want to live well in the next 15 minutes is something of a ‘whodunit’ concerning the artist’s own life and work. The play’s two main characters eat curries of various strengths in order to travel back to different points in the artist’s life. Although quite unlistenable to, Tiravanija’s method of edible time travel is particularly apt. For if we are to see time travel as an extension of personal memory, then perhaps the most famous time machine in history comes in the shape of Marcel Proust’s madeleine in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913–27). Indeed since Proust’s story relates to his own struggles in writing the story, a small temporal paradox is implicit in the book itself. When Wells created his time machine, perhaps he merely harnessed our age-old musings on self and memory and infused them into a very concise literary device. After all, if time travel is possible, shouldn’t it always have existed?