Time Travel without a Machine
© Barry Kavanagh 2014
Often when people debate the possibility or otherwise of time travel,
the conversation concerns machines, how they would work, and the energy
required to power them. Yet there are aspects of life and culture in which
the possibility of time travel without the use of a machine is actively
contemplated - at least, that is my experience. This ranges from metaphorical
time travel to something more literal, and I perceive three 'levels' to
this, which I present here. Level one is the most metaphorical, involving
artistic approaches; level two is connected to consciousness, and J.W.
Dunne's once well-known experiment; and level three is somewhere within
the realm of parapsychology, the area of paranormal experiences like 'time
warps'. I offer here a whistle-stop tour of the three.
I don't divide time travel into three levels this way because of academic
knowledge, or any dilettantish expertness. In fact, I was asked to write
this piece rather out of the blue. My thinking on this subject is merely
the result of personal experience, the chance absorption of information,
which I don't pretend to fully understand. Certainly I'm well placed to
write about how artists have metaphorically 'travelled in time' - I've
seen them up close as they played with the concept, and I'll describe
this. As for Dunne, I've lost count of the number of times I've seen his
book An Experiment with Time in friends' apartments and in second-hand
bookshops. The title has always aroused my curiosity, and eventually there
came a time when I read it - and I even tried keeping a dream journal,
which Dunne recommended his readers do because he believed consciousness
exists outside time and we can dream memories of the future. (I'll try
to explain all that.) Finally, I've learned a bit about time warps - discontinuities
in the passage of time. We experience one moment at a time, but a warp
in time could take us out of the sequence, jolt us into the past or future
and back again. I have had an experience something like this, which I
shall relate to you. It's not so much an amusing anecdote as something
I find a little bit frightening, and as I'm writing this piece, I find
my thoughts straying back to this incident over and over, and the eyes
that looked on me in the station… But I'm getting ahead of myself; I'll
tell you about level one before I get to level three.
Level one: a bridge between.
In May 2011, I was invited by the artists Cathrine Dahl and Řrjan Aas
to Atelier W17 (at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo) to a multi-artist exhibition
'on time travel', to interview artists and attendees about time. It was
an appropriate job for me to be unexpectedly offered, as I lacked the
qualifications to do it. With my own ad hoc notions about physics and
art, I enjoyed confronting artists with questions like, 'Do you feel influenced
by the future in your work?'
I also presented interviewees with ideas from Einstein's special theory
of relativity, talking about how time is relative to how fast you are
moving in relation to the speed of light, so there is no absolute simultaneity,
or 'now'. The difference between past, present and future is illusory,
and all times are equally real. I asked interviewees to think of time
as a block, or of themselves as four-dimensional beings.
It was easy enough for me, at least, to imagine time spatially. The fact
that time is a dimension is already implied in the way we use the vocabulary
of space for the vocabulary of time travel: 'forwards in time', 'backwards
in time', 'points in time', and the word 'travel' itself, all of these
are spatial. Everything and everyone who had ever been or will be in that
exhibition space could be imagined as being there all at once, which I
think is why Cath and Řrjan decided to bring anachronisms, from the past
(and future?), into the exhibition.
For example, Sonja Krohn was there, drawing a model. The anachronistic
aspect of this was that she did life drawing in that same room in the
1960s, when it was part of the art academy. She was recreating what she
used to do in the room years ago, and told me, 'That must be the most
simple way of travelling in time somehow, quite simply go into the same
position as earlier, doing the very same thing.' In response to my statement
about the past and the future being as real as this present moment, she
revealed that she carried around with her a postcard from the British
Museum, a portrait of a woman from Egypt from the era 55-70 CE. 'This
person has been looking at the painter in the same way as we do today,'
said Sonja, 'and in a way you can see this person, and feel that the same
moment somehow is there , it is making some kind of bridge between the
situs.' I think she pluralized the word situ, which is derived from the
Latin word meaning position. She may have meant to say situations, but
the Latin is more evocative of the spatial vocabulary I mentioned. Sonja
went on to make the point that something of the life or soul of the woman
from Egypt can be seen through the centuries, which, I suppose, is time
travel. The way I thought of it, the past still exists, and the portrait
was helping us to see the reality of it.
Petter Buhagen was another artist exhibiting in the room, and his approach
contrasted with that of Sonja Krohn's. His work was an act of destruction.
When I reflect upon it now, I am reminded of the way anachronisms could
become triggers for cracks in time in the old Sapphire and Steel television
serials, and the titular characters often had to destroy or hide objects
that performed this function. Effectively, this was what Petter was doing.
He was exhibiting shredded love letters. Destroying them meant he could
no longer read them, so he could not 'go back' and re-experience that
love. Therefore he called the piece Broken Time Machine.
The interview recordings were edited by Řrjan and broadcast live by me
on RadiOrakel that June, interspersed with songs which the listener could
easily work out had in common the word 'time' in their titles ('The Time
is out of Joint!' by Scott Walker, 'Time Has Told Me' by Nick Drake, and
so on). This radio broadcast doesn't seem to have gone away in time -
it's still on my Soundcloud; the artist Chooc Ly Tan sampled snippets
of dialogue from it for her film In Space There Is No Up Or Down, which
is currently being shown at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology
in Liverpool, until 22 June 2014, before it goes on tour; and here I am
writing about it.
Level two: experimental displacement.
J.W. Dunne (1875-1949) designed and flew aircraft in the early part of
the twentieth century. (There was talk at one time of him being an ancestor
of mine, through some obscure relative in Liverpool, but I never found
any information to confirm that rumour.) While in Alassio, Italy, in 1901,
he dreamt of a town near Khartoum, and three sunburnt men dressed in ragged,
faded khaki, coming in from the south. He asked them where they had come
from, and they said the Cape. The morning after the dream, he received
a copy of The Daily Telegraph from England, which contained the headline
THE CAPE TO CAIRO, about an expedition arriving in Khartoum. The incident
having occurred before the paper was published, Dunne knew that he had
not, for instance, travelled via the astral plane to the location the
night before. It seemed to be a precognitive dream.
Other dreams that predated newspaper headlines followed, but eventually
Dunne had a dream, while staying near Lake Achen in Austria, in 1904,
which for him ruled out the idea that he was a clairvoyant. In the dream,
he was walking down a path between two fields. A horse was 'kicking and
plunging in a most frenzied fashion', and escaped the field it was in,
and came at him. The dreaming Dunne ran for his life towards some steps
- and woke up. The next day, he was fishing with his brother at a river
when he saw the scene he had dreamt: a frenzied horse was running down
a path between two fields. It passed some steps and splashed into the
river. For Dunne, the fact that this incident differed from the dream
in some details showed that the dreams he had been having were ordinary,
containing distortions of waking experience. If he had dreamt about the
horse after the event, he would not have considered it unusual. However,
the dreams were occurring on the 'wrong nights', before the waking events.
This led him to develop a theory of time, and he wrote the book An Experiment
with Time, which was published in 1927.
In Dunne's theory, sleep allows consciousness to become displaced from
the illusory past-present-future sequence, and allows us to experience
memories of the future. To conduct an experiment on a mass scale, his
book encouraged its readers to keep dream journals. In answer to the question
of why time displacement seems to occur only in dreams, he answered that
this was not so, and the experiment did not have to be conducted while
asleep. Dunne conducted waking experiments on himself, trying to remember
books he was about to read for the first time. He simply had to avoid
thinking about the past, and avoid any trains of thought obviously associated
with the books, and await 'disconnected flashes' from the future. While
he found this effective, time displacement was more easily achieved in
dreaming, even though he found that the story-based nature of dreams complicated
Dunne seems to have been appreciated by the scientists of his era, although
his experiment with time does not seem to have led to anything conclusive,
as far as I am aware. His theory was well known in the 20s and 30s, and
influenced works by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that no one reads today,
but most particularly it influenced J.B. Priestley (whose still-performed
Time Plays must have in turn have been an inspiration for Sapphire and
Steell). The experiment may still be conducted; it may just have gone underground.
In 1993, a psychotherapist called Mary S. Stowell wrote a dissertation
entitled 'Precognitive Dreams: A Phenomenological Study of Adults Who
Repeatedly Experience Dreams About Events Which Later Occur', and it was
said that she hoped to write a book based on her results, yet none ever
materialized. I myself kept a dream journal according to the instructions
set out in An Experiment with Time, but awoke one morning in 2012 to find
that it had inexplicably vanished from my bedside. It's like someone didn't
want me to be conscious of any future events. If it was a joke, I'm still
waiting for the punchline. It could have been taken by the flatmate I
had, who was leaving to move to Liverpool around that time. He was an
ophthalmic optician, but bit of a practical joker, obsessed with putting
pepper in people's eye drops if he could get away with it. I have lost
touch with him, so I can't ask him about the diary.
Level three: warps and slips.
The parapsychological literature is full of first-person accounts of unusual
events which may or may not be time-related. In attempts to make sense
of this material, certain terminology has arisen which we should not use
loosely. The term time warp covers any kind of discontinuity in the passage
of time, such as witnessing something before or after it actually happened;
experiencing time standing still; or experiencing a jump from one time
to another. This includes incidents of missing time, where some time has
passed which cannot be accounted for, like it's two o'clock, you do something
that usually takes ten minutes, then you look at your watch and it's five
- that kind of thing.
Another type of jump in time is a time-slip, which involves the experience
of slipping into another time, as in the famed 'Moberly-Jourdain incident'.
The academics Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain caused a sensation
when they reported that while in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles
in 1901, they got lost and saw many archaic things and people (including
Marie Antoinette), and became convinced that they had briefly slipped
back to 1789. In more recent years, there have been reports from the public,
writing in to magazines like Fortean Times, about out-of-place
people being seen in anachronistic dress, who looked confused by their
surroundings. These could be the time-slips of people visiting our present.
Time warps, time-slips, and the idea that any unexplained experiences
really result from warps in time, are hypothetical, of course. However,
just say that in the future, I become the person who discovers how time
travel works, and I travel in time at will, whenever I like, with or without
a time machine. Then time travel, as we think of it from science fiction,
would be real. I think that such a process must be a type of time warp,
as it involves discontinuity: travelling from one time to another, out
of temporal sequence. Time travel would be a deliberate, or active, version
of a time-slip, which is passive, and accidental. When considered this
way, there is no meaningful difference between a time-slip and time travel,
apart from that of intention.
An experience I had with a friend in 2013, if truly as paranormal as it
seemed to be, could be termed a time warp which has much of the character
of a time-slip, although not just that.
My friend, an optician who wears sensible shoes and keeps regular hours,
a fairly normal person with an average imagination, would not be embarrassed
by being associated with the story I am about to tell - no-one would ever
call her crazy - but she has declined to be named, while at the same time
remarking that she has no objection to me writing this piece, which she
says, 'will expose the whole can of worms', whatever that means (she has
We were underground, in Nationaltheatret T-bane station, on the westbound
platform, and as soon as we stepped onto it we realized we were in darkness.
We could not see any lights above, or the digital screens that display
the train times. 'Has there been a power cut?' my friend asked. It was
curiously airless on the platform, and the atmosphere had a kind of metallic
taste, as if I had just licked a tin can. There were other people there,
but apart from a young man in a black suit who stood near us, they were
huddled together down the far end of the platform, grouped around a pile
of luggage. The young man was frowning, looking a bit perplexed, as we
probably did too. Later, it occurred to me that I had not noticed any
of those huge advertising boards that are usually present. In the shadows,
I thought I could make out the shapes of strange cables hanging down from
the ceiling, above the tracks.
There was an odd quietness, which was then interrupted when a tall man
stepped loudly onto the platform and came marching in our direction. The
uniform he wore looked overly formal, with insignia on the shoulders.
He wore a peaked cap, and he had a moustache that drooped like a willow
tree, hiding his mouth, which unbalanced his face, making his eyes look
especially penetrative and staring. I couldn't see his lips move, but
he sonorously announced something about the train to Holmenkollen, and
I could hear the rumble of a distant train. I turned to my friend then,
but suddenly my eyes hurt as if they had been poked, and for a second
I couldn't make out anything. I was no longer aware of the rumbling, or
any sound. I turned back to the station guard, only to see him many feet
further away than he had been, stepping onto the platform as if he was
just arriving. There was no way he could have retreated that distance
in the second or so I turned away. Once again, I saw him come towards
us, announce the train to Holmenkollen in the same tone, and I heard the
rumble begin - again. I had the strong impression I had just experienced
the same scene twice, a replaying of time not normally associated with
time-slips in the parapsychological literature.
As the station guard passed him, the young man was staring at him with
a look of real terror. The rumble soon became an arrival, the regular
MX3000 electric train, and we got on board. I saw the young man loosen
his tie nervously, and step onto the next carriage. The rest of the journey
passed as normal. Whatever was going on at Nationaltheatret, it makes
me a little nervous when months later I saw old photos of the station
from the 20s and 30s, because I have a feeling that if the lights had
been on, we would have been in a scene just like one of those images.
I know, at least, that it was not a hallucination. My friend remembers
the scene in the station vividly, and at the time she was considerably
more unnerved by the atmosphere there than I was, and experienced feeling
afraid the rest of the evening. She says that even discussing it now upsets
her. It was important that we compare notes, though. There are slight
differences in her account. She did not experience the station guard appearing
twice, and she says his uniform was blue (I couldn't see the colour in
the darkness), and that she could not only see his mouth, but that he
was 'grinning'. Something that is very much at odds with my version of
events, and something that she said I must mention, is that she insists
both the grinning guard and the terrified young man showed, with their
eyes, and with nods of acknowledgement, that they recognized me.
It's only as I write this that I think more about her point of view. Did
they recognize me? I try and try to remember their eyes. The guard staring
into me. The young man's eyes of fear. Perhaps my friend saw relationships
that only an observer could see. Did the scene have something to do with
me in particular? What could that be?
All this time travel stuff! It's becoming a bother, a frustration. What's
it got to do with me? Who would want my dream diary, for instance? Why
do people keep asking me to broadcast or write about time travel? Is there
a purpose to this? Is there a time coming when I will know?