Time Travel without a Machine

© Barry Kavanagh 2014

Time Travel without a Machine

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 interpretation.

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 not explained).

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?