On Time


Mouse Book Club

The selections in this series reflect, very generally, two ways of thinking about time. The first is time as we experience it: as a line, an arrow, a conveyor belt into the future. It moves in one direction. But the sciences have come far enough (and our wisdom traditions have known it for millennia) that a linear understanding of time is ultimately incomplete, impoverished. We seem to be imbued from the beginning with a facility for imagining derivations, deviations, and disruptions of the linear understanding of time. This imaginative capacity is as old as storytelling. But in the twentieth century, amid the accelerating discoveries of physics, writers of fiction have grasped a range of possibilities, and have built non-linear and anti-linear temporalities into their stories. This aspect of modern fiction was a key interest for me in my dissertation. To paraphrase the scholar Brian McHale, if writers between the wars were exploring what could be known, the limits of knowledge, then the writers after the wars were exploring what exactly constitutes a world. What is our world made of? Is it the only world? Are there, finally, as many worlds as there are minds? If time is a constitutive feature of a world, its binding feature, then deconstructing our limited understanding of time has the capacity to destabilize our very place in the world.

The fictional pieces in this series reflect this destabilizing impulse. Both The Time Machine and “The Skull” reside solidly within the genre of “time travel” fiction. Time travel opens a seemingly fathomless range of possibilities for a writer. In the case of Wells, it affords the writer a chance to comment on current trends in science and society, while exploring fantastical and far-fetched zones of the imagination. In the case of Dick, time travel affords the writer a chance to address recent history, and the history of one’s own life. What if things could have been different? What if things can never change?


In cases such as these, the real impact of the time travel strategy is thematic. A time travel story is effective when it engages our limitations regarding time. If we over-indulge a strictly linear understanding of time, we run into problems. Eckhart Tolle puts it this way: “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.” Literature loves time because it fuels the engines of storytelling. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry, guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, nonforgiveness: sounds like a great story! Stories feed off these “negative” aspects of life because they are points of identification. We see our anxiety in the anxiety of characters. So in Wells, a glimpse into the future invites a range of emotional responses about the fate of humanity. In Dick, we are left asking ourselves - What if I am the villain of someone else’s story? Going backward and forward in time in this way deepens the “human” experience.


But do we occupy a moment in which we strive to transcend the “human”? Are we not at last seeking in earnest the remedy for all this past and future in our lives? Consider the growing popularity of meditation and Eastern spiritual practices in the West today. The main idea is to gain a sense of presence, to be present to the present, as it were. If one trusts the process, if one believes the monks, then it is possible to escape the laundry list of woes, by just being here, now. Moreover, this being-here has the chance to transform society, in which, for now, time is money, and there is not a moment to lose on the path to optimization, total productivity. There seems to be on the horizon an awakening from this programmed slumber.


It is evolution - the second way of thinking about time. Charles Darwin observed the evolution of bodies, individual and collective adaptations to changing environments, unfolding in deep time, lifetimes. We have been taught to regard his work as “science,” which we have counter-posed to Christianity, which had already mapped the past, present, and future of the human race. The radical indeterminacy of creation that Darwin observed does not compute in the (traditional) Christian imagination. After Darwin, we are once again asking: What kind of world is this? Darwin begins with this question. The writings that emerged from this question contain what we now call the “scientific method.” A method first and foremost of observation, a bedrock technique of literary writing. His observations (and the generalizations he drew from them) were both meticulous and awestruck. In this way his writings are more than science. They are the work of a theologian, philosopher, and poet. In observing minutiae, Darwin discovered the universe, all of time. Can we not do the same, by watching closely, now?  

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
September 2018

Mouse Books TIME Series:

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells


"The Skull" by Philip K. Dick


"On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin