1. The Time Machine

    September 19, 2018 by Chris Motley

    Futuristic time-travel narratives afford writers and readers an experience that seems to come naturally to the imagination: the experience of speculation, asking what-if. Reading the signs of the times and projecting current trends into future realities. Wells’ The Time Machine is a progenitor of this genre (in fact coining the very term “time machine”), arriving at a high point of the industrialization, urbanization, and scientification of Western society. 

    When a work of fiction looks into the future, it tends to see progress or regression at a dramatic pace and scale, in turn using that projected state of affairs to comment on the way we live now. What often appears as progress in these novels and stories can turn out to be something quite else. 

    Wells captures this tension in our excerpt here with one oxymoron. As the Time Traveler explores this new world he has alighted upon, he says, “As I walked I was watching for every impression that could possibly help to explain the condition of ruinous splendour in which I found the world – for ruinous it was.” Ruinous splendour. This phrase points to the two areas of concern for the Time Traveler when observing this strange world: the interaction of the human-made structures with the natural world, and the implications for that relationship with the makeup of society, the way of life. These two concerns point to one of the main concerns of futuristic science-fiction today: the effects of climate change. There is a lengthy stretch in our excerpt in which the Time Traveler combines these concerns – the natural and the social – in his assessments:

    There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a gardenThe whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster toward the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs

    This adjustment, I say, must have been done, and done well; done indeed for all Time, in the space of Time across which my machine had leapt. The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventative medicine was attained. Diseases had been stamped out. I saw no evidence of any contagious diseases during all my stay. And I shall have to tell you later that even the processes of putrefaction and decay had been profoundly affected by these changes. 

    There is a feedback loop, the Time Traveler observes, when this “readjustment” occurs. Becoming more attuned to natural rhythms allows a community to build in a way that perpetuates that attunement. This results in a change of culture: 

    Social triumphs, too, had been effected … Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is great strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help – may even be hindrances – to a civilised man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place. 

    And there we arrive at another phrase that might give us pause: a civilised man. Without reading the rest of The Time Machine (I hope that you do), we can nonetheless identify something lurking behind this “ruinous splendour.” No utopia, at least in literature, is not without its shadow. In The Time Machine, they are Morlocks, beings who live underground and whose labor (and suffering) make the world of the Eloi (the “civilised” beings the Time Traveler befriends) possible. 

    It is the conflict between the Eloi and Morlocks that drives the main drama of The Time Machine. This conflict should cause readers to consider who gets left out of our own “ruinous splendour,” and what rationales we invent to keep them out. 

    But at this point we can think of the book in a way that connects us to this series on time. In the era of climate change and the Anthropocene, literature increasingly ponders, as does Wells here, deep time. The disastrous political situation in the United States will yield (I must believe it, to remain sane) deeper awareness of and engagement with the needs of the world. This must be the long-term view. But our day-to-day lives, for people who care about what is happening, is structured around the moment. What new scandal can the news present to me today? Where can I find the talking points that I need for happy hour or Sunday dinner? What is happening now? Literature has the power to remove us from this cultural and psychological tailspin. By thinking, as does Darwin, the third figure in this series, in terms of durations beyond a single life-span, new doors of perception open. This is what Wells is after in The Time Machine, which concludes with The Time Traveler’s sojourns to the very ends (conclusions) of life itself. He sees firsthand how it all will play out. This destiny, the extinguishing of life, seems inevitable. So, what is all the fuss about in the here and now? 


  2. The Skull

    September 18, 2018 by Chris Motley

     “The Skull” is a story about mis-remembering, mis-recognition. In Conger’s time there are these “Churches,” established by a mysterious and forgotten Founder on the principles of non-violence and de-militarization. Philip K. Dick is adept at atmospherics – think of Blade Runner. Conger’s world has a “fallen” feeling to it, as do many of Dick’s stories. Darkness abounds in a dilapidating urban environment. The interplanetary travel that Conger has experienced does not seem to be the result of utopian innovation but closer to our current idea of dystopian desperation. The world that we know has passed away. In this story Conger is sent to a place which itself seems like another planet: the American Midwest, circa 1960. But his target, however influential he was, will be difficult to peg. Nobody seems to remember his likeness. Conger must do some detective work, and trust his intuition. 

    The plot – literally the plot to murder the Founder – is a reversal of a familiar time-travel sub-genre, in which one plays around with the idea of going back in time to, say, off Hitler while he is a baby and prevent that evil from entering the world. A kind of self-righteous revisionism. Here, the Speaker wants to assassinate the Founder of a peace movement, in order to eradicate even the most obscure challenge to total warfare and military domination. Conger is game, hunter (and choice-less prisoner) that he is. But it doesn’t take him too long to have a key realization while contemplating the skull, the talisman of the whole enterprise: 

    What if he [the Founder] could see this, his own skull, yellow and eroded? Two centuries old. Would he still speak? Would he speak, if he could see it, the grinning, aged skull? What would there be for him to say, to tell the people? What message could he bring? 

    What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? Better they should enjoy their temporary lives, while they still had time to enjoy. 

    A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements. Rather, he would preach the opposite. 

    In an implausibly sudden recognition, Conger realizes, upon closer examination of the skull, that he is indeed the Founder. His meditation on mortality comes full circle:

    He turned toward the skull. There it was, his skull, yellow with age. Escape? Escape, when he had held it in his own hands?

    What did it matter if he put it off a month, a year, ten years, even fifty? Time was nothing. He had sipped chocolate with a girl born a hundred and fifty years before his time. Escape? For a little while, perhaps. 

    But he could not really escape, no more so than anyone else had ever escaped, or ever would. 

    Conger is contemplating existential questions of escape. But literally, he is contemplating escape from the mob that chases him after a tussle the day before. And here he has his next realization, that all this, as the final word of the story conveys, is “foreordained.” He would be killed today, appear again in a few months, and then be born again two centuries hence. His destiny, already transpired, is revealed to him for what it is. The point is that he recognizes it, achieves a new level of enlightenment. With that new knowledge, he embraces his role. He addresses the crowd with the koan-like utterance that would shape generations: “Those who take lives will lose their own. Those who kill, will die. But he who gives his own life away will live again!” Rather than snuff out these originary words, Conger speaks them himself.

    Mis-recognition. To speak of “The Skull” as a strictly Christian allegory is perhaps to mis-recognize it. It’s too small a game to play. My students and any reader paying attention will catch the parallels. What I get out of this story is how it uses the mysteriousness of Christianity to point to an even larger existential phenomenon. I am interested in another possible mis-recognition – what if Conger mis-identifies himself as the Founder? What if his ruminations on mortality prompt him to make the mistake of thinking that he is the one? What would this mean? It would mean, possibly, that he is making an even deeper recognition, one that brings us back to Christianity and any other serious peace movement. He is recognizing, perhaps, that we are all the Founder. We bear the seeds of that message in us. We need only to remember that fact, to awaken to it. Once we do, the wisdom goes, we realize that we will not die. “The Skull” at last can be read as a parable of enlightenment. 

    No parable of enlightenment is complete without its dark side. The broader catalyst for Conger’s awakening is first mob violence. In his own time, the Speaker’s desire to make the world safe for war is a war of all against one. In Colorado 1960, the mob seeks Conger for retribution, a social execution. The collective rallies around itself to destroy the outcast shrouded in difference. This is the deep mythology of the Christian narrative, played out again and again. The Founder’s message is so scandalous as to rouse a mob. To hold fast to the message is to transcend the fetters of cyclical violence. 

    On the first page of the story, Conger asks the Speaker, “Who do you want me to kill?” The Speaker replies with a smile, “All in proper sequence.” At the end of the story we realize that Conger is not meant to kill “himself,” his physical body. He is meant to kill the killer within himself. Awakening to that realization must occur in “proper sequence,” which includes mis-recognition and recognition, of one’s true nature, and of the violence of the world. 


  3. On the Origin of Species

    September 11, 2018 by Chris Motley

    The concept of evolution terrifies me. I’m totally okay with the idea that my body has emerged from an aeons-old forge, chiseled out by generations upon generations of trial and error. I am even okay (on better days) with the fact that my body is indeed not a machine, not optimized for my environment, which becomes more machine-like and so less human, less humane, by the year. No, here is what terrifies me about evolution, which the field of evolutionary psychology continues to develop, echoed by millennia of Buddhist tradition. Namely, my consciousness, my mind, my sense of self, my special-ness, my delight, wonder, awe, and inspiration – all illusions. All of it a coping mechanism invented by a physical system intent only on survival in a dangerous world. 

    What terrified and terrifies Christians and many others about Darwin’s observations (in addition to racist fears of a universal shared ancestry) was the possibility of the de-centering of the human being. That all that image-and-likeness talk was, again, illusion. That the universe was bigger than us, who are blips, who are, in many cases, blights. That we were not put here but emerged through a process beyond our ability to fully understand. 

    Darwin’s work didn’t seem to terrify him. The continued work of natural science today doesn’t seem to terrify scientists. There are many reasons for that lack of existential angst, but let’s ponder a few from the “humanistic” side. I took a biology class at a Catholic college. On the final day, in the final minute, the professor announced that he knew the one evolutionary biologist who surpassed all the rest: God. This was a moment for young me, a believer. Indeed, who other than God could have designed such a network? Such unity in diversity? Though Darwin does not speak quite that language, his language is nonetheless one of awe. Are not the minutiae of nature invitations to contemplation? For the theologically-minded we can think of the word “immanence,” or what the Jesuits call “finding God in all things.” Is it not possible to divine divinity in the micro? To discover the universe in an insect? 

    Contemplating the immanence, the here-and-now-ness, of divinity leads us, limited and generally blind as we are, toward immanence’s cousin, transcendence. These are loaded terms, but in our context here, I just want to say something. Contemplating immanence connects me to what we have evolved from. And in doing so I feel connected to creation. That can’t be so bad. Contemplating immanence prompts me to contemplate transcendence, asking the question, what are we evolving toward? What, if any, is the raison d’etre of the whole enterprise of evolving creation? I wonder if my religious friends from across traditions, and even my science friends, could arrive with me at one word, for now: unity. Our physical bodies are united in our becoming. But our bodies have evolved to a degree that they can house what we are for now calling consciousness. And our consciousness is getting used to being on the scene, itself evolving from surviving, to striving, to thriving, to loving. To uniting. 

    To think in this way can connect our thoughts on Darwin to the theme of this series. Darwin thought in terms of what we now call “deep time.” Gazing beyond the concerns of his own life and times, his own generation, his own species, he was able to glimpse something. His discoveries constitute an inflection point in the history of human consciousness. He aided our own evolution. We partake of it now. The consequences permeate our daily lives. If we can perceive all of what we are now through the lens of deep time, what changes in our lives? What good is all this “knowledge,” given what we face now? 


  4. On Time

    August 29, 2018 by Chris Motley

    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?