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Time of Your Life

Time seems to be in the fashion; having a while ago started to take a special interest in it for what I like to think of as impeccably scholarly purposes, I keep stumbling on books and lecture-series and conversations about “time’s arrow” and so forth, so that it looks as if to be “Time-haunted,” a word Mr. Priestley uses of himself, has become the complaint to have.

The symptoms in his case are copious and graphic; this is a big double-column book with a text, dutifully or compulsively chatty, into which spectacular and more or less relevant photographs irrupt continually. Unperturbed, the author continues with placid thoroughness to discourse on all manner of time-problems; he is a sort of latter-day Addison, an intelligent and urbane middleman with his legs under the coffeehouse table, retailing for the layman his more or less informed views on St. Augustine, McTaggart, clocks, and calendars. At one point he humorously observes that the book should probably have been written by somebody else, and it is true that if you are prepared to accept a little less belles-lettres in the mix you can do better elsewhere.

All the same Priestley is readable, and he injects a certain urgency by making no secret of the fact that he thinks the subject a matter of life and death. So, of course, it literally is. But it is precisely when he is most serious that he drifts off into quasi-philosophical doodling. Admittedly the difficulties are daunting; some of them are outside the range of everybody except theoretical physicists. But we can cheer ourselves up by believing that all that kind of thing has nothing to do with time as human beings invent or experience it. Anybody can be Time-haunted; the question is, who wants to be, and why?

Sometimes it seems that we may be experiencing, a little prematurely, that convergence of historiographical myths which sometimes happens at the end of a century, and which is sometimes called fin-de-siècle, or, in Oscar Wilde’s more extravagant phrase, fin du globe. Somehow it seems acceptable to believe that we, of all people, are in the final age of transition before the ultimate count-down, our drab nuclear apocalypse; hence the resurgence of various eschatological myths, such as decadence and imperialism. The beauty of an historical crisis (and it is some time since we have been able to manage without one) is that it gives you a Pisgah from which to observe the predetermined but inscrutable future. Nobody else has ever been so given to screwing up the stuff of chronology into bundles of crisis as we are. And we suppose that we have the right to call ours the real crisis, if only because we can blow the trumpet ourselves. Since we put nothing after the bang—no millennium—we really have a very final end to think about, with possibly only a very short time in between. And even this time we should like to have some prophetic control; not only is it all we have, it also affects our life in the precious here and now.

Do you believe in what Priestley calls “the F.I.P. effect” (Future Influencing Present)? Of course you do; our apocalypse shapes our lives, whether it’s going to happen or not, as apocalypses have always done. And this is, surely, a hint as to the way the future influences the present in less grandiose affairs. We put probabilities to work in the gap between now and the end; we have also images of that end, endowed with more or less of the clarity of a Jesuit meditation. The image we have may turn out to be wrong; we may end unusually, smothered with cassia or shot to death with pearls; but the picture we have—say of an emaciated figure plucking at the covers—has still an emblematic truth, and a powerful F.I.P. effect. Furthermore, the more often you dream about your own or somebody else’s death, the more likely you are to get it right, and of course if you have clues—if your husband is a spy or a heavy smoker, for instance—your chance is quite good, you may have an F.I.P. dream any night.

But death, being a certainty, is of small interest if you are looking for a theory of predictive dreaming. It is the trivial predictions that count. And what really interests Mr. Priestley, though he spends most of his space rather nobly doing Time, is the improbable dream which comes true. So he tries to put the skeptics’ case as fairly as possible, and then comes up with the oddest dreams-come-true he can find. Some are his own, and some are from people whose honesty cannot possibly be challenged. But what we should really need, if we were going to be scientific about this, is a full account of a dream written down and authenticated before events confirmed it—in the Thirties we were all urged by F. P. Dunne in his then very fashionable Experiment with Time to keep a notebook by our beds for exactly this purpose—and this is, alas, hard to find. Even with such an authenticated account one has room left for skepticism. Some dreams discussed by Priestley are rather likely to occur—a driver’s dream of killing a child, a vacationing mother’s of seeing her baby drowned. We all dream a lot, and that makes millions of dreams, so that some of them working out to the last improbable detail is no stranger than that somebody always wins a lottery. Priestley asked a television audience, presumed to be over a million, to send him predictive dreams, so he was, as it were, buying a lot of tickets. He should have got a few real stunners, and he did; but in no case was the dream recorded before the confirmation, and with the best will in the world people can hardly have avoided reading the event back into the dream.

What struck me about his correspondents was their simplicity. All the letters speak of events exactly like the events of the dream. This is surely a modern naiveté; older dreaming was more complex, more oracular, producing interesting rival interpretations and possessing large symbolic contents. This is true at an apparently unsophisticated level. I remember how my mother, a country girl, would be pleased at some trivial occurrence—say, a peddler coming to the door—and say, “Ah, that broke my dream.” It must have been a dream of indefinable significance, which some event could prove trivial and powerless. There is a folk notion, too, of dreams coming true by contraries: if you dream of a wedding there will be a funeral. This suggests at least an inkling that the temporal confirmation of dreams is likely to be obscure and in need of interpretation. Among the learned the whole problem, until quite recently, was considered in terms of the distinction between the good and the evil dream, somnium and phantasma; so that there is an equivocality built into the tradition. Shakespeare, who knew this distinction, learned the uses of equivocation. In the early history-plays people, Queen Margaret, for example, can prophesy the dynastic developments of the next couple of generations with the uncanny accuracy of seers vouchsafed a glimpse at a proof copy of Holinshed; in Macbeth prophecies quiver with equivocation from the first line, and indeed equivocation becomes the subject of the play. Dreams, after all, are fictions: and our most ordinary fictions use this basic equivocation. In its mechanical form you can watch it on Perry Mason—somebody will say “I’ll kill you for this,” and the person threatened will surely soon be dead, but not at the hand of the threatener. The odd thing is that Mr. Priestley’s correspondents fall below this level of smartness, and the only equivocating is in the slight margin of error the dream prophecies seem to leave: you dream your baby drowns, and he very nearly does.

It is about this equivocation that Priestley theorizes. Years ago he took Dunne very seriously, but he now rejects the general theory proposed by that interesting figure because he is made giddy by the doctrine of an infinite regress of time-observers. This was actually an attempt to solve an old philosophical puzzle concerning the flow of time: time itself measures a flow of events, so what measures time must be another kind of time, and so on infinitely. Dunne hypostasized this regress as multidimensional time, which each of us may experience in any dimension; and so he explained predictive dreams. Priestley turns this down largely because he doesn’t like it, and because he can handle three dimensions of time more comfortably. Here he seeks support from the disciples of Ouspensky, who give Time three dimensions to correspond to those of space, calling them the fourth, fifth and sixth dimensions of reality.

Three Times have their uses, no doubt: one for ordinary experience, one for achronic insights, one for the mystic’s time, the nunc stans. And there is the number time-theorists have lighted on again and again; it clearly is the comfortable number, though large questions are involved in the supposition that it is therefore descriptive of an impersonal cosmos. Three, in short, is no truer, only more convenient, than eight or seventy-two. But it does come in handy when you tackle specific problems such as Priestley’s worry about the degree to which action based on prophetic dreams can forestall the evil there predicated; he has workable counters, Times A, B, and C as he calls them, and he uses them to explain not only why we can foresee, but why we can prevent what is to come. Each of us is, if only fitfully, a Laplace endowed with the power to apprehend a nature in which what is pre-determined may also be prevented; we have, in some curiously limited way, the power to observe what shall have happened and produce a situation in which we can say that it has not happened. I put it thus because, all questions of the validity of the evidence aside, there is much that is merely verbal in these problems, and it seems unlikely that they will be solved by the free invention of categories which serve no other purpose than to solve them.

Although his defense of three-dimensional time is amiable in tone, Priestley occasionally develops a curiously Calvinistic fervor in his comments on those who do not accept it. They are “trapped in a barren concept of time,” he says, in an impoverished unilinearity. Actually, modern temporal attitudes are extremely sophisticated and various: archaeologists, anthropologists, art-historians, physicists, factory managers, athletes, all use variant models. But for Priestley this is all thin poor stuff in comparison with Indian recurrence theories, which he is willing to take to their vain and repulsive conclusions (a suicide is buying himself not release but cycles of infernal misery). When myths turn into dogmas they become capable of inflicting wretchedness in so far as they can impose acceptance. I don’t care who believes that human consciousness survives in Time Two, and that we have access, in Time Three, to the mythical illud tempus, as Eliade calls it; this is only another fantastic fin-de-siècle scheme, like Mme. Blavatsky’s. But when Mr. Priestley, on the strength of it, sends the “wicked” to hell, I know this isn’t the world I want, or even a fiction I condone. So it is fortunate that, if I may adapt an old remark of Bertrand Russell’s, the reasons for believing in Time Two are exactly as good as those for believing in Santa Claus.

One more word, in fairness, about precognitive dreams. The one that stopped me came from Sir Stephen King-Hall, a most reasonable and intelligent man. In 1916 he was officer of the watch in a cruiser steaming into Scapa Flow. He saw an island a mile ahead, and knew a man would go overboard when they passed it. The moment was entirely inauspicious, as they were about to anchor, but King-Hall ordered the sea-boat made ready, and took other precautions; a man fell overboard, not from his ship but from the one behind; and thirty seconds later another from the ship behind that. King-Hall in a sense risked his career to play a hunch. I suppose everybody knows the kind of feeling he must have had; what is impressive is its force. There may have been circumstances, though he did not notice them consciously, that made the event more probable (it is not altogether uncommon; I myself saw it happen four times in five years). Still, it defeats me. But I won’t believe in six dimensions to explain it; I’d rather call it simply “inexplicable.”

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