For some time now, my favorite, bordering-on-juvenile–after-dinner or sometimes-online–parlor game has been to ask the following question(s): If you could use a time-machine, where and when would you want to visit? And would you rather be a fly on the wall, or a participant? (Incidentally, that should really be where-when; we’re in the 21st century now, and the Special Theory of Relativity is more than a hundred years old.)
I find the answers to this question–and my asking of it–revealing in more ways than one. There is the National Geographic answer: I wanna see dinosaurs! (I’m not ridiculing anyone; I too would like to witness those original Planet Earth Gangstas in the flesh, albeit from a safe distance.) Then there is the History Channel Travel Tour: I’d like to see Napoleon in action, Constantinople during the glory days of the Ottomans, or perhaps Michaelangelo hard at work on the Sistine Chapel.
But by far the most interesting kind of answer is the one where my respondent suggests they’d like to use the time machine to engage in a little personal archaeology: visiting their home-town in a period before their birth, seeing their parents’ first date, and perhaps most trippily, visiting an older self. (I’ve provided variants of this kind of answer at times when my question has been turned back on me.) I don’t think these answers are simple nostalgia-mongering, the sentiments underlying which are nowhere better revealed than in the irresistible urge we sometimes have to jump into and through an old photograph. Rather, I think the space-time points that are intended to serve as destinations in these answers reveal that abiding fascination of ours for getting to the root of ourselves, perhaps as clue to present pathology, perhaps as solutions to enduring conundrums created by our lack of auto-transparency. In this kind of answer, time-travel is just another name for self-discovery.
To travel thus, would be to engage in a form of speculative discovery most familiar to those that have spent much time in the clinic, and on the couch, accompanied by the therapist, holder of the mirror that reflects our autobiographical confessions back to us. And the advantages of supplementing–and for some, perhaps even replacing–the fifty-minute paid-for session, controlled by sometimes seemingly Svengali-like figures could seem tempting. Those long, rambling, sometimes-tentative tramps through our memories, through whose nooks and crannies we need to be guided, all the while anxious about whether we might just be engaged in a form of elaborate self-serving fiction, could then perhaps be replaced by a glorious bonanza of empirical verification. This is how it happened, this is what ‘really’ took place; and so, I whip out my lab notebook and scribble notes, filing them away for future reference, recall and guidance.
And as I said, if these answers are revelatory, so is the asking of the question that prompted them. For in trying to elicit responses to it, it is clear I seek to inquire whether others are just as perplexed as I am, and don’t mind a little fantasizing as antidote.