The Revealing Game of Time Machine Travel

For some time now my favorite ‘after-dinner game’ has been to ask my respondents the following questions: If you had a time-machine, where and when in the past would you go? And when you arrived, would you rather be a fly on the wall that merely observes the action or would you want to jump in and be a participant?

I find the answers to this question–and my asking of it so that time travel is restricted to one direction–revealing in more ways than one.

First, there is the National Geographic answer: I want to see dinosaurs walk the earth; I want to see sabre-toothed tigers and mammoths go at each other.  I suspect this group of respondents likes the idea of a human-free earth and wonders what it was like before homo sapiens queered the pitch; the time machine enables its inspection. Perhaps we imagine a pristine, unspoiled state; perhaps our minds bear the impress of the archetype of the Garden of Eden and hanker after it.

Then there is the History Channel or the ‘Seeing Great Folks in Action’ answer: I’d like to pay witness to Napoleon directing his marshals at Austerlitz, to life in Constantinople during the glory days of the Ottomans, or to Michelangelo hard at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to this line of thinking: I would like to attend the courts of the Mughals, see a wartime camp of Genghis Khan’s, or witness the great air-sea battles of the Second World War. These answers seek to bring to life the imagined contents of history books; its respondents pride themselves on a sensitive appreciation of their offerings and seek to make real the metaphorical travel afforded by their contents.

In both kinds of answers those who participate in these fantasies of mine prefer to be flies on the wall; they are aware, I think, of the impossibility of being able to ‘participate’ in any meaningful—or safe–way in the times they are visiting.

But the most interesting kind of answer to my frivolous questions is provided by those who suggest they would use the time machine to engage in personal archaeology: to visit their home-town before their birth, to see their parents on their first date, and perhaps most exotically, to visit a younger version of themselves. I’ve provided variants of this kind of answer: I would like to see my father at work as an air force pilot flying into combat, my mother attending classes in her university days, my grandfather in our ancestral village in that part of Punjab which now belongs to Pakistan. And so on.

These answers are not merely nostalgia-mongering, the sentiments underlying which are sometimes revealed in the urge we may have to jump into and through an old photograph. Rather the space-time locales we indicate as our destinations in time traveling reveal an abiding fascination of ours for getting to the root of ourselves, perhaps as clue to present behaviors of ours that we find inexplicable, as solutions to enduring conundrums created by our lack of transparency to ourselves.  So time-travel becomes a means of self-discovery, the latest addition to the ever-expanding quivers and arsenals of tricks and weapons with which we imagine and understand ourselves.

To travel backward in time is to engage in a form of speculative discovery familiar to those that spend much time in the clinic, on the couch, accompanied by the therapist, holder of the mirror that reflects our autobiographical confessions. The advantages of supplementing or perhaps replacing the fifty-minute paid-for session—controlled by Svengali-like figures—are tempting. Those long, rambling, tentative tramps through our memories—while we worry about whether we might be engaged in an elaborate self-serving fiction—could be replaced by the empirical verification made possible by time travel. 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.

A strong desire for personal archaeology may be prevalent in parents who have become aware–thanks to the birth of their children—that they are likely to remain mysteries to their offspring. This disconcerting thought in turn evokes the mystery associated with their own parents. What were my parents like—independent of being those who gave birth to me? Conversely, there is the great mystery of childhood memory: we know so little of the period when we were at our most formative, when the seeds of our origins were taking root. What was I like as a child? Did I cry as much as my own child, seem as terrified, cause as much bother and anxiety?  The most fascinating mysteries might reside within, and in those closest to us. Sometimes they may only be solved by being eyewitness to the events that lie at their heart.

So it may be that the most interesting histories for us are not the ones that talk of brave kings, beautiful princesses, and tales of valor and bravery on bloody battlefields, but rather, the much more mundane stories of our own lives, which add up to the history of our times. I suspect this ‘revelation’ is like discovering a good documentary can be as riveting as a feature movie; the time machine is our way for viewing the documentary of our lives.

Some of the fascination with the time machine should be a familiar one. We are, after all, chroniclers of our lives: diaries, photographs, autobiographies. When we peer at photo albums we are fascinated by images of ourselves, struck by the mystery of the person whose body we currently inhabit. The urge to inquire into its provenance is   irresistible. In response, our memory aids are ever more elaborate. Besides ourselves, we videotape our children; we photograph them. Most children in first world industrialized democracies have extensive photographic records and large video libraries of their lives available to them. Soon, with digital storage easily and cheaply available it will be possible to make an entire childhood available on high-definition streaming video: a movie of one’s life for on-demand watching. The time machine is but a viewer of sorts for this unmade movie of our life.

There is a wrinkle to the fly on the wall behavior the time machine permits. Consider for instance that I might want to travel back to my father and mother’s lives as a young couple, perhaps recently married, to witness their interactions, to listen into their conversations as they plan the decisions crucial in my family’s history. This is a distinctly voyeurish desire. My parents’ lives were their own; they were constructing their relationship in their expectation of an intimate space. My acting like a Peeping Tom seems like an inappropriate intrusion, a gratuitous violation of their privacy. Our use of the time machine might need to be tempered by norms of a type sensitive to its powers.

If the answers provided by my respondents in this ‘game’ are revelatory, so is the asking of the question that prompted them. For in trying to elicit responses, I seek to inquire whether others are as perplexed as I am by the bits and pieces that make up my life, and don’t mind a little fantasizing as antidote.

Note: This piece is an extended version of an older post titled ‘Time Travel and Psychotherapy.’

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