Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

The Extravagant, Space-Time Distorting Business of Time Cleaning

This morning Jason Read of the University of Southern Maine posted the following photograph on his Facebook page  (due to Tom McGlynn, to whom I owe thanks for letting me reproduce it here).

Jason added:

Just looking at it makes me want to write a bad science fiction novel about the unglamorous, dangerous, and low-paying job of time cleaners.

I look forward to Jason’s novel, which I doubt will be bad. In the meantime, I thought I would put down some very brief,  necessarily loose, remarks that perhaps Jason can draw on as he gets to work on his magnum opus. (Incidentally, I should say I disagree the work of time cleaners will be ‘unglamorous, dangerous and low-paying.’ Au contraire, it will be extremely lucrative, high-end, boutique work. There will be some dangers involved, as ruptures of the space-time fabric tend to have mysterious side-effects, but that is precisely why time cleaner clients will pay top dollar rates. I suspect there will be a booming insurance industry associated with it; as usual, Lloyds will gain first mover status in this new market quite quickly.)

What would a time cleaner do? Well, if time is understood as an ordering of events, then perhaps a time cleaner would be in charge of cleaning up this ordering by removing events altogether, reordering events, and inserting new ones. The possibilities are interestingly different, each with peculiarly different consequences. The client could say something along the following lines, ‘Dear time cleaner, I wish to have  my timeline cleaned up. Would you please delete event #214, place event #345 before event #234, not after, and can you insert a new event between #434 and #435 and renumber and reorder accordingly?’. The time cleaner would make the appropriate adjustments to the space-time fabric and then, if the technology is sophisticated enough, invite the client for a trial run before submitting the final version for use. It might be that event deletion, insertion and reordering is a destructive act, thus making trial runs impossible, and consequently rendering these procedures even more expensive. (The associated premiums for catastrophic errors would accordingly skyrocket.)

There is a problem with this picture, of course. My language suggests the client is enduring through external events distinct from the client. This doesn’t seem quite right, especially when you consider the client is enmeshed and implicated in those events. If a client is an extended space-time worm, the task of the time cleaner becomes more interesting: a kind of temporal cosmetic surgeon if you will, one responsible for artfully cleaning and concealing blemishes and imperfections in particular spatiotemporal co-ordinates. The client would check in at the time cleaning clinic, sign the appropriate disclaimers and then subject itself to the time cleaner’s scalpel.

There are some fascinating interactions that remain to be explored between the work of the time cleaner and that of the memory cleaner (the kind, for instance, shown to run rampant in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Having subjected one’s space-time worm to the time-cleaner would we be left with two memories? This might require calling in the services of the memory cleaners, or perhaps we could look forward to this as an enjoyable side-effect of the time cleaning. The possibilities are intriguing.

In any case, I welcome further speculative exploration of the time cleaner’s work.