Thursday, March 22, 2018

TIME TRAVEL


2018

Most time travel stories are about performing surgery on the past to fix the present.  Rewriting history.  Destroying the doomsday device.  Stopping the assassination that triggers World War III.

Really, this is a pretty basic wish – to fix the past.

I’m heaving into the toilet and remember eating that questionable sushi.  If I could go back in time, I could …

Well, what?

Would I really want to travel back while I was writhing on the bathroom floor?  That’s an interesting question.  If I push the time-travel button, would I pop back to yesterday in that state?  So I would be bent over with cramps as I hid in the bushes watching myself eat the sushi that caused my illness.

Better to wait until I’m feeling better before going back to warn myself to have something else for lunch.

But would I really go?  Really?

I’m finally out of the woods … maybe ready for a walk … or brunch with a nice bloody Mary … am I really going to travel back in time to avoid an illness that has already passed?

Surely there are better past pains to fix.  Why not go back to when I was 10 and warn myself not to climb out on that rotten branch?

Once I started to think about fixing past physical injuries, maybe I’d look at more serious instances.  Instances that caused psychological scars.  Being humiliated on the playground because my pants ripped.  That long car trip where I made my father lose his temper and scream at me.

What were the key missteps that lead me to a dead-end job and disappointed dreams?  Could I fix those?

But I digress.  I’m just saying that with the bad sushi, I’d only really want to go back while I was suffering.

Maybe I could ask my wife to go.  “Sure, honey,” she says.  Then she steps into the pod or whatever.

So she goes back and … what?

I suppose she could borrow her own phone … while her past self is in the shower or something.  She calls me and whispers:  “Don’t eat the sushi!”

“How’d you know I was eating sushi?  Why are you whispering?”

“Just don’t eat it.  Trust me.  Gotta go!”

So my wife comes back to the future, steps out of the pod and asks “Feeling okay?”

“Sure,” I say.  “Why?”

I didn’t eat the sushi and didn’t get sick.  I don’t know otherwise that I’d be wiped out with food poisoning.  So why the hell is she asking me if I feel okay?

This whole scenario implies a world where time travel is a common activity … where we’re all zipping around tweaking our pasts.

So I’d figure out that she had changed something in my past and rewritten my history.  She’d tell me what happened:  “Dude, I’d never seen you so sick!  It was worse than Mexico!”

“Wow!  Thanks!” I say.

And all around the world, people are helping each other out like that.

“Shit!  I left my phone in the taxi.”

“I’m sorry, darling, allow me to fix that for you.  Be right back.”

Zap.

And, again, the me in the new present would not know that I had ever lost my phone.

But you never see this scenario of informal time travel.  Because we all know about the butterfly effect:  I step on a particular twig running from a T-rex and the human race just doesn’t evolve into being.  Oops.

Time travel is like brain surgery.  A mosquito bites the surgeon just as he’s slicing away at the tumor.  Oh well, there goes my childhood.

So no telling what sort of world we’d have if everyone was zipping around retrieving phones from taxis.

No, time travel has to be left to the professionals who tiptoe through a past world to destroy the technology that creates the sentient robots who enslave us.

Of course, there’s always a sidekick who shoots a laser gun in a roadhouse full of Hell’s Angels and shouts some wisecrack about the future:  “You assholes DESERVE Trump for president!”

But that’s just dramatic license.  The overall idea is that you can’t change too much of the past without messing up the present.

What’s sometimes hard to remember is that we can’t actually travel in time.

I feel so saturated in sci-fi and fantasy stories, I have to remind myself things like:  No, we don’t ACTUALLY have space ships with warp drive.  No, as far as any of us know, we haven’t encountered alien life.

You know, it feels as though we’re almost there, right?  Like any day now, you’ll be able to buy a robot that can really think.

How lucky I am to be THIS close to so many miracles of the future!

For countless centuries, 80-year old men looked at young girls with despair.  Unless I’m a billionaire, they won’t ever think I’m sexy and want to sleep with me.

But by the time I’m 80 in few decades, surely there will be realistic android girls who will sit on my lap and treat me like a young man.  They’ll be programmed to think my withered body is hot.

Actually … no.  That won’t happen.

Why not?

Because we’re a fucking long way away from making that sort of robot.  Sure you could give grandpa a $6,000 sex doll.  But he’d have to be into that sort of thing.  Unless grandpa is in an advanced state of dementia, he won’t think you brought him a real hooker.

But, really, realistic android hookers who read Sartre are a bad example of a phenomenon that FEELS close but is really far away because we’re still just talking about a complicated machine.  We can grasp the challenge of making such a robot in a general way.  How to make the smile curve the right way.  How to make the voice less robotic.  It’s still essentially BUILDING something – like the mechanical man in THE INVENTION OF HUGO.  It takes many cogs and gears to make the automaton scribble but they’re still just cogs and gears.  You aren’t trying to rethink the laws of the universe.

Time travel is a better example of the illusion.  We feel as though we will do it someday relatively soon.  But we won’t.  We can’t travel through time.  We’re not “on the verge” of figuring out how to do it.

And time still works the same old way.  I’m here in something called “now.”  That now becomes the past.  Out of the past, a new now emerges.  The future emerges from the now.  This now.  And this now is the ONLY source for the future.  Which means a time machine would be useless.  Useless at least for fixing anything in the past.

The future IS the past.  It’s a loop.  The future where you decide to go back and fix the past is always the product of the past you tried to fix.

There I am doubled over on the bathroom tile.  I croak to my wife, “Go back and tell me not to eat that sushi!”  Zap!  She disappears.  I moan and groan for a few minutes and think, “Damn, I wish she’d hurry it up.”  Finally, zap, she returns.

“What happened?” she asks.  “Didn’t you get my call?”

“No!” I groan.

As long as we are in a world of commonplace time travel, who knows what someone did in the future to make sure I ate that bad sushi … for reasons I might never know.

Whatever is happening to me right now is the result of everything that happened before this exact moment … including all the interventions by time travelers from the future.  If the present is the result of people going back in time, then what we WILL do is as fixed as what happened in the past.

Now is FATED.

There are lots of stories based on this paradox.

Spoiler alert for this one example … the film Le Jette, which inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.  The protagonist witnessed a murder as a child.  As he grows up he is haunted by this memory and eventually travels back to this moment.  Guess who, after all of this time, the murdered man turns it out to be?

The old story of Oedipus Rex is a similar sort of time traveler story in disguise.

The prophets can “see” into the future that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.  Of course, famously, everyone’s efforts to avoid this future make it happen.  First, his parents freak out and tell a servant to kill the child.  But, like the woodsman in Snow White, the servant can’t go through with it and just leaves Oedipus on the side of the mountain.  Someone finds him, and he winds up being raised in another country.  No one ever bothers to tell Oedipus that he was adopted.  After a raving drunk at a party calls him a bastard, Oedipus goes to the oracle.  The oracle gives him the same prophesy:  you’ll kill your dad and marry your mother.  So he runs away from his adopted parents, whom he thinks to be his real parents, and proceeds to kill his father and marry his mother.

He fulfills the prophesy by trying to escape it.  If the prophets and the oracle had kept their mouths shut, nothing would’ve happened.  The dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

A funny thing is how the prophets and oracles aren’t really offering a warning.  It’s not like, “Change your ways, Oedipus, or you’ll meet the direst of fates.”  No, the prophets just look at the queen’s pregnant belly and say, “Sorry to tell you, but he’s totally fucked.”  They just inform the court about the baby’s inevitable destiny.  The oracle just informs Oedipus.

Nevertheless everyone treats the information as a warning.  So, really, they treat the prophets and the oracle like time travelers from the future.  In contemporary sci-fi terms, the king, queen and Oedipus then try to follow a different timeline.

Of course, the whole tragedy turns on a particular blindness.  Unless the oracle was a sadist, she surely couldn’t see that she herself caused the tragedy.

It’s rather funny if you picture it.  Imagine this ominous pagan ceremony with billowing smoke and pounding drums.  Some spin-chilling, Linda Blair-like prophetess slobbers and growls:  “You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom!  You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom!  Aaaaahhhhhheeeee!”  And she has no idea that it will only happen because she’s telling him it will.

Irony.

So we’re back to the prototypical time travel story where you go back to fix something and wind up causing it.

Unless you’re a sadist, you only go back because you don’t know you were the one who screwed things up.

Imagine a story where you DID know that some time traveler caused a famous tragedy.  You learn about it in school.  Oh boy, today we discuss poor Oedipus.  You all know him as the guy who killed his dad and married his mom.  Well, what you might not know is that it never would have happened except that some well-meaning person from our time went back to warn him.  Guess what?  Everything Oedipus did after being told to watch out actually made it happen.

Worse, imagine you knew YOU were the one who went back.

Sooner or later you WILL go back, as long as that’s the story everyone knows.

In a funny way, you’re in the same boat as Oedipus – oppressed by a kind of prophesy that no matter what you do, you will go back and ruin this guy’s life.

So you run away to a hut in the Himalayas, as far away as you can get from the labs where they’re developing time-travel technology.  Years pass.  Decades.  But still, you still remember the story the same way.  But maybe, because it’s you, there’s some paradox.  Maybe the past has changed for everyone else and only you aren’t affected.

A mountain climber stumbles over the cliff into your little wind-blown nook.

“Hey, do you know the Oedipus story?”

“What?  The guy who fucked his mom because some asshole went back and told him not to?”

“SHIT!”

So finally you say “fuck it.”   You’ll go back and say something totally innocuous.  Live long and prosper.  Every little thing’s gonna be all right.  You most definitely well not even mention his mother or father.

So, zap, there you are in the oracle’s temple.  Here comes young Oedipus.  You start spouting your empty, nothing message.  But right then, the temple priests pour oil on the burning coals to make it more awesome and spiritual.  The hiss and roar drown out your voice.

Oedipus says, “What?  Who will I fuck?”

You shout, “No!  Just chill and enjoy life!”

But there’s more hiss and roar from the brazier.  Then you see through the smoke that Oedipus is freaking out:  “I’ll kill my father and fuck my mother?  Woe is me!  Woe is me!”

At that exact moment, you realize they’re pulling you back to the future and this is always how it went down.

The best way to fix the past is in the present.  By fixing the present that will become the past.  Which doesn’t really tell you anything new.

The entire body of teaching about how to live, all education, all psychotherapy, all wisdom, all philosophy and, let’s face it, all religion …it’s really just trying to fix our past in the present.  Trying to fix the present that will become the past.

Everything we do has an incalculable butterfly effect.  We’re still running around in a primeval forest.  Every twig that cracks under foot wipes out an infinity of species that could have evolved, an infinity of things that could happen … and creates the species that WILL exist, the events that WILL happen.

In truth, we ARE time travelers. Right now.  In this moment.  Right now … you are traveling in time.  Fasten your seatbelt.

 

Friday, October 20, 2017

SEARCHING FOR LOST TIME


2009

It's one of those days at work where I'm absolutely paralyzed. Hogtied. Brainfreeze. I can't do anything.

So what do I do? I google-maps some old friend. I zoom into street level of Naples, Florida. Looks nice. Think I'll take a drive.

I zoom down some long avenue then it hits me that I could take a drive in my childhood neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. Take a look at the old house.

There it is. There's the lawn I mowed a thousand times. Behind that window is the tiny livingroom where ... everything.

Kind of weird to be sitting here at work with tears rolling down my cheeks.

Let's go down Keele Street toward my first school. There's the park. Tripped with my friend Kerry in there. Middle of the night. Looked at a toad for half an hour. Then a tree.

But then ... ouch ... ahhhhhhh ... owwwww ... the real memories. Childhood. Dying of thirst after a field trip. Teachers let all the class play in the park before going back to school. I was only a couple of years older than my daughter is now. The memory of the light on that afternoon day is pure. Some cells in my brain are still registering it. Mississippi is hot in its own special way. Remember running to the water fountain when we got back to school.

Next we have the first of the ugly cheap apartment complexes they were building back when. Deep in the complex we once set up for band practice on Bruce's patio. Got halfway through Baba O'Riley before someone made us stop.

Now we're going over the creek. Where's my school? Gone. Nothing. Except there's the gate I went through in the first grade. My dad once started singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" as we pulled up. I wouldn't get out until he stopped singing. I do the same thing to my daughter now. She jumps up and tries to put a palm over my mouth. Full circle.

SHADOW PLAY


2009

Plato’s “Cave Analogy” tells us that the physical world is a shadow of a spiritual world. Beyond our actual experience is a higher reality.

How is the world a shadow?

This idea becomes clearer when you look at how modern science has inverted Plato’s formula: The spiritual/psychological world is really just a shadow of the physical.

A boy meets a girl. He feels as though he’s known her for all eternity. He feels as though they were one soul before being split and sent to earth. These feelings are shadows cast by the reptilian impulse to procreate.

A mother gazes at her newborn baby. She feels that she is one with the universe. Everything is connected. Life has meaning. All of this is a shadow cast by elevated levels of oxytocin.

God, of course, is also a shadow.

However, to talk about God as just the product of organic processes, you have to clash with Saint Anselm’s famous ontological argument. You have to assert that we could think up the IDEA of God from scratch, regardless of whether God actually exists.

God, in concept alone, is a being who is GREATER than anything you can conceive. If you say that God is ONLY an idea of something that doesn’t necessarily exist, Anselm answers, “Well, then you can think of a greater being: one who does exist.” God is a concept of something that MUST, according to the concept, exist.

Which means, in Anselm’s eyes, that God cannot be a shadow of something else. The concept of God couldn’t spring up as an accident or by-product of natural selection. Only God could project the shape of this concept on the cave wall of our minds.

Yet where could this concept reside in us other than our brain’s organic tissue? What besides hormones could create our euphoric emotions about the idea of being connected to God?

Saint Augustine would have no problem with this. At the beginning of his autobiography “The Confessions,” thinking about how he began his life, he thanks God for filling the breast with milk and making his nurse willing to put the nipple in his mouth.

So we’re back at the idea of a higher reality beyond or behind reality. God makes the mammary glands produce food for a young saint. Oxytocin is the vehicle or conduit for maternal love, not the cause. Testosterone is the conduit for Romantic Love or Noble Courage. Or Evil.

The world is a shadow. Or a stage.

GOD STUDIES


2009

I’m noticing a lot of God studies, scientific articles and reports that more or less claim to locate and/or explain God.

The neurological articles are the weirdest. Here! This little cluster of cells in this part of the brain … this is God! Or what about this pattern of firing neurons? See how they light up in the subject when we play “Amazing Grace”? This pattern is God.

As a standard disclaimer, most of the scientists insist that they are ONLY studying the belief itself. God’s actual existence or nonexistence is not a factor.

This disclaimer would be unnecessary if you were studying the belief in fairies. You can explicitly ask, “Okay, given that fairies DO NOT exist, what OTHER explanation can we find for this subculture’s shared lunacy?” But scientists feel the pressure to treat God with more respect.

Nevertheless, the studies all assume that human evolution created God. God formed in our collective minds as we were struggling to survive. It’s like that XTC song, “Did you make mankind after we made you?”

For example, the evolving human brain needed to see a tiger in every shaking bush. Maybe an invisible, imaginary God is just a by-product of this brain function?

In light of these studies, it’s fun to wonder about God’s existence in a scientific sense. God, like space aliens, either exists or does not exist. Intelligent life is either “out there” right now or not. And God, factually, either does or does not exist.

Of course, you can say this about anything. Maybe fairies do exist but are just very furtive. The thing is, it’s just too much to ask me to believe in the corporeal existence of tiny humanoids with wings. “Oh, no, I don’t think that they have PHYSICAL bodies.” Then what? Are they made of light? Light is physical. “No, no, I don’t mean that they are made of actual photons.” It’s a slippery slope when you start breaking it down.

But when you’re talking God God … Jehovah as opposed to Pan ejaculating on the crops when we weren’t looking … the prophets were never asking anyone to believe in a man with a beard. Not even 5,000 years ago. They knew that they were talking about a transcendental abstraction, even if they didn’t yet use the terminology. That’s what all that “no graven images” business meant in the first place. God transcends physical reality and being itself.

This means that you cannot simply ask whether God exists. For some mystics, the true God CANNOT exist. Why? Because even existing is too limiting for a truly Supreme being. Saying that God exists is ultimately too much like saying that God has red hair and freckles. So for God to be God, God must not exist.

GRASS


2009

Something woke me up early this morning. 4 am. My mind wandered and wandered. I wound up thinking about mowing our lawn as a teenager.

Hard as I try, I can't picture the first mower I had to use. I do remember killing myself pulling the cord to crank it. Holding the knob and jumping in the air. I was always afraid it wouldn't crank a second time, so I could never take a break until I cut the whole lawn. Sometimes it would just break down. I'd hold my breath while my dad or brother took a look. Sometimes they could tap the sparkplug or something. But if they took the hood off, it meant that I could go do something else with my day.

That mower was soon replaced with a brand new Lawnboy. Strictly a push mower. None of that sissy self-propelled business. To crank it, you had to push a little lever to open a valve somewhere inside. Then you pressed this rubber bladder on top to squirt out some gas vapor. THEN you pulled the cord. The engine would stutter into life.

Then ... choices, choices. Do I take the front yard in one big circuit? Or do I break it down into quadrants. When I first started having to cut the grass I always went with smaller quadrants. The rectangle shrank faster this way. It made me feel as though I was making rapid progress. The downside was I'd look out at the vast yard and think about how many rectangles I'd have to trace. This made the yard seem bigger.

Eventually, it felt psychologically more robust to tackle the whole yard at once. First I'd try just to trace ALL of the yard on this side of the driveway ... right up to the house, the back fence, the property line down to the street, from the street to the driveway, up the driveway to the front walk, then along the monkey grass back to my starting point. But I soon realized that this was too academic. It was OKAY to deal with the side yard separately.

Then I took on the main part of the front yard. The first circuit took some concentration. I had to stagger my way along the curb to cut the swathe by the street. Then I had to edge slowly along that monkey grass. But after this initial demarcation, it was straight on to glory.

Here was a new, higher satisfaction: the inexorable. Slowly, slowly that rectangle shrunk to a little strip in the middle of the yard. Finally, the remaining strip was narrower than the mower. I'd sometimes pause, like a bullfighter about to plunge the sword, before making that last pass.

Then I'd reach down and nudge the lever to shut off the mower. The world was so quiet. Wind blowing in the trees. A mockingbird.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

LARKIN ON JAZZ

This is everything a certain type of person needs to understand.
Introduction to All What Jazz
Philip Larkin

And yet again, there was something about the books [of jazz criticism] I was now reading that seemed oddly familar. This development, this progress, this new language that was more difficult, more complex, that required you to work hard at appreciating it, that you couldn’t expect to understand first go, that needed technical and professional knowledge to evaluate it at all levels, this revolutionary explosion that spoke for our time while at the same time being traditional in the fullest, the deepest. . . .Of course! This was the language of criticism of modern painting, modern poetry, modern music. Of course! How glibly I had talked of modern jazz, without realizing the force of the adjective: this was modern jazz., and Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter and Pound a modern poet. I hadn’t realized that jazz had gone from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in fifty years, but when I realized it relief came flooding in upon me after nearly two years’ despondency. I went back to my books: “After Parker, you had to be something of a musician to follow the best jazz of the day.” Of course! After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don’t believe about art.
The reader may here have the sense of having strayed into a private argument. All I am saying is that the term “modern”, when applied to art, has a more than chronological meaning: it denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century, known sometimes as modernism, and once I had classified modern jazz under this heading I knew where I was. I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas. He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground. He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machine during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep. He has carved human figures with large holes in them. And parallel to this activity (“every idiom has its idiot,” as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is : Don’t trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They’ll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don’t believe them. You’ve got to work at this after all, you don’t expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I’m giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week, and you’d be more than welcome. The whole thing’s on the rates, you won’t have to pay. After all, think what asses people have made of themselves in the past by not understanding art–you don’t want to be like that, do you? Keep the suckers spending.
The tension between artist and audience in jazz slackened when the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man, and when the audience as a whole, with the end of the Japanese war and the beginning of television didn’t in any case particularly want to be entertained in that way any longer. The jazz band in the night club declined just as my old interest, the dance band, had declined in the restaurant and hotel: jazz moved, ominously, into the culture belt, the concert halls, university recital rooms and summer schools where the kind of criticism I have outlined has freer play. This was bound to make re-establishment of any artist-audience nexus more difficult, for universities have long been the accepted stamping ground for the subsidized acceptance of art rather than the real purchase of it–and so, of course, for this kind of criticism, designed as it is to prevent people using their eyes and ears and understandings to report pleasure and discomfort. In such conditions modernism is bound to flourish.
I don’t know whether it is worth pursuing my identification of modern jazz with other branches of modern art any further: if I say I dislike both in what seems to me the same way I have made my point. …
To say I don’t like modern jazz because it’s modernist art simply raises the question of why I don’t like modernist art: I have a suspicion that many readers will welcome my grouping of Parker with Picasso and Pound as one of the nicest things I could say about him. Well, to do so settles at least one question: as long as it was only Parker I didn’t like, I might believe that my ears had shut about the age of twenty-five and that jazz had left me behind. My dislike of Pound and Picasso, both of whom pre-date me by a considerable margin, can’t be explained in this way. The same can be said of Henry Moore and James Joyce (a textbook case of declension from talent to absurdity). No, I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only be being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power. Hence the compulsion on every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity: hence the succession of Parker by Rollins and Coltrane, and of Rollins and Coltrane by Coleman, Ayler and Shepp. In a way, it’s a relief: if jazz records are to be one long screech, if painting is to be a blank canvas, if a play is to be two hours of sexual intercourse performed coram populo, then let’s get it over, the sooner the better, in the hope that human values will then be free to reassert themselves.

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