Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall

In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'time' and 'time is strange for one lately in Eden'. The time Adam sees is the familiar one - time as passing, the present disappearing into a past that no longer exists except in memory and physical evidence and the future as simply a container of projected hopes and speculation with no real existence. A mechanical time with no meaning. 

Adam is, of course, however, perceiving a notion of time that, in truth, only came into existence with the seventeenth century. Solidified by Newton, it has become the accepted cultural norm. A norm unshifted by either Einstein's relativity or the quirks of quantum mechanics (where causality appears often to run backwards from the future into the present). 

But as J.B. Priestley marvellously demonstrates this view of time would neither be recognised by any of Adam's descendants before the seventeenth century nor, with any scrupulous, open minded examination, of how time is experienced now. Time is (whatever else) culturally flexible in how it is discerned and, in fact, may be multi-dimensional.

Priestley's 'Man & Time' (long and scandalously out of print) has a twofold task - one is to introduce us to the many ways in which human cultures have configured their understanding of Time and to advance his own argument (or speculation) as to what Time is (in, at least, some of its many mansions). Both seek to rescue us from the mechanical 'passing time' that appears to be our present cultural lot. This 'passing time' is remarkably deadening. If it were true, we might imagine that it would encourage everyone to seize the present moment with unyielding relish but, as Priestley shows, this ain't necessarily so indeed this is exactly the cultural moment when we invented the notion that time is something to be 'killed' (as if our unconscious recognised that if the flow of time is meaningless perhaps it were better dead)!

The first part of the book is a wonderful act of compression - time as cultural artefact explored from many angles with concision, illustration both verbal and visual (the book is laden with fabulous illustrations) and wit. His summation of the Medieval period, for example, is masterly - you come away, through the lens of time, with a renewed understanding of the age. Narrow certainly but intense, a world in which to quote Rowan Williams, 'everyone had selves with knobs on' - vividly individual even (or because) they found their place in a community - and colourful. Priestley slyly contrasts Chaucer's Pilgrims with a gathering of travellers at the airport gate much to the advantage of the former. This ability to locate oneself was, in part, a gift of a view of time that allowed you, however, difficult your present, a firm track into a located eternity. 

The second part of the book is grounded in Priestley's own quasi-research project. The presenter of a BBC cultural program, having interviewed Priestley on his concern for time, invited readers to contact the author with examples of when Time appeared not to behave in a simply linear, passing fashion. Priestley was inundated with hundreds of letters, mostly concerned with precognitive dreams. These he sifts, explores, brings into dialogue both with skeptical criticism and theories of time, most prominently those of J.W. Dunne, and through which he develops his own speculation on Time rooted in the possible, his experience and the evidence his interlocutors (laced with a few historic examples) presented him with. All through he tries, and succeeds, to keep on the side of the balanced, the sober, the seriously empirical (if by this we include giving real space for people's actual experience).

Some of the examples are compelling whether the famously historical whereby a passenger evades a voyage on the Titanic or a woman dreaming of her drowning child corrects this potential future into a happy ending. Cumulatively, I think, they elude skepticism - and Priestley, faithful to the dictates of Thomas Aquinas, gives the skeptics the best possible run for their money.

I came away with a renewed sense that (at the very least) the future is accessible, that the mind, while linked to the brain, surpasses it and that not only precognition is real but that we live in a cosmos saturated with meaning and that our participation in it is not limited to this one 'mortal coil'. That Time is a house with many mansions (and that it may be moated and grounded in eternity though Priestley does not go that far). 

What is remarkable about Priestley's text is that his fathoming is so faithful to the contours of his experience and that in this he wants to marry the spiritual, the psychological and the scientific. He indicates a direction of travel away from either religion or science as 'received wisdom' and both as an ongoing, exciting adventure that is always enterprising after new truths and always vulnerable to the new, what presents itself.


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