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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, November 23, 2015

An Experiment with Time and J.W. Dunne (essay)

I have been reflecting on and intuiting some further understanding of the mystery of Time.

It has been of interest to me for a very long time, if 60 years can be considered a "very long time" by any objective standard of reckoning. Even before stumbling on J.W. Dunne's fascinating and timeless book, "An Experiment with Time" in my adolescence, when quests for metaphysical understanding led me into bookstores and the rich assortment of psychotropic substances then at the disposal of young seekers of enlightenment like myself, I had an active interest in the subject of time, and experiences enough to already set me questioning its nature.

One of these was a dream that made an indelible and momentous impression on me, probably around the age of 10, during the years we lived in Cummington, Massachusetts (1963-1967). Dreams were already an active and not infrequently terrifying complement to my waking life. I often awoke with a head full of images of the night, memories slippery as the minnows I enjoyed chasing in the Westfield River that ran through Cummington, just a field away from the back door of the parsonage on Main Street where the seven of us lived. So I was alert to dreams, and to their insubstantiality in the waking world -- their utter lack of willingness to be caught and held. Even this was a mystery -- why must they flee so?

On a particular morning I awoke with the most intense and desperate feeling of having just stepped from an entire life lived -- my own life, the life into which I was just then reawakening at a point much nearer its beginning than where the dream had left me: forward near the very end of my life and my family's. I felt I had lived a whole life in the dream. Either it had sped by in fast motion, or I had passed into some realm in which time moved at a different pace, but in any event, I awoke filled not only with horror at what we had all become, we children, old and bickering and ruined by the world, but, above all with the conviction that it had all been real, had transpired, indeed, that I had lived and seen my whole life unfold in that dream.

I remember excitedly telling my mother, my sisters, even my father, whom I do not think I was in the habit of sharing much with even then, about this dream; and how frustrating their responses: "That's nice," or "Oh, how interesting..." Their interest in no way acknowledged my desperate sense of having had the most remarkable experience possible. I longed to share how REAL it had been. I couldn't. I held in my own soul the secret of that wonder, and also the fearful, tragic ending where we children had become sour and mean with no loving parents to hold us together.

That was one of many dreams that left deep impressions on me, and one that to this day makes me wonder if indeed I had somehow sped along a thread of time and back again in a night -- in a few seconds even, or in some kind of space/time that defies measurement. Perhaps I did see my whole life, but only remember the final moments, seeing with a child's eyes the tragedy of old age and separation from the idylls of family, safety, and parental love.

"An Experiment with Time" also treats on the subject of dreams, and the author devotes much of the book to describing his own experiences in which future events seem to have been foretold. Having started with descriptions of experiences, he develops a theoretical analysis of how such "extrasensory" experiences might be explained by contemporary (in 1927) theories about the nature of time and dimensionality of the universe. I'm not attempting here to give a full overview of the book or of how science has since developed to further corroborate (and doubtless outdate) some of his thinking. I just intend to reflect on my own experiences of "time-watching."

First: an interesting experience in reading my current copy of Dunne's book. As I said, I first came across the work about 45 years ago, probably in a Harvard Square bookstore, and read it with great interest; it was one of those books that completely captivated me at the time, as did later books such as "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters," "Seth Speaks," "Science and the Evolution of Consciousness," "Tertium Organum," and some of the Castenada books, notably "Journey to Ixtlan."

The copy I had was the 1927 edition, hardcover, with no dust jacket -- a dark blue, plain-looking book with the title only on the spine in faded and unassuming square gilt letters, with the author's last name. No other ornamentation graced the book cover but two sets of parallel lines traversing the top and bottom of the front cover from left to right (or right to left), slightly inset so as to create a palpable imprint.

Sometime in the past ten years or so, as I have hunted down on the internet one book or another from my past, I found a copy of the same edition, ordered it, and have had it since (my early copy was lost somewhere in my peregrinations.) After some browsing, it stayed on my shelf a long time, despite ongoing readings in other contemporary books on the subject of the universe, time, and the nature of reality -- books such as "A Brief History of Time," "The Elegant Universe," "The View from the Center of the Universe," "The Arrow of Time," and others such as "Lucid Dreaming" and "Dreams and Spiritual Life."

Just recently, after moving from my apartment in Seattle to a house in a small town outside of the city and unpacking and reshelving my fairly voluminous library, I became interested again in "An Experiment with Time," and had been reading it off and on for a few weeks before bringing it with me this weekend up to a little cabin retreat I am able to enjoy from time to time, thanks to the generosity of some friends. As I read, I became more and more aware of the thoughtful notes written in the margins by the book's previous owner. I found them worth reading, neatly written in fine ink by a person who evidently took the book seriously and was exploring the ideas with interest and a scholarly, even scientific interest.

I remembered that the owner's name appeared inside the front flyleaf, and I looked at it again: J.K.W. Ferguson was the name, also in ink and an old-fashioned style that could have been almost contemporaneous with the book's publication.

I reflected on this person -- I assumed it to be a man, both by the subject matter and the nature of the handwriting, I suppose -- and was intrigued to project myself in my imagination into his long-gone experience of reading this same book, even holding the very volume in his hands that I now hold. I had been reading in Chapters 17 and 18, and following a train of thought about objects in three dimensions moving in unison at all points of their being at a given instant forward together along the dimension of duration. The author credits H.G. Wells with a most concise and perfect statement of this concept through the voice of the Time Traveler in "The Time Machine," who presents the logical case that one must conceive of time as a fourth dimension: "There can be no such thing as an instantaneous cube..." he says. "...any real body must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and ... Duration.

So, where is this dimension of duration? A diagram in the book presents it rather the way the author of "Flatland" (another book that impacted me in my early adolescence) does with his logical series of steps from one dimension to two to three and on. Dunne's representation shows a pattern of lines of various shapes that represent distinct objects in space, on a vertical axis representing space. The horizontal axis represents time. A vertical dotted line at center represents an instant of time cutting across all of the objects in 3-D space, and one can imagine this dotted line moving at a constant rate toward the right side of the page (or the left, for that matter) as time progresses; the various lines of 3-D space may move closer or further from one another in space as time passes or they pass through time, but only the moment on which the dotted line rests is visible or real to the objects in space.

Unless those objects are sentient of themselves. Our brains can imagine a time yet to come, and we experience a memory of times past -- an imprint, as it were. But a common object, such as a book, for example, has no consciousness of itself. Time does not appear to depend on consciousness or awareness of itself to fulfill its inexorable progression. Dunne explores the idea of human life, as well as all physical matter, moving along threads of permanent existence which we experience as time, and this intrigued me as I thought of Mr. Ferguson, whom I imagined sitting at a wooden desk that gleamed dully in the pale light of a green-shaded brass table lamp, writing his spidery notes in the margins of his book, underlining key sentences and paragraphs -- a defacing of a good book that I tend to dislike, but in this case found the remarks of interest and their connection to the unseen and presumably long-dead hand that wrote them, and the mind behind them, intriguing and even touching.

Having more time than usual on my hands, I thought to search out Mr. J.K.W. Ferguson on the internet, and my first search turned up this. I have inserted the picture here for easy reference.

What a find! Given the paucity of other information about him, I feel lucky to have not only a picture of him, but one that is so particularly engaging, present, and thoughtful;  that seems to capture a spontaneous slice of time from the life of an intelligent, likable scholar or writer.

Further research has turned up that he was a Canadian scientist who worked in the area of blood diseases. A Facebook search also yielded results, with four entries on a site celebrating the centenary of Sanofi Pasteur Canada, and the fact that he served as Director of Connaught Laboratories, Dufferin Division, from 1955-1972.

I love knowing that this meticulous hematologist and scientific researcher was also fascinated by Dunne's ideas about the nature of time and the interface of consciousness in and through time. I am aware of the thread that binds me to him through the book that left his hands, perhaps to be sold in an estate sale, or passed to a relative, who in turn perhaps died, or sold it to someone else, who maybe held it for years before putting it up on eBay or Amazon where I found it. Who will have it after me? Where does the thread end? What part of it continues? What defines the end of a thing, or a person?

In any case, it's fascinating to reflect on the ways we move through life, through time, ever in that instantaneous slit of transection with the dimension or direction of duration. I practice a sort of recurrent meditation where I pause in activities and regard the world around me and myself in it and try to conceive of how these seconds pass away and new seconds come, all filled with the material stuff of the world and ourselves, all moving with constancy and duration and dependability, at least insofar as being where they were a moment ago or moving in a way that can be explained rationally -- except in the case of reading glasses, which have a way of disappearing and reappearing in impossible places that is quite annoying and utterly mysterious to me!

Watching sunset tonight, for example, and reflecting on the shape of the earth and its relationship to the distant sun and the angle of the rays slanting through our northern climes and dragging out the day, the twilight; and the moon, too, just over a quarter of the way through its four-part cycle, circling the earth under the mysterious pull of gravity, the heavy heart of the earth so powerful as to hold that dead orb in its living orbit for millennia past and yet to come; yet so gentle as to let an autumn leaf spiral gently and noiselessly to earth under the same spell; and to allow us frail, liquid sea-born sentiences to rise and shine each morning, walk the Earth and do all sorts of unspeakably cruel things to one another without being crushed flat to the ground or hurled into space, as so many of us amply deserve.
Photo: Will Rose, San Juan Islands, Nov 22, 2015

I wonder, then, how the curvature of space/time proven by Einstein plays its part in this. As I think of the sun, fusion explosion held in check by its own sheer weight, a sink of gravity that tugs the fabric of space toward itself and causes, perhaps, the planets to roll around it like balls inside a cone, and these planets in turn spinning, some holding further sway over satellite bodies spinning, spiraling -- what a dance! What forces of immense size and power in which we lead our little lives, and in the shadows or residue of which all of history and prehistory has unfolded, second by second....
Block print by Will Rose
instantaneous slice by slice, our lines intersecting, moving in relation to one another, sometimes with disastrous consequences like an asteroid colliding and wiping out most of life, or with little delights like birthday parties and orgasms and flashes of understanding that, like certain dreams, hold us in thrall for longer moments, tantalizing and beckoning toward some further understanding of the totality of time and space, before they, too, fade and slip away, and despite our desperate attempts to capture and convey them in the threads through time and space we call words, elicit little more from others or our future selves than polite or nostalgic comments like "That's nice. How interesting!"

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1 comment:

  1. About the time you wrote this post, the UK Science Museum was acquiring Dunne's archive of his professional papers and other objects. There are tens of thousands of papers in there, a handful of which are correspondence with medical professionals. I cannot recall if Ferguson is among them, but if I stumble on anything I will try and remember to drop you a line.
    I also recommend to you his near-autobiography, published posthumously as "Intrusions?".
    I have posted a bit more about him at


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