Time Travel, Pascal and Novel Synchronicities

Time travel has been moving in and out of my life this summer. There were two books I read and one series I watched that had me thinking again about this topic. Time travel has long been an interest of mine.  I posted here two days ago about the right to be forgotten online and rereading it this morning I see a connection in that revisionist history to time traveling to change the past.

I kept a journal in college that I filled with quotations that caught my fancy. There were many from the literature courses I took as an English major, but there were also ones from history and philosophy classes. One that has stuck with me over these many years is “You can’t change anything without changing everything” which I credited to Blaise Pascal.


Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist, author, and Christian philosopher who is best known for his work, “Pensées” or “Thoughts.”

The book is a classic but, probably like my own book that will be a classic one day, it was first published posthumously.

Pensées is an edited compilation of the notes that he had made for a book he planned to write. Scholars call that unfinished book “Apology for the Christian Religion.” The religion doesn’t much appeal to me and though I looked into the book in college, I’m sure I never actually read it.

I looked back into Pensées this summer because I wanted to find context for that quotation. I couldn’t find it. I found lots of other Pascal quotes I know and appreciate:
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

But I didn’t find the quote I was looking for. An online search for it showed those words being used by people but the only credit I could find was to William James.

Still, the quote is important to me. It is why I try not to have regrets for choices I have made. I don’t mean clearly bad choices, foolish like buying a loser stock or eating two more slices of pizza. I mean not regretting things that in my timeline would change everything – that decision to go to a certain college; moving to a new home; taking a new job; choosing a spouse. Changing any of those things changes an almost infinite number of subsequent events in ways good or bad that we can never predict.

Changing the past is a major plot driver in time-travel fiction. Overwhelmingly, changing the past changes the future (or the time traveler’s present) in ways that were unintended and generally bad.

Maybe the line of Pascal’s that connected with me this time around is “You always admire what you really don’t understand.” I don’t understand much of the science of studying time (I’m not sure scientists really understand it either.) but I am fascinated by it.  I’m convinced we need and want to time travel and so it appears in many books, movies and on TV.

Albert Einstein said that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

The big book I read this summer is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. which had been recommended by several friends who know I like time travel books.

I am a slower reader these days, or rather, I read in shorter blocks of time. I no longer spend an entire afternoon in a chair reading. I am more likely to read for twenty minutes before falling asleep or even more likely to listen to an audiobook while driving or walking.

I wish I had the audiobook for this 800+ page novel because it took me two renewals from the library to finish. But I’m glad that I read it.

You can tell from the title that this concerns the assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas of President Kennedy. King is certainly not the first or last person to think about what if he could have been saved. Other common revisions to our timeline are history-changing things like killing Hitler.

I like that the novel does not rely on any sci-fi technology for the protagonist to travel back in time. I also like the idea that each time he (or anyone) goes back and changes anything, it leaves a mark. Also that each trip back resets the timeline and whatever you might have changed the last time is back to what it was before.

In King’s version, the past is obdurate, stubbornly refusing to change. Time even makes attempts to stop the protagonist from making changes. It is said that history does not repeat but it rhymes. (A line often credited to Mark Twain but probably not of his invention.) King seems to follow that idea.

The plot center on Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher in Maine, who is given the time travel secret by Al, who runs the local diner. That diner is a time portal to 1958 and only to one day in that year. When you return through the portal, only a few minutes in the present of June 2011 have passed. Al is dying and wants Jake to continue his mission to go back to 1958 and work his way to that day in 1963, and along the way determine if  Lee Harvey Oswald was really the lone shooter. And then stop him. Al is convinced this will change the world in many positive ways.

I won’t give spoilers about the success of that mission, which Jake does accept after a few shorter time excursions that do seem to work.

There is a mini-series on Hulu of the novel. I watched it. It makes a lot of changes to King’s story, but if you’re unwilling to read that big book, maybe you can watch the series.

As I said, these what-if scenarios occur in both our own lives and in the lives of characters in fiction. What if America and the Allies had not won World War II? That is one that played out in Philip K. Dick’s novel (and a Netflix adaptation still running) The Man in the High Castle.

And on a far less serious journey, I was charmed by Michael J. Fox’s movie time traveling back and forth to the future.

One thing I observe is that both in fiction and science traveling to the future seems less possible than traveling to the past.

Then more recently, a friend recommended that I read Recursion by Blake Crouch. This novel is also about revising timelines, this time with some heavy-duty technology.

In Crouch’s version of time, memory makes reality.  The time-traveling journeys here rely on the traveler’s memories of event. The changes cause what is known in that world as FMS – False Memory Syndrome. FMS is not the author’s invention. Though the term is not officially recognized as a psychiatric illness, the premise that memories can be altered by outside influences is accepted by scientists – though it is not caused by time travel. FMS haunts people with memories of a life they never lived.

At first, the successful tests of their technology seem innocent. Who wouldn’t want to re-experience sweet memories of first love or the birth of a child? Who wouldn’t want the chance to change something bad that happened, like an accident that killed someone you love?

What makes the FMS in the novel different is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.

These kinds of alternate-reality or revisionist histories can be very appealing because they play on our own desires to be able to somehow safely correct the past.

Despite my interest in time travel, I have not been invited to a time travelers’ party.   The few purported “real”  tales of a “time traveler” that I have read are not very satisfying. I don’t believe that Yoda was a time traveler.

Have I ever met a time traveler? Unfortunately, no, as Stephen Hawking asked, “Where are they?’  My answer is that if they have come back to out time from a future time, they cannot interact at all with us. They can make no changes. They are simply observers.

As Pascal said back in time, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” Luckily, my wife taught French, so I know that means “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” Was he thinking about Time?

Has all this reading and watching changed my beliefs about Time? Perhaps yesterday (or tomorrow) never was.

I just started reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The choice was not intentional. I had the book on reserve and it just became available. A coincidence. Unless there is no such thing as a coincidence.

It’s not a time travel novel but it is an alternate history. In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to that aviator hero Charles A. Lindbergh. In fact, Lindbergh was a fanatical rabid isolationist who wanted to avoid war and so negotiates an understanding with Adolf Hitler. His administration also embarks on an agenda of making America great gain which includes anti-Semitism.

Roth based his novel on the views of real-life Lindbergh who was a spokesman for the America First Committee.  That was a pro-German propaganda group, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany. Lindbergh was no fan of FDR and he resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. FDR said privately that ” I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.”

As in other novels, the setting is Roth’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark and grew up nearby – a connection with Roth that started me reading his books.

This novel is also being adapted for a forthcoming mini-series on HBO that was filmed this year in New Jersey.  I’ll read the book first. No audiobook, so give me some time and I’ll report back.

Picnicking With Herman and Nathaniel

champagne picnic

I heard on TWA that on August 5, 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic hike with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It was four days after Herman’s 31st birthday. Nathaniel was 46 years old and was an established literary figure.  Melville had two non-fiction memoir books to his credit, both of which had sold well. Typee and Omoo were based on his time at sea and on Polynesian islands when he had jumped ship. Melville was just starting his career as a novelist.

The picnic seems to have been organized by a Stockbridge attorney, David Dudley, Jr. a mutual acquaintance. Besides HM and NH, Oliver Wendell Holmes was also along for their hike up Monument Mountain.

An unexpected thunderstorm hit along the way and they took shelter in a cave. It seems that this was where the main conversation between Melville and Hawthorne took place. I imagine that it was literary, but I don’t know if these were literary “brothers” or if the older, more successful Hawthorne may have been in more of a superior role.

The group reached the summit when the storm passed and they celebrated with champagne and poetry, including William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain.” It is a long, sappy lyrical ode about a Mohican maiden who is so depressed about not being able to marry who she loves that she throws herself off a cliff. Her body was covered with stones as a “monument” and the summit is called Squaw Peak.

The friendship developed over the next few years and Melville and Hawthorne wrote regularly to each other. Melville had a habit of burning letters but what evidence remains of their correspondence shows that they did share ideas, and did some editing and commenting on the other’s work.

Melville was finishing what he was calling The Whale that August. Hawthorne was working on short stories based on his hometown of Salem.

Their friendship faded after Melville moved back to New York City and both of his novels had failed in popularity and sales. My sense has always been that Melville considered Hawthorne a closer friend than Hawthorne did.

But two days after the picnic, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. They took a walk to the lake. Nathaniel gave Herman two bottles of champagne. Later on that day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, “I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.”

They lived six miles from each other for 18 months. These were very productive months for both of them.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance were either being written or published during that time. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is Hawthorne’s third major romance and the setting is a utopian farming commune based on Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was a founding member and where he lived in 1841. The commune’s ideals end up clashing with the members’ private desires and romantic rivalries. It is considered a “dark Romance” whose plot reminds me of Updike a century later.

Melville finished his epic “The Whale,” which we know as Moby-Dick, while staring out of his farmhouse window at hills like whales. He was writing his next novel, Pierre or the Ambiguities, at the same time Hawthorne was writing The Blithedale Romance and I would guess there was some sharing of ideas and maybe some reading of each other.

There may have also been some competition. The healthy kind would be wanting to please and even outdo the friend. The unhealthy kind would be in book sales and money. Hawthorne definitely won the latter competition.

In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne: “To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.”  I don’t think that Hawthorne ever dedicated anything to Melville.

Tasting Vinegar

I wrote here recently about Benjamin Hoff‘s two books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff writes about “The Vinegar Tasters” which is a traditional subject for Chinese painting and religious and philosophical allegories. You may be interested in learning about that short lesson. I wrote about it on another blog at https://ronkowitz.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-vinegar-tasters.html

Still Wandering the Hundred Acre Wood

Hundred Acre Wood

E. H. Shepard’s 1926 map of the Hundred Acre Wood, based on the Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne.

The Pooh books of A.A. Milne had their influence on me when I was slipping into being a teenager. They were not books of my childhood. A girl friend who I wanted to be a girlfriend was a big fan of Pooh and so I started reading them. My relationship with Milne has lasted a lot longer than my relationship with that girl.

I always thought there was something wise in the words of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and their friends. The Tao of Pooh was published after I had stopped being a student in classrooms, but it would have been on my bookshelf in those days. When it was published (1982), I was married, teaching and a few years from having my own children. I had rediscovered Pooh because the books were also a favorite of my wife-to-be. It was also a time that I was rediscovering Buddhism which I had started to study in college. This book about Pooh’s “philosophy” by Benjamin Hoff is an introduction to the Eastern belief system of Taoism intended for Westerners.

The book does use the Milne characters’ words but more so it allegorically uses the characters to illustrate the basic principles of Taoism.

Tao (or Dao) is a Chinese word meaning the “way” or “path” and sometimes more loosely “doctrine.”

I like the story (hopefully true) that Hoff wrote the book at night and on weekends while working as a tree pruner in the Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Pruning and weeding my garden are two of my favorite practical meditations.

Hoff later wrote The Te of Piglet, a companion book – both are available in one volume.

But Hoff’s relationship with publishers was far less pleasant than a day in the Hundred Acre Wood.

In 2006, he denounced the publishing industry and announced his resignation from book-writing.  He has published five books including The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow which won the American Book Award in 1988.

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne

The character of Winnie-the-Pooh is a good personification of wu wei.  Don’t confuse this Taoist concept of “effortless doing” with laziness.  Imagine if you could do your work “effortlessly.”

Pooh also illustrates for us pu.  This Chinese word means “unworked wood” or “simple” and was an early Taoist (or Daoist) metaphor for the natural state of humanity. Pooh is an exemplar of this concept of being open to, but unburdened by, experience.

Owl and Rabbit are characters that are quite the opposite. They over-complicate and over-think situations and problems.

Eeyore (who I fully identified with for a long time) is a pessimist. always complaining and fully burdened.

Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”
Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh”
― A.A. Milne

The Te of Piglet is the 1992 companion book to The Tao of Pooh. It was also a bestseller. In this book, Piglet acts as our model of living Te.

The Chinese concept of Te, which means “power” though often interpreted as  “virtue,” is particularly suited to Piglet in the Taoist concept of “virtue of the small.”  This second volume is really an elaboration on the first book’s introduction to Taoism, so they should be read together.

Piglet has power, though small, because he has a great heart or, in Taoist terms, Tz’u.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”  – A.A. Milne

The Hundred Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories is based on the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Milne’s country home was just north of Ashdown Forest. That Wood is one that young Christopher Robin Milne would explore.

I am still wandering in my own One Hundred and Fifty-Seven Acre Wood on a regular basis. I can be found there practicing (rather badly) Qigong and Tai Chi and trying to identify plants, playing Pooh Sticks in a creek and picking up plastic bottles and trash so that I leave the Wood cleaner than when I entered.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  –  A.A. Milne

I have learned that Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is “not a name for a thing” but the underlying natural order of the Universe. That order is perhaps impossible to describe as it is peskily non-conceptual. But it must exist.

Laozi also said that the Tao is “eternally nameless” in a world filled with named things that are manifestations of the Tao. The universe is a confusing place to wander.

“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”  –  A.A. Milne

The Uncertainties of Progress and a History of the Future

H.G. Wells is best known for his pioneering novels of science fiction, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.

He wrote about the new technologies of his time in both fiction and non-fiction and wondered in both about where that technology would lead in the future.

He was not very optimistic. He believed that technology would expand, but he also believed in human folly. That led him to ponder with some trepidation what “progress” might mean for mankind.

In some ways, he is not unlike those who caution us today about where technology, such as artificial intelligence, might lead or leave us.

In an essay by Peter J. Bowler on publicdomainreview.org, he writes about Wells’ uncertainties about progress and the future of humanity.

Though Wells championed technological developments, he worried about where and how they could be used. Technological innovation would require remodeling society. As good as Wells was about looking at the current leading edge of technology and predicting where it might go, he realized that predicting future inventions and their consequences probably would require a new definition of progress.

In The War in the Air, a science fiction novel, progress leads to more effective, and therefore more deadly, warfare. Written in 1907 and published in 1908, it contains another one of Wells’ prophetic ideas: that the technology of aircraft would be not only used for transportation that could unify the planet, mapping, and research, but also for fighting wars.

Remember that the Wright Brothers’s only had their first successful flight in 1903. Wells has a “war in the air” happening in the novel sometime in the late 1910s. World War I did come in that time period but aviation technology did not progress fast enough to make World War I into “war in the air.” There were German airship raids on London, but airplanes of that decade were not capable of the bombings and destruction Wells predicted. That would come with World War II.

Wells even throws some government conspiracy into the plot. He has the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers around the world “disappearing” from public view because they have been pulled into secret military projects to develop aviation weapons. Not that farfetched of an idea, considering how scientists were hidden away to develop rockets and the atomic bomb and still are today in parts of the world.

Illustration from Wells’ The War in the Air via archive.org

Wells earlier novel, The Time Machine, sent a time traveler into the future and what he observed was not good. The future was a Darwinian nightmare.  The leisured upper class had devolved due to a less active, less challenging way of life.  (How many people have since predicted that technology would bring us more leisure time?) The descendants of the industrial workers have become brutal rulers.

In the article, Bowler says that the Marxists saw history as climbing a ladder to a kind of utopia. But the Darwinists saw our life history as better represented by a branching tree. Wells saw science and industry’s evolution in the Darwinian way. Look how those originally insignificant mammals developed during the age of the dinosaurs and ended up becoming the rulers.

But he thought that scientific and technological innovation was leaping ahead of society, culture, and politics. We were not ready for the changes.

Another book he wrote in 1914, The World Set Free, predicted that the latest discoveries of atomic physics would give us a new source of power and also an atomic bomb.

The next step in Wells’ fears of progress is displayed in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. The war fought in this story reduces us back to savages. His only optimism in the story was that a few technocrats survive who can recreate society but under new and more rational ideologies.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  –  Albert Einstein

Though I really enjoy Wells’ novels and admire his ability to envision the future, I’m not a fan of the future world he hoped would come to pass. His “World State” had technological innovations helping all but those in charge were an elite group, like those who save and transform the world in The Shape of Things to Come. I hope he was wrong in this prediction of things to come.

Peter J. Bowler is Professor emeritus of the History of Science at Queen’s University, Belfast and the author of A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov.

Happy 200, Mr. Melville

MelvilleToday is Herman Melville’s birthday. He was born August 1, 1819, in New York City in a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants. But the family when he was born the Melvilles were in decline.

He left school at 15 to became a bank clerk. He also tried farming and teaching, but it was when in 1837 he took to the sea for the first time that the Herman Melville will know began. He was just a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with cotton, but he liked being at sea. Returning to New York and then in the West, he tried various jobs but found no “career.”

Returning to the East in1841, he signed up on the whaling shape the Acushnet, which spent several years in the Pacific. You would assume he loved this life since he wrote about it most famously later, but in fact, he did not. The Acushnet was a place of cruelties and he jumped ship in the Marquesas. There he was held in “friendly captivity” by the Polynesians. he escaped on an Australian whaler, which he also eventually abandoned and made his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

TypeeReturning to New York in1844, he was now 25 and he found there was an audience for his exotic sea stories in the islands. He wrote about his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner in his first novel, Typee. Publishers at first questioned the truthfulness of this non-fiction, but in print, it was an instant best-seller. He followed up quickly with a similar book, Omoo.

He married in 1847 and lived in New York with his younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters.

His next book was a novel was very different from the first two successful books. It was a rather fantastical, romantic work called Mardi. This book was not a best-seller, but the Melvilles moved to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which I plan to visit this month).

At the farm, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and a friendship began (though it seems that Melville considered Hawthorne more of a friend than Hawthorne did).

Melville explored transcendentalism and allegorical writing and wrote at the farm what would be his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

Moby-DickThe novel is an ambitious, lyrical, unconventional and epic story. He dedicated it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” But Moby-Dick or The Whale got mixed reviews. Readers who had liked his two earliest books did not find the same thing in the new tale.

Considering its classic status today, Moby-Dick was the beginning of the end of his career as a novelist. His subsequent books were largely literary failures. He did some farming and wrote articles to pay the bills, but the family ended up returning to New York City in 1863,

Melville became a customs inspector and tried a second literary life as a poet, writing a lot about the then raging Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which received praise but he never returned to the prominence of those first two books.

He never saw Moby-Dick reach the stature it has today, and his remaining stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd. His literary revival began in the 1920s and Moby-Dick is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. I didn’t see any celebration of his 200th birthday, so I want to send this remembrance out into the universe for an author who has meant a lot to me.

Melville stamp