Space and Time

billy pilgrim in slaughterhouse five

Billy Pilgrim in Philadelphia, from the movie Slaughterhouse Five

If 2006 started as a journey in space, it became a journey in time.

What I never understood when I read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five became very clear to me the night after my father's death, August 17, 2006. I had already been to South Carolina twice that summer, once to watch the hospital drama initiated by my mother's partially successful resuscitation, then again to attend her funeral two weeks later. Now it was August, a time when the world retreats inside in the South, and I am back in Greenwood, making decisions about the sublime and the ridiculous, the dog and the ashes, because for the moment it is all up to me. John, my brother, is driving a UHaul from Chicago to Providence with his son, and so I am to start the dissolution of this household.

So after dinner, with the early nightfall of our subtropical climes, I start two processes. The first, to throw out the obvious. [Note to self: Never store condiments in the refrigerator for more than ten years]. The second, to look at every object in the diminutive apartment. It was clear that nothing much had moved inside the apartment since Ma's funeral. But there was mail, and a few significant documents on the work table. Among them were directions as to where to look for things, who to talk to (lawyer, funeral home -- mostly things already done that day), and where stuff was.

I was directed by a file on the computer named "In case of" to a strong box in the closet. Among some trinkets from the Crafton grandparents (e.g. American gold currency from the 1920's, last seen by me in the 1960's), there was a standard sized envelope with something stuffed inside. It was a sheet of parchment, much like what paper makers create now when they are being cute. But this, when unfolded, revealed script familiar from history, or at least from Stan Freburg (We hold theʃe truthʃ to be ʃelf evident). The date, 1760. It was an original deed to land sold to a John Day in Delaware. He would be my sixth-great grandfather.

Successive discoveries included slides of my eldest brother (I know now he lived for eleven days, his Tetrology of Fallot not identified before death, although surgery for such a condition then would have been more than heroic); he was never mentioned in our family's household, only acknowledged begrudgingly when his presence on a family tree chart was queried. Finally there were love letters written August 1945 from a San Francisco hotel to a bride back in Pennsylvania.

The combination of discoveries and reminders became overwhelming. It was not possible to assume that I was only in South Carolina in 2006. I did not have a sense of place within time.

Time is an interesting concept. Our typical experience is that of what we call the present. We measure time, but really only as something that relates to space. For the early modern mathematician, time is the dependent variable for movement, the thing which sets up derivative calculus and its notion that a derivative is real despite its infinitesimal limits (a sort of solution of Zeno's paradox). And when we measure periods of time, we rely on the movement of our planet, relative to our star. Even Einstein, with special relativity, only tweaks (well, warps) this notion.

The cover of the German paperback version of The Dispossessed

The cover of the German paperback version of The Dispossessed

I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin's haunting novel The Dispossessed where, amongst some not so subtle politics, we meet Shevek, the physicist who is willing to posit that the notion of calculus is an option (and that Zeno's paradox need not be solved), which allows him to derive a means by which information (not matter) can be transmitted instantaneously across space. In the last chapter he is on his way back to his own planet, in the company of the Hain ambassador Ketho. Ketho states "My race is very old. We have been civilized for thousands of millennia. Our history reaches back over hundreds of millennia. We have tried everything...It seems to us, that there is nothing new under the sun. But if every single life is not new, why are we born?" Shevek answers "We are the children of time." What does this mean? Our existence is defined by the processing of molecular events through time. We exist because of time.

[Of course, since I read this novel in German, I may have got this all wrong.]

Six months later I dreamed I was in a porch, with a wall of glass looking out and on the opposite wall, shelves with intricate figures, some perhaps human, some probably not. They reminded me of the glazed Tang and Sung dynasty ceramic figurines of people and animals. There was an open desk in the middle of the room. There my father was sitting; he took out a mechanical pencil and quadrille paper and started to explain to me how the space/time construction was a special case solution of something more universal. When I awoke, I looked up the Ozma of Oz and confirmed that I had seen those figurines described before. Ozma had visited the Nome King, hoping to obtain the return of Queen Ev and her children. She was rebuked:

"Of course not," the Nome King returned. "Nor will I give up the Queen and her children because the King of Ev destroyed his long life by jumping into the sea. They belong to me and I shall keep them."

"But you are treating them cruelly," said Ozma, who was much distressed by the King's refusal.

"In what way?" he asked.

"By making them your slaves," said she.

"Cruelty," remarked the monarch, puffing out wreathes of smoke and watching them float into the air, "is a thing I can't abide. So, as slaves must work hard, and the Queen of Ev and her children were delicate and tender, I transformed them all into articles of ornament and bric-a-brac and scattered them around the various rooms of my palace. Instead of being obliged to labor, they merely decorate my apartments, and I really think I have treated them with great kindness."

Ozma of Oz, from 1920

Ozma of Oz, from 1920

The bric-a-brac image of the individual implies a crystallization of an existence into a form, independent of the process through which it may have gone (to quote from Rocky Erickson of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, "polarized into existence...").  There is one other place I know where we find that image. Near the end of Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke) the intrepid earth men (read viruses) cross the middle sea and enter the central structure on the asteroid (read bacterium) where they find rooms of prototype organisms (read DNA), which of course they can't help but alter a bit.

Illustration from Arthur C. Clark's Rendeavous with Rama

Illustration from Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama

Which brings us back to immortal molecules and their expression through time.