A River, a Path, a Maze - Time Travel: A History (2016)

Time Travel: A History (2016)


A River, a Path, a Maze

Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.

—Jorge Luis Borges (1946)

TIME IS a river. Does the truism require elaboration?

It did in 1850. Case in point: an American novel titled The Mistake of a Life-Time; or, The Robber of the Rhine Valley. A Story of the Mysteries of the Shore, and the Vicissitudes of the Sea. The author, Waldo Howard, promises “a truthful panorama of the events of a stirring and romantic period.” Let us jump to chapter 13, “Lady Gustine and the Jew.”

Lady Gustine is a dignified and high-toned beauty of eighteen years (“summers”), while her companion for the evening (not the Jew, obviously) is an equally dignified and beautiful twenty-year-old. They have been dancing. She is fatigued. “I fear you are fatigued,” says the gentleman. “ ‘Oh, no,’ said the lady, panting to regain the breath she had expended in the waltz.”

Conveniently, their balcony overlooks a river. They gaze upon it awhile. Presently dialogue occurs:

“Are you dreaming?”

“O, no, lady. I—I was thinking how truly the passage of yonder tiny craft resembles that of our own life bark on the tide of time.”

“And how?”

“See you not how quietly its hull is borne along with the current?…[etc., etc.]

“Well.” [He’s boring her.]

“Thus we are moving now, lady, rapidly, with silent, but steady, and never ceasing motion, down the swift river of time, that sets through the valley of life; all unconsciously we glide on, nodding like this same helmsman, indifferently, as we hold the rudder that guides our own fate—while we swiftly approach the ocean of eternity.”

And more like that. Pretty soon he “dwells upon the beauties of her native valley” but we needn’t follow him there. The first metaphor is bad enough.

Time = river. Self = boat. Eternity = ocean.

When time is a river, then time travel becomes plausible. You might get out and run up or down the banks.

People have been comparing time to a river at least since Plato began a long tradition of misquoting Heraclitus: “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Or “We step and do not step into the same rivers.” Or “We both step and do not step, are and are not in the same rivers.”*1 No one knows exactly what Heraclitus said, because he lived in a time and place that lacked writing (his work is published under the title The Complete Fragments, no irony intended), but according to Plato:

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.

Heraclitus was saying something important: namely, that things change. The world is in flux. That may seem self-evident, but his approximate contemporary Parmenides took a different view: change is an illusion of our senses; beneath the transitory world of appearances lies the true reality—stable, timeless, eternal. This was the view that appealed to Plato.

Notice that no one so far is saying that time is like a river. The universe is like a river. It flows. (Or it doesn’t, if you’re Plato.)

Alfred Jarry, constructing his time machine in 1899, said it had already become “a banal poetic figure to compare Time to a flowing stream.”*2 Banality didn’t stop anyone. “Time, that impalpable and fatal river,” the Parisian astronomer Charles Nordmann said in 1924, “strewn with dead leaves, our wistful hours carried down stream.” Where are we in this picture—we, the conscious observer? We are merely a bump in the viscosity, said the absurdist Jarry. The Christian hymn says, “Time, like an ever rolling stream / Bears all its sons away.” The river carries us toward eternity, which is to say past death. Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “Nocturno el río de las horas fluye…”—though he imagined it flowing from the future, “el mañana eterno.” Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and emperor, said that time is a river because everything rushes by, while we watch. “No sooner has anything appeared than it is past, and now another thing is passing, and that yonder will presently be here.”

If time is a river, can we ask how fast it flows? That seems a natural question to ask about a river, but it’s not a good question to ask about time itself. How fast does time flow? Measured how? We have plunged into a tautology. It’s no better to ask, How fast are we advancing through time?

Riverine flow can be complicated. Can temporal flow? “There is a theory,” explains Spock in a classic episode of Star Trek. “There could be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.”

If time is a river, does it have tributaries? Whence does it spring? From the big bang, or are we now mixing metaphors? If time is a river, where are the banks that contain it? W. G. Sebald asked that question in his last novel, Austerlitz:

Where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river’s qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent?

Sebald also asked, “In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?” This was a nice conceit: that some parts of our world, like dusty, shuttered rooms, may stand outside of time, may be cut off from time, immune to the flow.

IN POINT OF FACT, time is not a river. We possess a great metaphorical tool kit with utensils for every occasion. We say that time passes, time goes by, and time flows, and all those are metaphors. “Time is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors,” writes Nabokov metaphorically. We also think of time as a medium in which we exist. And as a quantity that we can possess, waste, or save. Time is like money, it is like a road, a path, a maze (Borges again, of course), a thread, a tide, a ladder, and an arrow. All at once.

“The idea that Time ‘flows’ as naturally as an apple thuds down on a garden table implies that it flows in and through something else,” says Nabokov, “and if we take that ‘something’ to be Space then we have only a metaphor flowing along a yardstick.”

Is it even possible to talk about time without using metaphors? Perhaps:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

Although, if that isn’t metaphor, what trope is it? Pregnant words: “present in…”; “contained in…” In the same poem T. S. Eliot also had some words about words.

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

Everything was so unsettled about time. Philosophers, physicists, poets, and pulp writers all struggled. They were using the same word bag. They drew their tiles and moved them around the playing board. (Slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.) Philosophers’ words alluded to the philosophers’ words that came before. Physicists’ words were special, more precisely defined, and anyway they were mostly numbers. Physicists don’t generally call time a river. They don’t generally depend on metaphor; at least, they don’t like to admit it. Even “arrow of time” is not so much a metaphor as a catchphrase.

In the twentieth century the physicists took the moral lead—they had the power—and the philosophers mainly reacted or resisted. After Einstein’s message sank in, metaphysicians began to say without blushing that time and space have the same “ontological standing,” that they exist “in the same way.” As for poets, they lived in the same world, pulled the same tiles from the bag, and knew better than to trust all the words. Proust searching for lost time. Woolf stretching and warping it. Joyce assimilating the news about time as it came from the frontier of science. “Temporal or spatial,” says Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it.” No, it is not. Later came Ulysses, the book of a single day, exodus and return. “An unsatisfactory equation between an exodus and return in time through reversible space and an exodus and return in space through irreversible time.” Leopold Bloom worries about magnetism and time, the sun and the stars, pulling and being pulled: “Very strange about my watch. Wristwatches are always going wrong.” Oh, there was unease.

Not everyone liked T. S. Eliot’s last long poem, Four Quartets, published from 1936 to 1942. Some accused it of self-parodic inscrutability. Not everyone thought it was a poem about time, but it is. Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual, / Here the past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled. Does all time exist together? Is the future already contained in the past? Didn’t Einstein say so?

Along with quite a few of his contemporaries, Eliot was influenced by a slightly crackpot book, An Experiment with Time, written by an Irish aeronautical pioneer named John William Dunne. Dunne was an acquaintance of Wells who at the turn of the century began building aircraft models, then gliders, then powered biplanes, all tailless (a design with stability problems). In the twenties, having left aeronautics behind, he noticed that his dreams sometimes predicted future events. They were “precognitive dreams,” he decided. Reverse memory. He had dreamed of a volcano killing four thousand on a French island and then, later (or so he recalled), read in the newspaper of the Pelée eruption on Martinique, killing forty thousand. He began keeping a notebook and pencil under his pillow; he interviewed his friends about their dreams; and he put two and two together. By 1927 he had a theory and a book.

Dunne proposed to replace the foundations of epistemology with his new system. “If prevision be a fact, it is a fact which destroys the entire basis of all our past opinions of the universe.” The past and the future coexist, in “the time dimension.” Incidentally, he wrote, he had stumbled upon “the first scientific argument for human immortality.” He put forward not a four-dimensional but a five-dimensional view of space and time. In explaining this, he adverted to Einstein and Minkowski and, as another authority, to Mr. H. G. Wells, who “through the mouth of one of his fictional characters, stated his case with a clearness and conciseness which has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.”

Wells himself did not approve. He assured Dunne that “prevision” was claptrap and that time traveling was make-believe—“that I [Dunne] have taken something which he never intended to be treated seriously…and have brooded too much upon it.” But Eliot and other literary searchers absorbed Dunne’s provocative ideas and imagery, including the prospect of a kind of immortality. The future is a faded song, Eliot writes. The way up is the way down (another fragment from Heraclitus), and the way forward is the way back. He has sensed that all time is eternally present, but he is not sure.*3 If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.

The Universe Rigid? Eliot in Four Quartets is not trying to persuade us of a system of the world. He suffers paradox and self-doubt. “I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where./And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.” He speaks through masks. Not only are words slippery; the problem with using words to describe time is that words themselves are in time. A string of words has a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Words move, music moves/Only in time.” Is eternity a place of motion or of stillness? Movement or pattern? Can these coexist? At the still point of the turning world? When he says a Chinese jar moves perpetually in its stillness, you know that’s a metonym. What moves perpetually in its stillness is a poem.*4

You shall not think “the past is finished” or “the future is before us.” Time does not belong to us; we cannot grasp it or define it. We can barely count it. The tolling bell, Eliot tells us,

Measures time not our time, run by the unhurried

Ground swell, a time

Older than the time of chronometers, older

Than time counted by anxious worried women

Lying awake, calculating the future,

Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel

And piece together the past and the future,

Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,

The future futureless.

WHEN BORGES, the philosopher poet, wrote that time is a river, he meant approximately the opposite. Time is not a river, nor is it a tiger, nor a fire. Borges, the critic, used a bit less paradox, a bit less misdirection. His language regarding time is apparently plain. In 1940 he, too, wrote about Dunne and his Experiment with Time, declaring it absurd, in a mild way. Part of Dunne’s argument was a reflection on consciousness—how it cannot be contemplated without falling into recursive loops (“a conscious subject is conscious not only of what it observes, but of a subject A that also observes and therefore, of another subject B that is conscious of A, and…” on and on). He was onto something important, recursion as an essential feature of consciousness, but then he concluded that “these innumerable intimate observers do not fit into the three dimensions of space, but they do in the no less numerous dimensions of time.” Borges knew this was nonsense, and it was his kind of nonsense. He saw something in it, a way to think about how the perception of time must be built on memory: “successive (or imaginary) states of the initial subject.” He recalled an observation made by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “If the spirit had to reflect on each thought, the mere perception of a sensation would cause it to think of the sensation and then to think of the thought and then of the thought of the thought, and so to infinity.” We create memories or our memories create themselves. Consulting a memory converts it into a memory of a memory. The memories of memories, the thoughts of thoughts, blend into one another until we cannot tease them apart. Memory is recursive and self-referential. Mirrors. Mazes.*5

Dunne’s precognitive dreams and involuted logic led him to a belief in a preexisting future, an eternity within human reach. Borges said Dunne was making the mistake “those absentminded poets” make when they start to believe their own metaphors. By absentminded poets he seemed to mean physicists. By 1940 the new physics took the fourth dimension and the space-time continuum as real, but Borges emphatically did not:

Dunne is an illustrious victim of that bad intellectual habit—denounced by Bergson—of conceiving time as a fourth dimension of space. He postulates that the future toward which we must move already exists (also conceived in spatial form, in the form of a line or a river).*6

Borges had more to say than most about the problem of time in the twentieth century. For him paradox was not a problem but a strategy. He believed in time—its reality, its centrality—yet he titled his crucial essay “A New Refutation of Time.” Of eternity he was not so fond. In another essay, “A History of Eternity,” he declared: “For us, time is a jarring, urgent problem, perhaps the most vital problem of metaphysics, while eternity is a game or a spent hope.” Everyone “knows” (said Borges) that eternity is the archetype and our time merely its fleeting image. He proposed the opposite: Time comes first; eternity is created in our minds. Time is the substance, eternity the effigy. Contrary to Plato—contrary to the Church—eternity is “more impoverished than the world.” If you are a scientist, you may substitute infinity. That is your creation, after all.

As for his new refutation of time, its essence is an argument he has “glimpsed” or “foreseen” and in which he himself does not believe. Or does he? It comes to him in the night. In the Proustian hours. What is time when you awaken, between dreams, register the rustling sounds, the shadowy walls—or, let’s say you’re Huckleberry Finn, rafting down the river…

Negligently he opens his eye: he sees an indefinite number of stars, a nebulous line of trees. Then he sinks into a sleep without memories, as into dark waters.

Borges notes that this is “a literary, not a historical” case. The doubting reader is invited to substitute a personal memory. Think of an incident in your past. When is that memory? Not at any time—not at any precise time. It is an instant on its own, suspended, apart from any supposed space-time continuum. Spacetime? “I tend to be always thinking of time, not of space,” Borges writes. “When I hear the words ‘time’ and ‘space’ used together, I feel as Nietzsche felt when he heard people talking about Goethe and Schiller—a kind of blasphemy.”

He denies simultaneity, just as Einstein did, only Borges does not care about the signal velocity (light speed) because our natural state is alone and autonomous, our signals are fewer and less reliable than the physicist’s.

The lover who thinks, “While I was so happy, thinking about the faithfulness of my beloved, she was busy deceiving me,” is deceiving himself. If every state in which we live is absolute, that happiness was not concurrent with that betrayal.

The lover’s knowledge cannot modify the past, though it can modify the recollection. Having dispensed with simultaneity, Borges also denies succession. The continuity of time—the whole of time—another illusion. Furthermore, this illusion, or this problem, the never-ending effort to assemble a whole from a succession of instants, is also the problem of identity. Are you the same person you used to be? How would you know? Events stand alone; the totality of all events is an idealization as false as the sum of all the horses: “The universe, the sum total of all events, is no less ideal than the sum of all the horses—one, many, none?—Shakespeare dreamed between 1592 and 1594.” Oh, Marquis de Laplace.

We have a tendency to take our words too seriously, which happens (paradoxically) when we are unconscious of them. Language offers a woefully meager set of choices for expressing what we need to express. Consider this sentence: “I haven’t seen you for a [?] time.” Must the missing word be long?*7 Then time is like a line or a distance—a measurable space. The language forces this upon us. Who was the first person to say that time “passes” or time “flows”? We are seldom conscious of the effect of language on our choice of metaphors, the effect of our metaphors on our sense of reality. Usually we give the words no thought at all. When we do, we may well wonder what we’re really saying. “I’m terrified of the thought of time passing (or whatever is meant by that phrase) whether I ‘do’ anything or not,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lover Monica Jones. The words lead us in a certain direction.

In English and most Western languages, the future lies ahead. In front of us. Forward. The past is behind us, and when we are running late we say we have fallen behind. Yet this forward-backward orientation is neither obvious nor universal. Even in English, it seems we can’t agree on what it means to move a meeting back one day. Some people are certain that back means earlier. Others are equally certain that it means later. On Tuesday, Wednesday lies before us, though Tuesday is before Wednesday. Other cultures have different geometries. Aymara speakers, in the Andes, point forward (where they can see) when talking about the past and gesture behind their backs when talking about the future. In other languages, too, yesterday is the day ahead and tomorrow is the day behind. The cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, a student of spatiotemporal metaphors and conceptual schemas, notes that some Australian aboriginal communities orient themselves by cardinal direction (north, south, east, west) rather than relative direction (left, right) and think of time as running east to west. (They have a strongly developed sense of direction, compared to more urban and indoor cultures.) Mandarin speakers often use vertical metaphors for time: 上 (shàng) means both above and earlier; 下 (xià) means below and next. The up month is the one that just ended. The down month is on its way.

Or are we on our way? Boroditsky and others speak in terms of “ego-moving” versus “time-moving” metaphors. One person may feel the deadline approaching. Another may feel herself approaching the deadline. These may be the same person. You may swim onward, or the river may bear you.

If time is a river, are we standing on the bank or bobbing along? “To say time passes more quickly, or that time flows, is to imagine something flowing,” wrote Wittgenstein.

We then extend the simile and talk about the direction of time. When people talk of the direction of time, precisely the analogy of a river is before them. Of course a river can change its direction of flow, but one has a feeling of giddiness when one talks of time being reversed.

That is the giddiness of the time traveler—like looking at an Escher staircase. Time passes. “The hours pass slowly.” “The hours pass quickly.” And without contradicting ourselves, we pass the time. We say these words, and we understand them perfectly.

Time is not a river. Where does that leave time travel?

A MAN LIES supine on an iron cot in a locked room, pondering his own imminent death. Through the window he can see roofs and the sun, shaded by clouds. He is aware of the time: it is a “six o’clock sun.” His name may or may not be Yu Tsun. We gather that he is a German spy. He is in possession of the Secret. The Secret is a single word, a name, “the exact location of the British artillery park on the River Ancre.” But he has been discovered and marked for assassination. He turns out to be something of a philosopher.

It seemed incredible to me that that day without premonitions or symbols should be the one of my inexorable death….Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me.

This is a fiction by Borges, “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” the title story of his first collection—eight stories, sixty pages—published in 1941 by the modernist journal Sur in Buenos Aires. Borges, who read The Time Machine with excitement when he was young, had published some poetry and some criticism. He was a prolific translator from English, French, and German, including Poe, Kafka, Whitman, and Woolf. To support himself he worked as an assistant at a small, down-at-the-heels branch library, cataloguing and cleaning the books.

Seven years later, “The Garden of Forking Paths” became Borges’s first story to appear in English translation. His American publisher was not a literary establishment or journal but Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1948. He did appreciate mystery. Now his reputation is large, but he did not gain much fame in English-speaking countries until the sixties, when he shared the first Prix International with Samuel Beckett. By then he was an old man, and blind.

Ellery Queen (joint pseudonym for two cousins from Brooklyn) was happy to publish what could barely be called a detective story. It has no detective, but it does have a struggle among spies, a pursuit, a revolver chambering a single bullet, a confrontation, and a murder. There is not just a mystery but a philosophical mystery—so we are told. Yu Tsun is informed, “Philosophic controversy usurps a good part of the novel.” To what does the controversy pertain?

I know that of all problems, none disturbed him so much as the abysmal problem of time. Now then, the latter is the only problem that does not figure in the pages of the Garden…

The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time; this recondite cause prohibits its mention.

The story folds in upon itself: The Garden of Forking Paths is a book inside a book. (And now inside a pulp magazine.) The Garden is a meandering novel by “the oblique Ts’ui Pên.” It is a book that is also a maze. It is a set of chaotic manuscripts, “an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts.” It is a labyrinth of symbols. It is a labyrinth of time. It is infinite—but how can a book, or a maze, be infinite? The book says, “I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.”

The paths fork in time, not in space.

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

In this, as in so many things, Borges seemed to be peering over the horizon.*8 Later the literature of time travel expanded to encompass alternative histories, parallel universes, and branching time lines. A parallel adventure was under way in physics. Having drilled far down inside the atom, to a place where particles are inconceivably small and behave sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves, physicists encountered what appears to be an inescapable randomness at the heart of things. They were continuing the project of computing future states from specified initial conditions at time t = 0. Only now they were using wave functions. They were solving the Schrödinger equation. Calculations of wave functions via the Schrödinger equation produce not specific results but probability distributions. You may remember Schrödinger’s cat: either alive or dead, or neither alive nor dead, or, if one prefers (it’s something of a matter of taste), simultaneously alive and dead. Its fate is a probability distribution.

When Borges was forty years old and writing “The Garden of Forking Paths,” a boy named Hugh Everett III was growing up in Washington, D.C., where he read voraciously in science fiction—Astounding Science Fiction and other magazines. Fifteen years later he was at Princeton, a graduate student in physics, working with a new thesis advisor: that same John Archibald Wheeler, who must continually reappear, Zelig-like, in the history of time travel. Now it is 1955. Everett is uncomfortable with the idea that simply making a measurement must alter the destiny of a physical system. He makes note of a talk at Princeton in which Einstein says he “could not believe that a mouse could bring about drastic changes in the universe simply by looking at it.”*9 He is also hearing all kinds of dissatisfaction with the various interpretations of quantum theory. Niels Bohr’s, he feels, is “overcautious.” It works, but it doesn’t answer the hard questions. “We do not believe that the primary purpose of theoretical physics is to construct ‘safe’ theories.”

So what if, he asks—encouraged by Wheeler, who is open as always to the weird and paradoxical—what if every measurement is actually a branching? If a quantum state can be either A or B, then neither possibility is privileged: now there are two copies of the universe, each with its own observers. The world really is a garden of forking paths. Rather than one universe, we have an ensemble of many universes. The cat is definitely alive, in one universe. In another, the cat is dead. “From the viewpoint of the theory,” he writes, “all elements of a superposition (all ‘branches’) are ‘actual,’ none any more ‘real’ than the rest.” Protective quotation marks run rampant. For Everett, the word real is thin ice atop a dark pond:

When one is using a theory, one naturally pretends that the constructs of the theory are “real” or “exist.” If the theory is highly successful (i.e. correctly predicts the sense perceptions of the user of the theory) then the confidence in the theory is built up and its constructs tend to be identified with “elements of the real physical world.” This is however a purely psychological matter.

Nonetheless, Everett had a theory, and the theory made a claim: everything that can happen does happen, in one universe or another. New universes are created on demand, as it were. When a radioactive particle may or may not decay, the Geiger counter may or may not register a click, the universe forks again. His dissertation itself followed a difficult path. It exists in several versions. One draft went to Copenhagen, where Bohr did not like it at all. Another, shortened and revised with help from Wheeler, became a paper that could be published in Reviews of Modern Physics—despite the obvious objections. “Some correspondents,” Everett wrote in a postscript, complained that “our experience testifies” that there is no branching, because we only have one reality. “The argument fails when it is shown that the theory itself predicts that our experience will be what it in fact is,” he said—namely, that in our own little universe we remain unaware of any branching. When Copernicus theorized that the earth moves, critics objected that we feel no such motion, and they were wrong for precisely the same reason.

Then again, a theory that posits an infinity of universes is an insult to Occam’s razor: Do not multiply entities needlessly.

Everett’s paper did not attract much notice at the time, and it was the last he ever published. He did not continue a career in physics. He died at the age of fifty-one, a chain-smoker and an alcoholic. But perhaps only in this universe. Anyway his theory outlives him. It has acquired a name, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an acronym, MWI, and a considerable following. In its extreme form, this interpretation obviates time altogether. “Time does not flow,” says the theorist David Deutsch. “Other times are just special cases of other universes.” Nowadays, when parallel worlds or infinite universes are pulled into service as metaphor, they come with semiofficial backing. When someone talks about alternate histories, it could be literature or it could be physics. The path not taken and the road not taken became common English expressions starting in the fifties and sixties—not earlier, despite Robert Frost’s most famous poem. Now any hypothetical scenario can be introduced with the familiar phrase, In a world where…It becomes harder to remember that this is only a figure of speech.

If we have only the one universe—if the universe is all there is—then time murders possibility. It erases the lives we might have had. Borges knew he was engaging in fantasy. Still, when Hugh Everett was a ten-year-old boy, Borges anticipated the many-worlds interpretation with eight precise words: “El tiempo se bifurca perpetuamente hacia innumerables futuros.”

Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.

*1 To the extent that Heraclitus’s actual words can be reconstructed and translated into English, another version is this: On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.

*2 Nabokov took the same jaundiced view a century later: “We regard Time as a kind of stream, having little to do with an actual mountain torrent showing white against a black cliff or a dull-colored great river in a windy valley, but running invariably through our chronographical landscapes. We are so used to that mythical spectacle, so keen upon liquefying every lap of life, that we end up by being unable to speak of Time without speaking of physical motion.”

*3 Seeing a photograph album in 1917, he wrote to his mother, “It gives one the feeling that Time is not before and after, but all at once, present and future and all the periods of the past, an album like this.”


Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,

Not that only, but the co-existence,

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

And all is always now.

*5 And corridors. “When we remember our former selves, there is always that little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of an impeccably narrowing corridor.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor.

*6 Nor, by the way, did Borges express great love for Eliot. “You always think—at least I always feel—that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another.” He accused him of a rather subtle form of humbug: “the deliberate manipulation of anachronisms to produce an appearance of eternity.”

*7 In English “long” is almost forced; in other languages, that would sound bizarre. They might say “big.”

*8 Even before Borges, a twenty-year-old in Colorado named David Daniels wrote a story for Wonder Stories in 1935 called “The Branches of Time”: a man with a time machine discovers that when he returns to the past, the universe splits into parallel world lines, each with its own history. The next year, Daniels killed himself with a gun.

*9 And by the way, why stop with mice? Can’t a machine be an observer? “To draw the line at human or animal observers, i.e., to assume that all mechanical apparata obey the usual laws, but that they are somehow not valid for living observers, does violence to the so-called principle of psycho-physical parallelism,” he writes.