Sunday, April 10, 2005

Time Travel

An ex-Confederate soldier, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, gave a clue as to how mental time travel might be accomplished. In 1896, Clemens, using a pseudonym, wrote:
"There is in life only one moment and in eternity only one. It is so brief that it is represented by the fleeting of a luminous mote through the thin ray of sunlight - and it is visible but a fraction of a second. The moments that preceded it have been lived, are forgotten and are without value; the moments that have not been lived have no existence and will have no value except in the moment that each shall be lived. While you are asleep you are dead; and whether you stay dead an hour or a billion years the time to you is the same." ~~Mark Twain
Civil War reenactor Jonah Begone tells us how to do it.
"Try this: find the most authentic surroundings you can. Go someplace where nothing makes any fingerprints on your window into the past. Sounds are important. You need the clanking of pots and pans and the murmuring of troops in the field. (Some sounds, like old bits of music, cause me to travel back mentally in an instant. A moment later, the effect is gone.) Smells are evocative, too: leather, black powder, sweat, wool, campfire smoke, straw, the smell of a field in the summer. Now, do something that is universal to the experience of humanity. Kiss a young woman for the first time. Or, run until you are overheated and badly out of breath. Or experience the kind of pain that makes you oblivious to anything other than your present condition. For the moment that you forget the past and the future and live just in that moment, you are experiencing exactly the same thing that someone 135+ years ago has done, and it no longer matters what year it is.

"Reenactors do this all the time; we call it time-tripping. But it only lasts briefly. As soon as you think, "Wow, this must be like it must have been," you have taken a subjective stance that ends the moment. It takes a high degree of delusion to sustain the moment, and I'm not even sure we would want to. Fooling others is acting; fooling ourselves is folly.

"In the seventeen years I have reenacted the American Civil War I can add up all those moments from each season, when the black powder smoke blows forth from the muskets in the first events in April to the last smells of the camp as it is being taken down in October or November. I would be hard-pressed to figure out which moment was supposed to be First Manassas and which was Gettysburg, or Antietam. But it doesn't really matter, and I am glad for them all. I suppose the Civil War veteran's recollections of the war is much like my recollections of reenacting it, which goes a long way to a claim of authenticity, despite the fact that I was wearing modern underwear all the while."


  1. Beautiful thoughts. I never thought about it, but I once experienced this method of time travel. It was during the swing dancing craze a few years ago, I was sweaty, exhausted, and stepped outside of a dance hall to smoke a cigarette (a habit I quit not long after). The jazz music was beating through the walls. Laughter and cheering drifted through the closed door at my back, while I stared out at the dark parking lot. For a few moments, I might as well have been standing outside a jumping roadhouse in 1930. I felt that if I opened my eyes, I would see a parking lot full of model t's in front of me. It was an awesome experience.

  2. Yes, I think I have had the same experience, the first time I saw an ancient Celtic type of dance, on New Years' Eve in the dark. All we could see were shadows of people dressed as animals as they wended their way through the room, with ancient music. I was back in old England, sitting at an outdoor fire, long before the arrival of Christian missionaries. I returned back the following New Year's Eve to witness the performance again, but, although the performance was identical, my mysterious experience did not return.


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