Lunch at the Village Tavern

Colleagues and I sit atop stools at the bar at Village Tavern, the three of us eating lunch and warming to each other’s company toward the end of summer. Talk turns to the icebreaker-like theme of “horror movies we watched at far too young an age”: Poltergeist for me, for instance, at the age of five; The Shining, at a slightly older age, for D., who teaches a course on ghosts; and Scanners for I., a documentarian and professor of journalism.

Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Poltergeist, I sketch for them afterwards the story of “The House on Shady Blvd,” feeling as I do so like the Traveler from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. His was a similar tale, told with great verve over the course of two dinner parties.

“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted,” begins the Traveler.

“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” asks a skeptic with red hair.

My eyes twinkling, my face well-tanned from my time in the sun, I expound this admittedly odd and recondite matter of mine in as plausible a manner as I can muster. Contingency pauses me, however, midway in my telling. Sensing through the cloth of my pocket the buzz of my phone against my hip, I beg pardon of my companions, step outdoors for a moment, and take a call from the office of my oral surgeon. ‘Tis the “pre-interview,” says the woman on the other end, for my upcoming wisdom-tooth extraction. Call complete, I return to my companions, whereupon I compare the event jokingly to the one that prompted Philip K. Dick’s weird VALIS experience in the 1970s.

Mood thus lightened, the conversation leaps to life, undergoes a shift in quality, becomes a full, robust, multi-directional exchange.

The Structure of the Device

It’s an odd thing, this device, is it not? With its levers, it’s like a clock or a timepiece. Spun or turned, the levers grant the Traveler safe passage through forthcoming years as counted by Western calendars. The future is reified, captured in a count by an imaginal technology that converts time into a measurable dimension.

Wells’s Traveler assumes in the very structure of his time machine an imperial temporality: the Western linear temporal orientation, with its obedience to “the Master’s Clock.”

But for more recent Travelers, especially people of color, travel is undertaken not so much in obedience to the clock as in exodus from its dictates. Travelers consult stars and return to sidereal time. Or they create music. They keep time with drums rather than clocks. As Moor Mother notes, “Music created by Black people has been used throughout time and across space as an agent of time and memory” (Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, p. 9). She and the other members of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective take this longstanding practice a step further, their self-professed goal being “to collapse space-time into a desired future.” Tracks of theirs are self-creating, self-causing sound-events from the future made to happen in the minds and bodies of those who listen.

The Magic Circle

The Traveler claims to have departed the space-time of the dinner party by boarding a vehicle he built in his laboratory. The machine resembles a bicycle. By sitting upon it and manipulating a pair of levers, the Traveler observes his life-world transforming rapidly all around him, the whole flashing as in a sequence of motion studies projected onto a kind of spherical surround. It’s as if the Traveler has drawn around himself a magic circle, like the kind described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens and Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. He sees land transformed over hundreds of thousands of years, while he himself sits safely (albeit uncomfortably), within the circle drawn by his machine, occupying a sphere of local, personal, existential time, divorced from the duration of the years passing around him.

Narrating an Act of Time Travel

How does one narrate an act of time travel? And who is one’s audience? In Wells’s The Time Machine, narration unfolds by way of a story within a story. There’s the narrator, a cautious-but-ultimately-optimistic attendee at a series of dinner parties, who speaks only in the book’s intro and conclusion; and then there’s the host of these parties, the Time Traveler. The core of the novel consists of the account given by this latter figure upon his return from the future.

Utopia vs. 802,701 A.D.

The Traveler of my tale burns sage from Utopia, “a place ahead of its time,” unevenly distributed here in the present. ‘Tis other than 802,701 A.D., the place visited by the protagonist of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. Wells’s protagonist arrives to a future 800,000 years hence and makes a fool of himself. He imagines himself lost or damned. He blunders about; he curses, he cries. The only noble thing he does is rescue an Eloi woman from drowning — but he proceeds thereafter to treat her as one would a pet or a child. He imagines himself superior to the Eloi, and responds to the Morlocks with fear and contempt. After flicking matches around and starting a forest fire, he kills some Morlocks, regains control of his Time Machine, and hightails it back to the day on which he first set forth. My favorite touch is his vanishing at story’s end.

Repeating the Encounter

Time machines are devices that permit movement between two or more modes of production. Yet the consequences of this movement vary, dependent as they are upon the nature of the traveler. Wells’s traveler is rash, brutish, given to frenzies, where he bawls “like an angry child” (34). In his behavior toward the people of the future,

he repeats the Encounter

and takes the Other

for a fool.

Afterwards he reprimands himself, councils “Patience,” and tells himself, “Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all” (37).

“Like the flapping of a black wing”

I record a voice memo, pleased as I am with the wordless sounds of cicadas and a niece playing with water in a toy sink in my in-laws’ backyard. Mood alters, though; weight returns the moment I consult Facebook. The latter brings upon its users an atmosphere of bad feeling. “Glunk” goes the sense-board. My father-in-law cooks up delicious pastrami sandwiches (red onions, pickles, provolone stacked on kummelweck rolls, the latter a regional specialty here in Western New York). Mood enhanced, I utter thanks to the chef. Eyes closed, I open them again onto Wells’s The Time Machine. The Time Traveler sees the Dreamachine flicker of day’s interchange with night “like the flapping of a black wing” (18). Days flicker past in much the same way here, as one scrolls through these Trance-Scripts. Take comfort, though, reader: for as the Traveler explains to those caught up in his journey, this unpleasantness of moving “solstice to solstice” merges at last into “a kind of hysterical exhilaration” (Wells 19).

Time Out of Joint

“The Time Traveler” (as since Wells we’ve come to speak of him) lapses again into an introspective state, “his lips moving as one who repeats mystic words” (The Time Machine, p. 5). The sight of Tokyo 2020 here in summer 2021 perplexes him.

Is that you, intrepid Unconscious, telegraphing via Internet-of-things to say, “Time is out of joint”?

Friday June 25, 2021

I’m about half a year behind in posting these trance-scripts. Arriving to summer solstice, I post trance-scripts about winter. I type up New Year’s Day as I sit in summer sun. And as I do so, the idea dawns upon me: I can edit. I can revise. Trance-scripts could become a time-travel narrative. Through the eerie psychedelic echo and delay of the trance-script, I can affect-effect the past. I’ve done this already in minor ways, adjusting a word or two here and there. Time travel is such a modernist conceit, though, is it not? It’s modernist when conceived as a power wielded by a scientist or some sort of Western rationalist subject, as in H.G. Wells’s genre-defining 1895 novel The Time Machine. But in fact, much of the genre troubles the agency of the traveler. Think of Marty McFly, forced to drive Doc Brown’s Delorean while fleeing a van of rocket-launcher-armed Libyan assassins in Back to the Future. Or think of Dana, the black female narrator-protagonist in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred. For Dana, travel is a forced migration to the time and place of an ancestor’s enslavement. One moment, she’s in 1970s Los Angeles; the next moment, she’s trapped on a plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. Be that as it may, there is still the matter of these trance-scripts. It all seems rather complicated, this idea of tinkering with texts post facto. Yet here I am doing it: editing as I write. What, then, of this mad-professorly talk of “time-travel”? What would change, under what circumstances, and why? Let us be brave in our fantasies, brave in our imaginings.