* NOTICE: Mr. Center's Wall is on indefinite hiatus. Got something to say about it? Click HERE and type.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


While there is more going on in Alan Lightman’s 1993 “novel,” Einstein’s Dreams, than thought experiments on Time (hence the quotations around “novel”), the rest is so unremarkable by comparison as to be nonexistent.  And, really, I don’t need to say more than that, so will let Lightman’s words do the talking.  

Is it poetry?  I think so--prose poetry, most likely.  Poetic?  Enjoyable?  Yes.  And definitely yes.


First a few of the book’s premises for context, then a full excerpt:

14 April 1905

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself.  The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.
                For the most part, people do not know they will live their lives over.  Traders do not know that they will make the same bargain again and again.  Politicians do not know that they will shout from the same lectern an infinite number of times in the cycles of time.  Parents treasure the first laugh from their child as if they will never hear it again.

16 April 1905

In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze.  Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream.  When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves suddenly in the past.

24 April 1905

In this world, there are two times.  There is mechanical time and there is body time.  The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.  The first is unyielding, predetermined.  The second makes up its mind as it goes along.
                Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist.  When they pass the giant clock on the Kramgasse they do not see it; nor do they hear its chimes while sending packages on Postgasse or strolling between flowers in the Rosengarten.  They wear watches on their wrists, but only as ornaments or as courtesies to those who would give timepieces as gifts.  They do not keep clocks in their houses.  Instead, they listen to their heartbeats.  They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires.  Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs at the millenary or the chemist’s whenever they wake from their sleep, make love all hours of the day.  Such people laugh at the thought of mechanical time.  They know that time moves in fits and starts.  They know that time struggles forward with a weight on its back when they are rushing an injured child to the hospital or bearing the gaze of a neighbor wronged.  And they know too that time darts across the field of vision when they are eating well with friends or receiving praise or lying in the arms of a secret lover.
                Then there are those who think their bodies don’t exist.  They live by mechanical time.  They rise at seven o’clock in the morning.  They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six.  They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock.  They make love between eight and ten at night.  They work forty hours a week, read the Sunday paper on Sunday, play chess on Tuesday nights.  When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat.  When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home.  They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses.  Thoughts are no more than electrical surges in the brain.  Sexual arousal is no more than a flow of chemicals to certain nerve endings.  Sadness no more than a bit of acid transfixed in the cerebellum.  In short, the body is a machine, subject to the same laws of electricity and mechanics as an electron or clock.  As such, the body must be addressed in the language of physics.  And if the body speaks, it is the speaking only of so many levers and forces.  The body is a thing to be ordered, not obeyed.
                Taking the night air along the Aare, one sees evidence for two worlds in one.  A boatman gauges his position in the dark by counting seconds drifted in the water’s current.  “one, three meters.  Two, six meters.  Three, nine meters.”  His voice cuts through the black in clean and certain syllables.  Beneath a lamppost on the Nydegg Bridge, two brothers who have not seen each other for a year stand and drink and laugh.  The bell of St. Vincent’s Cathedral sings ten times.  In seconds, lights in the apartments lining Schifflaube wink out, in a perfect mechanized response, like the deductions of Euclid’s geometry.  Lying on the riverbank, two lovers look up lazily, awakened from a timeless sleep by the distant church bells, surprised to find that night has come.
                Where the two times meet, desperation.  Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment.  For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times.  Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

26 April 1905

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd.  No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains.  Everyone lives in the mountains. 
                At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth.  The effect is miniscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments.  ….


  1. I remember reading parts of this book in your class. It's fascinating stuff. I remember a few years ago, there was a study that, "Time," is the most common word in the English language, of course leaving out words like, "the." It really demonstrates what this is getting at, how central time is to our lives. And it's really a sort of tyrant.

  2. I've used the book (not these particular segments) as prompts for writing exercises or demonstrations on different ways to approach writing. This one, while I reread it, resonated more than it has in the past.

  3. love this.

    i'm happy to say i'm a good mix of mechanical time and body time.

  4. For better or worse, my mechanical time inclinations only appear when I've got an appointment or need to get to church.


Be sure to subscribe to the thread to receive discussion updates.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...