DISPOSSESSED

A couple of men were determined to talk physics with him. One of them was well mannered, and Shevek managed to evade him for a while, for he found it hard to talk physics with nonphysicists. The other was overbearing, and no escape was possible from him; but irritation, Shevek found, made it much easier to talk. The man knew everything, apparently because he had a lot of money. “As I see it,” he informed Shevek, “your Simultaneity Theory simply denies the most obvious fact about time, the fact that time passes.”

“Well, in physics one is careful about what one calls ‘facts.’ It is different from business,” Shevek said very mildly and agreeably, but there was something in his mildness that made Vea, chatting with another group nearby, turn around to listen. “Within the strict terms of Simultaneity Theory, succession is not considered as a physically objective phenomenon, but as a subjective one.”

“Now stop trying to scare Dearri, and tell us what that means in baby talk,” Vea said. Her acuteness made Shevek grin. “Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.”

“But the fact is,” said Dearri, “that we experience the universe as a succession, a flow. In which case, what’s the use of this theory of how on some higher plane it may be all eternally coexistent? Fun for you theorists, maybe, but it has no practical application, no relevance to real life. Unless it means we can build a time machine!” he added with a kind of hard, false joviality.

“But we don’t experience the universe only successively,” Shevek said. “Do you never dream, Mr. Dearri?”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“It is only in consciousness, it seems, that we experience time at all. A little baby has no time; he can’t distance himself from the past and understand how it relates to his present, or plan how his present might relate to his future. He does not know time passes; he does not understand death. The unconscious mind of the adult is like that still. In a dream there is no time, and succession is all changed about, and cause and effect are all mixed together. In myth and legend there is no time. What past is it the tale means when it says ‘Once upon a time’? And so, when the mystic makes the reconnection of his reason and his unconscious, he sees all becoming as one being, and understands the eternal return.”

“Yes, the mystics,” the shyer man said, eagerly. “Tebores, in the Eighth Millennium. He wrote, The unconscious mind is coextensive with the universe.”

“But we’re not babies,” Dean cut in, “we’re rational men. Is your Simultaneity some kind of mystical regressivism?”

“Maybe you could see it,” he said, “as an effort to strike a balance. You see, Sequency explains beautifully our sense of linear time, and the evidence of evolution. It includes creation, and mortality. But there it stops. It deals with all that changes, but it cannot explain why things also endure. It speaks only of the arrow of time—never of the circle of time.”

“The circle?”

“Time goes in cycles, as well as in a line. A planet revolving: you see? One cycle, one orbit around the sun, is a year, isn’t it? And two orbits, two years, and so on. One can count the orbits endlessly—an observer can. Indeed such a system is how we count time. It constitutes the timeteller, the clock. But within the system, the cycle, where is time? Where is beginning or end? Infinite repetition is an atemporal process. It must be compared, referred to some other cyclic or noncyclic process, to be seen as temporal. Well, this is very queer and interesting, you see. The atoms, you know, have a cyclic motion. The stable compounds are made of constituents that have a regular, periodic motion relative to one another. In fact, it is the tiny timereversible cycles of the atom that give matter enough permanence that evolution is possible. The little timelessnesses added together make up time. And then on the big scale, the cosmos: well, you know we think that the whole universe is a cyclic process, an oscillation of expansion and contraction, without any before or after. Only within each of the great cycles, where we live, only there is there linear time, evolution, change. So then time has two aspects. There is the arrow, the running river, without which there is no change, no progress, or direction, or creation. And there is the circle or the cycle, without which there is chaos, meaningless succession of instants, a world without clocks or seasons or promises.”

“You can’t assert two contradictory statements about the same thing,” said Dearri, with the calmness of superior knowledge. “In other words, one of these ‘aspects’ is real, the other’s simply an illusion.”

“Many physicists have said that,” Shevek assented.

“But what do you say?” asked the one who wanted to know.

“Well, I think it’s an easy way out of the difficulty. . . . Can one dismiss either being, or becoming, as an illusion? Becoming without being is meaningless. Being without becoming is a big bore. . . . If the mind is able to perceive time in both these ways, then a true chronosophy should provide a field in which the relation of the two aspects or processes of time could be understood.”

“But what’s the good of this sort of ‘understanding,’” Dearri said, “if it doesn’t result in practical, technological applications? Just word juggling, isn’t it.”

“You ask questions like a true profiteer,” Shevek said, and not a soul there knew he had insulted Dean with the most contemptuous word in his vocabulary; indeed Dearri nodded a bit, accepting the compliment with satisfaction.

Vea, however, sensed a tension, and burst in, “I don’t really understand a word you say, you know, but it seems to me that if I did understand what you said about the book—that everything really all exists now—then couldn’t we foretell the future? If it’s already there?”

“No, no,” the shyer man said, not at all shyly.

“It’s not there like a couch or a house. Time isn’t space. You can’t walk around in it!”

Vea nodded brightly, as if quite relieved to be put in her place. Seeming to gain courage from his dismissal of the woman from the realms of higher thought, the shy man turned to Dean and said, “It seems to me the application of temporal physics is in ethics. Would you agree to that, Dr. Shevek?”

“Ethics? Well, I don’t know. I do mostly mathematics, you know. You cannot make equations of ethical behavior.”

“Why not?” said Dearri.

Shevek ignored him. “But it’s true, chronosophy does involve ethics. Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.”

“But look here,” said Dearri, with ineffable satisfaction in his own keenness, “you just said that in your Simultaneity system there is no past and future, only a sort of eternal present. So how can you be responsible for the book that’s already written? All you can do is read it. There’s no choice, no freedom of action left.”

“That is the dilemma of determinism. You are quite right, it is implicit in Simultanist thinking. But Sequency thinking also has its dilemma. It is like this, to make a foolish little picture—you are throwing a rock at a tree, and if you are a Simultanist the rock has already hit the tree, and if you are a Sequentist it never can. So which do you choose? Maybe you prefer to throw rocks without thinking about it, no choice. I prefer to make things difficult, and choose both.”

“How—how do you reconcile them?” the shy man asked earnestly.

Shevek nearly laughed in despair. “I don’t know. I have been working a long time on it! After all, the rock does hit the tree. Neither pure sequency nor pure unity will explain it. We don’t want purity, but complexity, the relationship of cause and effect, means and end. Our model of the cosmos must be as inexhaustible as the cosmos. A complexity that includes not only duration but creation, not only being but becoming, not only geometry but ethics. It is not the answer we are after, but only how to ask the question. . . .”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed.

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  1. Pingback: TWENTY SIXTEEN: IN REVIEW | TEETH, FEET & FINGERS

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