Sunday, 12 June 2016

On experiencing time travel while reading the morning paper

 Ordinarily I am a slave to the alarm clock. But even slaves deserve a holiday, and it is my custom on Sunday mornings to sleep in. When Nature has gently roused me from the world of dreams, I pull up the blinds and lie in bed a while longer with the sunlight pouring in through the window. It is the one day of the week when the sun is up before me and the birds are already awake and singing, sweeter by far than the mechanical chirp chirp chirp of an alarm clock in the dark. When I have enjoyed all this for a while, the sun and the birds and the bare branches of the maple tree against the sky, then I stumble out of bed and down to the kitchen and return with coffee and the weekend paper. Now comes the most important part of my Sunday ritual. I prop myself up with cushions – now I can see straight out over the rooftops and the powerlines and the distant trees and the very wide blue sky – and there, as comfortable as any king, I drink the hot black coffee and read the paper, looking up from time to time to bestow appreciate glances on the world outside my window.

But today something unnerving happened. I suffered a bout of time travel and I want to tell you about it.

I was in that dreamy state when you have just opened the paper and the first sips of coffee have just started to permeate the mind. I was not so much reading as letting my eyes slide passively from one news column to the next. I couldn’t say what it was about, I suppose the usual stuff, taxes and interest rates and people killing each other in far away places, when all at once my attention was seized by a particular phrase. It shocked me into a heightened state of awareness. Here are the words that had this electrifying effect on me: “earlier this month, on 6 July.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I remind you that we are now in the month of June. But the paper said “earlier this month, on 6 July.” How could any date in July be “earlier” when July is still a month away?

The words on the page disturbed me deeply. My skin prickled. Something very cold spread outwards from the pit of my stomach. I felt the bony fingers of the uncanny tightening their grip on my mind. I thought: I am in the wrong month; I have gone to sleep in the middle of June and woken up in the middle of July; I must have travelled through time; I have lost the month of June, it is gone forever. I thought: How could this happen? What could it mean? What will become of me now?

It took only a second for this unseemly chain of reasoning to develop. Then in the very next second the simple, reassuring truth dawned on me: It is a typo in the newspaper: a simple mistake: they said July when they meant to say June.

What a relief! Instantly the dread of time travel evaporated. I was back on the solid ground of Reality. I could almost have kissed Reality, I was so happy to see her again!

It is hard to understand how my imagination could concoct such a fanciful interpretation of a few words in the newspaper. Even harder to understand when you consider that newspaper typos are not a rare occurrence. In fact, I never read the morning paper without noticing ten or twenty small mistakes, a combination of typos and grammatical errors. I do not obsess about such things. I do not go out of my way to detect errors. I do not write letters to the editor filled with reproaches for misplaced apostrophes. I just happen to notice them, that’s all.

So you can see what baffles me. I have come to expect a certain level of error on any page of the newspaper. Why then did my imagination seize upon the most fantastical, most unlikely, most other-worldly interpretation of the mistaken word “July”? Why did I rush headlong to the conclusion that the paper was presenting me with evidence of time travel? It is too strange, I cannot explain it.

But the next part of my story is even stranger. I hesitate to speak of it at all. The contemplation of what comes next disturbs me. Again I feel a cold dread in the pit of my stomach. After I have written this confession I will have to take a walk, clear my head, try to forget the whole thing.

Here, then, is what happened. Explain it to me if you can.

Consoled as I was by the realisation that it had only been a typo after all, a simple misunderstanding, that there had been no time travel, that the paper had merely said “July” when it meant to say “June” – consoled by all this, and smiling a little at my own foolishness, I glanced back at the page. It said: “earlier this month, on 6 June.”

June?

I cleaned my glasses and looked again. I scrutinised the words with the utmost care. There it was, as plain as day. “Earlier this month, on 6 June.” There had been no typo at all, no mistake, nothing of the kind. There was no mention of July anywhere on the page. All my speculations about time travel had been based on – nothing! I had not misinterpreted a typo in the paper. I had created one. It was a projection of my own imagination. I saw a word that wasn’t really there and then supplied its fanciful interpretation.

I cannot say what any of this means, I cannot guess. Is this what madness is like, to fabricate interpretations around symbols that are not really there? Is this what it is like to be one of those ideological critics who project imagined grievances on to everything they read and then spin webs of meaning out of those projections? Is that what reading is always like for some people, a cold self-referential Gnosticism that sees July (and runs away with it) where the page says only June? Or should I learn a simpler moral lesson from my experience, not to have that last slice of pizza before bed on Saturday night?

Whatever it all means, I can only say that the mind is full of surprises. It is fearfully and wonderfully made. We tell ourselves that it will do our bidding. But it is the mind that bids and we who must reply.

1 Comment:

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

I'm older than you, so you won't remember this, but when I was very young the word which is now spelled "every" used to be spelled "evry". I remember it clearly. But one day they changed it: the whole of the English-speaking word decided to alter their spelling of this word, and all books, papers, periodicals and so on were all changed overnight. And what is worse, I have never been able to get anyone to admit this truth - not ever! But I know it happened: I was there - I remember it! When George Orwell wrote of the work of the Ministry of Truth in revising history, he wasn't joking!

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

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