Wednesday, September 5, 2007
By Alan Lightman
Warner Books $8.99, paper
Einstein’s Dreams, in the novel by Alan Lightman, represent not only his meditations on the nature of time, but also thematic ideas and lessons about life. Here are three examples.
Passage one: “In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely…And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before.”
Passage two: “A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back. In the coffeehouses, in the government buildings, in boats on Lake Geneva, people look at their watches and take refuge in time. Each person knows that somewhere is recorded the moment she was born, the moment she took her first step, the moment of her first passion, the moment she said goodbye to her parents.”
Passage three: “For in this world, time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then it is only people who barely move. If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.”
These three passages from the novel explain not only a possible dream Einstein had while formulating his theories on time, but they also illustrate an aspect of the human condition and teach life lessons that can be incorporated into today’s world.
In the first passage, the citizens of that world are doomed to live one segment of life over and over again. They will have the same successes, but also make the same mistakes. This is a cause for much sorrow and trepidation. The full chapter ends with the people twisting and turning in their sleep, unable to rest, moaning aloud through the night due to the agony of being unable to change.
Lightman is illustrating with this passage that comparable to Dante’s rings of hell, someone who knows he must change, but is unable to due to either conditions or circumstances, faces agony and frustration. Many people make resolutions, or vow to change some behavior, but the behavior is so ingrained in them that they cannot complete the change. Therefore, they live making the same mistakes over and over again.
In the real world, this is the obese man who cannot bring himself to diet. The gambler or alcoholic who cannot kick the habit. Misery follows on the heals of misery. If man cannot adapt, then all is lost, and that is exactly what is happening in the passage. Take away a human being’s ability to change negative behaviors and one is doomed to failure, not just once, but repeatedly, over and over. Humans can be stubborn and resistant to change; Lightman postulates that these people are in for a lifetime of heartache and pain.
In the second passage, the people of that world rely on what is dependable and constant. As the passage states, they “take refuge” in the stability of time. One may feel safe with keeping to the dependable path, but in the long run, life is filled with risks and uncertainty, and there is no way to avoid them.
We are all victims of the relentless march of time. We grow old, we die, our children grow old, they die. Eventually, everyone who remembers us dies and we die again when we are forgotten. It is the cliché, “time marches on,” that informs this passage. By staying with what is safe and stable, one misses out on the spontaneity of life. Again, as Lightman does in so many of these chapters, he illustrates the trade off: one might play it safe, but that leads to a stifled existence.
In the third and final passage, time passes, but little happens. A person without ambition lives a life of malaise. A person with ambition realizes he is going nowhere, and therefore suffers.
This is easily translatable to our world. If no progress is made, the ambitious person feels frustrated. It is a given that everything must change or die. When we stop changing, our lives are over. In a sense, the people in Lightman’s passage never had a chance. Time’s progression is so slow, any forward momentum is lost.
It is also a fundamental truth that given a choice, one would love to be paid to “do nothing.” In reality, doing nothing would become tedious and boring after a while because we are restless creatures. We crave forward motion. Therefore, Lightman’s passage illuminates once again a hellish world. No one gets anywhere. And suffering ensues.
Lightman is magical in the way he blends a meditation on time and the nature of the universe with the actuality of being alive in this world. Although each chapter represents an imaginary world, the ties to our lives and the way we behave are very clear.
In the end, that is the success of this oddly structured little novel. Lightman manages to illuminate the human condition while laying out the dreamscape of a scientist’s brain. The end result is a novel that explains the incongruous nature of our perception of time, with the agonizing and often frustrating minefield of human endeavor within the confines of time.