What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. Saint Augustine, Confessions, XI.14
This time travel crap just…fries your brain like an egg. Looper
The trouble with time travel is, it doesn’t work. It never has. It never will. And so long as you accept that, there’s great fun to be had with the concept.
Or perhaps I should say that messing with the timeline doesn’t work. Because a timeline implies a single, fixed path. And whenever some story comes along in which someone has to fix history, the same problem impedes it: if the fix is successful, there will never have been a problem to go back and fix, and thus the fix would never have happened.
A man goes back in time to prevent another man from rising to power. If he succeeds, then he never had a reason to come back — in fact, success of his mission should preclude his existence in the past entirely. But that, of course, precludes the prevention of the rise to power, and necessitates his presence in the past. And so on, ad infinitum.
The best a time travel story can hope for is to provide a look at an eternal present, the place in between actual time where the things causing time to run as it does are happening, perdurably. Anything else is destined to fail, for we have the paradox of two concurrent, impossible, yet inevitable realities: the one in which the problem is eternal, and the one in which the fix is eternal. And so like a hair the timeline splits, and this for every possible variation in what we call history.
It’s fun, if not taken to unhealthy extreme, to consider how our lives would be different had we done certain things differently. But for even basic changes, the potential consequences are staggering. Pluck the wings from a butterfly and chaos ensues.
I recently saw Looper, and (as with Rian Johnson’s previous films) I quite enjoyed it. Looper provides a great deal of entertainment, a refreshingly cool scenario, and stellar acting performances all around. Moreover, Looper happily avoids most of the pitfalls of the time travel genre. Like the concept of loops on which it’s based, the movie nicely wraps things up in a mostly satisfying way. It fails to close the ultimate paradoxical loop, but then I suppose it couldn’t have been expected to.
Movies are pretty brief in the grand scheme of the entertainment spectrum. Even were Looper more ambitious in scope, to the point of pursuing the alternate reality side of the time travel equation, it would likely have lacked the time or the resources to do that pursuit justice. To truly achieve a satisfying grapple with time travel, I think other media are required. Something long-form, like a novel, a television mini-series. Perhaps a game.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (henceforth 13-2) over the past month. As a sequel, it shines, correcting (if occasionally overcompensating) for every complaint the first game generated. The battle system is more compelling (put another way, it’s a lot easier to die when just relying on auto-battle), the dialogue less stilted, the music more memorable.
More germanely, the story is no longer linear. At all.
Final Fantasy XIII was an ultra-linear experience, one to which the subtitle “The Longest Hallway” would have been aptly applied. It is a perfect illustration of the way we tend to look at time: one line, stretching from start to finish (let’s leave eternity out of this for the moment), unwavering and unchangeable. Aside from the form-enforced exception whereby saved files can be overwritten and failures replaced with victories, there is no alternative to the one path.
One might even argue that the save/load feature enforces the concept of inevitability, for death in battle precludes continuation of the story, a story in which the characters did not die in that battle, and thus you must repeat that piece of history indefinitely until victory — the “true past” — has been achieved.
The sequel, which plays as an apology for its predecessor, obsesses over the consequences and implications of choice and change. Its inciting incident transpires at the end of the world: a protagonist hurled back through time to prevent this reality from happening. And so the red flag is raised: if I prevent the disaster, I’ll never have been sent back to prevent it.
But perhaps not. For it doesn’t take very long for you to realize that in 13-2 the resolution of temporal irregularity results in the generation of a new timeline; or, more accurately, a new branch of the time web.
Early on, you meet a group of people at whose behest you enter a paradox to destroy a time-straddling threat from the space-time out of which it is operating. You then “return” to the time period whence you came, but no one recognizes you; the threat you saved them from never existed. Elsewhere — or, really, elsewhen — the original versions of these people are still waiting for you to destroy that monster. And they always will be — until, perhaps, it destroys them — because for you to destroy it would, in that timeline, preclude your impetus for doing so.
The ramifications of this discovery for the protagonists are staggering. They have undergone a sort of apotheosis, alone (or, at least, quite rare) in their capacity to see and (for lack of a better word) remember every version of history they encounter, and alone in their capacity to change time without obviating themselves.
Or so it seems. I am not terribly far into the game, and already I get a sense that my actions could lead to terrible paradox. I may at some point act in such a way as to generate the aforementioned impossible loop, solving not the problem of others but my own, thereby liberating myself of temporal agency and creating an impossibility both conceptual and, more importantly, playable.
Meanwhile, changes to the past and future are irrevocably tied to one another. There is a very real possibility that successfully eradicating the apocalyptic future from which Noel was sent will also eradicate Noel. And while that would be extremely problematic for a film (for how, absent Noel, would Serah have embarked on her journey?), it may work in the game, for he would still have existed in the other branches of the timeline wherein his presence was necessary.
The ultimate goal is simply to unlock a good future for Serah and Lightning, in which their past never went so wrong, away from which Lightning was never whisked. Even if memory of the journey taken to achieving such a timeline is lost to its participants, the journey itself is for the player that eternal present to which I earlier alluded. As such, while it’s too soon to guarantee, I think 13-2 is the most successful experiment in time travel as a plot device I’ve ever encountered.
Successful or not, experiences like 13-2 and Looper have had me thinking quite a bit about time lately, and particularly about an encounter, an epiphany of sorts, I had a couple weeks ago while praying rather more urgently than usual.
I’d been pressing in for a while, disheartened by a feeling of disconnect, that I was engaged in mere parody of prayer, speaking aloud to an empty room because that was the role I should be playing, not because there was an eternal deity with which I was presently conversing. I wanted to understand God as He really was, not as some character or distant “thing.”
And then a moment of true revelation, the vastness of God, transcending space and time. I don’t know how else to put it. I saw, for a moment, the implications of true omnipresence, of a being unbound by time or space. I could only think of it in terms of the very time that reality defied. At that moment, God is.
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
God’s presence. His state of being present. Not just in what we understand to be the present, but also in our past and our future. Wherever He is, He is present, and He is everywhere.
I have never felt as small as I did just then, or as empowered. For I realized that at that moment, the only moment, God was in that room, with me, speaking to me. He was also parting the Red Sea as Israel crossed. He was causing Jericho’s walls to fall. He was guiding the stone from David’s sling. He was freeing Paul from prison. He was watching Augustine steal a piece of fruit. He was witnessing my birth. He was witnessing my death. He was riding triumphantly on a white horse. He was reigning forever.
He was bleeding on a cross.
He is bleeding on a cross.
“Crucifixion,” 1954. Salvador Dali.
Everything that God was doing in that room He is doing right now, and always will be. That is what it is to say that God is unchanging. It is to say that all things are happening at once, which is to say nothing “happens,” for everything simply is. To happen implies a past and future which are merely experienced by us, limited and temporal beings. The concept of changing past or future is therefore preposterous, because while the repercussions are unknown to us they have been, will be, are known to God.
The Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the timeline, the past, present, and future as we tend to think of it. Chronos does not allow for interference. It is inevitable and sequential. Things which do not align with chronos are antithetical to time — anachronisms.
Looper, despite the good it may offer, is bound by chronos and its laws, and judged thereby. It seeks but ultimately fails to introduce kairos into the picture. Kairos is the moment of importance, the thing that matters, perhaps the thing that intrudes on or supersedes chronos. Kairos doesn’t so much change the timeline as define it.
A story in which a person goes into the past to change time but, by her actions, causes the very thing she sought to change — that moment would be kairos. Yet though it cannot be predicted or pinpointed with the exactness of chronos, kairos still occurs within chronos‘ confines — and so there is no kairos that does not already have its fixed place along the path of chronos; we cannot expunge these moments from the record or add new ones to it. What changes is simply our awareness of the moments that truly mattered. We see kairos only after it happens, never during or prior, but for one unbound by time, the kairos is there all along, speaking for itself.
In that moment, the absurdity of speaking of God’s fore-anything had me dumbstruck. All the arguments against His “doing things knowing x would happen” felt silly. And of course that’s the point, the reason for his response to Job. His prerogative, yes, but more than that: Job’s questions were framed from a position of temporality and were therefore fundamentally flawed.
I recently discussed Job with an atheist (perhaps agnostic?) who condemned God on the basis of his treatment of Job, acerbically saying “because of course children are fungible” in his denouncement of the supposed consolation for Job’s faithfulness. And admittedly, the whole ordeal still troubles me, for reasons just such as this.
But after that night, it troubled me less. Because I realized that any explanation for the existence of such terrible things in our world as the death and sickness and misery and poverty of people would be beyond my comprehension, and the futility of my understanding might well preclude any attempts at explaining. It is frightening to encounter the reality of one’s limitations, but comforting as well. Boundaries are not inherently bad; they can guide us towards more worthwhile pursuits.
I’m not a universalist. Maybe someday I will be. But playing through 13-2 and watching Looper and having this breakthrough in prayer have all made me think more about alternates, about the very fabric of reality. In 13-2 there is a “true” timeline, the one in which all things end well, in which the bad is not merely corrected but made never to have happened at all.
There are some Christians whose greatest objection to such thinking is that without eternal consequences for sin, the whole exercise was meaningless. But I’d disagree, just as I’d disagree with those who, if 13-2 concludes with Noel never existing and the journey — in the true timeline — never having taken place, would argue that with such ends the means lacked all meaning.
No, so long as we are aware that things could have been different, and are able to appreciate why they aren’t; so long as we can know the extent of evil, and relish in its full and lasting extirpation, then I don’t think an end in which everyone “lives happily ever after” is pointless. I don’t think it’s antithetical to God’s nature either. Paul says that as sin entered all humanity through one man, so shall salvation. The only way that metaphor works is if the salvation is as irresistible and ubiquitous and indifferent to individual volition as was the sin nature it replaces.
But like I said, I’m not a universalist.
What I am is a person bound by chronos, seeking a serendipitous glance at kairos as it unfolds, appreciating the power of a story in which an outside force enters the flow of time and, dying, brings life.