Wednesday, May 7, 2014

“‘The interstices of intervening substances’”: the Limits of Time and Narrative in Wells’s The Time Machine

“In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun.”

            At the conclusion of the Time Traveller’s story in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the internal narrator attempts to describe his journey to incredibly late moments in the future of the planet.  Tentacled creatures inhabit this world, although haplessly, “hopping fitfully about” (71).  The planet sinks in near-darkness beneath a dying sun, and everything appears drenched in a dull redness: the sun is only a “red-hot bow in the sky,” the surrounding water “blood-red” (70-71).  Everything appears near death or extinction as the world smolders under a mostly ineffective star.  Wells takes his readers to the limits of observable time on earth; but he also takes us somewhere potentially even more terrifying: the limits of narrative.
            Early in the text, the Time Traveller expresses the difficulty of describing the sensations of time travel.  After agreeing to tell his story, he admits that he “‘cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling’” (16).  He continues the only way he can conceive to: by using figurative language: “‘They are excessively unpleasant.  There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback – of a helpless headlong motion!  I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash’” (16).  Spatial terminology and sensations serve to illuminate what the Time Traveller experiences as he hurtles into the future; in many ways, his description registers the effect of passengers on the railway, as recorded by Wolfgang Schivelbusch: “repeatedly, the train was described as a projectile […] The traveler who sat inside that projectile ceased to be a traveler and became, as noted in a popular metaphor of the century, a mere parcel” (53-54).  Although never using the term “parcel,” the Time Traveller insists upon the contingent materiality of his body during transportation – a materiality that is rendered passive by the conditions of time travel:
“I was, so to speak, attenuated – was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances!  But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way: meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction […] would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions – into the Unknown.” (17)
Like the terrified passengers of Schivelbusch’s railroad, the Time Traveller appeals to the danger and terror of moving at a high velocity through space in order to express the traversal of time.
            The spatiality of time travel, as described in Wells’s short novel, gives time a material quality.  The time machine functions as an apparatus that realizes time as a material substrate, something that can be traveled along; and this materialization forces the reader to consider time as something strange.  Time becomes estranging, echoing the formula put forth by SF critic Darko Suvin in his 1979 book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, in which he describes science fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.”  The Time Traveller’s appeal to spatial imagery conveys the limitations of describing unfamiliar temporal motion.  Our conscious perceptions do not permit the capacity to describe temporal motion as anything but linear.  Time and consciousness are bound to each other: “‘There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it’” (4).  The intervention of the time machine – an apparatus that mediates the relationship between concrete conscious bodies and (for lack of a better word) change – reifies material change into Time, into something separate from consciousness.  However, time is not only a narrative category in Wells’s text; it is also a constitutive component of narrative.  The text introduces the apparatus of the time machine only in part to investigate the hypothetical prospect of time travel; more comprehensively, The Time Machine functions as a meditation on narrative itself.
            The radical dynamics of The Time Machine emerge not from its science-fictional subject matter, but from its internalization of formal paradox at the level of content.  In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues for the fundamental function of time in the novel-form:
“Only in the novel, whose very matter is seeking and failing to find the essence, is time posited together with the form: time is the resistance of the organic – which possesses a mere semblance of life – to the present meaning, the will of life to remain within its own completely enclosed immanence […] we might almost say that the entire inner action of the novel is nothing but a struggle against the power of time” (217).
Building upon Lukács’s argument, Fredric Jameson brings his own narrative theory to bear on the genre of science fiction: “the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending” (148).[1]  The Time Machine serves as an archetypal image of Jameson’s argument for science fiction; beyond reveling in the paradoxes of time travel, Wells’s fiction realizes these paradoxes in the form of novelistic discourse and recreates them in its subject matter.
            The ramifications of time travel thus indicate the very formal limitations of narrative itself, and Wells’s text registers these limits.  The Time Traveller is not the text’s primary narrator; he is an internal one.  The primary narrator remains vague and unnamed, a member of the party to whom the Traveller reveals his invention.  This technique is known as embedded narrative, and it enjoys company in the nineteenth century: famous examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (to name a few).  Embedded narrative allows the author to construct a frame within the novel itself, to impose limits within the diegesis.  Often such constructions evoke a sense of skepticism in readers, and lead us to question the authenticity of our narrator(s); however, in Wells’s story the embedded narrative also allows the author to explore the ramifications and difficulties of a narrative that, in its very subject matter, defies one of the constitutive components of narrative.
            Many 19th-century models of history pursue a teleological aim, deriving primarily from Hegel’s philosophy of history.  Despite Marx’s “inversion” of Hegel, his project yet remains teleological, and Marxist politics function importantly in The Time Machine, infiltrating many aspects of the narrative.  Upon witnessing the idyllic lifestyle of the Eloi, the Traveller gasps “Communism” (24), and understands his vision in 19th-century political terms: “There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle.  The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone.  It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise” (27).  The Traveller alters his interpretation of the future in later pages, but the influence of Marxism remains, and the concept of historical progress entailing future improvement is clear in many of his statements: “The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move fast and fast towards the subjugation of Nature.  In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs” (26).  The Traveller espouses progress and development that will eventually arrive at benevolent mastery.
            However, Wells deflates this teleological tendency by undermining the narrative process.  As the Traveller moves further into the future, he watches the planet and sun slowly die before disappearing from the novel entirely.  Furthermore, not only does he encounter denotative problems in his recounting of the adventure; but his telling fails.  His listeners do not believe him, except for our primary anonymous narrator, who tells us that the Traveller “vanished three years ago.  And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned” (75).  Wells embeds the secondary narrative of the Time Traveller in the primary narrative of the text; and this primary narrative recounts the Time Traveller’s ultimate failure: his own disappearance.  Time travel undermines its own ability to pronounce arbitrary demarcations such as beginnings and ends; such boundaries rely on normative, linear conceptions of time, which break down in the process of time travel.  The Traveller himself can never effectively communicate his story because it must fixate itself in the bonds of linear narrative.[2]
            The only way for Wells to reconcile the paradox of his hero’s journey – the unknowability or definition of his temporal odyssey – is for the hero to vanish from narrative time entirely.  The primary narrator, despite his belief in the Time Traveller’s story, cannot know the extent of this story in any linear sense.  The materiality of the time machine thrusts the Traveller out of linear time entirely, suggesting that our normative approaches to time (i.e. understanding it linearly, or in a narrative way) fall short of apprehending what “Time” really is.  The Traveller drops out of narrative time.  He exists (to invoke Bakhtin’s chronotope) in “time-time”; that is, in the fissure between the content of the primary narrative and its constitutive form (if not out of form entirely).  The reified realm of Time itself, as materialized by the time machine; the hero must literally slip, as he has already told us, into the “interstices of intervening substances.”
            These interstices reveal to the Traveller (as far as we are allowed to see) a startling glimpse not of teleological or directed history, but of contingent moments.  Beyond the ideology of linear time, the world appears startling and strange, resulting in the terrifying creatures discussed above.  Here, Wells challenges the linearity of Darwinian evolutionary motion, which claims that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (Origin II:305).  Instead, in the conclusion of the Traveller’s narrative (or, rather, what appears to us as a conclusion), we find gigantic insects and monstrous tentacled things; not the hopeful prospects of “Excelsior” biology (Wells “Zoological Retrogression”).  As Stephen Jay Gould has put it more recently, the “vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity” (Life's Grandeur 173).  As we can see in the final scene of the Traveller’s journey, life appears to be slinking back toward its simple beginnings.
            The narrative barrier that the Traveller thus encounters is the ultimate destruction of cognition itself, since narrative requires a conscious construction of points constellated together to form a cohesive (or not-so-cohesive) whole.  The paradoxical breakdown of the narrative effect arrives with the appearance of a dying sun; the heat death of the universe.  We can have some fun with this by looking briefly (and in conclusion) at Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction:
Everything is dead already.  Solar death is catastrophic because it vitiates ontological temporality as configured in terms of philosophical questioning’s constitutive horizontal relationship to the future.  But far from lying in wait for us in the far distant future, on the other side of the terrestrial horizon, the solar catastrophe needs to be grasped a something that has already happened; as the aboriginal trauma driving the history of terrestrial life as an elaborately circuitous detour from stellar death. (233)
What Brassier is concerned with is the possibility of thinking the death of thought.  Any attempt is circumscribed by life and thought, and thus immediately negates itself; we can think of death conceptually, but we cannot occupy it, cannot identify with it.  The death of thought, however – signified by heat death, solar death – cannot be grasped conceptually, because not only is it yet circumscribed by life, but is yet circumscribed by thought.  The concept of the death-of-thought is non-conceptual.
            As a non-concept, the thought drives toward its own demise.  Narratively speaking, it must fall out of itself; it encounters its own death.  The Traveller, narrating his tale in The Time Machine (if he is indeed to continue travelling), must also narrate beyond the borders of life and thought.  As a narrative concept, he becomes non-conceptual.  Wells’s intention for the Traveller’s disappearance likely finds its source in the genre of the adventure tale, of which The Time Machine must be included as an example.  Our best guess may be that the Traveller met his demise in some battle in a distant time, or that he fell in love and chose to remain with his bride.  However, the circumscription of the Traveller’s narrative within that of the primary narrator forces us to consider the formal problems that Wells is dealing with.
            As a formal institution dealing with conceptual content, the novel relies on time and cognition in order to present itself to readers.  Even if the content is estranging or unfamiliar, readers must have some basis of communication with the text.  The Time Machine presents its readers with a paradox: not that of time travel per se, but that of a concept that removes the apparatus through which we can conceptualize it.  Approaching the borders of thought in the decimation of the earth through solar death, Wells constructs a narrative that un-narrates itself, or narrates itself out of narration entirely.  All that remains are the two shriveled flowers, succumbed at last to the slow passage of the only time available for narrative and cognitive representation.

[1] This quote is taken from Jameson’s essay “Progress versus Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future?” in Science Fiction Studies, 9.2 (1982): 147-158, print.
[2] Or, we might say that this is the somewhat nascent comment that Wells is making.  It is certainly debatable (and I would be one of the first to say so) that more (post)modern and contemporary works of literature have successfully countered the linear narrative in innovative and compelling ways.  Wells, however, is combating linear narrative in a novel manner; through applications of scientific thought and consequences, contributing significantly to the genre of science fiction.