Monday, September 1, 2014

A New Theory Of Time

Alan Lightman

From "Einstein's Dreams"

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains.

At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the centre of the earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains. Now all houses are built on Dom, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and other high ground. It is impossible to sell living quarters elsewhere.

Many are not content simply to locate their homes on a mountain. To get the maximum effect, they have constructed their houses on stilts. The mountaintops all over the world are nested with such houses, which from a distance look like a flock of fat birds squatting on long skinny legs. People most eager to live longest have built their houses on the highest stilts. Indeed, some houses rise half a mile high on their spindly wooden legs. Height has become status. When a person from his kitchen window must look up to see a neighbour, he believes that neighbour will not become stiff in the joints as soon as he, will not lose his hair until later, will not wrinkle until later, will not lose the urge for romance as early. Likewise, a person looking down on another house tends to dismiss its occupants as spent, weak and shortsighted. Some boast that they have lived their whole lives high up, that they were born in the highest house on the highest mountain peak and have never descended. They celebrate their youth in their mirrors and walk naked on their balconies.

Now and then some urgent business forces people to come down from their houses, and they do so with haste, hurrying down their tall ladders to the ground, running to another ladder or to the valley below, completing their transactions, and then returning as quickly as possible to their houses, or to other high places. They know that with each downward step, time passes just a little bit faster and they age a little more quickly. People at ground level never sit. They run, while carrying their briefcases or groceries.

A small number of residents in each city have stopped caring whether they age a few seconds faster than their neighbours. These adventuresome souls come down to the lower world for days at a time, lounge under the trees that grow in the valleys, swim leisurely in the lakes that lie at warmer altitudes, roll on level ground. They hardly look at their watches and cannot tell you if it is Monday or Thursday. When the others rush by them and scoff, they just smile.

In time, people have forgotten the reason why higher is better. Nonetheless, they continue to live on the mountains, to avoid sunken regions as much as they can, to teach their children to shun other children from low elevations. They tolerate the cold of the mountains by habit and enjoy the discomfort as part of their breeding. They have even convinced themselves that thin air is good for their bodies and, following that logic, have gone on spare diets, refusing all but the most gossamer food. At length, the populace have become thin like air, bony, old before their time.

Really, this should have been included in my short-story collection "The Captive Bride", and would have been, had that beloved bitch of a Muse given me the tale instead of giving it to Lightman. There is a huge amount of me in it – but then, I suppose, there is also a huge amount of Kafka, and resonances of H.G. Wells, and palpable evidence of having read Calvino's "Invisible Cities", and obviously Borges. But even so! And even ignoring its "conceit". 

I am fascinated by the subtle variations of language that already reveal American to be a foreign tongue: the spelling of "center", the use of "construction" for "building", the replacement of "further" by "farther", the spelling of "neighbour", and many more. These are the cultural variations; the character ones are intriguing too. Would Kafka, for example, have used "rent" instead of "sell" in the last sentence of the second paragraph? Would Wells have used "optimum" instead of "maximum" two lines further (sic) on? 

I suspect Lightman of attempting to impersonate a fin de siècle European tone in order to generate artistic authenticity (the venture is legitimate; his subject is Einstein and the location of the various tales is Vienna at the fin du 19ème siècle; form should always equal content); but it is a 1980's American impersonation in every way. However, the conceits transcend all this. Ultimately the persona of the author, however interesting or uninteresting, is of strictly limited consequence. The work is all, and it is one of the cleverest and best-written of metaphysical novels in decades.

As with the Colin Thubron that appears elsewhere in this collection, the title is my own invention: the original merely had a chapter number. I thought of calling it "Siezing the High Ground" (note the American spelling of "siezing"), or of making a play on the two meanings of conceit (there were once two different words, but Elizabethan English conflated them); but irony would have been out of place where satire is already so pre-eminent. It is not, anyway, my job as anthologiser to color (sic) a reader's expectations, as titles must, and do, or to curb your own ability to dream as you read these storeys (both words that have disappeared in American, kerb and stories each now having a double-usage: this rather conceited conceit may also serve as proof that relativity, as my Aunt Jemima never said, also applies to language). The title I have chosen, despite its appearance at the summit of the page, is intentionally neutral, though I suspect that Borges would nonetheless refute it.

For anyone who enjoys good literature, a must-read; for students in high schools and colleges, who study the sciences and think that literature is "boring" or beyond them, you will find nowhere a more articulate rendition of the theories that emerged from Einstein's extraordinary brain, in that extraordinary year of 1905. You can find a copy of the book here

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