Saturday, January 10, 2015

Stuck with Billy Pilgrim

When I was very little, I watched all or part of a movie on TV -- I think with a babysitter -- that I remember as a kind of combination western and horror movie. A group of men entered some kind of cave or underground realm that trapped them for (I think...) the movie's duration in a kind of phantasmagoric horror. At the end, they finally get out, and there's a (I think..) long shot of them riding horseback through a (I think...) western landscape.  My companion-babysitter said at that point (I think...) "it's about to start all over again...they're going to go back in," or words to (I think...) that effect.

Two things about the near-static image I have of this film have stayed with me. One is that wormhole notion -- that the unwary protagonists are in a kind of chronological feedback loop, where they keep reliving the same horror over and over without knowing it. There's a Star Trek/Next Generation episode playing on that horror, beginning and ending with a poker round.

That particular horror resonates for me because I've suspected for a while that it may be time's secret -- that life may be just such an eternal but finite thing. That is, if the linear movement of time is an illusion, and all moments exist, our life, however long or short it is, may simply "be," and be experienced as is/as was eternally. I caught this suspicion/bug from Vonnegut in my teens, as I've described before:
Vonnegut's novel offers two ways of experiencing time's nonlinearity. Billy Pilgrim is unstuck at time; he is shunted at random to different moments of his life. Like the rest of us, he experiences these moments singly, albeit not sequentially. The Tralfamadorians are more advanced: they choose which moments to live in, concentrating on the more pleasant ones, like a habitual re-reader who opens a favorite book to whatever passage she's in the mood for.  But they too experience one moment at a time.

Recently an alternate possibility occurred to me -- perhaps a more comprehensive way of grasping that the arrow of time is an illusion.  We experience time as a sequence of moments -- and that experience is real, even if the sequence itself is a figment of our limited perception. What if there are so to speak an infinite number of each of us, eternally experiencing every moment (singly, subdivided infinitely..) of our lives?  If I were to die five seconds from now, nothing would stop: each moment in which I experience myself on a particular point on my own timeline continues to exist, and each is always and eternally experienced. There is no universally shared 'when' that makes one moment more present than another  -- time is completely relative within our own experience, with a moment experienced as past only from a "later" moment in which it is remembered. Each moment is no less present than the house around the corner that I can't see, and there is no change in the way it is (was) experienced.
The second lasting image/concept I associate with that movie is the sense of people on the edge of an abyss: relatively calm, relatively happy, relatively at peace, not knowing that horror or grief awaits them. Author Glenn Kurtz recently published a book about a three-minute film he'd located of his grandfather's birthplace, a small mostly Jewish village in Poland, shot in 1938, a year before the Nazis moved in. Of 3,000 inhabitants, fewer than 100 survived the Holocaust.  Think of Syrians in 2010. Or Gazans whose families were wiped out by Israeli bombs this summer. Or, for that matter, anyone whose spouse or child was shot or convicted of a serious crime or died of cancer.  We're all of us, always, on the cliff's edge.

These are, so to speak, first-world problems -- the luxury to worry about sufferings that haven't happened yet, or the ultimate nature of experience and consciousness. But there's at least a strand of empathy in them.  Vonnegut consoles himself (and prospectively, us) with Billy's vision of time:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks about is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes.'
My mental or emotional retort, as it's brewed over time, is, 'but what about the person whose life was nothing but suffering?" Is that too something that "always happened and always will happen," as the Tralfamadorians intone to Billy?  Is there no progress or redemption for those who've suffered most -- or, for that matter, for anyone?

BTW, if anyone has any idea what movie I'm remembering at a 50-year remove, please let me know.

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