The Grammar of Time Travel

The New Rambler has not disappeared; it’s just been lurking. That’s why it’s called an occasional periodical, you see.

The web page has some new stuff on it and will have yet more shortly, so check it out. You can read about Burger King commercials and how they relate to the Department of Africana Studies at Vassar, the movie Life is Beautiful, and (soon) why you should stop what you’re doing and listen to the New Bad Things. Go there.

And keep your eyes on the Iowa City (and Cedar Rapids, though I generally choose to ignore that part) ICON in the coming weeks. . . you might see a familiar name in its pages.

But now down to business. . . .

“If you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus.” –a college professor to her advisee in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of science fiction, mostly just because I’m far too snobby about literature for my own good. Lately, however, I’ve been giving some thought to the genre, brought on by either watching too many X-Files reruns or rereading too much Madeleine L’Engle (supposing such a thing to be possible, which I doubt).

Mostly I’ve been thinking about time travel–not about the possiblity of it, since, as a friend of mine pointed out, if time travel existed we’d have known about it long since by way of visitors to the past, or present, or what have you, from the future (unless, of course, all those folk are equipped with little Men-in-Black lasers and they’ve wiped our memories out)–but more about why humans have thought up something they don’t have verb tenses to express. Somewhere in Robert Heinlein’s 1957 sci-fi novel (so much for my good taste in literature pose) The Door Into Summer (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes cats or is feeling in need of a Damon Runyon-esque fix), which is all about time travel and a man trying to fix his life through it, the narrator comments, in the midst of a bewildering explanation of his where and when-abouts, that if time travel becomes common, they’re going to have to invent a whole new class of verb tenses. He’s probably right–and yet think of the distinctions language already makes. I try to point out to my Latin students that, as confusing as they find Latin, English has just as many peculiarities and degrees of specificity. In Latin, for instance, “I carry,” “I am carrying,” and “I do carry” are all expressed by the same verb, while in English they all have a different connotation, despite the high school English teachers who try to squash this perfectly natural impulse to use the continual form when talking about continuing action (I harbor no grudges, I swear).

You see, I think that time travel does exist, and it doesn’t require machines–just words. If we can imagine completed action in the future (“I shall have carried”), action which, had it occurred in the past, would have produced a different outcome (“If I had caught the train, I would have made it on time”), action which, if it did occur, would produce yet another outcome (“If he should come, I would be glad”), to name just a few, are we not travelling around in time, at least in our minds? I used to get in trouble in history classes because I wrote all my papers in the present tense, a habit learned through writing English papers, which are traditionally written that way. I never did it deliberately, but when I tried to force myself to write in the past tense, it never worked. Latin and Greek both have something called “the historical present,” a way of telling about a past event in the present tense to make it seem more alive, a story-telling technique which most people use all the time without realizing it. And it seems to me that if you’re writing about history, you are necessarily reinterpreting it, and it is happening for you. Why not write in the present tense? Or (the horror! the horror!) switch back and forth–for, as a friend of mine in high school said, we don’t think or live in one tense most of the time–why write that way?
I’ve realized that I don’t have room to bring Herodotus into this issue–but then, he’s history; he’s not going anywhere. In the meantime, I wish you all a future more vivid (my very favorite Greek condition).