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Posts Tagged ‘Dunne’

mending clock 5I was walking along a corridor in a familiar office block, thinking to myself: what if I found some money on the floor? How would I reunite it with its owner? If I put up a note to say I had found ten pounds, anyone could come to me and say it was theirs, that they had lost ten pounds, and how would I know they were telling the truth? So I thought I could write a note instead saying I had found some money, without saying how much, and leave it to others to tell me what they thought they had lost. But this wouldn’t work either. Would anyone know exactly how much they had lost? And if they said they had lost fifteen pounds, would it be reasonable for me to say the ten pounds I had found was not at least some part of what they had lost? How would I best write that note?

This conundrum of hypothetically lost money and the note announcing it was a thing I pondered for no reason. I had not found any money. I had not lost any money. My mind had simply begun to ruminate on the problem spontaneously. There was nothing strange in this; I often ponder spurious things for no reason. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing so. And the punchline? Well, it was then I came to a notice pinned on the wall, and it said: Money found, please contact,…

To the rational mind, it was a coincidence, or I had perhaps seen the notice before, but registered its presence only subliminally, in other words without actually being conscious of seeing it. The latter explanation is more tenuous, but I admit it is plausible. To my own mind though, there is another explanation and has to do with the mysterious nature of time. It also requires a less rational approach and that we allow for the possibility we can sometimes be influenced by events that have yet to happen, that my pondering on the question of lost money was prompted by the as yet future sighting of the notice announcing lost money.

My anecdote hardly qualifies as evidence of déjà vu. All such occurrences are, by their nature, anecdotal and therefore inadmissible in the court of the scientistic pedant. And yes, I could have made my story up – I am a writer of stories after all. I suggest you have no choice then but to be sceptical, unless something similar has happened to you, for only then are the non-peer-reviewed anecdotes of time anomalies of any interest. And I bet most of you reading this have experienced something odd about time and the occasionally back to front sequencing of events.

It’s happened to me before. I find the dream a good place for encountering the influence of events that have yet to happen. I once dreamed repeatedly of a time – twenty past seven – then woke groggily from a deep sleep to hear my wife telling me I was going to be late, that it was already twenty past seven.

It doesn’t happen a lot – just now and then. I mean, I’m not a freak or anything. Moreover, you don’t have to believe in any of this. I’m not claiming a penetrating scientific insight, now will I be attempting an explanation. But if it’s happened to you, you may find such musings of interest.

For a time, between the world wars, the question of time anomalies, time slips and dream precognition were pondered openly and in all seriousness by intellectuals, by artists, writers, poets, and the general pre-soap opera public, all of them inspired by publication of a book called Experiment in Time, by J W Dunne (1927). Post war however, it was a fascination the popular world quickly grew out of. I don’t know what happened, but dreams, precognition, time anomalies and such were suddenly embarrassing topics of conversation to be having at parties. Instead we became ensnared in the theories of Freud, at least in so far as they pertained to advertising and trivial want, and we became docile consumers thereafter, with never questioning thought in our heads as regards the nature of time and reality. But the question has not gone away. And the anecdotes continue to mount. Can our thoughts be influenced by a future event? Can we visit the future in our heads before it happens?

I come back to Dunne and his book “Experiment with Time”. In it Dunne writes about time anomalies, and a kind of low level dream precognition. Then he presents a theory which attempts an explanation but which reads like a textbook exercise in geometry. I was always good at geometry, but try as I might Dunne’s lecture on it doesn’t make sense at all. Only the anecdotes stick. Thus Dunne manages to be both visionary and annoying at the same time.

Priestly (JB) writes of Dunne along similar lines in “Man and time” (1964), in which he too explores the time-haunted world, while wisely avoiding too much theorising and geometrical diagrams. Priestly had plenty of his own time-slip anecdotes, plus an archive of anecdotes sent to him by the public. Priestly is more content to rest in the philosophy and the mystery, that these things happen, and we don’t know how or why, only that it opens a door into the unknown through which many things become possible. We are wise I think, to follow his example.

But the critic will argue it’s absurd to claim we can see the future, because by seeing it we might then take steps to avoid it. But if we’ve seen it, how can we possibly avoid it? This attempt at paradox is rather a feeble one, however, presupposing as it does a single linear line in time. It does not allow for the idea of multiple lines, of the possibility that what we see of the future is only one possible version of it. We take our permission for such speculation from the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and by so doing also usher in a semi-scientific basis for our idle postulations, but without actually explaining anything. Quantum Mechanics is endlessly useful for us dreamers in this respect. We can use it to prove anything.

This is where the way becomes strange and all explanations equally valid. If these slips in time are real, and I have no choice but to accept they are, it points to something perhaps, to a future evolution of consciousness where the actual nature of time is revealed and becomes useful to us. Or it may be there’s just something a little frayed around the edges of the consciousness we posses, that it is only an imperfection that allows sporadic glimpses of a place outside of time, beyond the curtain so to speak, a place we do not belong and can never explain within the limited paradigm of which we are a part and spend our entire lives.

But if we are trapped for the most part, in a purely linear flow of time, while being capable of more, we must ask ourselves what purpose does it serve, this self imposed imprisonment, this pedestrian view? And what nightmares would it unleash, were we ever to break free and see the universe as it really is?

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Before the Storm (Clouds) by Isaac Ilich Levitan (1860-1900)

The weather has changed. The dead-heat has gone out of it and though we’re still enjoying startling blue late summer skies, those skies are now a broad canvas, at times full of storms, compact blooms of white, towering to a great height like the smoke-plumes of a sinister weapon. They drift ponderously across the land. I saw them first in a dream, at the weekend, but I misinterpreted them, turned them into apocalyptic mushroom clouds, out of which poured the ruin of mankind. Then, on Monday, I drove a long way, travelled south, through the Midlands,  the North Wessex Downs, and the Chilterns. And there, all along that two hundred mile roaring ribbon of the M6, the M42 and the M40, I saw them, those same towering storms, painted on the blue, like lotus flowers, or old English roses. They were remnants of a hurricane that’s blown clean across the Atlantic, and are still lending a richly animated energy to our days, breaking up the sluggish humidity that has lingered since mid July.

As I drove, marvelling at this beautiful spectacle, my dream broke, or rather the storms broke my dream, brought it back to me, fished it from the black waters of unconscious memory. I don’t know how the mind does this, how it sometimes works ahead of itself, lets its dreams be informed by imagery we have yet to encounter in our ordinary waking reality. I only know that when we do encounter it, it turns a key and we cannot doubt a part of us has passed this way before.

I’ve written about Dunne, the pioneer aircraft designer who first studied this phenomenon, and who published books on it, to very mixed reviews. Word of it still falls upon a largely sceptical audience, so I won’t labour it here, except to say that in the West we have forgotten how to dream, are no longer in awe of them, and consequently no longer open to their potential for revelation, or healing.

I puzzled for a long time over Dunne’s books, troubled, because to see the future implies our future is fixed, and I didn’t like to think of the world being that way. Unless we have a choice in the paths we take, unless we can choose our future, I felt the world had no meaning for me. But nowadays I think it’s more a case of seeing not the future but a future, that only on occasion do our waking lives coincide with one of the futures we have already seen.

I did not dream of that weary journey down the sluggish motorways. It was too tedious, I think, to make anything other than the most abstract impression upon the dreaming. But the images of those storms was so impressive, they could not help but be borrowed as background for an allegorical tale, one in which I was preoccupied with visions of a civilisation on the brink. The dream made no sense to me, just as my journey didn’t in the end. It was just ten hours in a new-smelling lease-car, a night in a worn-out hotel in a fold of the Chilterns, within earshot of the rumbly M40, and all for a one hour meeting. But like many things, purpose and, more, the direction of our lives is often only revealed in retrospect, and with the perspective of long years passed.

Meanwhile the storms continue to drift across the land, darkening skies of a sudden, and sending down great wetting rages of rain to paint the roads black and slick and splashy. Mazzy and I slipped out last night, in a pause between the squalls, but I kept the hood up. My rational excuse for the impulsive jaunt was that I’d run out of bush tea, so made a circuitous 10 mile twisty-road tour, finally swinging back by the Sainsbury’s store in the neighbouring village for my Rooibos. I didn’t really need the tea. It was more that I’d been away for a long time in the south, and had missed her.

While we were out we clipped the northern lash of a slow moving cyclone, a vast thing, slow circling across the plain, raising columns of dirty white against a blue grey, dusky sky. Cars were coming out of its shadow with their headlights on, looking drenched and startled. We turned north and outran it. Mazzy and I were both safe under cover before it staggered sideways a little and tipped its buckets over us, to no effect.

Clear skies again this morning, but a tuggy wind and more rain forecast.

I dreamed of trees, and butterflies, and I was among a gentle, brown skinned people; we fished clear, shallow waters with long spears for rainbow-coloured fish.

And we were happy.

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dunneIt’s about quarter of a century now since I first encountered the book “An Experiment with Time” by the former gentleman-designer and aircraft pioneer, J W Dunne (1875-1949). In 1902 Dunne had a dream about the eruption of Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique, shortly before it happened for real. He did not dream of himself being present during the eruption but, more crucially, of picking up a newspaper at home and reading about it. Why crucially? Well, Dunne concluded the dream was not a presentiment of the disaster itself, but of his own action of picking up the newspaper. Dunne had seen himself at a point in his own future. This incident spawned much private theorising on the nature of time and existence, which in turn led to a series of very popular books, the first of which was “An Experiment with Time”, published in 1927 and which has been steadily reprinted ever since. This book suggests that in certain mental states – dreams or hypnogogic imagery – we are all capable of a form of first hand precognition of ourselves at a point days or weeks in our own future.

When we dream, we often recognise the influences of the recent past playing out in the dream narrative. But what Dunne suggested was that if we paid sufficient attention to our dreams we would find unequivocal influences from our immediate future as well. Dunne picked up a newspaper and read of the eruption in Martinique, but that event had already imprinted itself in his consciousness sufficient for it to appear as a fairly clear influence in his dreams some time previously. Dunne professed no psychic abilities and was rather disturbed by the prospect that he might be “gifted” in this way. Rather than assume this to be the case however, he chose instead to pursue the idea that the ability was in fact latent in all of us, and that all we have to do is make a record of our dreams in order to realise the truth of it.

Having made this startling observation, Dunne then began to puzzle over what it revealed about the nature of time if a part of us was indeed capable of seeing into the future. The familiar stuff of fiction and pseudo science, precognition – if true – has some serious implications for our understanding of the nature of reality. We might dream of ourselves in a situation we’d like to avoid – say a fatal accident – and decide not to get out of bed that day, so altering a future we had apparently already witnessed. But if we have already witnessed it, how can we avoid it? This is one of the paradoxes which cannot be reconciled in a deterministic universe, which suggests our futures are fixed, but which Dunne’s observations apparently bull-doze aside.

Was Dunne right? Can we dream of future things? As experiments go, the protocols Dunne uses and describes in “Experiment with Time” wouldn’t pass muster in modern parapsychological research, but his examples are compelling, and anyway, we can all sit down and make an accounting of our own dreams and decide for ourselves, so I decided to take a look at mine. It took several months, but sure enough my own little experiments with time revealed a number of intriguing de-ja-vous experiences. The first was a dream of myself sailing down an industrial backwater, on a canal boat. The following evening, when channel zapping on the TV, I zapped into the scene from the dream. Another was a dream of walking along a beach with peculiar dune formations, then of visiting that beach quite by chance some time later, a place I’d never been before. There were other incidents, most of them undramatic – indeed quite banal – but sufficient to convince me Dunne was not a crackpot, and that he had indeed revealed something peculiar, not only about time, but of our place in it.

Scientifically speaking  dream anecdotes do not equate to data and you must bear that in mind dear reader while reading this exposition by a self confessed mystical fiction writer. Sure enough Dunne met with serious opposition in academic circles on both the scientific and philosophical fronts. Among writers though, especially those of a mystical bent, and non-academic philosophers, and indeed the general public, his theories became very popular.

A man who knew Dunne and had the pleasure of discussing these ideas with him personally was the author, playwright and broadcaster J B Priestly. Priestly’s book Man and Time (1964) deals in part with Dunne’s work and in my opinion does a better job of exploring the philosophical issues. Unlike Dunne, however, Priestly wisely avoids any home-spun theorising on a scientific explanation. Such theorising however was to be Dunne’s undoing.

Dunne’s first rate technical background meant he was unable to let his experiments rest without coming up with a detailed conjecture involving maths and charts that explained it all, text-book fashion – at least to his satisfaction. Thus Dunne plunged headlong into a field that few theorists at the time were equipped to deal with, and duly came a cropper. He speculated that while the conscious mind experiences time linearly, the unconscious can plunder images from any point in our life from birth to death. We therefore exist, he said, for all time as an infinite number of moments whose direction lies at right angles to the familiar direction of time’s arrow, a series of “serial” moments. We never die, argued Dunne, because although we do exist somewhere at the point of death we are also still young, somewhere in time. Although I’m personally open to such a notion, it is vulnerable to philosophical attack, and Dunne was to spend much of his later years locking horns with learned critics, gaining the reputation of a bit of a crackpot.

Suffice it to say, he was never invited to expound upon his ideas at the Royal Institution, and while this may not be without sound reason, it’s a pity his actual observations were thrown out with the bath-water of his dubious scientific theories. It remains an awkward fact, I believe, that we do sometimes dream of things that are influenced by events we have yet to encounter. Where this leaves us in terms of an understanding of the nature of time and our place in it is no more certain now than it was when Dunne first dreamed of the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. Indeed it’s probably best not to think too hard on it, but it is interesting. Writers of course are free to speculate and plunder his ideas at will for material. As well as Priestly, he was an influence on the Sci Fi writer Robert Heinlein, and of course on more obscure scribes such as yours truly – see my story The Choices.

We can of course make a great deal of sense of the universe from the perspective of reductionist thinking. We paint a very convincing picture of a materialistic and mechanistic world, and for the day to day stuff this is fine – we get by – but we also do well to bear in mind that this is not the real nature of the universe at all. It’s much, much stranger than our physical senses perceive it. How strange? Well, how strange can you imagine it?

An Experiment with Time – 1927 J W Dunne (1875-1949)

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