Remain skeptical if you choose, but I have a friend with a time machine. My friend (initials M. D.) was very excited when he first invented it, naturally. He kept it quiet from the wider world because he didn’t want governments or gangsters or other unsavory characters to steal it from him. Besides, he wasn’t sure how it would work. Some of the principals of time travel he understood well enough to build the machine, but others were still obscure to him and only testing the machine would reveal how it worked in lived reality.
MD’s machine works in a peculiar way. A person living today cannot get into the machine. Rather you send the machine back in time to snag a person and bring him to the present. It works rather like a fishing rod, plucking people out of the past and reeling them into the present day. Unfortunately MD has yet to discover a means of sending people back. So, rather like a fish out of water, once you pull a person from the past he is pulled from his native time forever.
There are other interesting features about MD’s time machine. It does not, for instance, radically alter the present like in so many works of science fiction. Causality does not work in such a linear way, he explains. So even if I were to remove one of my own ancestors from the distant past, I would not see my current life altered noticeably. If I removed my own mother from her childhood into current time, he says that my current reality and that of a few others would be drastically changed but that I would still exist and feel myself to be myself. Still, because of the confusion and disorientation caused by altering the near past, he sticks to people in the ancient past. In fact, he explains (and I nod, pretending to understand), it is the localized, non-linear nature of causation that makes time travel possible; and it is due to a false understanding of causality that other attempts at time travel fail dismally.
Also, there is the question of who is plucked. MD has not discovered a way to reliably select specific individuals (he’d have a hard time bringing, say, Genghis Khan into the present). But he can nevertheless pick specific localities and times, down to an accuracy of several square miles. The machine performs an extremely rapid “jump-scan” of the specified time and place and when it zeroes in on a human life-field, it selects that person and pulls him into the present. (With this method and a lack of scruples, of course one might eventually get Genghis Khan, along with a few hundred of his warriors, servants, guards and concubines!)
Generally though, MD only attempts to bring “types.” For example, a Chou dynasty Chinese, or a Hittite. As you might imagine, the experience is extremely jarring for the traveler. In fact, MD has currently placed a moratorium on using the machine. Recently one of his “plucked ones” — a teenage girl from the Russian countryside of the early 18th century — lasted only a few days before dying in our time. She would not speak or eat and only twice took a little bit of water. She simply cowered in the corner and stared around with wild eyes. MD tried to sedate her and insert an IV to keep her alive until she had adjusted to the shock but it ended… well, it is a very sad story.
You may think that my friend is a monster for doing this to human beings. Indeed he feels like a monster since what happened to the Russian girl. In retrospect, he says, he had always known something like this would happen. But with the surprising success he had with his first few pluckees, he let his curiosity get ahead of his caution. For, you see, while all travelers (a total of 6 have been brought) were stunned upon first awaking in our time, all eventually adjusted and a couple even expressed immense happiness at what had happened to them.
Furthermore, MD had been convinced of his eventual power to send them back exactly where they came from, and to offer them the choice of remembering or not remembering their experiences in the “present.” This conviction eased his ethical concern about playing God with lives, and the bright enthusiasm and fascination shown by his ancient Chinese courtier made MD forget himself and commit what he now recognizes as very evil acts. The Russian girl was the shock that awoke him, he says, but it is a shame that it took that horror to do so. He now realizes that it was wrong to bring even the happy Chinese.
In any case, there remain 5 time travelers walking here among us in 2011. Some have learned a modern language well… others are still struggling. One has disappeared into the society of our day — alone and unfollowed, by his request, by MD or anyone else.
One traveler who was slow to adapt, and yet never shocked into abject terror like the Russian girl, is an English peasant of Saxon descent taken from the year 1212, from the vicinity of Bath. His name is Baldwin, and he has been living in the “present” since 2006. He’s uncertain of his age but his guess of 34 (29 at the time of his time-journey) seems right to both MD and me.
To be honest, I recently attempted to interview Baldwin for this blog. It would have been quite a coup, as I’m sure readers will agree. But strangely, he would not agree to it. I am used to strange things from Baldwin. He is, after all a person profoundly alien to this time and place. He’s learned modern English relatively well, though he still uses very archaic grammar and his vocabulary is radically limited. Still, with all his odd and alien ways, I had assumed he would agree to meet with me for this purpose.
I have a deep respect for Baldwin and for the society he comes from. Though I’m sure it was by no means a perfect time — and Baldwin himself is not without his own foibles, sour moods, and darkly violent temper — I wanted to give a voice to that world. I have always had an intuition that the Middle Ages were radically misrepresented in the modern imagination, both popular and academic. Talking with Baldwin and coming to understand his mind and his heart (at least in the small ways I have been able to do so) has confirmed my intuition. In fact, even I who am sympathetic to medievals, vastly underestimated how wrong we are about what peasant life was like.
The image of the starving, mud-spattered peasant mucking about in the miserable cold for a few short years before his daughter is raped by the local lord and his sacks of grain confiscated by the bishop’s men and he dies alone in misery — this is so common that almost no one thinks to doubt it. (I still laugh at the running gag in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where all of the peasants in the background are shown doing vaguely agricultural-seeming things which, upon closer examination, are nothing but dull repetitive motions. Such as jabbing the turf with a stick, collecting gobs of filth, smacking a pool of water with a branch over and over, and in one case swinging by the tail a cat repeatedly against the side of a house. The joke is at first funny because we laugh at how stupid and meaningless peasant lives were, then we laugh deeper a second time if we realize that none of this is based on actual peasant lives but only on how they are typically portrayed in films. It’s a meta-joke. Also, this exchange is hilarious.)
In any case, though Baldwin certainly lived a hard life back in his time — in the sense that it was long on labor and extremely short on luxury — it was also a very happy life. In fact, though he longs for his own lands and language and family and though he does seem a bit frayed by the transition to modern times (and who could blame him?), Baldwin is the most serene, deeply happy man I know. He seems to take up the gravity of ten modern men — and he’s a good 9 inches shorter than your average today!
And though, as I said, he is prone to be dangerous when truly aroused to anger, his default mode seems to be a wistful detachment. He seems amused by the modern world, but not in a superior, smug, or supercilious way. Rather he looks at people and things long and steady, with a twinkle in his eye and also a sadness. When he first came to us, he was silent for days at a time and then I truly believe it was shock and confusion. Often times he simply could not see something we pointed out to him (especially various electronic screens such as televisions and computers — he could see the actual object, but barely registered what was displayed on the screen — etc). But after many months of adjustment, of learning modern language, and after we were able to make some accommodations in his living situation (getting him away from the big city, getting him food he was used to, etc) Baldwin was no longer baffled and confused. But he remained a very silent man. Still he would go very long stretches without speaking at all. During these times I would see that deep, sad, serene twinkle in his eye.
In any case, I wanted to let this extraordinary man have a voice in the world, even if only among the humble few who read this blog. But he refused. When I pressed him for a reason why, he finally told me that he had nothing to say. He had no advice to give a fellow man. If someone wanted his opinion on matters of life and death, he should consult a priest. If someone wanted his opinion on the modern world, he should ask a modern who understood it better. He said he would be willing, if pressed, to give answers on questions about the land around Bath in 1212; he had an opinion on which of the local boys was trustworthy and which was not; he had extensive knowledge about how to help a calving cow. Beyond that much, he wouldn’t say.
Sometimes, Baldwin has said some extremely poetic things, never more than a few words. One morning — I was staying at the cabin we have arranged for him on Guemes Island — as he shook my foot to awake me, he looked out the window and said, “Dawn touches the cedar tops,” and walked out. I thought it beautiful and wondered if it were a quote, or a saying, or maybe an attempt by Baldwin at poetry. But then I looked out the window and saw, indeed, dawn touching the tops of the cedars and realized that Baldwin had simply seen it, and spoken it truthfully and without embellishment.
There are many such examples I wish I could share with you.
Only once that I recall did he make a comment on politics. MD had already given him lessons on our modern systems, as well as the bare bones history of how we got where we are today. When the topic came up again some months later, hearing us look at a picture of the president and discuss some latest political issue, Baldwin said something curious. He said it was a shame to live in a time when the common people had no dignity and the powerful had no concern for the commoners. I asked him if he meant this to mean that things were different — perhaps exactly the opposite — in his time. “Do you think, Baldwin, that in your time the common people had dignity and the powerful had concern for the commoners?” But he shrugged somewhat gruffly and shuffled off, saying “It is not my place to say this or that.”
Some day I hope to get Baldwin to speak at length here on the blog. If the day ever comes, I will be sure to edit the piece and get it up here as soon as I can. In the meantime, there is a loquacious Chou courtier bending my ear with elaborate philosophies of the structure of the heavens and the earth (you would be amazed how quasars and white dwarfs mesh intricately with the architecture of Shang-ti’s seven temples of heaven!). I must go.