The inventor enthroned himself in what looked like a ridiculously elaborate version of Santa’s sleigh. The central design feature was the backrest reminding the viewer of a Chinese gong. Adjusting some settings on a control panel, the inventor ramped up the speed of the world around him. The pace of the people passing by the laboratory window became a blur while the chair remained stationary. The style of clothing changed. A generation was replaced by a new one in less than a minute. Pausing to examine the alterations, the inventor spoke to a familiar-looking mailman who turned out to be the adult son of the mailman he knew. The laboratory looked dusty and neglected which was understandable; the place hadn’t been occupied for twenty-five years.
This is the scene I remember from my childhood viewing of the 1960’s film version of H.G. Welles’ The Time Machine. The idea of so much change taking place around someone while the person himself stays the same fascinated me. As years pass, the image has kept resurfacing in my mind, perhaps because the pace of time’s passage seems increasingly accelerated. Technological changes come at such a blinding speed that everything else appears to move at the same incomprehensible rate. The twentieth century opened with the clip clop of horse hooves on cobblestone streets, and folded with space travel and personal computers. Today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s history – sometimes literally.
The Time Machine might best be understood in terms of holiday family gatherings. Replacing the sleigh is a dinner table around which the world revolves at a sometimes uncomfortable speed. Whittier’s “Snowbound” comes to mind in this context. The poet tells of a family hearth and the faces that once assembled around its warmth, faces that can no longer be found in the world no matter how hard one searches. The holiday table, like Whittier’s hearth, is a place where the faces are always changing. A flash, conscious or unconscious, finally skips across your mind making you think of the faces that aren’t there anymore. In that moment it seems like you’re the time traveler, watching the world change from your stationary position.
This perception represents that most wistfully amusing of human tendencies, the knack for seeing one’s self as the protagonist of life. Others fade from the scene while – in our minds – we continue. The more cyclical events we survive (such as Thanksgivings and Christmases) the more we tend to think of those whose faces have vanished. But let us not forget that everyone else is a protagonist too (in their own minds), meaning that the time machine doesn’t really have a master; even the most imaginative among us is only a hitchhiker who will be let off somewhere down the road. We’re all destined eventually to take our place in the realm of someone’s memory. All we can do then is live well against that day when the time machine decides to rotate us away from the table.