Thursday, 2 June 2011

In Transit

Waiting for a plane in Singapore the other day, I read the 25 April edition of the New Yorker. It included an article about a man called David Eagleman, who I'd heard of through my younger daughter, because earlier this year she sent me this excerpt from Sum, his piece of fiction speculating on the after life:

"In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet.

You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.”

It turns out that Eagleman is not only a writer but a bit of an all-round genius. His main preoccupation is research into consciousness. and the phrase of his that particularly struck me in the New Yorker article refers to humanity and our relationship with time.  "We're stuck in time like fish in water", is what he is quoted as saying, in passing.

Just as I read that phrase, my flight was called, and so I gathered up my belongings and set off towards the boarding gate where my plane was supposed to be waiting. My way took me along a kind of glassed-in suspended corridor that ran above the main level of the airport and, as I went along it,  I looked down at the things on the floor below.

The first thing I saw was a pond containing about a dozen large, fat goldfish, who cruised about among its ferns. I wondered if the fish had any idea that they were spending their days in the enclosed world of an airport, rather than out in the wide open world. And then, of course, I wondered if in fact we are all, equally unwittingly, passing our allotted time inside some similarly complex vast enclosed structure, invisible to us, but there all the same.


  1. I wrote a really involved response to this today which got lost owing to an evil work computer. I don't have it in me again, but do check out his ideas on "possibilian" thinking, when it comes to religious ideas and science. He did an interview on NPR that should be available on their website under "Fresh Air" -- really interesting.

    And, thanks to you, I kept glancing up today, half expecting to see flakes of fish food falling out of the sky from an unseen, benevolent tank-owner. Alas . . .

  2. Oh dear, what happens if the benevolence turns to indifference or worse?