On the Pleasures of Lightman

Few books have ever been as exquisitely written as Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.

The genius of some novelists lies in presenting ideas (Kundera); others in painting pictures (Winterson); a few others in evoking moods (Woolf). Mr. Lightman does all three without a trace of effort.

The book, which is essentially a series of (melancholy, pensive, yet quietly celebratory) meditations on time, is thoroughly thought-provoking—if one wishes to read it that way. But Mr. Lightman’s prose is distractingly beautiful: I find myself losing sense of the words (there’s apprehension, yes; assimilation, no), in the same way that I’ve memorized the lyrics of songs whose melodies I love without having ever really grasped the meaning of the piece (the song may just as well be foreign given my total lack of comprehension).

Here are just three of my favorite thought experiments:

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly. . . . In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, ever kiss, every birth, every word will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealousy, every promise not kept. And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before. Some few people in every town, in their dreams, are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives . . . stricken with the knowledge that they cannot change a single action, a single gesture. Their mistakes will be repeated precisely in this life as in the life before. And it is these double unfortunates who give the only sign that time is a circle. . . .


In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves carried to the past. . . . When a traveler from the future must talk, he does not talk but whimpers. He whispers tortured sounds. He is agonized. For if he makes the slightest alteration in anything, he may destroy the future. At the same time, he is forced to witness events without being part of them, without changing them. He envies the people who live in their own time, who can act at will, oblivious of the future, ignorant of the effects of their actions. But he cannot act. He is an inert gas, a ghost, a sheet without soul. He has lost his personhood. He is an exile of time. . . .


Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined. . . . Most people have learned to live in the moment. The argument goes that if the past has uncertain effect on the present, there is no need to dwell on the past. And if the present has little effect on the future, present actions need not be weighed for their consequence. Rather, each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own. . . . It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment, every glance given has only one meaning, each touch has no past or no future, each kiss is a kiss of immediacy.

Like I said: melancholy, pensive, yet quietly celebratory. If that’s not exquisite writing, I don’t know what is.


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