As a child, I was introduced to the concept of times plasticity through Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I remember sitting around a campfire in Ramona with my brother, watching the smoke vapors trail up and whisk away, and thinking about the linearity of time. Of course, as a child, I wouldn’t have put my thoughts in those terms. I was probably thinking more about the possibilities of time travel. What time period would I enjoy visiting? How cool would it be to travel back in time with the entire breadth of my fourth grade knowledge at my disposal? There would be ways to take advantage of time, if only I could find a way to manipulate it. By then I had seen Back to the Future, I knew that if I could just pick up enough speed on my bicycle, perhaps on a sloping California hill, I would blast into the future. When that did not work, I tried my Razor scooter. By now, I’ve pretty much given up on my dream to experience time outside of its linear form, but as Bernard D’ Espagnat, a theoretical physicist said, “Time is at the heart of all that is important to human beings.” Time is still important to me, and it is a subject I have never stopped thinking about.
I’ve moved on from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I am now obsessed with the subjective interpretation of time as seen in movies like Donnie Darko, Interstellar, and television shows like True Detective. Culturally, we have begun to move away from the archaic form of Newtonian time, time as an independently existing entity, to a form more in line with Einstein’s theories of relativity; time in relation to mass or speed. However, even Einstein’s theories are beginning to seem dated in light of quantum mechanical theories of time. Which brings me back to True Detective, and more specifically to Rustin Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character.
Rustin Cohle and his partner, played by Woody Harrelson, are detectives investigating the murder of Dora Lange, whose body was discovered ritually displayed under a tree. This opens up an investigation that eventually leads the detectives to the ‘supposed’ killers. On the killer’s compound, Rustin Cohle and his partner apprehend and kill the suspects. They also find two children who have been kidnapped and tortured. The detectives are received as heroes and rightfully get promoted for their service to the community.
Flash forward to 2012, Rustin is an alcoholic still obsessed with his old case, he no longer works as a detective, instead he has chosen to tend a bar. He believes that he and his partner only scratched the surface of an even larger conspiracy. When similar murders start cropping up again, two new detectives bring in and question Rustin Cohle. What he says, reveals his theory on time, a theory that mirrors Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. A theory that left Nietzsche to conclude, “cosmic recurrences robbed human life of any ultimate purpose.” Which then led him to state, “God is dead!” Bold claim.
You can skip to 6:58 in this video to get his speech, though everything in the video is pretty interesting.
The gist of eternal recurrence is that time is circular. You live your life, die, and then are reborn into the same life you led before. Rustin says, “You can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives. And that is the terrible fate of all life. You’re trapped. Like a nightmare you keep waking up into.” He asks the detectives, “How many times have we had this conversation detectives? Who knows?” He believes that he has been stuck, along with everyone and everything in the universe, reliving the same timeline. A pretty pessimistic outlook, in my opinion. One implication being that the kids he saved from rape and torture are forever going to find themselves in the same position. Rustin says, “An eternity where there is no time, nothing can grow, nothing becomes, nothing changes.” What a nightmare!
This cyclicity of time emerged in Western society when Ludwig Boltzmann set out to explain the second law of thermodynamics. He wanted to mathematically process the flow of heat from hot to cold in terms of molecular motion. He found that the behavior of gas over a long period of time was cyclic. Meaning, the state of a gas would return to its original state eventually. This led to the theory of eternal return.
Rustin begs his audience to consider time from a different perspective. Michael G. Flaherty does the same in his book, The Watched Pot: How we Experience Time, but fails to imagine time from a fourth dimensional perspective. He focuses on how socially organized time can affect our understanding of time and how subjective experience can do the same. He quotes Kathy Charmaz, “being ill gives rise to ways—often new ways—of experiencing time.” When speaking of the subjectivity of time, Flaherty focuses on the ways in which human experience can affect the flow of observed time. I think he makes some good points, but I prefer to think about time on a larger scale, away from the human experience.
Rustin attempts to make us see time from a fourth dimensional perspective. He sticks to the cyclical metaphor of time and crushes a can, saying, “to them (fourth dimensional creatures) time would appear to be a circle.” In other words, in a dimension in which our conception of time does not exist, our space-time would appear to be one solid structure containing the past, present, and future, all at once.
At a very young age, Terminator planted the seeds of my interest in time. Since then, cinema’s portrayal of the theories of time have developed to reflect our broadening scope and understanding of time. I’m excited to see the new ways we learn to think about time in the future.