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The Time Machine

In re-reading H.G. Wells' science fiction novel The Time Machine, written in 1895, my curiosity was aroused by passages in the novel relating to the protagonist's "time travel:" that is, the passages that describe the protagonist's action in traveling to a distant epoch in the future, in a brief period, by means of a specially-constructed device.

The author's descriptions of the protagonist's bodily sensations seem real and convincing. But of course, that is deceptive. The author could not have had the real experience of "time travel" and therefore these fantasy passages, so seemingly real, must have emanated from a mental state in the author other than the purported action of "traveling through time." 2/

Intuitively, one might suppose that the inspiration for these passages might have derived from any of several situationally-appropriate mental states, including: (1) pre-representational infantile experience; (2) bodily sensations associated with actual travel, such as on a train or horse, occurring at a representational stage (that is, after the author had developed language ability); (3) fantasy originating in unconscious aggressive or erotic impulses 1/ ; or (4) trauma, an event that fell outside an average expectable experience, one that breached the stimulus barrier.

Wells describes as follows the bodily sensations associated with the Time Traveler's accelerated voyage through time:

' . . . I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then. I took the starting lever in one hand and the stopping one in the other, pressed the first, and almost immediately the second. I seemed to reel; I felt a nightmare sensation of falling, and, looking round, I saw the laboratory exactly as before. Had anything happened? For a moment I suspected that my intellect had tricked me. Then I noted the clock. A moment before, as it seemed, it had stood at a minute or two or so past ten; now it was nearly half-past three!

'I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both hands, and went off with a thud. The laboratory got hazy and went dark. Mrs. Watchett came in and walked, apparently without seeing me, towards the garden door. I suppose it took her a minute or so to traverse the place, but to me she seemed to shoot across the room like a rocket. I pressed the lever over to its extreme position. The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came to-morrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and even fainter. To-morrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange dumb confusedness descended on my mind.

'I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time traveling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchblack--of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. . . .' Wells, H.G. The Time Machine at 28-9 (1895) (New York: Airmont Publishing Co., 1964).

Wells' description of the bodily sensations associated with "time travel" calls to mind a particular lived experience: namely, an accidental fall, resulting in physical injury--a traumatic event. A published case report describes a patient who, in childhood, experienced an accidental injury resulting from a fall; the patient's registration of the bodily sensations associated with the event became structured in a portion of the patient's superego. See Fernando, J. "The Exceptions: Structural and Dynamic Aspects." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Vol. 52: 17-28 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997):

"There were hints from the beginning of the analysis that an accident the patient had suffered in early childhood was significant in the development of her present neurosis. It was only in the third year of the analysis, however, that the details of the trauma came into focus.

When the patient was just under four she went on an outing with her parents, her brother (three years older), and her sister (five years older). While the circumstances surrounding the accident she suffered are of significance, for reasons of confidentiality, I will omit most of them and simply say that while running she fell and broke her leg.

Just prior to her fall, the patient felt "as if I were flying," as though she were leaving the world of her mother, which she linked with a depressing, "castrated" state, behind as she ran with her father and brother; she was one of the boys. At this point the fall took place.

After the accident she felt 'numb.' She felt she could not move or speak, and she could neither react to nor fully comprehend what was happening. She was taken to the hospital to have the broken leg set and was then kept there for several days. Her mother remained with her throughout the hospitalization. . . .

The accident and hospitalization of this patient were traumatic in the narrow sense of the term. During and immediately following the accident there was a breaching of the stimulus barrier. Ego functions (motility, perception, judgement, time sense) were temporarily overwhelmed (the period of numbness). The subsequent attempts at mastery by turning passive into active and through sexualization led to a lifelong fate neurosis: Throughout her life in small ways and large the patient repeated the sequence of mounting self-confidence to the point of excitement and feeling as though she were "flying," followed by a period of "numbness," and finally by a repetition of the feelings of anxiety, anger, confusion, and humiliation associated with the hospitalization. She repeated this sequence over and over in the analysis." Fernando at 19-20 (emphasis added).

Fernando's patient had many of the characteristics Freud 3/ described in his essay on "the exceptions," including the ego attitude of justified rebellion 4/, originating from early maltreatment or physical injury or shortcoming, which leads to a distortion in ego-superego interaction and an interference with normal superego maturation. The tendency to massive superego externalization, normal in early latency, is never outgrown and results in many of the characteristic features of "the exceptions." Fernando at 17.

Biographical material concerning the childhood of H.G. Wells points to the possibility that the author's description of "time travel" in The Time Machine may, in fact, have derived from an actual traumatic experience in childhood: a traumatic experience that breached the stimulus barrier, overwhelming the ego function of time sense. See Smith, D.C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

In the summer of 1874, between H.G.'s seventh and eighth birthdays, the first overtly significant event in his life occurred. A friend of his father's, from a local pub, The Bell, was at the cricket ground with Joseph [Wells] and H.G. The friend, Sutton, picked the boy up, threw him in the air and caught him, but when he repeated the maneuver, Bertie slipped and twisted, fell through Sutton's arms, landed across a tent peg, and broke his tibia. The child was forced to spend some weeks in bed, in the kitchen, and while the bone knitted, Joseph Wells went to the Bromley Institute library and obtained books for his son to read to pass the time. He located a book on astronomy, and Wood's Natural History for him. The latter book had wonderful illustrations of aspects of biology and botany, and Wells said later that the world simply opened up for him as he lay on his couch letting his mind move over these worlds he had never seen, or, in fact, heard of. Smith at 5.

The narrative structure of The Time Machine is unusual, and suggests the author's need to distance himself from his material.

The novel is presented by a narrator, who reports the exploits of the Time Traveler. At an early point in the novel, the narrator's use of the third person he to describe the Time Traveler's exploits, becomes the first person I--but the I is in quotes. Put another way, I becomes he, but the he is now "I."

"And he [the Time Traveler] put it to us in this way--marking the points with a lean forefinger--as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it:) and his fecundity.

'You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception.' The Time Machine at 9.

The novel continues in this way throughout, until the final chapter, when the "I" returns to he, as the narrator concludes his exposition of the Time Traveler's story, in the third person.

Joseph Conrad employs the identical narrative technique in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness, a novel written in 1899--the same historical period in which H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine.

In Conrad's case, the author's need to distance himself from his material is especially pronounced, and is expressed in several layers of the text.

His need to establish distance between himself and his material is well known: he insisted that he could write creatively only in his third language [English]; he had great difficulty in writing from the vantage point of the omniscient author, i.e., in his own person, and in most of his best fiction he works through a narrator; notoriously awkward in dealing with immediate action, he most often described events that had taken place in the past, even when his manipulations of time did not demand it; and, finally, that impressionistic method itself through which he manipulated chronology and point of view allowed him to approach his material as indirectly as he felt necessary. Armstrong, R. "Joseph Conrad: The Conflict of Command." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Volume 26: 485-534 at 505 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

Armstrong emphasizes the role of neurotic conflict in Conrad's need to distance himself from emotionally-charged unconscious material: a need that finds expression in Conrad's various distancing devices, including his use of a narrator whose he becomes "I." Id. at 504-05.

Other commentators have emphasized Conrad's traumatic childhood--his lived experience--as a determinant of his creativity. See e.g. Hamilton, J. W. "Joseph Conrad: His Development as an Artist, 1889-1910." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of Society. Volume 8: 277-329 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). Hamilton focuses on Conrad's experience of severe loss in childhood; both of Conrad's parents died before he was twelve years old. Hamilton at 278.

Hamilton shows how issues relating to the psychological consequences of early, unresolved object loss--which may include feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and rage, as well as a need to preserve in fantasy an idealized image of the lost object--informed the themes of Conrad's novels.

Heart of Darkness points to Conrad's inability to move beyond the early incorporative phase of mourning, and affirms Conrad's need to deny his early loss and regain the lost object. Hamilton at 315 and 316. Heart of Darkness, like The Time Machine, features the theme of cannibalism, indicating the fear of a loss of control of primitive oral-sadistic impulses. Hamilton at 312. Conrad had the lived experience of oral deprivation in childhood, an experience that merged with fantasies relating to the loss of his mother: "Watching [his mother] slowly deteriorate and waste away must have awakened in [Conrad] profound feelings of helplessness, rage, and guilt; these would have been intensified by the very real oral deprivations of exile [to northern Russia] and the harsh climatic conditions of such an existence." Hamilton at 279.

Conrad in Heart of Darkness and Wells in The Time Machine both present--in the structure as well as the content of their respective fictional narratives--the mental state of "being 'torn in two.'" See Shengold, L. Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Deprivation and Abuse at 280-83 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

In both novels the specific structural device of presenting a fictional account by means of a narrator--a distancing maneuver whereby the author's third person he becomes the narrator's "I"--can be viewed as an expression of "creative splitting," see Shengold at 280, a creative expression, or transformation, of "mental compartmentalization" resulting from "overwhelming and contradictory feeling." Thus, the author's I is no longer I but he, but more--the he is no longer even he, but "I." Perhaps, using psychoanalytic terms, one might say that the experiencing ego is deceptively presented as the observing ego: a confused presentation of thought and feeling that might carry important implications in the psychotherapy of some patients. 5/

As for content, both novels depict the struggles of a protagonist who is misplaced in either time or space, an expression of being "torn in two." For Wells the imagined self was alienated from its own place-in-time (the present) as well as another-place-in-time (the future). For Conrad the imagined self was alienated from its place-of-origin (Europe) as well as its place-of-destination (Africa).

Biographical evidence supports the view that for both H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad the registration in childhood of traumatic events and the consequent need to master those lived (and not simply fantasied) experiences 6/ was, to some degree, a determinant of the authors' respective creative productions.



1/ Rothenberg observes that the key inspirational thought in the development of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity concerned free-fall, and he attributes that thought to the negation of erotic and aggressive impulses. "Einstein's focusing on a person falling from a roof could have represented an unconscious suicide wish (I am indebted to Sidney Blatt for this observation) or an unconscious wish to fly (= free sexuality). If so it would be an example of a revelation of unconscious material through the operation of the negation defense." Rothenberg, A. "Janusian Thinking and Creativity." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of Society. Volume 7: 1-30 at 24 n. 4. Gertrude R. Ticho, M.D., contributing editor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). Rothenberg ignores the possibility that Einstein's thought problem may have been inspired by an actual childhood trauma involving a fall, and he fails to consider the precise psychoanalytic implications of that possibility. What if Einstein's thought problem had been inspired by the past registration, and later need to master, actual traumatic experience as opposed to internally-generated fantasy?

Further, Rothenberg attributes Einstein's overt emotion of elation surrounding his solution of a problem in physics to Einstein's experience of ego mastery and achievement, see Rothenberg at 24. But what if the sense of elation that Einstein experienced ultimately derived from a gratification of a need to master trauma, rather than, as Rothenberg assumes, from the negation of internally-generated fantasy? Cf. Masson, J.M. & Masson, T.C. "Buried Memories on the Acropolis: Freud's Response to Mysticism and Anti-Semitism." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59:199-208 at 205-06 (1978) (a successful attempt to obliterate a disturbed childhood will result in elation and triumph--as found in mystical
states--a sense of elation that negates depression or rage).

2/ Cf. Masson & Masson at 205: "Specific unhappy childhood memories [including those relating to traumatic experiences] which turn out to be false are false only in content, not in feeling. They produce a particular hurt in the hope of screening a deeper, more momentous and pervasive misery."

3/ Freud, who was the first to describe the personality type "the exceptions," suffered a traumatic injury in early childhood. "An incident which he could not recollect was of slipping from a stool when he was two years old, and receiving a violent blow on the lower jaw from the edge of the table he was exploring for some delicacy. It was a severe cut which necessitated sewing up, and it bled profusely; he retained the scar throughout life." Jones, E. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Volume 1 at 7 (New York: Basic Books, 1953). Cf. Gaensbauer, T. "Work With A Traumatized Toddler." In: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Volume 49: 412-433 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) (discussing the analysis of a three-year-old toddler who was bitten in the face by a dog at age 21 months; the author speculates that without psychotherapeutic intervention, the child might experience a serious disturbance in superego development).

4/ I note without comment the fact that Einstein's personality prominently featured a criterion of "the exceptions;" he had a "deep suspicion of authority"--a "feeling [that] lasted all his life, without qualification." Clark, R.W. Einstein: The Life and Times at 13 (New York: World Publishing, 1971).

Whether Wells' personality might be characterized as one of "the exceptions" is an open question; certainly, a pervasive quality of alienation, or "differentness," attaches to the person of the Time Traveler as he struggles with his environment. The protagonist is "out of place" in every environment he finds himself: among his contemporaries he is disbelieved and in the alien world to which he travels he is either misunderstood or threatened with physical annihilation.

5/ Shengold observes that ego splits can be denoted, in the psychotherapeutic setting, by the patient's act of switching from the first to the second or third person ("he"). Shengold at 98. But Shengold does not address what would denote, in an oral clinical narrative, the patient's switching from the first person I to the third person "I." Or more: how one would identify that the patient rarely, if ever, manages to emerge from the third person "I."

6/ See Masson & Masson at 201: "This is not to deny psychic reality to fantasies but only to stress the importance of traumatic experiences in shaping the fantasy and permitting its persistence and pathogenic effects."
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