Messing with my students’ heads, keeping it real or whatever it is you’d call what I do, I asked classes the following question:
Which of the 5 senses is the greatest threat/enemy to the illusion of time?
The answer, of course, is smell.
It hit me when I was walking down Bravo Murillo one night and listening to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse 5 on the Ipod. In the (audio) book, the author seems to milk the metaphor of memory as time travel enough to warrant the category of science fiction. To be fair, he does throw in some flying saucers and aliens, though sparsely. Vonnegut, like Frank McCourt and many other writers, puts a high premimum on personal experience —on memory —as fodder for fiction. It’s a good way to steer clear of the great common mound of cliché and rehash, if nothing else.
And there is a time travel element to remembering, to be sure. So it was kind of ironic that it hit me while I was mentally traveling along that particular narrative. My feet, meanwhile, were carrying me toward a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had won out amid several roughly equidistant competitors in a complex calculus of taste, price, healthiness (imagine the competition!) and portability (Metro eating, ideally).
The thing is, I’m walking and listening, minding my own business on a crowded Madrid street, when I must have caught a tiny whiff of that KFC chicken. Instantly, even before registering the smell, I was rocketed back to Shattuck and Virginia, in Berkeley, at the age of 8 or 9 –maybe even earlier –and to the KFC that used to be there. Though the space/time dimension of this teleportation was keen, overriding it was another feeling. Or rather a feelings mix. All in the same micro instant came a layering of feelings from several visits to that KFC, from many times and thus from no particular time.
The feelings were good, involving the food itself –the chicken and perhaps accompanying mashed potatoes, both of which I liked and like –along with feelings of satisfaction, safety, protection, being cared for and nurtured/nourished, needs superbly met, appetites optimally satisfied –all warmly cloistered in the comfortably nostalgic envelope that comes with remembering childhood haunts and stomping grounds.
Another curious illusion, along with the time specificity/vagueness problem, is that it was me feeling those feelings and smelling those same or similar chicken smells. As if the intervening 40 or so years meant nothing, didn’t really exist. That I was the same person now as then. As patent a lie as ever could be. On a par perhaps with dreaming of being someone else, or a shifting panoply of someone elses, all experienced in the 1st person –as oneself, though possibly doing things the waking self would never dream (so to speak) of doing.
It’s all hallucination anyway. You don’t really time travel. Scrutiny proves that the time you’ve visited never quite existed and the you who would visit could certainly never have been a part of it even had it happened. Surely the transportive feeling is vivid, as real-seeming as the delusions of the most out-there mental patient.
Science tells us that the “physical” nature of time is very much at odds with the human experience of it, warped and relative rather than straight and uniform. Experience shows that the human version of time has its share of internal irregularities as well.