“God is time. And time is not merciful. We are born, and our life is already trickling away like the sand in this hourglass. Death is forever inevitably before us."
There is something about time travel in fiction that gives the impression that it is a rather ‘modern’ trope. Perhaps it is because in the ‘age of science’, it has slowly become the exclusive preserve of science fiction. Making at least one appearance in popular media every year since 1950, it can certainly be said that we are living through a golden age of time travel fiction.
But the obsession with going back or forth in time could possibly be as old as history and its appearance in mythology and fiction is deeply rooted in spirituality. Netfix’s hit German series Dark may have garnered most of its praise – and some of its notoriety – for its meticulously intricate plot and deep attention to visual detail, but in a subtler manner it has also returned the time travel trope to its spiritual and philosophical roots.
A brief history of time travel
Time travel in myth and fiction, in its earliest guise, takes the shape of time skips. In that respect, it often appears as a non-deliberate by-product, either of travels between mortal and heavenly or magical realms, or a long magical sleep in the fashion of Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle.
In one story from the Mahabharata, the king Raivata Kakudmi travels to the heaven to meet Brahma, the creator in Hindu beliefs. The king’s intent is to seek Brahma’s advice on who a suitable husband for his daughter – who possesses beauty unparalleled – can be. But as he presents his list of candidates, Brahma reveals that 27 cycles of the four ages of creation and destruction in Hindu mythology have already passed.
A similar device is used in the Japanese tale of Urashima Taro. The titular young fisherman visits an undersea palace, staying no more than what passes for him as three days. When he returns, he finds 300 years have lapsed and no one who exists remembers who he is, much less when and how he went missing. In either case, the trope attempts to contrast human mortality and the briefness of our lives against the long march of eternity.
Another trope in the proto-time travel tradition makes use of dreams and visions. This is something the show alludes to several times, most notably in an exchange concerning the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi who, upon waking from a dream where he was a butterfly, finds himself wondering if he was really a butterfly who had begun to dream.
Time travel tales using this device present glimpses of either the past or the future as taking place either in a dreamlike state or dream world, or as inspired by divine beings (angels, spirits or gods) to illustrate a point. Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ is perhaps the most popular story to use this device. In South Asia, famed pre-partition feminist thinker Begum Rokeya to used to the device to envision a feminist utopia decades in the future in the story ‘Sultana’s Dream’.
Further in the past, the protagonist of the Chinese classic ‘Journey to the West’, travels to both the ‘World of the Ancients’ and the ‘World of the Future’, but both of these journeys are revealed to take place inside an illusory dream world made by the villain.
The eternal return
Through its three seasons, Dark spends a lot of exposition making the viewer comfortable with a rather ‘geographical’ approach time. ‘Where’ is at first replaced by ‘when’, but then the ‘when’ gradually morphs into physical space as characters traverse through time.
Let us take a little detour. Throughout the literary and on-screen canon of time travel, writers have opted for a range of philosophical solutions to its presumed consequences. One of the most popular approaches is the one we all know from the 1985 blockbuster ‘Back to the Future’ and its sequels. The movie shows actions in the past as having immediate retroactive consequences, which protagonist Marty McFly spends much of his on-screen time struggling to avoid.
The worlds of popular superhero comics – your Marvel, DC and others – present the other most famous approach, showing time as an ever-branching tree of universes. Instead of retroactively rewriting the future, any new choice made in the past spawns a new branch of the multiverse. In addition to jumping back and forth in time, characters move between parallel branches with persistent regularity.
The world of Dark makes references to both of these approaches, as well as certain others, but mainly relies on a different concept of time that falls under the term ‘the eternal return’. While it has been expressed differently across different belief systems and philosophies, the basic premise of the concept is that the universe and all existence has been recurring and will continue to recur in a similar if not exactly the same form an infinite number of times.
Shades of this concept exist in religions that developed in India, including both Hinduism and Buddhism, which describe and seek to provide liberation from an endless cycle of death and rebirth. In ancient Egypt, the scarab was used to represent the eternal renewal and re-emergence of life as well.
The concept as illustrated in the show Dark, however, is perhaps most directly influenced by one articulated by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness, and say to you, ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence [...] Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine,” Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, providing one of his most well known passages on the eternal return.
Existentialism and determinism
For all its complexity, perhaps the biggest riddle Dark poses is simple to express. Would knowledge of the future and the means to travel to the past allow us to change our fate. Or would each deliberate action doom us to repeat every mistake that led us to where we started? Should one, in true existentialist fashion, exercise choice and free will to shape destiny? Or is letting go and accepting what is, like Taoism recommends, the only path to our liberation?
The characters in Dark, as mentioned by one of its central characters, are engaged in a war on time, ‘a war against god’. But their attempts to change the past are revealed to paradoxically be the same ones that shape their fate. Still, as another character in the show mentions, whether we can actually change the past or not is irrelevant. At some level, if the possibility seemingly presents itself, we would still attempt it, success be damned.
The great tragedy of time, at least for us mortal humans, is its irreversibility. The mistakes we make, the chances we miss mark us with un-erasable scars. It is no accident then that a large number of time travel stories begin with some manner of tragedy.