Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Cyclical Nature of Things

Recently, I was forced to lie abed for almost a week. I had a cold, which developed into pneumonia. It was horrible, and uncomfortable, and all the adjectives that you can use to describe the condition of having your lungs fill with fluid.

I'm much better now, but one of the (very) few benefits that came out of being ill was that I got to spend some time reading. And one of the books I came to read was my favorite one, Cloud Atlas. I've read Cloud Atlas a good four times by now, cover-to-cover. And one of the things that always strikes me is the cyclical nature of the book. It ends where the story begins. (It's actually far more complicated than that, but let's just say that for now.) This idea of a "symmetrical" and "cyclical" narrative is not new. It's actually used by a lot of authors and singers and creative types. We seem to be so drawn to the idea that everything is a cycle, that everything's connected.

One of my favorite games is Six Degrees of Separation. I usually play it with myself, in regards to my thoughts. I'll be thinking about something, and try to relate it to another topic as quickly and relevantly as I can. The idea of everything being connected fascinates me.

*      *      *

We tend to think of time and space as linear. As Walter Bishop will tell you, that is wrong. It is an illusion. Of course, it's quite easy to imagine why we tend to think of time as linear. Our lives are, for the most part, linear. Everything happens in succession to the thing before it. 2014 turns into 2015, summer turns into autumn, morning turns into night.

Many religions and culture actually viewed time as cyclical, however. You'll remember the infamous 2012 doomsday predictions, said to have come from the Mayans' calendar ending. Their calendar did a way. For them, 2012 was but the beginning of a new age. The world would not turn around, at least I don't think so. (That idea of a serpent eating the sun whole is a bit excessive, in my not-so-humble opinion.) For the Mayans, it would be like following the year 2012 with the year 0 or 1. For them, the universe was cyclical, and everything would repeat itself, slightly different from before.

Surprisingly, many cultures follow this idea, that time is a mutable "boomerang" that can repeat itself. It can manifest itself in different ways: Buddhism and Hinduism have the idea of reincarnation, that one can be reborn into a new life and live several lifetimes. For them, an individual does not die, but rather go on to a new life. There is no clear end date. Time simply marches forward, in cycles.

But even more interesting is a theory that has manifested itself in a book by an author named Thomas Cahill. Cahill submits that Judaism, and later, Christianity, are actually responsible for our view of time being a "straight arrow", from the Creation of the universe to the end times. Judaism and the religions that derive from it, as you'll remember from world history, have been very influential and so radically different from the rest of the world's ideas of traditional religion, with only one god, no death sacrifices (that I know of), and much more. We can chalk the idea of linear time to them as well, according to Cahill. Interesting theory, isn't it? I'm not a new-ager or someone that readily submits to new religious ideas at the drop of a hat (or at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, ha ha) but it's something to think about.

*      *      *
Back to books and lucre (which, incidentally, is a quote from Cloud Atlas. Talk about returning to the beginning!) There's not much else for me to mention, except that as a modern society, we're returning to this idea of a cyclical wheel of time. We love the idea so much, it's found in our movies and books and creative consumptions. Cloud Atlas, as I mentioned above, topped the bestseller lists ten years ago. Movies like Inception challenge our ideas of what is happening, and when, and in what pattern. The Harry Potter series has several instances, most notably with Hermione Granger's Time-Turner. Overall, time-travel and time mutability has become commonplace in our culture.
Before this ends, I leave you with two final quotes to think about.
Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again. CortĂ©s’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities. Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger let me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such elegant certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.   ~Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas

And the second quote is, "Recently, I was forced to lie abed for almost a week. I had a cold, which developed into pneumonia..."

Everything ends where it began. :)



  1. This isn't something I've really thought about before, but after listening to what the Doctor Who fandom has had to say about time (not to mention the Observers) I think it's important that we remember that time is a human invention. In terms of Christianity, the name of God in Hebrew (Yaweh) means "I am." As in, God lives in the present tense, always, and is simultaneously experiencing every moment at the same time. Which isn't the kind of thing I can do, really.

    Still... I open at the close.

  2. Hope you're much better! Mmm, cyclicality is quite applicable in many spheres of life. Lovely post with awesome quotes!

  3. This is actually quite deep. If I'm honest, I never gave much thought into cyclicality before reading this post.

    Something new to think about, I guess.