A new year! A new you! This is supposed to be the time for self-improvement, which makes me wonder what’s gone wrong for 2015. We’re used to the newspaper supplements’ December/January yadda-yadda of diets and get-fit-quick schemes, to the cultural roundups of the year ahead. The steady increase in all this stuff – the annual binge – is one of the more reliable indicators of the passing of the years, and so it will continue until the demise of print. But there have recently been signs of a more worrying trend. Tips on how to survive Christmas parties and how to recover afterwards are all very well, but they don’t really touch the point of self-help as genre – which is to promise magical change with minimal effort, to make actually impossible things happen. An inch off a waistline is neither here nor there: I want the inconceivable. It’s here that I detect a falling-off in ambition among the better-paid advisers on physical and spiritual wellbeing. Once upon a time people published books like Invisibility: Mastering the Art of Vanishing (Steve Richards, 1982, a peerless guide to the many means of making oneself disappear), and Time Is an Illusion (Chris Griscom, 1986, a seminal lesson in past-life therapy and the unreality of time). Steve Richards – a pseudonym, no relation to the biographer of Gordon Brown – may or may not still be in hiding in Dallas; Chris Griscom has latterly retreated to her Light Institute in New Mexico. Nobody of any significance has materialised to replace them. Whatever happened to all the magicians and the nutjobs?
Among the best 2014 has had to offer – if sales are a measure – is Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (Simon and Schuster, £7.99), the book version of his 15-minute TED talk on, well, how to do nothing at all. The book has more than seventy pages, though some of them are pictures of sunsets and dawns over water. Iyer’s guru was Leonard Cohen, now a friend, after he went to visit him in his mountain retreat: ‘The sun was scattering diamonds across the ocean as I drove toward the deserts of the east.’ From Cohen, Iyer learned that happiness comes only if you take a moment, sometimes, not to think. He had his revelation on a flight home from New York to Los Angeles. For once, he didn’t turn on his laptop, he didn’t read. ‘When I awoke the next morning,’ he says, ‘I felt as new as the world I looked out upon.’ Iyer shows the efficacy of his stillness programme through its transformation of Afghanistan veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: one of them said it ‘had literally brought him back from the dead’. At Google, he meets someone who runs a course for employees called ‘Search Inside Yourself’, ‘whose curriculum had shown more than a thousand Googlers the quantifiable, scientific evidence that meditation could lead not just to clearer thinking and better health but to emotional intelligence’. Scientifically quantifiable emotional intelligence: that’s nice, and lucrative, and soothing for the employees in question, but it’s hardly time travel.
Books like these are embarrassed shadows of the classic that defined the genre: J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927), which explains how – through attentive dreaming – it’s possible to have knowledge of the future as well as the past. Dunne, by training an aeronautical engineer, was persuaded by physicists’ contention that our perception of time is misleading: time ‘exists’, and physics requires it, but there is no reason for us to suppose that ‘time passes.’ It is more helpful to imagine space and time as a block, with what we understand as the ‘present’ being just a three-dimensional slice of a four-dimensional universe. Since you can travel in space you may as well be able to travel in time. We could say – if the notion didn’t depend on our temporally oriented preconceptions – that all time exists ‘at once’. Einstein wrote a famous letter to the bereaved family of a friend: ‘People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’ Dunne did the brilliant self-help thing of describing an experiment that anyone could try at home, and millions did: go to sleep, dream, wait a few days, and then see whether your dream was about an event in the future rather than the past. It helped that he wrote grippingly, with a Poe-like narrative about his own discoveries, and many were swept along. For a few months in 1964 and 1965 Nabokov recorded his own experiments with Dunne’s technique: the resulting notes were published for the first time in the TLS of 29 October 2014 (his dreams, it turns out, were as boring – and as little about the future – as anyone else’s). J.B. Priestley made a more public show of it: in 1963 he made a programme about Dunne for the BBC’s Monitor, and solicited listeners for their own experiences; he and his secretary carefully sifted through the hundreds of responses to sort the loonies from the precogs. But they were always willing to believe.
And so they should have been. It’s not really so insane. Time is a bummer when it’s running out: I’ve noticed, year by year, that there’s less and less of it, and it would be really great if someone suggested a way of getting more. It’s valuable. As of December 2014, if you’re earning the UK minimum wage an hour can be directly converted into £6.50. (Although according to the latest report from the Office of National Statistics, 287,000 workers were illegally being paid less than the minimum wage, which sits uncomfortably with the fact that under David Cameron’s government only two employers have been fined for underpaying, for a total of £4696.) If you’re a psychotherapist on Harley Street you can convert an hour into £200. And if you’re a specialist partner at a large law firm you can translate it into £1000 or more. Lawyers find ways of squeezing more billable hours onto their clients’ invoices, but really they and everyone else would have it easier if they could just squeeze more minutes into every hour, more seconds into every minute.
It isn’t easy, and physics hardly helps. There are no short cuts. The most obvious way of messing up time is through the theory of general relativity: as you approach the speed of light then time passes more slowly for you than for everyone else. This is, on the whole, bad news: your year on a spaceship travelling at near light speed will look to anyone else like a decade. By the time you get home they’ll obviously have got a lot more done than you. The faster you fly the more fucked you are. You’ll be younger, prettier, but you’ll have lost those 79,000 precious hours in which you could have practised Mozart or learned Chinese or earned £20 a minute. But the great thing about Einstein is that he didn’t just have one theory: the special theory of relativity – his first, most helpful invention – declares that in the absence of gravity, and acceleration, time speeds up. The trick is to be weightless: the clock on a satellite in orbit will gain 38 microseconds a day on a clock on Earth – so if you spent a century up there you’d get nearly a second and a half more than everyone else. That, I think, is worth pushing for – but if anyone has any better ideas, then please write a book about it.