Mental Time Travel (3)

I think this is the last post I’ll write about mental time travel (after this one and this one). I’m coming back to the subject because I think my examples thus far have dealt with reminiscent imagining, but not enough with future planning. Scientific research into mental time travel is particularly focused on the evolutionary advantage that lies in the ability to put memory and foresight together. Some of the most ingenious experiments attempt to catch other animals in the act.


Human plans in reality and in fiction seem a great deal more complicated than those observed in, say, . When humans work together, plans can overlap and cohere, but they can also diverge and interfere. William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying involves the reader in a family’s gruelling journey to bury a matriarch. Changing narrators give their own perspectives with varying degrees of lucidity.
      The plan to bury Addie Bundren in Jefferson overlaps with her husband Anse’s wish to get some new teeth. When the family arrives, however, they soon find themselves being introduced to a new mother figure:

‘It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,’ pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. ‘Meet Mrs Bundren,’ he says. (Penguin Modern Classics edition, p. 208)

Was this Anse’s plan all along? Either to find himself a new wife as quickly as possible, or to make an assignation with someone he had lined up? His sons and daughter don’t know (or don’t say); perhaps the same is actually true of him. A distinction could be made between the publically acknowledged plan, the privately preferred plan, and the unconsciously operating plan. As I Lay Dying doesn’t give us characters who make this distinction apparent.


Meanwhile, on the Bundrens’ wagon, other future-oriented scenarios are emerging. The passing of time on the journey is set against other time-critical considerations. Dewey Dell is pregnant but has a plan for a termination. The decomposing body in its coffin is attracting disapproval and carrion birds. Cash’s broken leg is failing to heal, and the narrative voice (Darl, in this case) expresses himself resonantly as they make an effort to relieve the pain:

‘If it’ll just help you,’ pa says. ‘I asks your forgiveness. I never foreseen it no more than you.’
‘It feels fine,’ Cash says.
If you just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time. (p. 166)

Darl eventually ravels out into an act of arson and is sent to an asylum. The family’s eventual solution is to seal Cash’s leg in cement, so it will not be jarred by the wagon’s bumpy journey. This is obviously a bad idea, and later an appalled doctor promises much pain and not much mobility. In this novel there are some truly terrible plans, some mundane ones, some mysterious ones, and they all have their distinctive timescales. We sense one grinding by as another stalls.


As I Lay Dying is hardly unique among novels for featuring a group of characters journeying, or pursuing complex, partially shared goals in some other way. It is distinctive for opening up so many fictional consciousnesses and yet making their mental time travels so idiosyncratic and opaque. I think this complexity must be a quality of the mental time travel that is wound into the turbulent lives of humans. In our woven social existences it must be typical that plans are always being modified, abandoned, rediscovered, revealed and concealed (from ourselves as well as from others) because of their interactions with the plans of others. I don’t think there’s a more illuminating way of exploring the experience and consequences of that than in literature.

For example, L.C. Cheke and N.S. Clayton, ‘Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) overcome their current desires to anticipate two distinct future needs and plan for them appropriately’, Biology Letters, 8 (2012), 171-5. This develops earlier work published in Nature: C.R. Raby, D.M. Alexis, A. Dickinson, and N.S. Clayton, ‘Planning for the future by Western Scrub-Jays’, Nature, 445 (2007), 919-21 and N.S. Clayton, ‘Corvid Cognition: Feathered Apes’, Nature, 484 (2012), 453-4.
As in a Macbeth example featured in my first post on mental time-travel, grammar is doing a lot of work here, reaching uncertainly into the future. One of the phrases in As I Lay Dying that resonates most with me is Dewey Dell’s yearning ‘He could do so much for me if he just would’. She is thinking about how a doctor might intervene in her unwanted pregnancy. The modal auxiliary verbs ‘could’ and ‘would’ are powerfully expressive without being falsely articulate. Why did I Google this phrase? Not sure, but I am glad I did. Google could do so much for me if I just would. There’s a very interesting essay on what doctors can learn from Faulkner here.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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