The Literature of Time and Space
May 11, 2002
In the August heat of the Jerusalem Summer, a bus crawled slowly through the crowded streets of Mea Sh’arim in the late afternoon. A girl sat in the rear of the bus, staring out its dusty windows at the streets below. Mea Sh’arim was one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where generations of Jews had built and lived their lives since the birth of Israel. The men of Mia Sh’arim now seemed an anachronism, their long black frock coats drenched in sweat, their fur hats atop their waxy brows, and their thick beards chaffing against their ancient Talus’. Hundreds of them scurried to and fro, this way and that, off to their own individual business.A town of twins scattered across the dirt roads like some surreal Margeritte painting. Rabbi’s, businessmen, shopkeepers, and banker’s, all wore the same uniform, that of the Ultra-Orthodox, those Jews who’d held firm to the strict conservative beliefs of their ancestors, so strict in fact, that nothing had changed about their lives that wasn’t the same way a hundred years ago, save a few technological, and industrial advancements that couldn’t be avoided. But it was, as the girl noted, a funny scene below, an entire town unscathed by time, untouched by the rotation of the world.
“The Bus Ride” by Dr. Samuel Fuerstman
The bus bumped along the old streets, humming its old rickety engine up and down over the hills of the Jerusalem landscape. Inside the bus, the wives and children of the men on the streets below were crowded elbow and shoulder and leg against one another, going about their daily errands. The heat poured through the open windows, and between the vents, leaving a stagnant must that left heat waves across the aisle floor. The girl noticed a piece of old chewing gum had begun to melt off the seatback of the row in front of her. She watched, as it dripped in slow globs down the metallic frame, like molasses sliding down the trunk of a southern Pine. The girl looked at her reflection that bounced against the frame. Her dark hair was icky with sweat, strands hung loosely around her head, and in strings in front of her face. Her rosy cheekbones were high and well defined, a characteristic that added a sort of dignified maturity to her face that her still blossoming sixteen year-old torso lacked. But it was her eyes that caught the attention of all who encountered her, two giant sapphires amidst a dark and mysterious complexion, two bright blue-bulbs that reflected in them a soul of unmistakable beauty. Her mouth was small, her lips thin and pale, but two delicate dimples cricked at their corners when she smiled; as she did now curiously, like a baby doe who trots upon a creek to drink, only to see themselves for the first time.
The heat wore against the girl, even as the sun began to sink below the ancient buildings that sat along the horizon, the sky faded from clear blue to a radiant pink. The bus rode on, turning through wide corners of venders and markets, and stopping at various stops along the route. The girl’s blue eyes began to dampen and way heavily, and her body grew relaxed and soft, as she leaned her head against the warm glass of the window. Her giant eyelids began to fall as if they were lowered by some careful system of cranes, until they finally fell soft and heavily about their base. At the corners of her mouth a tiny smile appeared as she fell into a deep and warm sleep.
A cold breeze swept across her brow as she dreamt, so cold in fact that it startled her awake. It was dark now, as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes with the palm of both hands. She checked her wristwatch for the time. It was frozen at 7:00 and the minute hand jumped back and forth from 6:59 to 7:00. All three hands frozen on their individual axis, suspended between 6:59 and 7:00 for the rest of eternity, or at least until she could find a watch doctor. The girl looked up, the same crowd of women and children sat ahead of her, the same low buzz of old Yiddish still chattered in her ear. Yet something was much different then before, the bus was freezing cold. Steam bellowed in front of her face as she breathed. Her fingers were rigid and almost frozen stiff. She looked again out the window below. Snow covered the entire scene, the same men marched among the same streets, but now, the streets and the buildings were covered in a blanket of thick snow. Could it be possible she thought? Snow in August? She stood up confused, and deciding she would ask the bus driver, but when she looked to the front, he was no longer there, in fact she didn’t see the front of the bus at all. What she saw was a wall, with a heavy door in the center. She was no longer on a bus; she was now chugging down the tracks on a steam engine train. She was startled, and she nearly fainted, but she braced herself on the elbow rest of the seat behind her, and fell back into the rough cushion.
Reality Is The Problem:The “Girl” as we know her, was not on a bus rambling through the hot August sun anymore. In fact she was not in Israel anymore. Somehow between the instant she’d fallen asleep until the instant she was awoken by that sharp cold breeze, she was transported. The girl now finds herself in a different place, and different time, suspended in an instant, as her watch told her between 6:59 and 7 o’clock. But she is not frozen, and neither are the people around her, in fact, the time on the watch hardly reflects the time in which she now finds herself. The “Girl” is well aware that she is no longer dreaming, but she is not so sure that where she is, is real. She now sits confused and terrified on the rough cushion of the antique train.
Could this really happen? To the “Girl”, it most certainly was. Where she now found herself seemed as real, as the bed she slept in the night before, and as real as the freezing air that now crowded the train car. Borges struggled with the complexities of reality, in his story the “Circular Ruins”. The main character, “the silent man realizes at the end of the story that he is a “mere appearance, dreamt by another.”(Borges T.C.R pg50) The silent man himself was a dream, an image that a higher power thought up. The “silent man” only realized this when he was consumed by fire and the fire didn’t harm him. How can we be so sure that we are not merely imagined? Perhaps we will one-day step through the flames as well.
The “girl”, on the other hand, is confident that she herself is real; it is her surrounding that confuses her. She can neither prove it as reality, nor prove it is a fantasy, save for her own perception. Perception then becomes a problem. Great thinkers such as Sartre and Jung have spent countless nauseating hours on the prospect that, perception is the only enabling factor in existence (i.e. reality). This thought is in fact troubling, but can’t we base its opposition on the pure knowledge that we as human beings, for the most part, understand the basic nature of the world, and by knowing them, we can live in an orderly society. We all for instance, are aware that we are born, and that we will someday die, because this as we know it, is a fact of life and REALITY. Lincoln Barnett put it perfectly in his biography of Albert Einstein entitled The Universe and Dr. Einstein. “If nothing has existence save in its being perceived, the world should dissolve into an anarchy of individual perceptions, but a curious order runs through our perceptions, as if indeed there might be an underlying layer of objective reality…”(Barnett U.D.E pg24) But one man can never be sure that he sees the same color blue that another man sees, or hears the same tone of ‘c’ sharp, or smells the same scent of perfume as another man might, because human senses cause people to experience the world for themselves. The sensations we experience are evidence of our existence, but experiencing the world so personally may further separate us from REALITY. If we experience the world individually, and perceive it as reality, isn’t it then possible that another man may have a completely different grasp? And while there maybe a popular consensus on what we all know is real, couldn’t we all be wrong? For thousands of years man thought the world was flat, and for many more he believed the solar system revolved around the Earth. These perceptionswe took for fact, or REALITY, but they were both proven wrong.
In the Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, the character Winston Niles Rumford is stuck in a realm/dimension known as the Chrono-synclastic-infundibulum in which he is able the be in numerous places at one time. Rumford’s reality is quite different from Earth dwellers, for he is multi-dimensional, and not restrained by spacetime. Rumford lives every moment and place at the same time. Might it then be possible that we could all live in this realm, if we only knew how?
Rumford got there by flying in a spaceship, but couldn’t it be a simple matter of enlightenment? What if one day you were yanked from the constraints of your own dimensions and allowed to see Earth as someone from another dimension might. What if you were allowed to see Earth as it REALLY IS. What if someone from a more sophisticated, and enlightened time and space showed you? In Flatterland by Ian Stewart, the character Vikki experiences just that. The Space Hopper wisped Vikki out of her own dimension and allowed her to view it from a different perspective, and she began to see the extended dimensions that lay hidden in a place called shadow-world; dimensions that she never knew existed. Like Vikki, we may one day find ourselves asking, “What shape am I really?”(Stewart F. pg290)
But again we must examine the idea that our perception has boundaries. Sure it is easy for one to say when asked, “of course I am real, you are talking to me aren’t you?” But it’s not as easy to say, that we are real when the conversation ends. Are we REAL in death? In memory some would say, but what about after everyone who knew you has died as well? What about after a small number like one hundred years has past, would you still be remembered? How much do we know about our great, great, grandparents? Weren’t they once real? And what about many millions of years into the future, when all evidence like photographs, letters, videotapes, genetic codes, and virtual clones have faded into the spatial oblivion of our universe, what then? Did we ever really exist? Could reality be a mere dream buried in the minds of a billion dead bodies?
One can then argue that during Life the present moment is proof that we are real, because we can never escape its bounds. To human beings living in the constrained dimensions of puny Earth, the present moment, may in fact be REAL, but to Winston Niles Rumford REALITY is always.
But mustn’t we be confident that reality is firm and unchanging? How else is one to consider something real, if there is no firm and factual base for their allusion? Reality is the foundation of all life. Without a grasp of reality the world would erupt into the chaos of hallucinations. While it may be difficult to prove, REALITY is the foundation that we base our entire existence on. Without it we are mere dreams.
The “Girl” doesn’t know where she is, she’s not sure if she’s a dream, or if she’s just living in one. Either way reality is a problem for her. While it is difficult for us to place her in any specific spacetime, I will say this; She is real. She simply exists in the dimension of possibility. A dimension that is perhaps just out of the reach of normal human perception.
Part IIHer eyes fluttered as the girl lay in the seat, her stomach turning, experiencing the dizzying effects of Vertigo. A fat gypsy-like woman nudged her, and said something in Yiddish that she could not understand. “Perhaps English then?” The girl nodded.
“Are- chu-seek? The fat woman asked in broken English.
“Where am I?” the girl said woozily
“Chu is een Poland of course.”
“Poland?” the girl asked more confused than ever now
“And I suppose, Chu’d like to know vat year it is as well?” the fat woman gave a chuckle
The girl big eyes grew desperate and frightened, she was almost afraid to ask.
“What year is it, my watched stopped and I… I?”
“Darling Chu can’t be serious, it is 1937.”
Just then the train came to a loud screeching halt, the fat woman grabbed the girl by the arm and helped her to her feet. “Ve are een Warsaw, she said, you made eet.” The girl reached for her bag, in a daze of confusion, unsure whether she was dreaming, dead, or lost. She shuffled into the line looking around for an American face, looking for anyone who could help her. She stepped down onto the steel staircase, and into the muddy snow of the train station. Her body wretched in a heave of fear and ataxia, and she vomited into the mounds of oily snow. She fell to her knees and began to weep, drawing the attention of a German officer who’d been smoking a cigarette near the station office. He ran to her aid, putting his arm around her shoulder, and lifting her out of the snow. She looked up at the blonde-haired boy who now held her in his arms, and stared into his giant sapphire eyes. Two bright blue bulbs that sat cozily above his high well-defined cheekbones. His face was red and flustered, and at the corners of his thin lips bent a tiny smile.
A single tear rolled down her cheek as she stared into the metallic frame of the seatback in front of her. The chewing gum had completely melted; it now formed a plastic-like puddle on the linoleum floor. The heat poured in through the open windows and between the vents. The airbrakes hissed as the old bus pulled to a screeching stop. The girls face was pale white, her heart pounded against her ribcage, she pressed her face against the window, and looked down at the streets below. Outside amidst the last pink shades of dusk, the sweaty old Jewish men in their frock coats still hustled through the now darkening streets. The girl turned her attention to her wristwatch 7:01 it read. The bus doors swung open and a single shot rang out. A masked man boarded the bus and ran passed the body of the bus driver that now lay doubled up on the linoleum floor. A single gunshot wound covered his blue collared shirt in dark, red, oozing blood. The masked man ran up the aisle until he reached the middle of the bus. He screamed three words in Arabic, and pulled a chord attached to his waist.
Her blue eyes shown bright in the final light of that hot Jerusalem day, like two big sapphires sinking into the dark blue sea of eternity.
Jorge Louis Borges: The Circular Ruins, Pg. 50
Lincoln Barnett: The Universe and Dr. Einstein, Pg. 24
Ian Stewart: Flatterland, Pg. 290
I hereby state that the short story, “The Bus Ride”, and the essay within are purely original literary works