Days of Future Past Confirms: Time Travel is Narcissistic
If you had a time machine and you used that time machine to go back to when you were seven years old and snap a picture of yourself would it be considered a selfie? Time travel is a lot of fun to think about, owing mostly to the myriad of problems it can get its protagonists into when used in fiction, comic books, movies, TV shows, and 2 AM discussions in which lots of people are starting sentences with “BUT THEN!” And the idea that we could unmoor ourselves from supposed “present” is fun to think about (most likely) because time travel can be a metaphor for just about whatever you want it to be. Depending on how its used; time travel can either make you feel guilty for feeling guilty about a past mistake, or feel guilty for not wanting to invent time travel to change the thing you felt guilty about; and really, that’s only the first two Back to the Future movies.
In practice, we (sort of) base our measurement of time collectively, as an entire planet, on—big shock—the rotation of the Earth. And yet, the devil is in the clockwork because the specifics of why it’s a certain time one place and a different time another is arguably somewhat arbitrary (Or to put it another way, it’s not a different time really, we just assign a different number to it in a different zone to make life less confusing). Some physicists like Lee Smolin (author of Time Reborn) think there are some emergent laws of time and that all of this stuff isn't exactly in our head, but even he acknowledges a contradiction in “timeless law.”
So, the new year begins earlier in New York City than it does in Phoenix, Arizona, and if my best friend from Phoenix calls me while I’m in New York, it’s sort of like I’m speaking to him from the future. What’s the future like? Well, it’s just like the past, only a few hours ahead. Swap out the word “hours” for “years” and boom, you’re like Wolverine heading back to the 1970’s to meet younger versions of his buddies in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The difference is, when we turn hours into years, we need a time machine to do it, and that’s when we get really, really self-involved.
In his fantastic essay “Tomorrow Rarely Knows,” (from Eating the Dinosaur) Chuck Klosterman outlines all sorts of stuff about time travel, but eventually lands on the notion that time travelers are depressed, and I think he’s probably onto something. And while there’s a link between being depressed and being self-involved, depressed people aren't self-involved, per se, and vice versa. Instead, being self-involved, means you find yourself to be great company, which could mean you’re not depressed or at least not openly so. Narcissus was open about his self-love and loving gazed at his own reflection, but if he had a time machine, would Narcissus have actually just palled around with a past or future version of himself? Doc Brown warned us that seeing your past self could cause a paradox that could destroy the universe, but really, it seems like he was just warning us against becoming narcissists. I’m willing to bet someone out there enjoys the idea of past and future versions of people hanging out with each other because it makes our lives feel even more important. The more selfies we take, the more we replicate our existence out there in the world, and if we could physically go see our past selves and chat with them—like Professor X talking to Professor X—then it would probably be perversely satisfying, and perhaps even create a creepy sensation of pride.
Being prideful is probably not logical, but that didn’t prevent Old Spock from chatting it up with Young Spock in the 2009’s Star Trek. There, Spock played with the joke that meeting yourself via time travel could destroy the universe, and then later—when he shows up to talk to Young Spock—admitted the truth of why we like time travel: it could allow us to talk to ourselves. Granted, fictional narratives tend to have moral, centered, nice people interacting with themselves, but if some sort of egomaniac self-addicted person (all of us in real life?) got a hold of time travel, it’s possible the conversations wouldn’t be so careful or congenial as the one Spock has with Spock. Selfies aren’t time travel, but time travel involving characters talking to themselves or revisiting their past life might be the ultimate from of self-involvement. Even Facebook changed its structure from “profile” to “timeline” a few years ago.
When you go to see X-Men: Days of Future Past or any other time-travel movie where people meet themselves, it might be important to remember the Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain.” Because, if you are even a little bit vain, you probably think this time travel movie is about you, don’t you?
What would you tell your past self if you could travel back in time?