This week’s Object is An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne (1927), which had an extraordinary influence on J.B. Priestley’s work. Priestley reviewed Dunne’s book when it was published and later got to know him: “though we never became close friends we had some good talks”.
A mathematician and aeronautical engineer, Dunne developed his time theory “to account for the startling precognitive element in his dreams”. Priestley did not follow Dunne into the wilder reaches of his Serialism theory. But he felt that Dunne had much to say about the mysteries of “Life, Death and Time”, especially the crucial question of dreams.
Dreams were always important to Priestley (we have seen his interest in Jung): “I am one of the dreamers. My dreaming self is just as important as my waking self. I have had dreams that haunted me for days and days …”
Priestley often wrote about his own dreams in his essays and autobiographies: witness the Strange Outfitter in Apes and Angels (featuring horrible masks with movable mouths) or the Berkshire Beasts in Open House. Not to forget the powerful dream vision of the Birds and the White Flame in Rain upon Godshill. He sought out examples of powerful and predictive dreams from talking to others and even from a television appeal, on the BBC’s Monitor programme.
So why did Dunne’s ideas interest Priestley? Dunne proposed multiple selves and streams of time. As I understand it, Observer 1, our everyday self, lives in Time 1: linear chronological time. Observer 2 is another self operating in four dimensions (Time 2) who can see Observer 1’s future and past. Hence deja vu. Above all, Observer 2 comes to the fore when Observer 1 is asleep, hence precognitive dreams which seem to bring the future into the present. Observer 1 will die in Time 1, but Observer 2 is immortal and will continue to exist. Observer 2 might therefore revisit and improve the life led by Observer 1 …
Priestley also explored the works of other writers reflecting on time, such as Ouspensky’s New Model of the Universe, which features multiple dimensions of which the final one is circular – people live their lives over and over again. However, at certain points, they can choose a different path, turning the circle into a spiral, escaping the endless repetition and moving into a better or higher state.
Priestley exploited the dramatic or literary potential of these ideas to the full in the famous time plays and many other works. They make for wonderful plot devices, but go beyond that in evoking deep mystery or emotion.
Witness the end of An Inspector Calls: all seems to be back to normal after the shocking revelations elicited by the Inspector’s visit, but then the mysterious Inspector is at the door – again …
I Have Been Here Before brings together individuals in a Yorkshire pub – they have certainly been there before, but this time one of the characters makes an Ouspenskian choice, freeing them from the cycle of repeated lives.
In Time and the Conways, a happy family reunion in 1919 in the First Act is followed by the same characters, disillusioned, in Priestley’s present. In the Third Act we are back to 1919, but it is made poignant by our foreknowledge of what lies ahead.
Johnson over Jordan uses the idea of the “bardo” state from Tibetan beliefs. An Everyman character has to confront and review his life in a strange limbo immediately after his death. The scene at the Inn at the End of the World uses the Time 2 idea to moving and comforting effect: Johnson “touchingly re-encounters those forgotten or unrecognised aspects of his existence that had warmed and illuminated it”: his childhood books, photographs, pictures, the characters he knew and admired, the people he has loved …
At the end, Johnson steps into the unknown that so intrigued Priestley:
“JOHNSON, wearing his bowler hat and carrying his bag, slowly turns and walks towards that blue space and the shining constellations, and the curtain comes down and the play is done”.
Note on sources: Inn scene quotation from Paul Taylor in the Oberon edition of Johnson over Jordan. Priestley quotations from Over the Long High Wall and Rain upon Godshill. The other essential Priestley work on time and dreams is Man and Time, which discusses the Monitor postbag. Series 17 of the J.B. Priestley Archive contains many of the letters sent to Priestley as a result of this appeal.
PS I put this Object out in this particular week because there are two exciting happenings around Priestley’s speculative fiction. Find out more on the main Special Collections blog site.