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Forking Paths

Forking Paths

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August 20, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I want to investigate the nature of time using three different sources: The Matrix, the recent Disney show Loki, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” Though very different, these three works embrace the concept of infinite futures. Their conceptualizations, then, allow us to explore notions of divergence, difference, and possibility.

In The Matrix, Neo notices a black cat shiver in a stairwell. A few seconds later, this same cat repeats the action that Neo had just noticed. He mentions his feeling of déjà vu to the others and they instantly realize that the matrix has been rewritten. In other words, in the matrix, déjà vu indicates when a code has been rewritten. The black cat tells the good guys that the bad guys now know their location and have set a trap. Déjà vu represents a glitch, an overlap, between the old program and the new. It is a useful indicator for those who wish to escape the matrix. This concept coincides with coding and computer programming, which is an alternate universe in itself. However, it is interesting to see that time must exist within the program as well as within the user.

In the Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame, Loki steals the Tesseract containing the space stone and disappears into another dimension. With this action Loki creates a divergent timeline, which is the impetus for the new Disney series Loki. In it, various Lokis appear with different powers and abilities. Often called “The God of Mischief,” Loki (as portrayed by Tom Hiddleston) is astounded to see the variety of Lokis, particularly the alligator. The show’s head writer, Michael Waldron, comments: “It’s so stupid, but it also makes total sense. You almost have to take it seriously, like maybe he is [a Loki]? Why shouldn’t there be an alligator version of Loki? For all we know, that’s an alligator universe or whatever. It’s just the sort of irreverent thing that, in this show, we play straight and make the audience take it seriously.” In this show, duplicates represent divergence. So, Loki created a new timeline and within the TVA (Time Variance Authority) walls, that is a very bad thing. TVA agents react quickly against any variants claiming that only the original version is authentic (and yes, they decide who is original and erase divergent individuals). By avoiding variations of timelines or characters, the TVA hopes to prevent a future multi-versal war. Unfortunately for Loki, once captured and within the TVA walls, he has no powers.

This show dramatizes the way that individuals may actually be anomalies, variations, or off-shoots of some previous original. In the TVA, the only indication of a prior life comes from impressions or images in their memory. These whispers of memories often could not have happened in the sterile TVA world. Even so, some characters strongly believe in the reality of their prior memories, while others completely disregard them.

Jorge Luis Borges also played with this notion of time shifts or multiverses in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Near the end of the story, we meet Stephen Albert who has studied this ancient text all about infinite possibilities. Albert explains to the narrator: “The Garden of Forking Paths is a huge riddle, or parable, whose subject is time; that secret purpose forbids Ts’ui Pen the merest mention of its name. To always omit one word, to employ awkward metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is perhaps the most emphatic way of calling attention to that word. It is, at any rate, the tortuous path chosen by the devious Ts’ui Pen at each and every one of the turnings of his inexhaustible novel. I have compared hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected the errors introduced through the negligence of copyists, I have reached a hypothesis for the plan of that chaos, I have reestablished, or believe I’ve reestablished, its fundamental order – I have translated the entire work; and I know that not once does the word time appear. The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts’ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favoring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.”

Though I have read this story a number of times, a couple of things continue to evade me. First, Stephen Albert mentions “the favoring hand of chance” and I wonder what that is supposed to mean? Which scenario(s) are favorable? And second, Albert ends this speech with the claim that in one divergent path he is an “error, a ghost.” But what might it possibly mean to be “an error” in a world of infinite possibilities? I can envision this ghostly demarcation belonging in The Matrix, where there are glitches in code. Perhaps the ghosts might be similar to the many Lokis, sort of a clone, fragrance, or essence of another individual or life? However, the more that I think about these scenarios, the more I want to look at other depictions of divergence. As far as I can tell, Stephen Albert claims that he is sometimes predestined to meet the narrator, though the outcome alters depending on if or when they meet. (Since the narrator is a spy during the war, the outcome is actually pretty important.)

On the surface, time appears simple and straightforward. However, it is actually an incredibly complicated notion. There are many wonderful works that I could have investigated. If you have a suggested text that explores the notion of time, leave it in the comments below.

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