Hibernation—Reflections on the Idea of Time

Carolo Rovelli (The Order of Time, 2018)

We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the races of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia.

We are longing for a future that will not come. . .

Rovelli is a theoretical physicist, currently directing the quantum gravity research group of the Centre de physique théorique in Marseille France. With all his brilliance and poetic sensibility Rovelli is a child of the Renaissance, playing havoc with this inheritance of linear time through the revolutionary insights of quantum physics about the mysterious nature of time.  In this time of hibernation of our economies and social relations, where time seems to be standing still, set against the frantic work of the health care sector and health researchers where time is speeding up, Rovelli’s insights are food for thought.

The spatiality of the world consists of the web of their interactions. They do not dwell in time: they interact incessantly with each other, and indeed exist only in terms of these instant interactions. And this interaction IS the happening of the world… neither directional nor linear… The world is like a collection of interrelated points of view. To speak of the world ‘seen from the outside’ makes no sense, because there is no ‘outside’ to the world. (p.108-109)

The World as Many Dancing Shivas

Despite the universalising language of economic globalisation, Rovelli notes that the world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander.

It’s a network of events affecting each other. . . The things of this world interweave dances made to different rhythms. If the world is upheld by the dancing Shiva, there must be ten thousand dancing Shivas, like the dancing figures painted by Matisse. . . (p.16).

Shiva is the Lord of Dance, the creator and the destroyer, symbolising the universal truth of birth, growth, decay and death; of the movement of order and entropy, the collapse into disorder. Buddhist wisdom recognises that the nature of reality is the dynamic dance of impermanence: that which comes together will move apart, that which is high will become low; that which is born will die.

Shiva dances on the demon of ignorance—in modern parlance, fake news—the hubris of the narcissism, bigotry, greed and arrogance that ignores the truths that Shiva reveals as we humans grapple with a sudden shift in our world order.

Call from the Wild

A new coronavirus (that persistent bug that brings us the yearly flu), has produced what we now call COVID-19, appearing from the ‘wild’ (that world of nature into which we intrude with savage industrial intent). It has come into the human population in the wildlife food market of Wuhan, a city of over 11 million people, capital of Hubei Province in central China, and centre of hi tech industry and research.

Wuhan is a major transport hub situated on the banks of the Yangtse at its confluence with the Han River, and close to one of the world’s largest power stations at the Three Gorges Dam. It is now the centre of China’s car industry and intimately connected to Italy’s textile industry.

In the middle of the global pandemic that has swept the world from Wuhan, time is being asked to stand still as we put societies into physical distancing lockdown and economies into hibernation. At the same time, it is being speeded up among the frantic efforts of health care workers to prevent death and medical researchers to know, map and prevent the virus. As at 16 April, over 2 million people worldwide have been infected, and more than 128,000 people have died. In just four short months, while deaths in China, with its strong control measures, peaked at more than 82,000 infections and more than 3,300 deaths (in a total population of 1.5 billion), infections in Europe and the US escalated rapidly, with deaths in excess of 10,000 in Italy, Spain and the UK.

Despite its status as the world’s most advanced and wealthiest economy, the US has now emerged as the new global epicentre of the pandemic with a total of more than 30,000 deaths and more than 630,000 infections (in a total population of 330,579 million).  It took 83 days to each the first one million cases worldwide, and just 14 days to reach the second million.

The contrast between China and the US in their management of the pandemic is stark, marking an historic pivot in their global standing.

Time and Memory

I’m over 70 years of age, so I am regarded as being a member of those vulnerable to the pandemic. But I don’t have the underlying co-morbidities that signal real concern. Old age has brought me arthritis in the knees, but the lungs seem fine, and blood pressure not a problem. But in this time of time standing still for those of us in hibernation, especially for those of us who are members of the ‘aged’, there are memories of many lives lived.

As I cast my mind back my eyes rest on my jade pendant, bought in an antique market in Beijing in 1968, when I was but 22 years old, during a student tour of China in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

Memories of a Different China

I was part of a group of about 30 Australian university students. We were all students of Chinese history, politics and language, taking advantage of an ‘adventure of a lifetime’ to go behind the ‘bamboo curtain’ into a world being convulsed by the Cultural Revolution. It was led by students, just like us; students who had been called on by their national leader, Mao the Helmsman, to tear down the last vestiges of the old order, so that a new world could be truly born.

Our study tour was organised by the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) and we were officially, the ‘revolutionary red guards of Australian youth’ come to visit their friends in arms, so to speak. In reality we were a bunch of white middle class youngsters, full of idealism and curiosity about this revolutionary society, birthed from its feudal past during a civil war and struggle against the Japanese invasion in WWII.

At that time I was a part time student with the University of Queensland, while working as a teacher. My subject that year had been a ‘History of the Far East Since 1500’ and my tutor had put me onto the NUAUS trip. I met my fellow students on the study tour on the wharf at Brisbane where we boarded a Dutch ship, the Tjuliwa, to sail first to Japan for 10 days, then onto Hong Kong, to travel by train into China. As we were travelling steerage (with the crew), we all had to board in Brisbane as Caucasians were not allowed to travel steerage in Australian waters.

I teemed up with Jill Ratten, a student of Chinese politics studying to become a journalist at the University of Melbourne. We came from different worlds. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, living in Toorak, private school background. I was the daughter of a humble electrician from Bundaberg in rural Queensland, who left her public high school at 16 years of age, and found her way through adult education and a scholarship to Teachers College, with university on the side. Yet somehow we became lifelong friends, sharing a sense of rebellious insouciance. As the study tour progressed, Jill and I would sit up the back of the bus telling rude jokes to drown out the endless recitation of quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book by our hosts.  We chaffed at our inability to explore and ‘see for ourselves’ little realising just how dangerous those times in China were, especially for foreigners like us.

Now, some 68 years later, I can no longer recall the exact sequence of our journey through China, but I do remember visiting industrial Wuhan, shrouded in smog. After crossing the border from Hong Kong, we arrived in what was then called Canton, before proceeding to Shanghai. I remember that Jill and I committed our first act of rebellion there. After everyone settled in for the night at our hotel, under the watchful eye of our Chinese translators and Luxingsha (Government Tourist Agency), Jill and I snuck out to explore the streets of Shanghai, this most famous of Chinese cities.

We walked along the famous Bund of colonial times, resplendent with a mixture of colonial and Chinese architecture, and found a little teashop. Neither of us spoke a word of Mandarin or Cantonese. The few Chinese people who were out and about, all dressed in their brown or blue Mao suits, sporting the de rigueur red and gold revolutionary badges, stared at us with open mouths. Foreigners were extremely rare and came from the world of ‘capitalist roaders’. We entered the little teashop and indicated we would like some tea. Instead we got a bowl of noodles. Sitting in the shop were members of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army). We would later discover they had been dispatched across the country to try and curb the excesses of the Red Guards and bring things more under control.   We snuck back into our hotel, extremely pleased with this bit of rebellious freedom and chance to just soak up this extremely different world.

Today it is utterly transformed—the shiny bustling world of Shanghai, the gleaming international capital of commerce of modern China, once again regaining its reputation as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of the world.

For about three days we stayed with our student hosts at a local technical university, in extremely basic accommodation in the middle of winter with no heating. Here the students paraded their Vice Chancellor before us. He had been accused of being a running dog of US capitalism, and held in student house arrest for several years undergoing endless ‘struggle sessions’ to purge him of his wrong thinking. It was a sobering experience. Things got even more dicey when Garth an engineering student from Melbourne, drew a Snoopy cartoon, with a  caption ‘to be Mao is happiness’, which his student hosts interpreted as calling Mao Zedong a dog, an insult with a deep colonial history. Garth was promptly put under restrictive controls and later had to undergo his own struggle session in a hotel in Beijing, witnessed by the ‘revolutionary masses’ of the hotel workers.

I think after we left Shanghai we travelled to Beijing, with two side trips. One was to a town on Shantung peninsular, where again Jill and I feigned sickness to be able to sneak out on our own for a precious hour or two, and the other was to the Great Wall. I have a photo of myself on the Great Wall dressed in the Great Coats and fur hats with ear flaps we were issued to deal with the minus 17 degree temperature of a northern Chinese winter. I remember Red Square. We couldn’t visit the Imperial Palace as it was closed to protect it from the Red Guards’ attacks on the four olds: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. We had witnessed widespread slogans painted over Chinese art in the Summer Place we had visited. My beautiful jade pendant that has provoked these memories is the only physical reminder I have of my journey to China in 1968. A time depicted in the film, The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci, released in 1987, when the mob ran people through the streets, children turned on their parents and teachers, and intellectuals were shunned and sent to live with the peasants.

It was after Beijing that we made our way south to visit Wuhan, a city made famous for the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty in 1912. Wuhan is also where Mao Zedong demonstrated his courage and strength in the 1966 great Crossing-the-Yangzi event, a political manoeuvre to regain power from economic reformists like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who became prime targets of public rage through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Lasting but 10 years, this period is credited with being responsible for over 1.5 million deaths and untold suffering and disruption to Chinese society and its economy.

My most distinct memory of Wuhan is people pulling carts loaded with coal over the arched bridge that crosses the Yangtse; a picture of enduring poverty and struggle, not of the wealth and industry that has become the face of modern Wuhan. That is until its recent notoriety as the source of the world’s first pandemic since the Spanish Flu. A global pandemic that has stopped the frantic throbbing time of the global economy and its complex supply chains and roaming tourists in its tracks.

The Flow of Time

For we children of the Renaissance, time is linear. It flows from the past to the future, as we try to pause it in something we call the present. It also flows with intent, pushed along by the current of an almost mystical idea of ‘progress’. That this flow of time is leading to constant improvement, and improvement moreover that is speeding up exponentially through the might of science and technology, unleashed by human ingenuity, as ‘masters of the universe’.

But although we are children of Progress, we are also children of Planet Earth. We are learning that Earth has its own sense of time, built into its eternal laws of ecological interdependence. Earth has its own voice in this. It speaks to us through the weather in its balance of sun, rain and wind; through the fertility of the soils that grow our food, the fresh water of the streams that are vital to our survival, the balance of acidity in our oceans that sustain its rich variety of wild marine life.

Before the dream of Progress arrived on our shores, this most ancient of continents, worn through erosion to the vast arid areas of the outback, time was not linear.

It was governed by the cyclical laws of nature, the eternal Law of the Dreaming laid down by Ancestral Beings that declared human ingenuity not as ‘masters of the universe’ but as the ‘carers of country’. It was this alternative sense of non-linear time that enabled its people to live sustainably across more than 60,000 years, well back into the last ice age. Their culture holds such a deep memory that despite nearly 250 years of brutal colonial dispossession and resulting trauma, it has not been erased.

For Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the land is not landscape or resource; it is forever identity and parent. The plants, native animals, insects and birds are not fauna and flora, but relatives that are known through totem relationships and dreaming cycles. The night skies are not merely astronomical phenomena, but the presence of the ancestors. We call one such 7 star formation in the skies the Pleiades, but Aboriginal people right across Australia know it as the Seven Sisters Dreaming, featured in a major exhibition at the Australian National Museum in 2018.  Part of this exhibition featured the Seven Sisters as sculptural forms woven by Aboriginal desert weavers.

Within this cosmic time of Planet Earth, Rovelli notes that the modern disease of the search for certainty in beliefs, ideology, institutions, wealth and defeat of death with science—all must give way to the reality that the world is nothing but change, it is a network of events: that there is no such thing as a ‘thing.

All is perpetual movement from the sub atomic and microscopic to the macroscopic. Change is the movement of time. It is diffuse, scattered, disorderly. There is no stasis. As the Daoists have long told us, to be in tune with reality, we must learn to live in flow, to be one with the Dao. And as our ancient Australian cultures tell us, to live in flow is to be in tune with the Law, to know it through the ancient songlines of the Dreaming, through the discipline of caring for country as family.

What will be the flow of time following this world-changing event of the COVID-19 pandemic?