'Once upon a time’ begins many a fairy tale: the mantra opens a gate into another realm. There’s a participatory joy in the hearing of such stories that carries the listener away out of the moment and into a territory where time and space are objects of play, where even the wildest ideas might be realized. Storytellers wield great power particularly in this control of time. A new exhibition, Time Machines, at Palace Green Library, suggests we might all be time travellers, weaving storied memories and imaginings into futures of our own design.
Time Machines invites you to explore ways humans have understood and experienced time. Drawing upon an exciting series of museum objects and landmark works of literature loaned from museums and libraries around the world, and drawing too upon our own collections, the show reveals how different civilisations have measured and ordered time, and presents different ways artists have seized on scientific advances to write the future.
Among the exhibits is surely one of the most influential works of science fiction ever written, H.G. Wells’ original manuscript of The Time Machine (1895), generously loaned from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Near this manuscript is placed an early 15th-century text from our own special collections by the French theologian and prelate Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420). This copy was printed at Augsburg two years before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Well-known in its day, though perhaps never as popular as Wells’ novel, the treatise too is an example of how a thinker, writing nearly five hundred years before Wells, found in a mechanics of Time a power to inspire and change his contemporaries’ outlook.
Like many before and after him d’Ailly had a teleological preoccupation with the individual’s role in the unfolding of time. Seeking to reconcile freewill and predestination and not satisfied with scriptural revelation and contemporary theology alone he looked to the stars for consolation. Astrology, then conventionally regarded as among the natural sciences, offered what seemed an objective correlative to humankind’s fate.
D’Ailly wrote in a time of theological schism, when a pope and an anti-pope reigned in Christian Europe. This led many to anticipate the advent of an Antichrist. In this treatise d’Ailly instead used astrology as an almanac not to confirm this catastrophe but to offer hope to his contemporaries. He argued that the schism was instead an opportunity for reform; for though the apocalypse would surely come, he assured them it was not yet here. Indeed, adducing correspondences between alignments of the major planets and historical catastrophes such as the Black Death, he famously looked ahead to future conjunctions and in a kind of dystopian futurism projected, (if the world should persist so long), the arrival of the Antichrist in 1789.