In a time of momentous and accelerated changes (for example, in a few brief decades we are dismantling a book culture which took centuries to construct), it is a great comfort to know that time travel will soon be available to bring us back to critical junctures in case we made a mistake. The dream of time travel is symptomatic of both our deepest anxieties and our need to escape from our own realities and memories. But there is also a secret to certain ideas of time travel that needs to be unraveled. It is a challenge to the idea of linear history. This “Möbius” secret of time travel is already glimpsed in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), one of the earliest science fiction novels and the “original” fantasy of time travel. Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Twelve Monkeys raises critical questions about the linear nature of time and the causality of science. Möbius time travel will provide a fruitful tool for getting out of the hyperreality and myth of the end of history which surround us in modern culture.
It is 2035 A.D. in post-apocalypse underground Philadelphia, and Bruce Willis / James Cole is an inmate with a twenty-five-to-life sentence who is offered the possibility of parole in exchange for carrying out a dangerous mission. He must travel back in time - via the time machine which is the chief technology project of the government scientists - to find out what killed the world. A crime has taken place, and Willis must solve the crime. The scientists have some clues. They know that a deadly virus was released in December 1996 in 10 major cities around the world within the course of two weeks. 5 billion people, or 99% of the earth’s population, were killed. The scientists have newspaper clippings about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
Cole’s entire condition is one of abjection. In one time, he is a prisoner. In another time, he is a psychiatric patient. He lives underground. His body is ravaged. The future underground world which Cole inhabits represents the “European” history which American hyperreality would like to exclude. It is deep rather than superficial. Its technology is physical, mechanical, and industrial rather than virtual and digital. It is the return of history after the apocalyptic destruction of the hyperreal America of the end of history (September 2001, September 2008).
Cole’s body is continually ravaged throughout the film. But he is Bruce Willis, action hero (temporarily lost in a complex, intellectual film!), so he can take it. He is several times naked, but in a completely non-erotic way. His body is scrubbed down with stiff wire brushes at the end of long poles by orderlies both in the future world and in the 1990 psychiatric hospital. Skin-burning chemical decontaminants are sprayed at him. Madness and harsh treatment, and the sadism of the guards, are invoked. After the time travel technology misfires again, Willis is naked again, this time in Europe’s World War I. He does not have the necessary armor which the French soldiers have, but he has another armor - he is Bruce Willis.
With the guards in the future (Europe), Cole knows how to keep quiet, taciturn. He is self-disciplined in his speech, knowing that even a single false/wrong word could result in punishment. Later on, in America, he becomes a blabbermouth. He tells all, and right away. Suddenly these benevolent psychiatrists are to be trusted with everything. He is a time traveller, he tells them, and the world is going to be destroyed.
On his initial excursion up to the surface, Cole looks at smashed store windows, mannequins wearing decayed clothes, a degraded Christmas tree. Be careful not to step on the broken glass from the vitrines now lying on the pavement. Cole-Willis steps through the emptiness where a window used to be and into the department store. Rotting clothes on the racks. A tourist industry advertisement for the Florida Keys. A movie theatre. It is the consumer society which has been destroyed! Information is stored the old-fashioned way - newspaper clippings tacked up on the wall, photographs, maps, handbills, and traffic tickets. The television screens are broken.
The time traveler’s suffering body will be liberated by the smooth hand of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), author of The Doomsday Syndrome: Apocalyptic Visions of the Mentally Ill. She calls him James. In America, he will have a first name again.
In the Loony Bin: cartoons from a wall-mounted television. Drugged psychiatric inmates staring vacantly at a TV. This is the pure form of watching TV. Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt): “There’s the TV. It’s all right there. We’re consumers! Toilet paper, new cars, computerized blenders, electrically operated sexual devices, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, voice-activated computers.”
“You know what ‘crazy’ is?,” Goines adds. “‘Crazy’ is ‘majority rules’.”
In Twelve Monkeys, the hypothesis is also presented that there is no time travel at all: the confusion between awake and sleeping states, the confusion of dreams and reality, the drug-induced hallucinations, the resemblance of the underground future world and the psychiatric hospital, between the scientists and the doctors. This is summed up in the mocking comments of the character who calls Cole “Bob”:
“Maybe I’m in the next cell, another volunteer like you. Or maybe I’m in the central office spying on you for all those science bozos. Or, hey -- maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I’m just in your head. No way to confirm anything, right? Ha ha.”
Only in his airport memory does Cole see some hope, a way to solve both his own biographical puzzle and that of history. And in music. “I love the music of the twentieth century,” he says to Railly-Stowe while riding in the back seat of her car. Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World. Fats Waller, Blueberry Hill. Cole sticks his head out the window... “Air! I’m breathing air!” He heard these songs only very rarely in his life. His relationship to these musical treasures is the opposite of “media content upon demand” retrieved from a database and its vast archives.
In the airport, the crucial traumatic memory of Cole’s childhood takes place - he saw his own death. The six-year-old child saw himself - the older Cole - being shot. This is not the classic causality paradox of going back in time to kill my own grandmother before I was born (and would I still exist?) that is boringly repeated in every physics textbook rendition of the logical conundrums of time travel. What Twelve Monkeys depicts is rather Möbius time travel. And now for something completely different. It has a new topology and geometry: a Riemann geometry. “Most of what we experience has its origin in these kinds of spaces,” writes Alexis Clancy. “A solution space metric should be ‘breathable’ and elastic – a mathematical weave as opposed to a mathematical covering.” (“A Proposal For Developing Quantum Computing in Software” http://choreograph.net/articles/a-proposal-for-developing-quantum-computing-in-software) I, Alan N. Shapiro, am betting on longshots to invent time travel. We’ll do it to help the victims (and the perpetrators) of history. Beam the Holocaust victims - my fellow Jews - out of there before Hitler can get them. Beam them to safety in the future. Beam out Hitler (to the future) before he can kill himself, and make him lie down on the couch (or sit face-to-face with a great Gestalt therapist).
Cole is deeply obsessed with the airport memory. It recurs to him in the form of a dream. But now he has met Dr. Katherine Railly in real life. She was always part of the dream. Now the dream is becoming increasingly deciphered.
In her book-tour lecture, Dr. Railly explains that a raving madman appeared in the twelfth century near Stonehenge. Echoing her first encounter with Cole, when she was his doctor in the psychiatric hospital, she says: “He was taken into custody, but then mysteriously escaped and was not heard of again.” Others who claimed to be time travelers from the future appeared at many moments throughout history. A photo from the World War I trenches of a man who looks like Cole. “He claimed he had come from the future, that he was looking for a pure germ that would ultimately wipe mankind off the face of the earth -- substituting for the universally acknowledged agony of war a self-inflicted agony we call ‘the Cassandra Complex’.”
But what first appears as madness turns out to be science. “When I locate the virus,” Cole-Willis concludes, “they’ll send a scientist back here. The scientist will study the virus, and when he goes back to the present, him (sic) and all the other scientists will make a cure. Then all of us in the present who survived, we’ll be able to go back to the surface of the earth.”