JF Ptak Science Books
There is a great, unifying factor drawing together Aztec glyphs, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Marcel Duchamp, the Renaissance Sienese Sassetta, Guillaume Appolinaire, William S. Porter—they all display disparate chronological sense to a single story.
The concept of displaying the passage of time, relating multiple events taking place at the same (or different) times, is really quite a lot older than the what is generally considered to be its recent modernist beginning. Duchamp’s Nude Descending, which is a masterpiece of modernism displaying unfolding time and multiple perspective views across time of the same object, is the direct descendant of centuries-old artworks. The Egyptians and the Aztecs certainly made use of this idea of multiple stories at multiple times in their stone storyboards. Closer to the present is the genre of early Renaissance painting like Sassetta’s The Meeting of St Anthony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit (painted circa 1440), which shows several aspects of the story over time, and depicted on the same canvas. (We see the beginning of St. Anthony’s journey at top left, heading out on his journey as a younger man, winding his way through dark wood and along a curving trail; we see him a second time as an old man, and then lastly at bottom, elderly, finally meeting the other monk.)
The rollout of the Sassetta masterpiece (hanging happily at the National Gallery in D.C.) reminds me a lot of the great hallmark of storytelling at the beginning of the twentieth century—no, not Barzun or Cendars, but Little Nemo (who predates all of the other greats who were to come in the next ten years or so). Winsor McCay’s (1871-1934) Little Nemo in Slumberland (appearing in the Hearst newspapers beginning in 1902)—better yet, the comic strip in general—adopts a platform for storytelling that is nothing short of revolutionary. By breaking out the development of the narrative in front of the reader and on one single sheet of paper gives the author fantastic maneuverability. This is also seen in the early motion pictures of Edwin S. Porter (like The Ex Convict, 1905) and D.W. Griffith (The Lonely Villa, 1909) who both use a new concept of contrasting editing—cutaways from the main action and pace of the.
film and incorporating vignettes of actions that are related and happening elsewhere, sometimes all of it happening at once. The story is able to develop multiple themes that are occurring at the same time but in disparate locations—the artwork of futurists Balla and Boccioni and the unclassifiable Duchamp reach for the same end, and so to (again) with Apollinaire and Cendars and the rest…and all of them coming into view in 1912/1913 or so.
There’s a lot to talk about on the tech end of this too, not the least of which is the work of Etienne Marey who made highly successful photographic investigations (in the 1870’s and 1880’s)
of all manner of locomotion, some of the results of which look like the x-ray of Duchamp’s Nude. Perhaps the greatest early enablers of technological simultaneity are the telegraph and (more impressively) the telephone, both of which allowed people to be in two different places at the same time (so to speak).
Again, this is just a note, thinking out loud, about the concept of simultaneity, and I doubt that I've even broken the surface...I've not even considered the math and physical aspects of it all, not even a whisper about Einstein and Schroedinger. I've just done a search and found two works by eminent historians of science on this topic which I should think would demand reading: Max Jammer's Concept of Simultaneity (2005) and Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps and the Empire of Time (2003). I'd like to return to this post when I think I might have an idea of what I'm talking about...