Time and The Underwater Welder

However vast the “outer space” may be, yet with all its sidereal distances it hardly bears comparison with the dimensions, with the depth dimensions of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be within itself almost unfathomable. Thus, if the dead, if those who are to come, need an abode, what refuge could be more agreeable and appointed for them than this imaginary [inner] space? – Rainer Marie Rilke, as referenced by Martin Heidegger, from Poetry, Language, Thought.

The recently published original graphic novel The Underwater Welder by Canadian artist and writer Jeff Lemire proves to be an emotionally satisfying tale of a father and son, but presents the reader, I believe,  with a very intriguing thought to ponder. While The Underwater Welder (TUW) indeed unfolds as a morality tale, I believe that the story is also an interesting exploration about the inner space of time and place, and how we may or may not have control over such explorations.

As the above quote, pondered originally by philosopher and critic Martin Heidegger, posits– what if we did indeed spend more time exploring the inner recesses of ourselves, and what might that entail? In my own thinking about time and space in relation to TUW as I was recently reading it and Heidegger, the following question (which honestly has troubled me for many years) emerged:

Q: Is control of our inner space perhaps the best way in which we can truly achieve “time travel”?

The protagonist of TUW, Jack, is obsessed with the loss of his father twenty years earlier, who disappeared while diving on Halloween night. The father was an alcoholic who tried, but more times than not failed at being a responsible parent. The boy grows into the man who of course in memory idolizes his father. That idolizing leads Jack in adulthood to be a diver like his father, abandoning another career path (it is mentioned Jack may have completed an English degree from attending university) in order to pursue the diving. As a professional he obsessively dives, and Lemire unfolds the narrative in certain expositional scenes to suggest that it is because Jack is looking perhaps to find a key to discovering the how or why of his father drowning on that Halloween night.

The mysterious nature, or what Jack believes to be mysterious, of his fathers drowning drives (both positively and negatively) Jack in his adult pursuits, both as husband, worker, and soon to be father. This developmental conflict between a man and his past is the locus of the book. While that conflict is very well presented by Lemire, however, the focus on how Jack comes to peace with his father, the journey that entails, is the area of interest I explored in attempting to answer my question. It all begins with a watch.

The watch was exchanged between father and son not long before the father’s disappearance, as was Jack throwing it into the ocean in a childs fit when arguing with his father later.  It is twenty odd years later when Jack  discovers the pocket watch on a dive in the very waters his own father explored, and a mysterious power to reclaim it from the ocean floor drives him to once again touch it. Does the piece itself actually allow for some type of psychic link that can break spatial and temporal barriers with the past, or even the in-between space thus thrusting Jack through time? It seems so, as Lemire demonstrates Jack “moving” through time and space over the course of fourteen pages (pp.106-120) upon finally holding it in his hands, which proves to be overwhelming (see picture below). .

Therefore in my opinion Jack is set off on his journey through time by an artifact (i.e. the pocket watch). Once touched, the protagonist is transported to a place that is and is not his own town/time. Once there he finds himself alone, left to ponder with ghosts and memories, desperately trying to reconnect with some kind of truth. If it is wish fulfillment that he craved, to discover “truths” surrounding his father, it is in this inner space that it is cruelly played out, in an almost purgatory like fashion. But who is to discount that time travel would not be purgatory if it is to be achieved through such methods? I believe that is what Lemire presents, for it is only when Jack decides to “focus” does he breech  a specific time in his past (the days leading up to his fathers disappearance on Halloween) to interact with himself in his past/memory, in order to achieve a peace or resolution to return to his own life as an adult in his own reality/time. By presenting the purgatory aspect, Lemire also gives the reader a comfortable feeling of the morality tale of ethics (e.g. a Twilight Zone episode, as mentioned in the introduction of TUW) to latch on.

So is control of our inner space perhaps the best way in which we can truly achieve “time travel”? Yes. I believe time travel can indeed manifest in an unconscious state only requiring an object or an awakening through the vital senses (e.g, touch, smell, taste, etcetera), and that “awakening” occurs for Lemire’s tortured protagonist on the cold depths of the sea floor when he touches that watch. Dreams, memories, deja vu (which Jack actually comments upon), hallucinations, etcetera, working in conjunction with something else elemental seemingly connecting us to the ability to “lift the veil” as it were, to distort temporal and spatial realities in order to show us things we wish or even need to see, or even feel again. It is up to the person, the subject, to render the total effect that the object allows for. If that is as comforting as touching a polaroid and retreating into ones head to the moment it occurred, or actually somehow willing yourself back to that moment, who can  truly dismiss such experience or even doubt that it could happen?  That is the magic perhaps running throughout Lemire’s story–it is the idea that such things CAN happen.