J B Priestley’s treasure chest of time

Science, IT, Nature

Anugyan ventures deeply into J B Priestley’s work on ‘time’ and ‘dreams’ and finds Osho’s comments on the subject.

TV watching

I often advocate the use of what I call ‘metalogic’ as the best approach to comprehending multi-dimensions. There is an odd way to implement this, using television as the means to by-pass normal linear logic. What you do is, sit in front of the box when there is nothing in particular you wish to see. Change channels either by flicking through them or navigating the TV guide. Once something catches your fancy, watch it for a while then change again as soon as you have the feeling to do so, such as when the adverts come on. This can go on for a while but often something turns up which truly engages you, at which point you can cease surfing. This is nothing unusual, of course, many people watch TV randomly in such a way – but you, as an x-dimensional adventurer (which you are, otherwise why would you be reading this?), have another level going on and this will yield unexpected treasures. I have experienced many a breakthrough in understanding with this method.¹

An Inspector calls movie posterThis happened recently when I found myself watching the old black-and-white film of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. The play was on our reading list when I was a teenager at school, but in my rebellious youth I rarely read what I was told. In later years, despite a personal renaissance in literature, I still avoided Priestley, believing him to be of little interest. It was only recently – I think at my last book launch – somebody suggested I might want to give that particular play another chance. Thus, after the random necessary prelude of channel switching, I decided to do just that.

The story commences in a fairly typical way, with only a few subtle hints that something unusual is going on. There was enough to keep me attentive however, with some great acting and an interesting social context. It is only in the last act that one realises there is an entirely other level to the story.

I was caught hook, line and sinker, realising I knew absolutely nothing about Priestley, the unwitting victim of one of my numerous teenage prejudices.

An Experience with Time book coverSeeking to make amends for my omission, I have been finding out everything I could. The first thing that jumped out at me was that Priestley was very influenced by J W Dunne who wrote An Experiment With Time. I had been aware of Dunne’s work since a teenager (so that partially makes up for my attitude) and, more recently, that his thought ties in perfectly with five-dimensional consciousness, an awareness of sequential time being illusory. Yet although An Inspector Calls embodies that, it goes a lot further. What I had detected was a six-dimensional element, which can be much more unsettling and revelatory. One of the characters picks up on this very early in the play:


Why – you fool – he knows. Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet. You’ll see. You’ll see.

Looking further, it transpires that Ouspensky was one of Priestley’s influences. With that the case, Priestley must be one of the rare authors to actually embody Gurdjieff’s work on the extra dimensions. (P L Travers, a Gurdjieffian herself, is another, the Mary Poppins books brilliant exercises in x-dimensional exploration.)

Benighted book coverPriestley’s novel Benighted, recently restored in print (by Valancourt Books), was made into the film The Old Dark House by James Whale in the 1930s. On the surface, it is a conventional gothic tale, but as the introduction by Orrin Grey states:

The book’s mannered quality feels less like an old-fashioned theatricality and more like the characters are clinging to their manners as shields against an uncaring and chaotic universe, a fear as much of the uncertain future as the “benighted” past.²

To support his point, Grey quotes a Lovecraftian passage from the book itself:

His mind, outracing him, found an opposing presence, an enemy, but no name for it; a density of evil, something gigantic, ancient but enduring, only dimly felt before, but now taking the mind by storm; it was working everywhere, in the mirk of rain outside, here in the rotting corner, and without end, in the black between the stars.

Yet Priestley is grounded enough to focus on the evil of ordinary human beings, of us, of our unconscious destructive behaviour, as most of his oeuvre tends to show.

Time and the ConwaysHis play Time and the Conways shows all the trappings of simply being a sociological portrait of manners and class (which my teenage self suspected erroneously of An Inspector Calls) but this – one of his ‘Time plays’ – uses a non-linear version of events to create more depth and insight. One of the characters, Kay, appears to be vaguely psychic and it is through her the events of the Second Act set twenty years later, are foreshadowed. Yet it is when the Third Act returns to the time of the First the riches of the play are truly revealed.

Kay senses that her brother Alan has something important to tell her about the nature of time, and our place within it. He does not know what she is talking about as their discussion will not take place for two decades, but a bond between them is clearly established. They are the objective witnesses of what is about to unfold.

Yet it is the cry from the heart of the younger sister Carol that is the most poignant, as they are all sharing their hopes and dreams for the future:

CAROL (excitedly)

I’d get it all in somehow. The point is — to live. Never mind about money and positions and husbands with titles and rubbish — I’m going to live.

This, we know from the Second Act, will never pass – for Carol, ‘the best of the lot’, will die very soon. It is by framing that tragedy through a non-linear perspective that Kay and Alan’s discussion provides a bigger picture of our ‘lot’ in life, an objectivity lifting us out of the trenches. As one critic put it, for all of Priestley’s pragmatism, there was always a mystic trying to get out.

Readers may object, in modern day parlance, that I have created a spoiler here, through saying what happens in the play. But that is only relevant for regular, linear narratives. Priestley himself provides the spoiler, by revealing Carol’s death so early on in the Second Act. He is not restricted by sequence. ³

So, all this in less than a week, it is obvious that I am more than making up for my youthful negligence. Priestley definitely embodies that balance of art, science and mysticism that I appreciate. There is plenty more to explore. For those interested in doing so themselves, a quick internet search will reveal riches. As well as the books, the black-and-white An Inspector Calls, The Old Dark House, and Time and the Conways are all available on YouTube, a more recent and no less brilliant version of the former also on BBC iPlayer.

It took over four decades for me to retrieve the book I pushed away initially. One could argue that it just wasn’t the right time, but within Priestley’s vision time wasn’t ever a factor. The initial rejection and the consequent acceptance are aspects of each other, the seed and the bloom irrevocably connected. No apologies needed.

Osho seems to also recognise something worthwhile in Priestley, quoting at length his vision that echoes so beautifully Carol’s outcry to live.

I have been reading a beautiful dream of J B Priestley. Meditate over it.

‘I dreamt I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon myriads of birds all flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds.

‘But now in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek and then, in a flash, bled and shrivelled; and death struck everywhere and at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, all this gigantic meaningless biological effort? As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, not one of us at all, had been born, if the struggle ceased for ever.

‘I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy, but now the gear was changed again and time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate that the birds could not show any movement but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But along this plain, flickering through bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on: and as soon as I saw it I knew this flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being.

‘And then it came to me, in a rocket-burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering hurrying lambency of being. Birds, men or creatures not yet shaped and coloured, all were of no account except so far as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it; what I had thought of as tragedy was mere emptiness of a shadow show, for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never felt before such deep happiness as I knew at the end of my dream.’⁵

This is what our whole life is. A dream of millions of forms, a dream of millions of names, a dream of millions of identities. We become this, we become that. We are born, we live, we love, we do a thousand and one things, and we die. And in fact, all was just forms. Empty forms, empty shadows.

The real is the flame of life, the white flame of life. To know that white flame of life one has to drop all forms from the eyes. The eyes have to become utterly empty. Hence, the Zen emphasis on being empty. If you want to know, be empty. If you want to know, be nothing. If you want to know, disappear into nothingness. Only in that nothingness will you see the flame of life. All forms disappear. The trees are no more trees and men are no more men and birds are no more birds. It is one life, one infinite life.

But to know that one infinite life, one has to drop living in forms.

Osho, Zen: The Path of Paradox, Vol 2, Ch 5


¹ For some reason, this method doesn’t appear to work so well with internet surfing. At least, that’s my experience, that the ‘settling down’ phase doesn’t ever get reached, thus a certain depth is evaded. In addition, any algorithms start to cater to the surfer’s tastes, creating what is known as ‘confirmed bias’. With its randomness, metalogic can easily avoid all this.

² In a similar vein, a critic realised from the first moments of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer that the titular heroine’s rapid-fire quips and puns were her method of keeping her head above the water, of never letting go into the realisation that she could be killed at any moment; that, indeed, death was what she had been forcibly signed into. The deeper realisation, of course, is that this applies to all of us.

³ Cinema has experimented with non-linear narratives considerably, as is well-known, Memento by Christopher Nolan being one example.

⁴ Thanks here are due to editor extraordinaire Bhagawati whose magic fingers unearthed this passage from the archives.

⁵  J B Priestley‘s dream as recounted by Osho is from the book, Man and Time (1964).

Note by Osho News: John Boynton Priestley (13 September 1894 – 14 August 1984) was an English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster and social commentator.

Image credit – Mohamed Hassan on pixabay.com


After a long eclectic career, Anugyan is now a writer, Feng Shui consultant and explorer of higher dimensions. patreon.comsdanugyan.com

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