Why yes, it’s proof of time travel, or not

Here’s a conundrum for you. Back in 1860, Austrian artist Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865) worked up this little scene.  A woman, walking along in a pose very familiar to us today, is about to be confronted by a suitor bearing a flower. The painting was titled ‘Die Erwartete’ (‘The Expected’).

‘Die Erwartete’ by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1860).

So was Herr Waldmüller a time-traveller who saw our world of today, in which people wander along oblivious to their surroundings because their snouts are buried in their i-phones? That, apparently, is what this image has been taken to ‘prove’, of late. It’s become something of a meme.

Needless to say, I think not. And so, of course, does our friend Dr Einstein. And so did the late Stephen Hawking, who once held a party for time-travellers, which he advertised the next day. For some reason, nobody showed up.* And I have to say, if I had mastery of time travel, I wouldn’t use it to pop up in well-known historic images as an apparent anachronism. I’d use it to accumulate energy I could on-sell. Just saying (think about the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

Inevitably, of course, there is a much more interesting meaning to this picture. What Waldmüller was actually portraying was a young woman going to church, her attention focused on her prayer book. Such things were common in the day; and the picture, of course, speaks of the values of the time; the upright, devout woman with her prayer-book, about to receive a proposal from a young suitor. All very proper, of course. This was what middle-class European society of the mid-late nineteenth century was all about, which is also a pretty good explanation of why Freud came up with his own view of human nature – all built around where that very society had gone – a little later.

What intrigues me – and, I hope, you – is the fact of the size of the prayer-book and of the associated body-language. This is something missed in the meme. You see, it was palm-sized. Just like a smartphone today. And, of course, for the same reason: it’s convenient, we can look down on what we hold, and there our binocular vision works well. But that’s not all. What this also tells me is that humans are tactile; we like to hold things that we can interact with. Think the world today is all online? Sure it is. But to get there – well, guess what, you have to hold something in your hand. Just like the subject of this painting did, over 160 years ago. And, I’m sure, just like Thog the Neanderthal held a hand-axe, way back when, to name but one.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

* Just to extend that one, because everything moves, anything that travels through time and expects to appear in the same supposed location at an earlier time (such as standing outside Buckingham Palace and jumping back 50 years to see if the guards still have the same style hats) will have to be able to move in both time and space along with any other relative dimensions. I wouldn’t mind having such a machine myself, but defeating the Daleks might be a bit of a challenge…

10 thoughts on “Why yes, it’s proof of time travel, or not

  1. I love this! I don’t think prayer books were ever held that way. I have a super small one from when I was a child. Even if it were folded backward, you would never use two hands when one would suffice, but “artistic license has always been a thing. So interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t really tell (should find a larger version of the image), but it seems to me the book in the girl’s hands is closed, which is what makes it look like a cell phone. And that path looks pretty irregular; she might trip if she tried to read and walk at the same time. Of course, then the young fellow would leap to the rescue…

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.