Does time travel exist? Why ask? We don’t question Ebenezer Scrooge transporting to Christmases past and future. On the contrary, we easily embrace his movement in both directions, don’t we? Even though the story was written nearly two centuries ago, we tell it to our children like gospel even though Scrooge is fiction, when he time-travels, we accept it.

Silly question

Yet the does-time-travel-exist question raised its wide-eyed head last week as if ghosts of Christmases past never happened. The head-scratching showed up on June 2 in a Yahoo News report headlined, “People are flipping out over this 1860 painting that appears to show an iPhone.” According to Yahoo, when people see the painting titled The Expected One by Ferdinand Georg Waldmülle at the Neue Pinakothek museum in Munich, they see their mobile device in it.

The painting describes a young woman strolling a path so absorbed by an object she holds that she doesn’t see a young man down the path eagerly waiting for her with a flower. The way she’s holding the object with both hands looks the way we do when we’re texting. But, of course, this is not possible. Smartphones didn’t debut until 2007. They didn’t exist in the 19th century unless the young woman time-traveled to the 19th-century.

The bigger picture

But wait, isn’t there’s a bigger point to be made here? Doesn’t interpreting art come down to context, to personal perspective? We see the small object the young woman holds as a smartphone because we’re looking with 21st-century eyes. The takeaway from the Yahoo story, then, is not whether time travel exists but whether any proscribed interpretation of art is reliable.

Consider an extreme case - "The Rape of the Daughters Of Leucippus" by Peter Paul Rubens. The title persuades us we’re looking at criminal assault. But that’s not what Rubens painted. Instead, he illustrated the Greek myth of Phoebe and Hilaeira as written, showing the sisters being carried off by Pollux and Castor, who the myth said were charmed by the sisters’ beauty.

Rubens even portrayed Castor as concerned and caring.

Personal perspective

I think Rubens identified with Castor. History books cast the painter as a happy family man. He didn’t have a dark side. But I do, and I see something bad going on in this picture. Maybe I think this because of the feminist sensibility in our time. The sight of naked women with burly, clothed men on horseback doesn’t fly with a #MeToo mindset.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe from Rubens’ point of view, this scene is not an abduction but a playful romp, and the women are not struggling but are in the throes of wild abandon and having a good time.

After all, it is taking place in bright sunlight. There are no forbidding shadows to signify a scene of horror. Britain’s Rubens expert Kerry Downes has even gone so far as to call the painting a "romance.” Personal perspective colors interpretation in art. Everything else about this story is just conversation.

Meanwhile, NASA’s “Space Place” site contends that time travel is real, though not in the Hollywood sense: “Under certain conditions, it is possible to experience time passing at a different rate.” But NASA is talking seconds, not centuries.