On the transience of things

Anything worth making will be hard to make; anything worth expressing will be hard to express; anything worth thinking will be hard to think. That is how things are, and will continue to be, even in an environment that could be said almost to cultivate the glib and the fatuous. Our condition is terminal, but that means more than one thing.

A friend in Washington (the city beside Georgetown) has been reading Pierre Manent, The City of Man (trans. LePain, 1998), and quotes from a chapter ending:

“The imagination, for its part, no longer seeks to embrace as in the past the Being which is ‘greater than which nothing can be conceived’, nor even the lesser divinities. …”

I had been trying to think of a way to present this displacement of imagination itself, which results, among other effects, in the destruction of all poetry and art. (And their replacement with “fact-checking.”)

In my Sunday musings, wandering around town — not to the ravines and lakeside but through the centre of the city; then later back to the High Doganate where I was sorting old photographs to pass on to my sister — I was struggling with a big, rather old-fashioned idea. It is that people grow old and die.

Too, I had been playing with “memory and imagination” (in Augustine and Shakespeare) in the heads of my young seminary charges. That is a large and difficult topic in itself, and this is to be read as a small and glancing blow.

Now, I continue to be amazed by this idea, about the passage of time. Photos, for instance, revive vivid memories from, say, forty and fifty years ago. And what was so commonplace then, so often boring, is now gone forever. It has become mysterious, fascinating to the philosophical mind: how can these things have been? How could I not have known, at the time, that the everyday was so exotic?

But we are charmed, and then return to another everyday. We have been briefly entertained, as by a TV documentary.

These pictures present faces one once knew well, but far away in another country. (And “the past is a foreign country,” anyway.) One adds forty or fifty years to the face of each remembered person, or death to those a little older. Yet in the pictures they are all young and blythe, and I can remember being among them, “as if it were yesterday.” Those times are now forever lost to our living sight: though not from God’s omniscience.

Each, let me add, went in his own way, yet there is a commonality. I can imagine going back to an old neighbourhood — now as a traveller from the future — and finding it physically not much changed. One’s heart beats: one wants to run up and knock at a door, at all the doors — “I, Tiresias.” But then one’s heart breaks. For behind each door, a shock of non-recognition. Those people don’t live here any more. The neighbourhood that appeared unchanged is verily changed beyond recognition. It is another place now. No one knows who you are.

The idea is quite a simple one: all is lost, so that in a few more years, even these pictures will mean nothing to anybody. Unless they happen to be “quaint,” in some collectable way. But the idea in itself — of our inevitable extinction — is more immediately lost, unless it can be articulated. It is not fact-checkable, in any given moment. It requires poetry, to keep it alive in our souls.

We feel nostalgia, for people and places and things, but we have lost the ability to be “Japanese” about it: to begin to grasp the incredible poignancy of our condition, and bring it into our lives as a constant, so that it applies to our present, too. To live, as it were, on the cusp of eternity. This is what our ancestors could do, who took such stilted photographs, but painted such wonderful portraits. Or rather I am thinking of the ancestors of those still fairly modern ancestors, who had seen such things as photographs, and had their imaginations impaired by them.

Even a collodion required only a mechanical skill, and could represent only a surface, from which breath and movement, touch and scent, sound and response had been stripped away. (No wonder the sitters look like stuffed corpses.)

In the presence of passing life, representing itself triumphantly, men could once begin to grasp the transience in all worldly things, implicit in the movement of the seasons. They could not wish to change the unchangeable. And their dead were laid out in their own parlours, and kissed by the children who must come to terms: not consigned to the professionals in some “funeral home.” And then they were remembered in stories, in relics, in prayers. Nothing is as deadly as a photograph.

This is different in kind from nostalgic fact-checking in old photo albums. We have, in effect, horizontalized a vertical, in the flatland we now occupy. We think, only along this horizontal plane. It pins us to the earth, and prevents our rising.