If the beyond calls, what, exactly is it? Or perhaps an easier question: where is it? We material, impermanent beings erect monuments as antidotes to our ephemerality, we come, we see, we conquer, we write blog posts and use adjectives like “ephemerality” that our computers’ built in digital dictionaries underline with a red squiggle, we do all these things, and yet, any one of us could be crossing a busy Parisian street and be struck by a careening, careless vehicle at any moment. The monument remains; we do not. As we fade from memory, if we are lucky, a curious historian may link our unique subjectivity to its trace, to a cathedral or a book or a collection of photos, and we may live again in his studies; if we are not, we will continue to fade into nothingness, and our trace will become a relic, an enigma, a simple, unobservable absence. This is not a comforting thought. And so the question remains, what, or where, is permanence?
What, as above, might be a cathedral or book or some other work of art. It might be a legacy in the form of children or empire or inheritance. It might be political change or social revolution. It might be something so simple as a kind word spoken to a stranger, a door held, a bag carried. We anchor ourselves in numerous ways, good, bad, big, small, simple, complex, and yet, we, still, are swept away by time, and no quantity of anchors can do anything about it. It seems the various whats we humans tend to are only palliative.
Where, then? Where, it would appear, goes hand in hand with what. In Paris we wanderers flock to locations like Notre-Dame de Paris, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower, as I discussed previously. In these three staples of the Parisian tourist experience we see three potential spaces for the construction of permanence: the church, the museum, and the political monument. Religion, art, history, politics—each a potential site for us to place an anchor, to snap a photo to put on Instagram, to tell our loved ones about in an attempt to stave off forgetting. Because even when we do find someplace solid enough to center ourselves, we then find ourselves at war with our own minds and the effects of time upon them. I am inclined to the belief that permanence—true, stable, material permanence—may be but a fantasy.
I am not the only one. In a beautiful passage of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History,1 a trusted member of King Edwin’s (who was king of Northumbria from c. 616-633) court reflects on the preaching of the Christian gospel by Paulinus:
Another of the king’s chief men, approving of his wise words and exhortations, added thereafter: “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
Anchorless, these Anglo-Saxon pagans see the glimmer of permanence in Paulinus’s message. As anyone who has studied Medieval Literature knows, the Anglo-Saxons, especially, were incredibly preoccupied with mortality and transience. They lived in a harsh world in which death lurked around every corner, the elements and enemies a constant threat. Over and over Old English poets return to the ubi sunt motif, asking, hopelessly, where are they? where are those who came before? In Paulinus, some, perhaps, found an answer. We, today, have our own answers. But the question remains, and it demands an answer from each of us. Perhaps, then, the question that must be asked is why?
Why do we yearn for permanence, for immortality and eternity? Why are we enraptured by a song, a work of art, a structure, a person, a poem, a place? Why, in those moments of ecstasy, is time obliterated, and everything else falls away? Why do we return to those places, seek those moments, time and time again? What so draws us from the beyond?
“we seek causal relations, [but] we can never discover the real power; the, as it were, metaphysical glue that binds events together. All we are able to see are regularities—the ‘constant conjunction’ of certain sorts of observation.”
With developments in physics and mathematics in the last hundred years, this causal uncertainty has become even more pronounced. Causality, at a basic, physical level, is irrelevant:
“the basic laws of physics (as distinct from such higher-level statistical generalisations as the laws of thermodynamics) appear to be time-symmetric: if a certain process is allowed under the basic laws of physics, a video of the same process played backwards will also depict a process that is allowed by the laws.”
Yet, as most would assert, including Frisch and Hume, we cannot simply throw causality out the window. We exist in time, and whether physics at a basic level does so, or not, does not directly impact the most certainly causal nature of, let’s say, my relationship with the keyboard that I am typing on at this moment. Words appear on the screen because I type them. Words do not appear on the screen and cause me to type. That simply does not happen. And so, as Frisch concludes, we remain trapped between the two, asymmetric causation and symmetric probabilistic independence. Which is to say, in a more metaphysical turn of phrase, we feel the burden of time, and yet we touch upon, are somehow aware of, whether through mathematics or intuition, a coexistent, concurrent reality free of any such burden. We are fundamentally—physically, materially, existentially—ambiguous, undecided, wavering, wandering souls.
Frisch, then, asserts an appropriately unstable both-and resolution, an acceptance of both asymmetry and symmetry, temporality and eternity, causation and independence. We are creatures of both becoming and being, trapped between two worlds, rooted in one, reaching for the other. And despite all our history, all our learning, all our complex equations, we cannot escape the same question that haunted King Edwin and his court, the same question that Paulinus and Maurice de Sully and Napoleon Bonaparte and Gustave Eiffel and I seek to answer: