All things end. This idea—the transience of existence—has been much on my mind this semester. If you have been following along with the essays here, you should be well acquainted with this preoccupation of mine—and perhaps vaguely depressed by it. Contemplating the end of all things is not the most uplifting pass time.
But I am not a nihilist, nor, even, would I say that I am a pessimist. Most days, I am a realist, and on my best days, I am an idealist. It is from this idealistic mentality that I have tackled these blogs.
I need to make clear, however, what I mean by idealism. I do not mean cheap sentimentalism or romanticism—the ceaseless looking backward to an “idealized” past (the empty act of nostalgia which I interrogated in my first post on this blog). To look back in such a way is to historicize the past, to place a narrative onto a discrete series of events and separate them, causally, from the present. As Hilary Mantel so pointedly writes in her novel A Place of Greater Safety (my post-semester reading), the “light of history … is not a midday luminary, but a corpse-candle to the intellect; at best it is a secondhand lunar light, error-breeding, sand-blind and parched” (25).
So, then, how do we idealize the past in a non-sentimental, non-romantic, non-historicist way? This is my dilemma. I agree with Mantel, and with Hayden White (who I have cited previously): history is a story we tell ourselves, not the reality of which we speak in itself. It is a lens we turn back upon the vast contours of time, of which we presently-existent beings form the leading edge. But I do not believe that we can stop there, and neither does Mantel: “I purvey my own version of events,” she writes, “but facts change according to your viewpoint. Of course, my characters did not have the blessing of hindsight; they lived from day to day, as best they could. I am not trying to persuade my reader to view events in a particular way, or to draw any particular lessons from them. I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside.” We do not stop with fiction; rather, we acknowledge that we see through lenses, and thereby seek a broader picture, one that takes multiple perspectives, and so increase the dimensions of what was previously a linear, point A to point B, narrative. Causation does not happen in a straight line. It fans, it ricochets, it scatters. And so, in this way, the light of history is not a corpse-candle, but a prism, unique and marvelous and different from every angle.
What does it mean to look back upon this semester abroad? Is meaning even a valid question to ask? How can we say anything definitely when our perspective is always shifting and fragmented? Does not the prism leave us worse off than before? At least before, when our vision was limited, it was clear. Now, we remain limited and are left without clarity as well. This, I would argue, is not the case.
Depending on the history in question, the nature and location of the historical lens (our “prism”) changes. My lens in history class will be constituted by the content of the lectures I attend, my professor’s interests, and the scholars and primary texts that I read. Similarly, in English class, my lens will change depending on the writers and periods in literature that I concentrate on, and the theorists that I study to inform my reading. This applies in all disciplines. We only ever have part of the picture. But when the text in question is one’s self, one’s own personal history, the lens is situated in the self as well, history and subject superimposed. Indeed, at no point is the lens ever fully situated in the object. As I have discussed, we engage with the world through our habitus, the “composite of an individual’s lifestyle, values, dispositions, and expectations … a structure of the mind and emotions characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.” Our experience is always prismatic, and only becomes otherwise through an active (conscious or unconscious) process of flattening. In studying English or history then, or in looking back on my own life, the prism actually provides a clearer view, a sharper delineation of events previously lost in the muddied, linear narratives that we construct.
In this way, my semester in France becomes more than a story, beginning, middle, and end, more than a moment, though pivotal, in the grand string of moments that I call my life. Rather, this semester is a new facet of my habitus, a new angle, a new perspective, from which I can view my history in its totality. The past is part of me, not something that happened once, long ago. And so, too, are those who experienced it with me. I am a part of all that I have met, and they, part of me.
What this means is that life is not a series of endings, but a process of continual beginning, the ceaseless opening up of an ever wider, ever deeper now. As Levinas argues, the saying always exceeds the said. We, though finite, are invested with an infinite and excessive potential which is, I have written, the “raw ideal or capacity for freedom itself.” By simply existing we continually exceed ourselves. And so, though I am well aware that one day my existence will cease, I exist in the now, in the limitless potential of becoming.
And so, a remise, a return to, a putting back in place of, a final stab at, that which began this all:
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher,” in Ecclesiastes. “All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again” (1:1-7).
The despair, the desperation, and the ultimate hopelessness of Hemingway’s novel, the book with which I began my semester, is not utterly so. The sea is not full. There is more to be said. And though the sun sets, it also rises.