It is a truism
that the past is what no longer is, and of course that is
false as well. The flight of a bird describes a trajectory
which does not survive its alighting on my lawn. That particular
measured motion is no more. Our deeds too slide along the
rule of time, or rather the reverse; time is the measure of
them according to the before and after, as Aristotle put it.
The bird on the lawn is the same bird as it was in the tree;
human agents survive their deeds. But they too move from instant
to instant, and the interval between is time. Time measures
us, and vice versa too.
Man alone of
temporal things is aware of time, and that awareness is in
a sense the source of time. The measured requires a measure
and a measurer as well. One does not have to be Heideggerian
to see time as, in a sense, a mark of the human. Sein und
zeit. The thing whose movements are measured is more solid
than its movements. Birds, leaves, the branch that sways,
have a stronger purchase on existence, but that too is precarious.
Memory is our revenge on evanescent time.
not remember; nor do mementos. These substantives derive from
verbs that are at home in such uses as Memento homo quia
pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. The ashes on my
forehead are a memento of that remembering. The admonition
can only be addressed to a human being. The bird could not
remember if it would that it is on its way to dusty death.
Only man remembers.
Because of man
that which no longer is continues to exist, is held in mind
and memory. The past is present when we remember, even though
what we remember no longer is. It is the obvious that excites
our wonder. And yet we need to be urged to recall the obvious.
Memento homo... When Augustine in the Confessions
recounts his vita ante acta, his life becomes present
to him across the tenses of time and takes on meaning. Prayer
puts us in the presence of God, and we attempt to see ourselves
sub specie aeternitatis. The whole of time is present
there with neither past nor future. The poor player struts
and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
But on the stage he is engaged in a mimicry of action that
tells a story. A play within a play.
Man is the only
creature who forgets, because he is the only creature who
remembers. Aristotle said that time is rather the cause of
corruption than of generation. One of the things he must have
meant is that time causes us to forget the obvious right before
our eyes. In some ways at least the world is a Heraclitean
flow, a kaleidoscopic suite of singular events. Only memory
can bind them together, only mind can pluck from them meanings
which do not come and go.
And of course
remembering points ahead as well as behind. The Ash Wednesday
memento is meant to stay with us for at least forty
days. A future forty days that are not yet. We exist in a
Now that separates what is no more from what is not yet, both
of which are present to us. 'Lent' is taken from an adverb
if not from a verb. Lente as in festina lente.
In time we advance slowly to the time when time will be no
more, dragging the past into the future, trying to make sense
of it. The Lenten memento is meant to lift our minds to the
ultimate reason of our being. Otherwise there is only sound
and fury, signifying nothing.
A smudge on the
forehead, behind which flow such dusty thoughts as these.