Sunday, November 18, 2012
Time... and time again
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T. S. Eliot wrote these words towards the end of Little Gidding, the fourth of the Four Quartets, a series of poems that are largely a reflection on time. These poems were among the last written by Eliot, composed during the Second World War, when he was around my age (mid fifties). They are words that have always stayed with me over the years, circling around and around inside my head, encircling me. There are hints here of many things: the circle of life, the eternal return. There is the suggestion that the end is in the beginning and the beginning in the end. You can only know the beginning when you reach the end, just as you can only finally know the meaning of a sentence when you reach... the full stop. (It’s rather like waiting for the verb to arrive at the end of a German sentence.)
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others...)
There is an inner tension between the image of the eternal return and that of the sentence. The circle suggests unendingness (and with it, to my mind, a certain tedium – the circle of life is something to escape from in Indian thinking). The sentence, on the other hand, is a linear construct, with a beginning and an end. It is these that give it meaning. In fact, I am inclined to offer another image for consideration, that of the arch. In this improbable structure, every block supports every other block: the end and beginning support each other equally. Thus it is with the sentence, and thus it is, perhaps, with our lives. This arch that we construct above the flatness of reality requires both a beginning and an end.
Thus despite the attraction of the circle, with its apparent perfection, I opt for a more linear interpretation of life and time. Circles, in the end, are boring. Beginnings and endings are much more interesting.
Finally, in this ode to geometry, I am tempted to give the last word to the spiral, that ever-changing, ever growing (almost) circle. Perhaps it was the Celts who had the best idea, after all.