But now shrinks the place where you stand: Where now, stripped by shade, will you go? — Paul Celan

The Second Eternity

[This was published in Carved Voices and is based on an earlier essay of mine.]

Late one evening, as I waited for her outside the public showers of the campground where we were staying with her family, I watched a sky full of white clouds. Suddenly, the clouds looked as large as they were up in the sky. And in front of me, a tiny firefly was wending its way through the grass doing things that fireflies do. I watched him and the clouds for a long time, as long as it took her to finish her shower and come out.

Hermann Broch, in his trilogy of novels ‘The Sleepwalkers,’ says that human beings are only granted negative eternities. Humans, by their very nature, cannot assert a positive eternity but can only say things like, ‘Never shall I see you again’ or, ‘Never shall we meet again.’

But if, for some reason, those who parted ways forever, are to be reunited, only then can we be sure that the bond between them was the real thing— the real positive eternity, not the fake eternity that a man promises a woman, bending his knees.

Modern literature has a strange logic and sometimes it appears to be counter-intuitive. This is because literature explores the subterranean world of human existence, the existence that lies far from the view of man immersed in his sentimental world of received wisdom and borrowed gestures. Many human beings but few gestures, Milan Kundera notes. It is we who belong to gestures, and not the other way around. Like the gesture of a man kneeling down and promising an eternity to a woman. Not that such gestures are not to be trusted, but at least they should be recognized for what they really are: the dissolution of the individual in the stock and generic form.

The positive eternity that Broch’s character Bertrand speaks about is a rare eternity— a fragile and poetic kind that survives only in the imagination of a very few. Many a night, after losing the one that we love, we imagine that eternity, but we as humans cannot live up to it— the Sisyphus-like doggedness that it requires is beyond us, and we sink into the easy well of forgetting and happiness. (For make no mistake: forgetting is a precondition to happiness.)

One fictional character who stands out glaringly against the tide of human forgetfulness is Florentino Ariza from García Márquez’s novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ that masterpiece of unrequited love. The youthful, immature love of a shy young virgin survives his beloved’s marriage and his own metamorphosis into one of literature’s greatest womanizers. There is no contradiction here: the terrains of love and sexuality are not to be confused.

There are two kinds of eternities man comes across (Milan Kundera notes somewhere). The physical eternities of the universe — the mathematical eternity/infinity and the eternity of human history — these are the eternities that can be classified as non-human eternities for they lie beyond the reach of individual human beings (yes, even the eternity of human history). 

The other type of eternities is what might be called human eternities. The eternity that is inherent in a Bach fugue — the gleaning of a richness of infinite beauty from a single, simple theme. I call this eternity the second eternity.

And this human eternity is the eternity that literature explores and central to it is the idea of the individual. As Octavio Paz noted in his last essay ‘The Double Flame,’ this idea of personal eternity is tied to the modern idea of love — and it is inextricably tied to the emergence of the idea of the woman as an individual. Modern love is a historical idea, it arose at a specific point in time and it will die at another moment. We will still use the word ‘love’ but it will mean something very different. It has roots in the Sufi poetry that the Crusaders brought back to Europe in the middle ages and infused courtly love with the mysticism of the Islamics. But the conditions in Europe were ripe for the central object of desire in these poems to be the woman rather than Allah or Jesus. Such was the birth of modern love. A paean to Anna Livia rather than Allah the almighty or Jesus Christ the saviour.

The human eternity that modern literature explores is this eternity, more or less. And it is this idea of love that we see in the novels of Broch, García Márquez and many other modernists.

It is a childish concept of eternity but it is also profound: It is the only sense of ‘absolute’ left for us in a universe abandoned by God and overtaken by History. The individual’s body and the memory of that body become the sacred ground. And love rescues the generic moment by its particularity and holds it up against the universe— the other eternity— as a poetic charm that preserves human meaning against the non-meaning of the universe. What was profane becomes sacred through an erotic act of the imagination.

(And gestures like moments of watching the clouds and the firefly, and waiting for the girl in the public shower become living gems that ennoble the utterly forgettable time that is human life.)

Many of the modernist novels that explore love end with a reaffirmation of that faith in this modern concept of love. Which is to say they reaffirm their faith in the internal human eternity. Although fragile (but perhaps because of it), this love is the only sense of sacred we have left. And so, it is not an accident that García Márquez’s great novel ends with the single word that the septuagenarian Florentino Ariza, reunited at last with his beloved Fermina Daza, throws at the universe as an amulet protecting his love: forever.

Short bio of author: Tibra Ali is a writer and a theoretical physicist. He writes to feed his soul and teaches theoretical physics to support his feline family. He lives in cold Canada with three lovely cats and a library.

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