Monday, May 17, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

Endings and Beginnings

At any point in time, I suppose, we could say that we are both finishing and beginning.  This moment is the end of the moment immediately preceding it and the beginning of the one following it.  This year 2010 is for me the end of thirtieth academic year since I qualified as a teacher - and I have gone through 30 of those endings.  Each one of those endings saw the beginning of the Summer months and of freedom.  I often find myself returning to that great poem by T.S. Eliot - Four Quartets which rates as one of the greatest modernist poems bar none.  Therein you hear the voice of the emptiness of the modern age speak to you.  It is a treasure trove for anyone on a spiritual quest in the desert of the modern age.  In the first section, called Burnt Norton, we read, and these words are replete with meaning and bear a fruit that is nothing less than the observation of a Buddhist mind before that fruit's fall to the ground:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.

And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with precision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.
 In section four of that same poem, called Little Gidding we read, in stanza five of that section:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right...

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them...

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.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning...
In the above quotations the italicization is mine alone.  This is a noble poem, a poem which does not yield up its fruits, its insights very easily at all.  It is a poem which must be pondered like a scriptural text, and, indeed, it does not matter what religion that scriptural text is from.  Indeed, it could also be from an agnostic or even an atheistic text for that matter.  However, it would be a spiritual text in the broadest sense of that term.  To my mind, at least, this is a poem that rattles around in my mind, in my heart and in my soul and quite often I find myself remembering snatches of lines.  It works on one's mind rather like a brilliant piece of music, one that has incantations and the rhythms of great prayers in its very musical strains.

And so we bid farewell to this years sixth years, who, in that bidding of farewell, become by a strange benediction last year's sixth years.   And now the present fifth years are ready to replace their predecessors in the chain of life or in the chain of being.  Often, I think the ancients got it more correct than we people of the line.  Let me explain.  For the ancients their world was circular - night preceded day and day preceded night, the sun came up in the East and set in the West, day after inevitable day.  The seasons came and went in their turn, and so onwards the circle turned.  Life, like nature, sometimes erringly called inanimate nature, was always cyclic.  There was birth and death and then birth and death all over again.  Then these pre-moderns swallowed the myth of linearity, by this I mean the myth of inevitable progress, that life could only get better and better and better, that humankind could only improve and improve and improve.  However, Nietzsche and his likes sounded a warning for that ridiculously naive belief.  Then, the First World War sounded the death-knell for the myth of indefinite progress.  Naive humankind had come of age in the bloodbath that was No Man's Land.  Humankind was very much a flawed entity which had written its nature too large, which had overestimated by far its importance in the scheme of things, which inevitably thought it had the answer to life's mysteries...

Indeed, it would seem to this writer at least that all of life can be boiled down to observing it, to observing the very breath that enlivens the body wherein the psyche dwells, let us call this phenomenon the Body-Mind or the Mind-Body.  It would seem that things come and go and that we can add this or that bit to it, give the world this or that little push, alter it a little, compose this or that, build this or that, sing this or that, play this or that, even invent this or that, but yet the world goes on as it must and we will all eventually be dust, for we are only a small part in the overall chaos, significant only in our insignificance.

Above the famous ouroborus symbol of the ancient alchemists. It depicts a snake eating its own tail!