Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Cathy and I went to St Mary’s Catholic Church on Sunday night for an hour to listen to a youth choir perform. A friend of Cathy’s was in the choir, and I was enthusiastic because they were going to perform some pieces from Faure’s Requiem Faure’s Requiem is one of my favourite pieces of music. Matt introduced it to me when he sent me a copy from England on a tape in one of his letters, and I bought it on CD soon after. I don’t know anything about Faure himself, or any of his other music, but his requiem is both beautiful and moving, but also much more human feeling in scope and less terror-filled than the other great requiem I know by Mozart.
The youth choir at St Mary’s also performed some hymns from the Early Music period. I have a great deal of time for early music although it is quite a sweeping term covering over 1000 years from 500BC to 1600BC.
There is a quality to this music which moves and transports me. When I hear this music it frees me from myself, for a moment, and lets me cheat time of its hold on me. Sitting in the church on Sunday night, inside the high hard walls where the sound could rise up and ring off the vaulted ceiling, it seemed not impossible that I was connected by my humanity with a rich conglomeration of ghosts. That the soaring note, and the breath that bore it, and the great humility I felt in response to the immensity of time and feeling behind those songs, blended my existence with the voices and the spirits that had responded to that same music for 1500 years.
And so I thought of my friend who sent me a tape with Faure’s Requiem on it many years ago, and I imagined him sitting with us in the church. I remembered another favourite tape he sent me. He recorded it standing outside his parent’s house in Kent one frosty night many years ago. He described the sparks of the bonfire shooting up to join the stars in the great and vaulted night, and although I was never there, never smoked that cigar with him by the bonfire that night in Kent, it is as if I did; so ingrained are his words in my mind. I often visit that bonfire and that night when I think of him. So it was that I felt he was with us last night: wincing at the wrong notes, or the careless stroke of the organist’s finger, or enjoying the surge of the whole choir, and admiring the earnest young baritone in tight jeans.
When I was much younger and used to lie in bed wondering about the meaning of life, I came to the conclusion that time wasn’t really a straight line, or a cycle, but that it was a densely wound spiral rising out of the moment of our birth. There was this sense of gradual movement upward, but it had a cyclical feel. Day follows upon day, as do the seasons, in a way that seems to go around and around, and yet we do get older, and have some sense of inching forward. As we move forward each turn of the spiral rests upon the accumulated rings below blending into a mass of experience that supports us, but is often hard to separate out again into strands.
Today I was listening to a talk about medieval commentators on Aristotle, and the idea of time and form came up. What is the present and how do we move through time? If the past and the future don’t exist, then what really is the present? Is the present really just consciousness? If we are conscious then the present exists. So the present is merely consciousness and the past is memory and the future is imagination. But what is this thing consciousness really? Who does it belong to? A scientist I listened to last week revealed the startling news to me that every single cell in our body is replaced in seven years (it is the spine that takes seven years to be replaced; taste buds are replaced every week or so). One of these Aristotelian commentators was suggesting that we are really some kind of essential essence of you-ness in an elastic shell. The outer form can grow or wither but the you-ness is what binds that unique being together. It allows for your essence to return after the vessel has perished. Some imagine death as a movement of the soul to another place, and others as reincarnation, and endless iteration of matter.
Perhaps there is some comfort in the idea of our parts being recycled through a cosmic machine. Perhaps.
I some time ago linked to this remarkable and profoundly moving talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, who lived through a stroke in the hyper aware position of being a research scientist on the brain. Her descriptions of the experience are simply awe inspiring, and challenged my ideas about what our consciousness is; about how much the shape of our lived experience and understanding of the universe comes to us mediated through our very precise set of senses. When this set of senses goes wrong we are often ill, certainly, but also – as a secondary effect – accessing experience in another way. The modern response to hallucination has been drugs and institutions, but the medieval and ancient response was to look at hallucinations as possible insight into the divine or spiritual. I remember reading in Socrates with my class a couple of years ago as he explained that he had a little daimon that spoke to him and gave him advise, and Christian history is full of visionaries. About half of people, we are told, who have recently lost someone close, “see” them again. It is these kinds of ideas that make me aware of the fluidity of time which, as I said, is mostly memory and imagination, linked by an ever shifting point of consciousness which in itself seems unstable and in motion.
As I get older I have sometimes feel myself unravel. Sometimes it is a ripple through myself, and sometimes it feels like a trapdoor. And time. It acts in strange ways. Sitting at the dining table with Eleanor a few weekends ago we played dominoes. In that moment a great sense rose up in me of being at my Gran’s house as a boy, sitting at her dining room table, playing dominoes. The dominoes themselves suddenly seemed to allow me a sense of myself at seven or eight, and the pleasure I felt playing dominoes with my Gran. And so it was at St Mary’s on Sunday night. Out of the music and the recent loss came my friend to my mind’s eye. An act of memory and imagination simultaneously.
I wonder who I am: hanging about with ghosts, changing who I am, halfway through my life.