Time, I have come to believe, is not linear, but cyclical, a spiral not a line.
Indigenous people and the Old Testament tell us everything has its season, and after winter comes the spring, the summer, the autumn, and then the winter again, although of course it’s never exactly the same winter. Each day both unique and resonant with history, with other days, other winters, other springs.
And so, where are we now?
Another horror. Horrors. Beirut. Paris. Egypt … Another religion perverts its own tenants, eats its own young. There is howling and rending of clothing. Millions wander, homeless, sleeping where they fall from exhaustion, and doors slam closed in fear. Oliver Willis says, “If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless.” We’ve been here before, haven’t we? So many times.
After 9/11, when I lived in Paris, I was talking with Alfred, a friend of mine, a Catholic, an artist, a writer, a scholar. We were talking about the horrible events of that time, and how the rhetoric seemed so familiar. We talked about the Islamic story of creation, and how in it the flaw which casts Adam and Eve out of the garden is not the desire for God’s knowledge, not hubris, but rather forgetfulness. They forgot, were not mindful of the instructions the Creator gave them, and so they ate the fruit… and we know the rest.
Al thought for a moment and then said, “I think that is the best definition of original sin I’ve ever heard. We don’t remember. We don’t learn from history, we repeat our mistakes over and over, because we forget.”
It seems to me we are forgetting again. We are repeating the mistakes of the past. Someone sent me this poem, written by W.H. Auden in 1939. I don’t think I need say any more.
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.
The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
W.H. Auden, 1939