The Sterile Hell of Eternity (2021)

Beyond the false dualism of our metaphors of day and night, of light and dark, as though days had no gradation, no variety, but existed in only one state or the other, incapable of being experienced at one and the same time – like Friday’s rain that blackened the pavements but fell like gold flake through the sun, so it was as if the world was bottled in Schnapps and gold leaf, a boozy paperweight that had no weight – and surprising only because our assumptions rest too often on this false division, as though things don’t die in the light, or children aren’t born in the dark, as though the streets at night will not be teeming with life, or the streets in morning empty (waiting for our presence to inscribe meaning on them), beyond this is an understanding that although eternity or the world or anything vast you care to mention has no greater consciousness of us than we have of it, we are not at odds with the world: It is where we live – it sustains us and takes us into it when we die, and it has done so for millennia, even before we walked the earth in our present forms and left, in one form, footprints on a river bed at Happisburgh, 800 000 years ago, even before stegosaurus dinosaurs left their prints 170 million years ago at Rubha nam Braithairean in Skye.

To say eternity is indifferent to us means little. We do not live in eternity. As a concept it belittles us: we can calculate distance to far-off suns that, nonetheless, remain unreachable. I am more concerned by the rate of my heart, or by my blood pressure. I can read about those humans who, in the Pleistocene, walked through an environment I find hard to imagine, and breathed an air incomparable to ours, and should not be belittled by being so far away from us, or us in any way diminished for being so distant in time from them. We are estranged but not so much that we cannot see our own need for movement in those footsteps: a need for escape, for communion, for nourishment, for solitude, for being remembered and being forgotten. What is eternity compared to the moment those footsteps were taken, those footprints laid down in the fossil record? What is eternity but a succession of similar steps – a procession.

The world is only against us from over here; from over there it nourishes us and keeps us safe. Philosophies and religions have turned us against the world and asked us to enter a make-believe spiritual or mental domain detached from experience, a place where you don’t have to get your hands dirty, where you don’t fall in the street and bang your knee, where you don’t cut yourself pruning roses, where you don’t prick your thumb with a darning needle. What a soul-less place it would be, if it only existed. If it only existed – but it doesn’t.

Why do you want to be away from the cat, waulking the cloth on your lap, warm and heavy; its breathing, its vivid purring, in contact with your comforting body? Like the Irish monk and his cat Pangur Ban, sharing the candle glow at Reichenau Abbey over a thousand years ago, pondering what is beyond, but so pleasantly lost in what is. Why do you want to detach yourself entirely from the child’s hands that were yours, cold in snow-damp winter gloves, pushing a snowball your own size over a winter field, your hands joining other children’s hands in rolling that body of snow towards the brow of the hill, lots of little woollen hands, the wool holding fragments of ice, discoloured a dirty grey as it absorbed the muck from winter expeditions, little hands that were impossibly numb and cold and burning – why must all of this be cast aside? What are you hoping for in that sterile, lifeless eternity? Wouldn’t you rather be dead than imprisoned there?

Once, in a restaurant in Glasgow, not long after his sister died, my father said to me that he didn’t believe in God or an after-life, but sometimes, sometimes he wished he could see his mother and father and his sister again. I said, “You did see them. They were alive and so were you and you lived in a house together. You grew up together. You had all that time together. And on Sundays your mother would cook bacon on a range and tip in a can of beans afterwards, so that later, you always wondered why beans didn’t taste the same.” Another time, he told me that he remembered coming home from a football game in the 1940s, he and his father, and it was winter and growing cold and, whether it was actuality or the memory of what happened, he recalled standing for a moment under the street-lamp, looking up at the window where his mother and sister were waiting, knowing that soon he would be home, warm and together and content. When he was dying – my dad – I took his hand and reminded him of that story, of the time he had told me the story in a pub in Glasgow, of how his father was with him in the memory, his mother and his sister waiting to see him, and now it was time to go up. I know my dad wasn’t going to go up anywhere. He was not going to see his father, his mother or his sister again. He was in a hospital bed, dying. But I hope/d the story, the memory, was a comfort to him. I hope/d, if he heard it, that it gave him some of that same feeling of content that he had anticipated as a child. I hope/d he has been spared the sterile heaven of white lab coats and pure, gleaming surfaces, where our loved-ones have been disembodied and the frailties that made them tossed aside. I know I won’t see him again. But I know he loved me and that I loved him and that we spent my life, and much of his, together. And that, together, we were happy.

Written by Gregor Addison

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