When I was a girl in New York City, my favorite thing to do was to go by myself to the Metropolitan Museum. In those days, the vast rooms were usually empty. Often I seemed to be the only one there.
And what a luxury it was, to be alone with those treasures! I did not approach them in a “modern” way, as exemplars of line, color and form. Though I was not without feeling for “beauty,” I was not there for that quality lifted out of its context.
What I wanted was to be elsewhere.
Elsewhere meant the past.
If I lingered by resplendent Egyptian sarcophagi, or ancient stone passageways that led nowhere, it was to try to feel imaginatively what it was like to live then. It was, I sensed, very different from how it is to live as people like ourselves in the here and now.
Was it Voltaire who said, “The ancients did not know that they were ancients”? If he meant that they were people like us who just happened to live in previous centuries, I guess I disagreed with Voltaire. Rather, I thought, they passed their lives and had their being in a world whose contours and thicknesses, grammar, authorities and mysteries, were quite distinctive – not like ours.
It’s not just that the face of the Sphinx has worn down or the shining surface of the pyramids rubbed off. It’s rather a particular quality of life that has fled the earth.
I feel that in Tudor England, the “thee’s and thou’s” belonged to a way of patterning human affairs that we cannot recapture. What’s lost are not just certain craftsmanly skills or concepts we no longer entertain. The burning pride and shame that Mary Queen of Scots must have felt when, in 1587, she knelt for her beheading — surrounded by people who did not pity her or think her too royal for such a fate — we no longer feel as that queen would have felt them.
The recorded voice of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892, Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, can still be heard reciting his epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” When we listen to that voice of an earlier era, intoning his lines,
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
what is conveyed is a quality of experience inadmissible in good society today. What quality is that?
The question is not whether this is a socially useful feeling to have, or whether it’s better for society that we not have it. The reality is, people do not feel it today as Tennyson soaringly expressed it. If we want to get in touch with our feelings – an objective widely recommended – we won’t find “glory under arms” among our feelings. It’s simply not there. Conceivably, we might do our duty under arms. We won’t glory in it.
Often, when we mourn a dead friend, we mourn the loss of the feelings we will not be able to share as such with anyone else.
One time in meditation, I had a vision of the Second Temple in the days of its flourishing in ancient Jerusalem. I heard the sounds of rams’ horns, I saw bright-colored banners fluttering, the crowds hurrying to and fro, and shared the sense that this would never end. It was so alive! It was so beautiful! I was so happy to be there!
It’s been a feature of my life, which the formerly empty historical rooms of the Metropolitan Museum helped to sustain, that
I have always longed for the past.
Not for the past that can be retrieved and decoded. Rather, for the part of the past that is truly irrecoverable.
For what am I longing? Perhaps these lost worlds affect us in much the same way as the friendships that death has taken from us.
It’s as if parts of ourselves
shadowed forth from the buried layers of the psyche
remind us of our present incompleteness.