Ephemera (Dennis Aubrey)


✜ Ephemeral things (from Greek εφήμερος – ephemeros, literally “lasting only one day”) are transitory, existing only briefly. ✜

When I was young, our family moved almost every single year of my life so books became my constant companions. The library was my temple, quiet and respectful and filled with mystery, learning, and adventure. The rows of books on the shelves fascinated me. By the time I got to high school in California, I was a confirmed library junkie. And it was in a California library that I remember checking out three books just because their titles compelled me to do so. One was Marx’s “Das Kapital”. I think that it might have been the reaction of the librarian when I checked it out, but I couldn’t resist carrying it around for a couple of weeks in the school hallways. I stopped when it became more difficult to read than to carry.

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second was the great work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, the “Principia Mathematica”. The idea of the book took my brain by storm – mathematics and logic were the same and that all principles of mathematics could be logically derived from fundamental axioms and processes. That mathematics was somehow invented and derived was a completely novel concept. I guess that I had previously thought a genetic kernel of mathematics existed in all humans at conception. I was so taken with this idea of invention that I promised myself that I would read the book through and understand it. That never happened, of course, because I got completely lost in the mathematics, but it was like looking over the sheer edge of a canyon and being lost in contemplation of the depths.

The third volume was the “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas. The use of logic to prove the existence of God was completely irresistible to me, even though I had already begun my personal retreat from belief. Again, the work was too dense for me to understand in any profound way, but it introduced me to the world of Anselm, Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus. They were a part of a world which seemed to embody the primacy of ideas and the mind and this, to my fifteen year old imagination, was shatteringly mind altering.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Now, having given this background, I must make a confession. At this tender age my intellectual hunger was hybridized with hormonal urges and the offspring was intellectual confusion. One moment I would be sitting in the library intently reading, taking notes about the compelling philosophical argument that the contemplative life is greater than the active life. The next instant my mind would wander to the compelling vision of luscious young Christine looking at me adoringly because I was reading such an important book. How could I reconcile Aquinas and sex?

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And so I read these books in the library, but I carried them around the school halls in order that young women would be impressed. It didn’t work. Not one girl in my classes ever swooned over the Principia. I would have probably had better luck carrying a copy of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” I probably would have been better off carrying Mad Magazine. As it was, the only time that anybody noticed was when the kid with the locker next to mine saw the copy of “Das Kapital” and loudly accused me of being a “Comminist”.

But I learned a lesson from the exercise and it has stayed with me my entire life. There are, and have always been, serious people making serious efforts to address the most serious questions of human existence. I long ago made peace with the fact that I would never be one of them, but it gave me a perspective on human accomplishment that has never been forgotten.

Église Notre-Dame de Saint-Saturnin, Saint-Saturnin (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Most of what we consider art is as transitory as the Twelfth Night ice sculptures in Boston. The works may be beautiful, but are only temporarily sustainable. In seeking something less transient, less temporary, people look to nature, to science, to religion. PJ and I have found our Romanesque churches. They were created by the same powerful currents as the works of the scholastic philosophers; the belief that the mind of man can perceive the eternal workings of God in our transitory world. And more importantly, our work can honor those divine workings with our own efforts.

Oh, I learned one other important lesson as well. I have the utmost sympathy for all the juvenile medieval monks who worked diligently in the scriptorium copying manuscripts and then suddenly experienced the confused collision of their intellectual and hormonal selves. I think we have seen the results of that confusion in some of the capitals carved in our beloved Romanesque churches.

Église Saint-Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux, Parthenay (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

25 responses to “Ephemera (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Such a great reflection and personal sharing of the intellecltual, hormonal, emotive, and spritual currrents that brought you to your love of these grand spaces with the quirky hormonally-suppressed monastic expressions in capitals. What a gift – both the visual art and the skilled writing by the kid who first fell in love with libraries.

  2. Nicely illustrated. My only brush with Duns Scotus was as a boy seeing the ugly bronze statue of him in the public park in Duns when I used to spend school holidays visiting my grandparents there 😉

    • Thanks, Graham. What a disaster it would have been for me to be required to tote a bronze statue of Duns around the hallways in order to impress! The capital at Aulnay is a perfect expression of my confusion of the scholastic and the sexual.

  3. This post really hit me. The incredible drive you’ve had since childhood around science and understanding, tied into the bigger questions of life (i.e. why are we here) is awesome, in the real definition of the word. Couple that with adolescence and it makes for interesting reading! My drive for knowledge continues but I find myself looking back on my younger days sometimes and wondering what could have been if I not only carried around the Summa Theologica but read it, understood it, and wrote a PhD paper on it!

    • Aaron, please understand that I read it, and tried to understand it, but never could have written an intelligible paper on it. And I read exhaustively – history especially. But I always remember books like the Barnaby Conrad book on the matador Manolete. For some reason that book moved me intensely. When I studied theater history, I specialized in Greek theater. The modern equivalent of those great tragedies was always, to me, “The Death of Manolete.” For Christmas three years ago, my dear sister Ann found a copy and gave it to me. It still moves me.

  4. I know of what you speak. As a younger woman I would have brushes with writings from philosophy, theology, physics (that one was more of a breeze) that lit my brain on fire, without the slightest understanding of why, yet with enough recognition to have awakened something that had been dormant, but from where/when? It was as if there was a part of my brain that was independent of the place I was in my development at the time…..yet connected enough to light me up and show me a bigger, grander, more superlative world that existed in the realm of ideas. Grand ideas that fit the puzzle pieces together, but never all of them. Was this of neuro-hormonal origin? Yet not developmentally hormonal, for I was 47, not 17. It was like joining a new “brain cult”, in secret of course, since I wouldn’t have thought myself worthy of membership. But I could join the ephemeral realms of “idea power” merely by reading from books. And, of course, not reading much of the book, just enough to catch on fire. One of my favorites was Whitehead.

    Thank you for reminding me of that feeling of diving deep. In terms of there being new dimensions….the realm of ideas has got to be one of them. And I am not speaking of the Platonic realm.

    • Kay, thanks for your commentary on the post. You are absolutely right in the statement that the ideas were able to “show a bigger, grander, more superlative world that existed in the realm of ideas.” It was the inkling that there was something more and something greater out there. One of the ideas in architecture that fires my brain like that is entasis, the intentional deformations of structures in order to present the appearance of perfection. The Greeks used it of course, in the Parthenon and many other structures. It was well known in antiquity. But its rediscovery in the Middle Ages and the lengths that the builders took the idea still get my synapses firing! We are going to the church in Saint Quentin in October just to try to shoot the deformations in the nave (the pillars lean outwards to create one effect in the side aisles and then lean the other direction to achieve the same effect in the nave). I’m still trying to figure out how to shoot the effect given the inevitable distortions of camera lenses, but lasers may help me out. We appreciate your thoughtful response to our work.

      • I will look forward to watching the walls dance, or blow in the breeze and it won’t be easy to figure out the aberrations, but someone’s got to do it! I am Gordon Stewart’s wife, among other things. :)….

      • Oh oh, the pressure is on – I’d better make that post a good one. And among other things, I hope that PJ and I get the chance to meet you both.

  5. Dennis, this was an engaging and eye-opening entry. We are so alike on so many levels…not just in normal brother-sister similarities, but far beyond that. I, too, found a haven in libraries (I imagined heaven-on-earth as living in a library with all the time in the world just to read). Last year when I was editing a book on mathematics and philosophy, I found myself struggling to understand the math as well as the philosophy…and that wasn’t even part of my duties! But, on the other hand, unlike your teen years, a young lady doesn’t carry around ANY book to impress a guy, so my books were kept hidden in my (bulging) backpacks. But the need to know still exists, even if hidden away during adolescence. (I still love the Summa…even though I’ve only grasped its surface.) This was a fun post. Thanks for sharing! And I do love the humor of the capitals!

    • Ann, we are much alike, as we find out more and more as the years pass. I had more of a Peck’s Bad Boy attitude than you did, but that is about it. I love the capitals too. As I said in an earlier response, the Aulnay capital illustrates perfectly the conflict in the 15 year old boy.

  6. Dennis,
    After a twenty hour travel without access to internet, I opened my computer to find your new post. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Wow! Summa Theologica when in high school! It is absolutely mind-boggling.
    I read your earlier post about your plan to go to Saint Quentin to capture the almost mythical workings of medieval master builders in the use of entasis. I look forward to your post after your visit.
    Jong-Soung

    • Jong-Soung, it is hard to describe the appeal of those books to my fevered young brain in those days. It was almost like a spell would be cast. I felt the same way earlier this year when I read “Illustrated catalogue of photographs & surveys of architectural refinements in medieval buildings” by William Henry Goodyear. I know PJ was getting a little bit annoyed with my constant reading to her of the measurements of deviations in these churches!

  7. Having taken medieval philosophy (which was essentially Averroes, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Abelard feasting on my poor collegiate mind) and currently staring down the barrel of medieval Christianity (Augustine, more Aquinas, Anselm), I absolutely appreciate this post. Thanks for your recognition of the importance of the quest for understanding, whether we ever get there or not.

    • Russel, somehow I missed this comment, sorry. I think that is part of the wonderful instructive character of those figures. Here is a post that you might enjoy, of the great tympanum at the Church of Sainte Foy in Conques. The figures still instruct, and those terrifying figures instruct perhaps even better. Thanks for “camping out” at Via Lucis. You are always welcome.

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