“I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon – the unimaginable universe. I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity. “ “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges
I talked in the past how certain words and phrases live in me, awaken me in the middle of the night with their repetition – abyssus abyssum invocat or “My name is Legion”. There are words of James Joyce in Finnegans Wake; “Tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” The words of Jorge Luis Borges quoted at the beginning of this article have stayed with me since I first read them in 1968 when I discovered his book of short stories in a used bookstore. The idea of an “aleph” – a point in space that contains all spaces – mesmerizes me still. Another idea, one that James Joyce refers to in Ulysses, is the omphalos. In Greek mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles to fly across the world to meet at its center, the navel of the world.
These words and ideas affect me deeply, even when I don’t know why. It feels like when I first became aware of the mysteries of the real world. We lived in the Orleans suburb of Saint Jean-de-la-Ruelle when I was a child. My brother David and I went to a French school just a short distance from the house. One day, the caretaker who sometimes walked us home took us to the furnace room, opened up the hinged door to the furnace and lifted me up to look at the flames inside. I could see the blazing of the fire and feel the heat. “That’s where you go if you are bad,” he said. I remember the mystery of this and how it had a different effect than he perhaps intended. I was not moved by fear but by a theatrical fascination of the vision. In much the same way some concepts like the aleph or the omphalos still move me.
Meanwhile, I have been too long away from France, my personal omphalos and am starting to feel adrift. PJ and I did not go to France this fall because of obligations in the United States. We are planning our spring trip, but it feels so far away and I am drifting. There have been no posts for over a week – I don’t know where to start. I need help.
I need to feel the loneliness of the churches, to reassure them that they are loved and treasured. The mold and the dirt in the corners are part of their life, like the deep begrimed wrinkles in the hands of a man who has spent his life working the earth.
I need to stand in these churches and watch and listen. I need to hear the echoes of ancient voices, to feel the pain and exaltation, the endurance and the faith that was present in these spaces.
I need to be reminded that stone can be a living thing capturing the spirit of the past. How can I ignore the echo of a thousand hallelujahs?
I need to sit in the cool silence of the stone churches, letting the frenzy of the world abate so that my own voice can find breath.
I need to look across the church to see PJ lighting a candle, knowing that she senses what I sense and that she will have that certain look on her face, where she feels almost like she is trespassing on a grave.
I need to see the shafts of light piercing deep shadows, where the chiaroscuro light becomes the story-telling, and in the telling, changes the stone. In the same way, my identity transmutes into the stone of these churches. There is no difference between me and the subject about which I write. The stones both tell the tale and are the subject of the tale.
I need to feel Borges’ infinite wonder and infinite pity.