by Rafaël Newman
For Eva, mère & fille; and for Tom
Yesterday was James Joyce’s birthday. His one-hundred-and-thirty-seventh. Or would have been, if he hadn’t died, in Zurich, in January 1941, but were instead swelling the ranks of the current generation of supercentenarians, their increasing longevity bedeviling the demographics departments of local life insurers. Joyce is buried in Fluntern Cemetery on Mount Zurich, his grave marked by a wry-looking seated effigy, like a jocular, unaccommodated Lincoln Memorial; he is further commemorated in the eccentric orthography of the names of the city’s two rivers, the Limmat and the Sihl, in a plaque mounted on the point at which they diverge downstream from the Swiss National Museum, where the letter “i” in both names has been replaced with a “j”.
As it happens, February 2 is also my Aunt Eva’s birthday. A native of Montreal, my mother’s sister now lives in that city again, after a peripatetic career spent in the service of Canadian diplomacy, among other pursuits, in London, Ottawa, Tokyo, Vientiane, Paris, Bangkok and Beijing. The family gathered not long ago, in a disconcertingly Kon Tiki-themed chalet in rural Ontario, to celebrate a significant edition of Eva’s birthday: in advance, at New Year’s, since that was when most members of our large extended family could take time off. And so on that occasion we were also all presented by Eva’s eldest, eponymous daughter with that year’s family calendar.
My cousin Eva and her husband have been assembling and self-publishing the calendar annually, at or around Christmas, for some time now, and its arrival by post marks the beginning of the year for many of us now resident in places far from the family’s base in eastern Canada. Each year’s calendar is typically given a theme, which determines the visual element at the head of each month – recent themes have included revolutions, architectural features of European capitals, and the family’s Jewish ancestry, the last with facsimiles of antique portraits of various great-grandparents; this year’s theme is birth practices around the world. But what particularly distinguishes this project, gives it its pleasantly idiosyncratic aspect, is the mingling of the dates of birth of our family members, printed on the appropriate days of the year, with the birth anniversaries of historical personalities and the dates of significant events.
Thus for instance my elder daughter shares her square on the calendar with birthmates S. Freud and M. Robespierre; my younger daughter’s name is printed next to that of Louis Philippe I, the Orléanist king of post-revolutionary France, born on the same date in 1773; and I myself am reminded that I first saw the light of day on the date in May on which two other, earlier French kings, the Capetians Louis XIII and Louis XIV, had acceded to the throne, in 1610 and 1643, respectively. (As it happens, Aunt Eva does not, in recent iterations of the family calendar, share her birthday with Joyce, but rather with Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, following a coup dated in a calendar of its own.)
Meanwhile, Tom, a London friend of mine on Facebook (or perhaps: a Facebook friend of mine in London) regularly posts notices of current eminent birth anniversaries, featuring a pithy keyword title followed by details of the celebrant’s career, often linked to recordings of their musical works, reviews of their publications, or statistics of their sporting career; and he intersperses these with milestones in his own life, and in the lives of his personal friends and acquaintances. Recent honorees have included S.J. Perelman, Schubert, and Jackie Robinson.
The effect of this coupling of the private and the public, the personal and the world-historical, is twofold. In one sense it is as mundane as the feature in Microsoft Outlook that allows an employee to overlay their individual work calendar with that of their team, and thus to display their own entries alongside those of their teammates, as well as various general work “milestones”. Viewed narratologically, however, the dual-entry anniversary system presents a rather more portentous aspect: for by embedding the lives of one’s living relatives, represented by their birthdates, within those of the Great Men and Women of the annals of humanity, our family calendar makes a claim, not only for a status for our lower-profile lives equal to that of kings and notables, but also for the casting of our present, ongoing existences within the eternally recurrent pageant of History.
There’s a useful excursus on differing temporal perceptions in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights (although “excursus” is perhaps the wrong term for any of the 116 mostly unconnected sections of this centrifugal narrative – indeed, Flights isn’t really a “novel”, in the conventional sense, at all). Tokarczuk’s narrator has been attending a series of talks, given on a cruise ship by an emeritus professor of classics, and is struck by one lecture in particular, on the lesser-known Greek gods, “those gods who didn’t make it into the pages of the famous, popular books, those not mentioned by Homer, then ignored by Ovid”. But this lack of celebrity, the lecturer suggests, is the source of their continuing mystery, their “divine volatility and ungraspability, a fluidity of form, an uncertainty of genealogy.” Such gods, unlike their canonized siblings, are still free to emerge from obscurity and return to it at will. “Just take Kairos,” the lecturer continues,
who always operates at the intersection of linear, human time and divine time – circular time. And at the intersection between place and time, at that moment that opens up for just a little while, to situate that single, right, unrepeatable possibility. The point where the straight line that runs from nowhere to nowhere makes – for one moment – contact with the circle.
Our family calendar exhibits a will to just such an intersection: or, if it does not precisely desire kairos, that elusive wormhole of opportunity that is the province of the god of the same name, then its overlaying of personal and historical milestones is an attempt to ally the linear, human time of our lesser-known careers with the divine, circular time of the immortals – in this case, those illustrious humans who have achieved a measure of deathlessness by virtue of the fact that their lives, and their birthdays, are celebrated post mortem. Those laureates, the family calendar seems to say, ensconced in the secular Pantheon of eternal fame, once walked the earth, as we do now, and share our birthdays; and thus, by the terms of a dream syllogism, we too may hope one day to enjoy the same measure of immortality.
Now, the wish for eternal life runs counter to the very project of the calendar, rooted as it is in the sublunary rhythms of the secular world – the word “calendar” has its origins in the word kalends, the Roman name of the day on which debts were called in, while “secular” is derived from the Latin for generation or age, as in the temporal reality of that which is born, decays, and dies, and is preserved in French as its word for “century”; “world”, for its part, was originally a portmanteau construction composed of the elements “man” (or human) and “age”, and is thus more temporal than spatial. The calendar records and regulates time as it is lived by mortal humans, and its recurrences are those of labor, and leisure, and the seasons, rather than the circularity of the gods (or God). For all of its association with Pope and Caesar, the calendar is a decidedly worldly undertaking. An epic project perhaps; but more Works and Days than Theogony.
According to Martin Hägglund, however, in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, a study of organized religion in late capitalism, the persistent striving for eternal life that is a central tenet of so many institutional faiths belies a will to live in the here and now, and frequently serves, however incoherently, rather as an ethical guide to present comportment than as a how-to for the would-be transcendent. In other words, adherents to an eschatological view of human life as imperfect and unreal, redeemed exclusively in a hereafter guaranteed by an other-worldly godhead, do not actually believe their own propaganda, but are merely deploying it as a prop in their campaign to shape terrestrial conditions according to a certain moral plan. Indeed, Hägglund maintains that eternal life would be nonsensical – ethically, temporally, narratologically – even for the faithful, whose humanness is conditioned by their existence in time; and further, that it is the very boundedness of mortal life that lends it meaning:
To keep faith in mortal life, then, is to remain vulnerable to a pain that no strength can finally master. Mortality is not only intrinsic to what makes life meaningful, but also makes life susceptible to lose meaning and become unbearable. The point is not to overcome this vulnerability but to recognize that it is an essential part of why our lives matter and why we care.
Death is what affords life meaning, but it also the source of pain, and potentially of meaninglessness; hence the attempt at convergence with the putative circularity of divine (or at least celebrity) chronology, as practiced by our family calendar, and by my Facebook friend’s in memoriams. Paradoxically, however, my flight into an imagined alliance with the immortals (of whatever stripe) would only exacerbate the anxious relationship I maintain with my own mortality, and remind me that I am dancing around the abyss of my own demise, whistling a festive, borrowed air in the dark, rather than celebrating the boundedness of my life, the welcome contingency of my existence on shared pleasures and obligations.
This habit of apotropaic commemoration is what I was protesting a few years ago, around the time of that family gathering in Ontario, in the sonnet that lent its title to a collection of my poetry. Live Long Enough, which may sound like a New Age nutritionist’s prescription, is in fact the protasis in a conditional statement of inevitability:
Live long enough, and every day becomes
your first embrace
Emblazoned on a mental Book of Hours
Alongside Solferino, or the taste
Of certain theretofore unguessed-at crumbs
Below the Sunday when the Axis Powers
First protocoled their treble-mastered race,
And raised in raucous peace the martial drums.
The secret is forgetting: wipe the slate!
And free for what-is-now that webby log
Wherein your long-agos with others’ strive.
No longer underwrite the daily freight
Of happening; the dire insistent dog
A-slumber in your past no more revive.
Longevity, in other words, risks burdening its enjoyer with a surfeit of memory: specifically, of events, both personal and world-historical, both momentous and trivial; and threatens to weigh the subject down under the annual recurrence of their anniversaries. Here amnesia would be a blessing, the poem suggests, a release from the hysterical self-hampering of ceaseless commemoration, fragments of alien memory lodged among the milestones of one’s own past. In this reading, not only does the intertwining of private and public remembrance hold out a merely illusory hope of personal transcendence for the suffering mortal, it positively obstructs the progress of a secularly faithful, spiritually free life on earth.
But such a dire fate only arises if such neurotic remembering occurs within the subject’s own internal consciousness. Outsourcing commemoration of the past, especially of birthdays, whether of one’s relatives or of notables, as in our family calendar or on my friend’s Facebook page, effectively frees personal consciousness for an untrammeled contemplation of its present, and of its future: which tends to the grave, it is true, but is thereby afforded the meaning that persists post mortem, and inheres in the jocular monuments and eccentric signposts we all of us, greater and lesser, leave in the memories of those we have loved.