From September 2010
What I do these days, supposedly, is study ancient texts. Not many of them. Just the tiniest handful, written mostly by some hill people about three thousand years ago. And part of what I study is the history of interpretation of these texts. We watch the sacred text as it perseveres, steady and reliable, held aloft by human hands above a crowd rushing beneath it, the hands changing so quickly as generation passes it to generation that any single pair is little more than a flicker in the time-lapse film of the life of the world. (For some reason I imagine this crowd of humanity at a train station in the 1940s on brown film, moving on and off the platforms in long overcoats, and all the women are wearing hats.) What for the songwriter is a hymn about a king’s victorious plundering of his enemies becomes for a later audience a hymn about an ancestral prophet and for an even later audience, a hymn for the recently appeared Messiah. The words, held aloft by their black ink from the blank page’s limitless potential for alteration, remain constant, while meaning rushes and swirls beneath it all in time, it seems.
The parallels with so much else in life need hardly be stated. (And yet what are these internet tablets for, if not the inscription of things which need hardly be stated?) Memory is a strong parallel. I visit the memories of powerful moments in my life to find that the memory remains the same, but the meaning at this point in the narrative is different. I re-visit memories to which I have often returned only to find that the meaning of my own remembering is different from the previous remembering, which itself was an act of meaning that differed from the original. So many aspects of life offer similar parallels: the meals I eat, the conversations have, the people I am bound to, the letters I write, the prayers I pray. All of them so remarkably constant as if sacred and preserved by some unchanging nature, it seems, while beneath them, meaning tumbles and rushes without pause, and I am scrambling to catch my train.