A Very Brief History of Eternity
by Carlos Eire
Princeton, 258 pages, $24.95
Carlos Eire, A Yale professor and the author of the 2003 National Book Award winner Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, is clearly capable of remembering and writing about the smells and tastes and feelings of his childhood. He is also a man who is outraged by the fact that he must die, at least if that means he then will cease altogether to be. Might these two facts in some way be connected? The texture and savor of my own childhood are almost completely lost to me; that period of my life exists as a series of tableaus, static and unconnected, occupied by someone I don’t recognize. At the same time, I find the thought of my death quite appealing—something to be welcomed even if not sought. Eire is the mirror image, suggesting that a certain view of childhood might go hand in hand with a particular view of death.
Eire’s outrage at death is what motivates this new little book on eternity, his first since the 2003 memoir. Or at least that is what he claims. How scandalous it is, he thinks, that our individual lives last such a small time when compared with the billions of years the cosmos has lasted and will last. But even those billions are as nothing when compared with eternity, and to Eire that, too, is a scandal. Can it really be that all this—everything from our socks and underwear to the stars above—is transient, doomed to cease, destined to go out of existence altogether, leaving, finally, no trace behind? Eire belongs, at least in the opening and closing pages of this book, to that increasing company of our contemporaries and recent ancestors for whom the thought of death as extinction, especially the final quenching of their own flames, is both the only thought available and an idea terrifyingly unendurable.
There are some good literary lines about this problem, and Eire quotes most of them, from Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” to Philip Larkin’s “this is what we fear—no sight, no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with / Nothing to love or link with / The anaesthetic from which none come round,” to (my favorite) Tom Stoppard’s “Eternity’s a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it all going to end?” from the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Eire would also find a soulmate in Julian Barnes, whom he does not quote but whose 2008 rumination on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (Barnes thinks it very much something to be frightened of), and 2004 collection of beautiful but grim short stories about death and dying, The Lemon Tree, show a deep affinity with Eire’s mood.
It’s hard to enjoy a book motivated by what looks like a pseudo-problem. Eire was baptized into the Catholic Church and made his first communion, at least. I don’t know how intimate his relations with the Church are now (he doesn’t say), but he certainly doesn’t advert to the theological virtue of hope for life eternal as if it might soothe his outrage. He frequently writes, too, that “we” (who, I wonder?) cannot any longer adopt the religious solutions of our forebears. So I assume that route is closed to him. But if it is, then why the agony? Why not simply accept that the cosmos will one day be without Eire, as it was for billions of years before he was conceived? To refuse a good offer of help with this little difficulty about eternal nonexistence and then to agonize about the unavoidable results of the refusal seems a little like refusing the dentist’s ministrations and then complaining about the toothache.
But, in fact, although A Very Brief History of Eternity begins and ends with annihilation dyspepsia, it’s not really about that at all. Eire chooses to address his professed discomfiture not by way of theology or philosophy (there’s quite a bit of both in the book, but they’re mentioned rather than used—objects of study and description rather than lively possibilities) but rather by way of analysis of “how conceptions of forever, or eternity, have evolved in Western culture” and “how such conceptions relate to social, political, and economic structures.” He offers, that is, a very compressed essay on the symbiosis between ideas about eternity and particular forms of culture over the last two millennia in the West.
Let’s pause here for a moment. It’s surely very odd—it certainly seems so to me—to attempt to soothe the brow fevered by death worries and eternity worries in this way. Newman thought a liberal education as effective in making people virtuous as a sharp razor blade is in quarrying granite. He was quite right about that, and writing an essay of the sort under discussion here will have just about as much success in removing outrage at extinction. Eire surely knows this, and the mismatch between what he claims motivates the book and what the book achieves explains why I found it possible to enjoy it and learn from it a good deal more than I expected I would after getting to page 27, which is where the introductory angst effectively ends.
So what does Eire’s book achieve?
The first substantive chapter, “Eternity Conceived,” treats the development of ideas about eternity between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500. Eire provides a rapid gallop from the Jews and their identification of the Lord as one, through Plato and the everlastingness of the world of the forms, to Aristotle and the unmoved mover. But the focus of the chapter is on the analyses and definitions of an atemporal eternity, as distinct from everlastingness, that were arrived at by the Christian Platonists Augustine and Boethius between the fourth and sixth centuries. What Eire says about this intellectual history is accurate and clear but certainly nothing new; as much can be found in any good survey of ancient philosophy, although not, admittedly, in Eire’s vigorous prose. But Eire is not interested in ideas alone. He also wants to depict the symbiosis between ideas and practices. He does so effectively in this chapter by showing the deep affinity between the largely Christian development of ideas about eternal life and martyrdom, the cult of relics, and pilgrimage. Some places and some objects (body parts, usually) come to be regarded as more intimate with eternity than others, and this has drastic effects on material culture. As the dead—the inhabitants of eternity—increasingly come to be seen as present to and in communication with the living, shrines and churches are built, pilgrimage routes are established, and the economy of relics begins to flourish. Eire’s way of putting this is to claim that eternity began to reshape the temporal and material life.
The same themes are continued in the next chapter, “Eternity Overflowing,” which treats the next millennium, up to A.D. 1500 or so. Eire depicts monasticism as an institutional form transitional between eternity and the temporal: The monastic religious are, in some senses, already dead and therefore partakers of eternity. Eire also claims that the development of sacramental liturgy during this period focuses on the making present of eternity to the temporal, as does church architecture. It is in these ways that ideas about eternity have effects on material culture. Such ideas also have effects, Eire shows, on politics. The endlessly fractious disputes between popes and emperors can be construed as attempts to relate properly those who hold temporal power to those who mediate the eternal order. And, of course, during this time the shaping of the material culture of Europe by relics and pilgrimages continues and deepens.
The next two chapters, “Eternity Reformed” and “From Eternity to Five-Year Plans,” cover the period from the Reformation until now. The Reformation, Eire argues, effectively removes the ligature between the living and the dead and, by doing so, also removes one of the most important connections between time and eternity. The calendar—once a complex dance between time and eternity that constantly reminded those who used it, by way of its feasts and fasts, of their connection to eternity—is largely shorn of such reminders. And much of the vast capital that once was sunk into eternity’s economy (as Eire nicely puts it) by way of building and maintaining monasteries is removed therefrom and used, eventually, to build cities and factories. I’m oversimplifying, of course; Eire does not depict the causal relations as one-way, from idea to material culture, but rather as a symbiosis or feedback loop. He has an appropriately and usefully subtle understanding of these relations, being concerned to resist both materialist reductionism, which gives no agency to ideas, and an ethereal immaterialism that treats ideas in complete abstraction from their material context.
Eventually, we reach the point we inhabit now, at which, at least for the elites of the West, there is effectively no commerce between time and eternity. The dead are buried, if they are, apart from churches, and we have intercourse with them in no other way; the saying of Masses for the dead dwindles, even among Catholics, and we become immovably certain of our own separation from eternity, of our deep and insurmountable transience. Eire is fond of quoting Pascal, but very selectively. He likes those parts of Pascal that diagnose our condition despairingly, without faith, rather than those that reinsert us, via faith and hope, into eternity’s economy. All Eire has to offer at the end of the book is a brief and slightly breathless survey of what some contemporary physicists are saying about time. Eire can take no comfort in the views surveyed even when they recover something like an Augustinian eternity—a strictly atemporal eternal now to which all moments of time are identically present—because this doesn’t help him with his problem about the dissolution of himself.
The book doesn’t, finally, hold together. It contains many good things and is especially good on the symbiosis between understandings of eternity and the ways the dead and the living relate. It is written in a relaxed and lively style (sometimes a bit too much so: Eire likes locutions such as “bummer, man,” which he may intend as down-to-earth demotic but which come across as archaic and condescending), and this certainly makes it accessible to those unlikely to read works written in ponderous academic prose. But the book’s framework of extinction outrage is not, in the end, illuminative of, or illuminated by the effective short history in which it mostly consists.
Reading A Very Brief History of Eternity in tandem with Waiting for Snow in Havana makes vivid the connection between Eire’s intense awareness of his own past and his dislike of the idea that what he is and has been will soak, traceless, into the sands of time. His father appears to have overcome this difficulty by being a believer in reincarnation. Eire writes in Waiting for Snow in Havana that his father “vividly remembered his prior incarnation as King Louis XVI of France, [and] probably dreamt of costume balls, mobs, and guillotines.” This solution appears unavailable to Eire, as does Christianity’s hope for eternal life. When these are removed, all that’s left is regret and fear and anger, and—for those appropriately equipped and with the appropriate talents, as Eire obviously is—the writing of books like the one under review here.
Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.