Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"We Are Never At Home, We Are Always Beyond"

We tend to spend a great deal of time looking forward to -- or worrying about -- the future.  In the meantime, the present moves into the past.  Of this tendency, Montaigne writes:

"Those who accuse men of always gaping after future things, and teach us to lay hold of present goods and settle ourselves in them, since we have no grip on what is to come (indeed a good deal less than we have on what is past), put their finger on the commonest of human errors . . . We are never at home, we are always beyond.  Fear, desire, hope, project us toward the future and steal from us the feeling and consideration of what is, to busy us with what will be, even when we shall no longer be."

Michel de Montaigne, "Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us," The Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) (Stanford University Press 1958), page 8.

                                 William Ratcliffe, "Attic Room" (1918)

Montaigne's thoughts bring to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy.

           A Two-Years' Idyll

              Yes; such it was;
       Just those two seasons unsought,
Sweeping like summertide wind on our ways;
              Moving, as straws,
       Hearts quick as ours in those days;
Going like wind, too, and rated as nought
       Save as the prelude to plays
       Soon to come -- larger, life-fraught:
              Yes; such it was.

              'Nought' it was called,
       Even by ourselves -- that which springs
Out of the years for all flesh, first or last,
              Commonplace, scrawled
       Dully on days that go past.
Yet, all the while, it upbore us like wings
       Even in hours overcast:
       Aye, though this best thing of things,
              'Nought' it was called!

              What seems it now?
       Lost: such beginning was all;
Nothing came after: romance straight forsook
              Quickly somehow
       Life when we sped from our nook,
Primed for new scenes with designs smart and tall. . . .
       -- A preface without any book,
       A trumpet uplipped, but no call;
              That seems it now.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922).

I suspect that most of us have had this sort of experience, and it is not one that is limited to romantic relationships.  Of course, "hindsight is 20/20" (as the saying goes), so perhaps it is unfair of us to judge ourselves for not appreciating what was passing us by unawares as we dreamed upon the future.  "A preface without any book" is a very nice way of putting it, I think. This is why the Chinese T'ang poets and the Japanese haiku poets would have us look at the world around us, at this moment.

                              William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)


Acornmoon said...

Or as John Lennon once said. "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen, I've enjoyed looking at your past posts and reading the poems and as always marveling at the paintings you find. These two rooms are no exception. Hardy captures regret so perfectly. And here I go again, determined to order a book of his poetry instead of reading Far From the Madding Crowd!

Fred said...


Chinese, Japanese, French, English.

There are a basic core of ideas which seem to exist in all cultures and almost in all times. They are common in their prevalence, and unfortunately, common in their fate of being ignored by most of us, most of the time, I think.

Nice cross-cultural linking here.

Stephen Pentz said...

acornmoon: thank you -- I had forgotten about that. It is right on point, isn't it? Thanks for dropping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: as always, thank you for visiting and for your thoughts. I appreciate your kind words.

I believe that you previously commented on a painting of a room and window by Charles Ginner (like Ratcliffe, a member of the Camden Town Group) that it was a place that you could live in for quite a while (I am paraphrasing you, I think). I feel the same way about Ratcliffe's paintings. I like the sliver of window that you can see in "Attic Room." (As well as the perspective, which is unusual -- like he was painting on a ladder!)

As for Hardy's poetry, I suppose that you know by now where my loyalties lie when it comes to the poetry versus the novels. I don't want to overstate the case for the poetry, but I do think that it is what Hardy wished to be remembered by.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: yes, it is all there for us to see, across cultures and centuries, isn't it? But, as you say, these things are hard to get into our thick skulls. Speaking for myself, my ignorance and my weakness are boundless!

As ever, thanks for your thoughts, Fred.