End Notes: Immortal Diamond

Commencement is over, the students are gone, an unreal peace descends upon the campuses of the nation. But on their walkways will soon be seen returning students of yesteryear, alumni and alumnae, occupying once more the same old spatial coordinates but with time in their eyes, the sense that the permanency of place only underscores the relentless flow of the present into the past.

If Aristotle is right, the most fundamental instance of motion is change of place. The moving arrow departs from A, passes through B, and arrives at C, your vulnerable heart. You can’t go home again, we are told, but of course you can. The old house is very likely still there, the same rooms, yard, garage, and neighborhood. Altered perhaps, but still undeniably the same. It is we who change, and the you who can go home again is not the one who left it long ago. I suppose that is what Thomas Wolfe meant.

To see at Agrigento the Greek ruins, the temple, the theater, all the rest, is to be struck by the way our artifacts survive us. Stones, pillars, steps, fountains, walkways, millennia old, yet still there. A few years ago there was a dispute about a bomb that would kill all humans but leave cities intact. It might have been a description of time.

Notre Dame graduates who return to this beautiful campus are struck by all the changes, the new buildings, the changed vistas, but these are surface changes. The lakes are there, the grotto, a dozen buildings that go back to the 19th century; in Sacred Heart basilica, restored a few years ago to its original decor, the main altar is unaltered and the statue of Mary that draws the eye to its niche in the Lady Chapel has looked out at generations of mortal men and women.

 

Also at Agrigento, some kilometers from the city, looking out over the Mediterranean, there is a house and a parking lot with six tourist buses in search of an author. School kids debouch, brought to the house where Pirandello lived before going off to Palermo, Germany, and Rome. It is a museum now. Photographs of the author, of his family, of productions of his plays, playbills, and, in one room, a grainy biographical video that does not detain the attention of adolescents. Closer to the sea, the author’s ashes are embedded in a tree that meanwhile has died. Its leafless branches clawing the air might be a metaphor of Pirandello’s life.

He died without the consolations of religion. He did not want them. He wanted oblivion, to be forgotten, to be nothing again. The thought occurs by that withered tree, with the house a little ways off, that Pirandello’s wish cannot be granted. Non omnis moriar, Horace wrote. I shall not die entirely. He meant he would live in his poetry, and of course he does, as Pirandello survives in his art, his plays, his poems, his stories. But there is more than that. Even non-poets are immortal.

Pirandello is an author I like despite theories I hold. He is quintessentially modern, he likes to break the implicit contract between artist and audience and find a vantage point where actors and audience become. . . . But that is another theory. It is simply a great deal of fun to read him. There is madness in his method and I hear it throughout the insistent protest against what seems to have been Pirandello’s own view of the ultimate pointlessness of it all. How can creatures who lament the pointlessness of life not underscore the unquenchable demand for point—and how could that be pointless?

The Greek ruins still stand after thousands of years, but what will have become of Pirandello’s house in a thousand years? His art has a better chance of surviving, but Pirandello himself had a mordant view of the significance of that kind of continuation. He seemed to want to be forgotten, to be annihilated.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a difficult poem called “That Nature is a Haraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” Savor these lines from it.

Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

From the grotto at Notre Dame one can walk up the road to the community cemetery and find the graves of the founders, the shapers, and then the rows of forgotten brothers and priests. Known but to God? Not quite, but obscurity enough to satisfy a Pirandello. “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot used Dante’s line in The Wasteland, but he shared Dante’s conviction that a human life, once begun, resists annihilation. We are, whether we like it or not, immortal diamonds.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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