Seventy-one lifetimes. Or at least seventy-one of my lifetimes. That’s how long it’s been since the earliest would-be Italians lived in huts of wood and thatch in small villages on land that would become the heart of the Roman Empire. But I’m no historian. All I’m qualified to do is publicly ruminate on the 3,000-year-old burial urn that I saw near the entrance of the Frist Center’s current mega-exhibit: Rome: City and Empire.
The text placard states that the urn held its owner’s ashes, but what happens to ashes over such a long period? Do they disintegrate? Or does the wind lift each one up and out of the urn—single particulates, one by one, until the vessel is empty? Maybe three millennia is enough time for such arduousness. But the urn was buried, so does that mean the poor man’s ashes are mingled with the Roman soil still? Beneath the ruins on Palatine Hill? His spirit may’ve roamed the statued avenues of high empire, swirled up fluted columns and pierced the pantheistic heavens, drunk on the triumphs of his ancestors, but his body was bound to the same ball of rock and dirt that will one day lay claim to all bodies, whether ashen or buried whole. We’ll never know if the 3,000-year-old spirit, once free of his earthly matter, was relegated to an underworld of dubious torment, or if he was free to fly the expanses of empire, never stopping long until he reached Elysium, where he stretched his ghostly limbs in Lethean fields.
But isn’t it just like art to connect us to a 3,000-year-old person? We know instinctively that whatever his social position, whether peasant or patrician, he had loves and losses, pains and ecstasies, talents and flaws. Maybe he was educated—whatever that meant back then—or dumb as the ceramic that would house his remains, but the indisputable thing is that he shares with us—across seventy-one lifetimes—a humanity that is triumphant by sheer force of its existence. The urn says, “Here I was.”
Has this ever happened to you? You associate a song or a band with a particular era in your life, and so forthwith, whenever that songs is played (and it’s almost always unexpectedly, finding you in the dentist’s chair, for example, with some old 80s ballad falling softly from the overhead speakers, reminding you of a pre-adolescent crush—something you used to hear at Thelma’s Skateland during the ritualized and awkward hand-in-hand skating segment known as “Snowball Couples,” whatever that means), you’re filled with a nostalgia so potent it drives you to seek it out. And now that we have the technology to find exactly what we want and can listen to a band’s entire discography just by paying a small monthly fee, it’s become easy to find any and all songs we might want to hear at any time.
So say you put in the minimal effort of typing a song title into your Spotify app, and then there it is. You listen, and it’s great—it takes you right back to junior high, and memories of those girls or boys you thought you couldn’t live without. You can almost feel yourself slam into the skating rink’s carpeted walls.
But then something else happens: about two-thirds of the way through, the experience falls flat. That potent nostalgia that earlier threatened to floor you completely becomes a little too sweet, a little too artificial. Like a soda made with aspartame, it just isn’t the same. It’s like the song collapses under the weight of the associations you’ve placed on it; like the memory of the song now means more than the song itself. The song has become its own obstacle. Only in the human mind can such transformations occur: old songs defeat themselves, and we remain our own biggest mystery.
Nevertheless, I still find Peter Cetera’s voice compelling, though you’ll never catch me listening to him.
A solitary consciousness, crying out from the surging swell, but using no words: this is the nature of the quiet desperation at the heart of human experience. Does the loneliness sneak up on you? Are you uncomfortably made aware, on the morning commute, of the unavoidable isolation of being conscious? It seems an irony befitting a race that sees its death approaching from earliest youth, like a mountain that anchors every landscape view, no matter where you stand.
But even if we couldn’t see death’s approach, would we do things any differently? It’s a legitimate question. I don’t know that I would watch any less or any more Netflix, or indulge any less or any more in the things I routinely indulge in (hello, Reese’s cups). Would I bother writing? Or is there something about that pale horse and its bony rider that compels me to document these ranging thoughts; to labor away, in the pre-dawn hours, at fiction and at memoiristic meditations on the poetry of Rilke? Probably, on some elemental level, there is something of the dread behind these efforts.
Yesterday I was driving home from my eldest son’s piano lesson, and the sunset caught the trees in such a way that the part of me that responds to art welled up of its own accord (the “of its own accord” part is necessary–it’s how I know I’m in the presence of great art). My first impulse was to take a picture, but I was driving, and I knew that my phone couldn’t capture the true essence of the sunset anyway. So then I thought about how often our first impulse in the presence of beauty is to try and capture it, and then I was hit with the sadness of our inability to do just that. Isn’t there just so much that we wish to do, but we can’t? Beauty can’t be bottled, and there aren’t enough Instagram filters to make an experience communicable to another person. There’s a tremendous sadness in this.