The decision to begin, the miracle of beginnings that Hannah Arendt spoke about, which demands concretization and gives shape to life, to matter. There’s a founding moment. So it happened in Aveleda, 150 years ago.
Lost in the sea waves, we forget about their constant motion. In an unconscious and rather archaic way, we have always tried to forget change, the flow of things, their becoming. The more sensitive we become to time’s wear and tear, the more we need to drink, as Baudelaire wrote, “so as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth.” An inebriation, an illusion, which helps us endure the change that ruins our bodies, severs relationships, and erodes projects and plans. Born out of nature, the universal entropy that will one day put an end to the cosmos is already cracking buildings, threatening everything with viruses and plagues, with plants warping roads, invading everything, rocks bursting through, or metals rusting. To be an animal with memory, that is the problem. Other animals cannot tell the passing of time. We understand the first men who tried to curb that ceaseless motion, who grasped change and drew from it the eternal, a kind of veil that hides away change. To stop is humankind’s impossible miracle. In the ephemeral they discovered the perennial, everything was an excuse to dream. The rock that outlasts the flesh has always fascinated us and has been a metaphor to think about everything that lasts. On the cave stonewalls the Palaeolithic hunters painted scenes of preys being hunted or eternally hunting, always escaping and always being hunted. Ancient Egyptians also turned themselves into stone in a desire for immortality, in a delirious attempt to remain.
It’s all about arresting time. It’s not an accident that theologians justified the fatality of motion by describing it as a “fall”. Gravity was the model, with its power to drag all the bodies down to Earth, the mandatory motion that ends in a crash. The opposite motion would have to be an elevation towards the eternal, some kind of poetic and mythical anti-gravity that actually worked. The more it failed, the more it worked, until the day we started accepting entropy and realizing that the Earth – upon which everything falls – was revolving around the Sun at the speed of 110 000km/hour. The Sun itself spins at huge speeds along the Milky Way. Italo Svevo said “Just because the Earth spins it doesn’t mean we must feel sick.” But we’d feel sick, horrified even, if we hadn’t come up with ways to stop: that’s what art does – it engenders the impossible, the eternal. That’s the case of photography. On a photograph that lies at the bottom of a drawer, the late elderly father appears eternally young. The photo where he appears young has turned yellow, discoloured, its corners are torn. The photograph changes too, but it does so in other ways: it barely stops, it slows down.
Being Modern meant to discover the immense fragility of the “stop”, but also the need for it. A game of stop and go. But humans accept change, the course of Physis and everything it encompasses. The Western thinker Heraclitus stated, thousands of years ago, that “everything flows” (Panta Rhei) and that “we cannot bathe twice in the same River.” The answer might start there, for the “river” is a word that arrests the water ceaseless flow, just as “flow” is a word that does not flow. It is through the word that we begin to arrest things, to come closer to something evasive, which at the same time exists through the word. Quite like the photograph, which appears as a shift at the core of the universal process of becoming, adding something to it, changing it, delaying it.
It is all about accepting motion, absolute change. But sailing is key. Fernando Pessoa borrowed an ancient saying from Carthaginian sailors and wrote “sailing is necessary, living is not necessary.” This means that a full life is about accepting change and responding to it. It is true that, beyond the ideal eternity or the poetics of words and pictures, we have built havens, gates, and walls meant to keep off whatever poses a threat, with its absolute indifference, to humankind, or even to walls themselves. It’s best then to accept what the ancients called clinamen, the infinite inclination that rules everything, and learn to decline the movement. If the fall is infinite, as Nietzsche argued, then it can also be inhabited, we can paint it with arabesques, hold each other’s hands, delay the crash. Declination is like deviating a river without taming its strength, instead playing along its course, its speed, digging up other paths, distributing its energy until everything else melts into the hidden meanders of the earth. Pessoa’s sentence has something interesting to say in this sense: we must come up with vehicles that accept motion and take risks through it. We could call them “boats”, but these are ways of navigating motion, of surfing life without the illusion of possibly stopping it. Along the voyage, wood planks would start to crack and sails would tear, so fixings were done in open sea. Wisdom lies in making the most out of differences, out of relative slowdowns, out of rhythmic disparities.
In some moments of happiness, of ecstasy, we suddenly stop and behold a landscape, a look, a meadow. This pause continues to feed us, as something that interrupts and resists, a rock of happiness in the middle of the open sea. When it happens, it’s an intense and sudden experience that takes us by surprise. It’s possible to accomplish this consciously when one creates something that is vital. Suddenly the vision becomes clear, the dream takes over the soul, real and unreal mingle. One has to climb up to see better, but the climb had already been accomplished inadvertently. The decision to begin, the miracle of beginnings that Hannah Arendt spoke about, which demands concretization and gives shape to life, to matter. There’s a founding moment. So it happened in Aveleda, 150 years ago. Something interrupted the motion, everything flows and revolves around it.
At the height of this vision an idea appears; a blurry yet fatal picture, just like all serious decisions. Something solid, but also fragile, appears and needs infinite care. It’s a vehicle of change, a vehicle to navigate the earth, to give meaning to the vegetable world and address absolute difference. To found something and not be deluded by the stability of foundations means to play along speed differences, to play with time and with entropy, in order to take time, to make for other times: for the Home, the lingering land, the fruitful decision. At first, the idea is evasive, dreamed rather than planned, it only presents itself through the decision, its concretization. Only those who were granted it will understand. All the flow, becoming, and changes of the world come together to wear us out and overwhelm us; what was once created is now in motion, responding in each moment to the passing of time, to whatever History produces – crises, wars, law, economy. These are not dangers, only events that fall like the rain or come out like the sun, like good and bad seasons, good or bad governments.
The only way to remain faithful to the thing that secretly motivated the foundation is to care for it rigorously, to keep up the work, to change in order to avoid being destroyed by the motion of everything. Remaining faithful to the home and to the name implies painstaking dedication, with each one doing his or her part. And sometimes it implies stopping and celebrating through memory.