Cartography 1: Ace Of Hearts
For Fear, For Hunger, For Rebirth
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble before him grows sky high. That which we call progress, is this storm” Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”
In the early 20th century, an artist known as J.C. Leyndecker was commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate the cover of their New Year’s issue. He produced a baby, a young girl, sitting atop a sphere and turning the pages of a book and writing in the pages with a pen. It’s easy to read the implication: the past is done, the future is yet to be written, and we’re turning over a new leaf in the book of our life. Leyndecker would go on to illustrate the annual New Year’s Baby for the Saturday Evening Post for 36 years, in-between mentoring Norman Rockwell and illustrating the ideals of American masculinity modeled off of his lover.
The New Year’s Baby is not a new tradition. Records of the child date back to pre-Christian Greece, to medieval German. As a symbol, the child is a simple readymade: every year we get to return to the start. Each year is a new chance, a new opportunity to begin again, to shape ourselves into something different.
In 1911, Leyndecker produced his only illustration of the child with their shadow: Father Time. The old man leans down, close to the babe, wearing a rust colored toga. His hourglass is seated on the ground and his scythe is cradled over his shoulder, blade away. The child holds up a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from the stack of under his arm, featuring an illustration that we can’t quite make out. Father Time seems on his last legs, barely holding on, and trying to see what the illustration shows. One can make their own assumption, but I see it as the same image: the old man coming face to face with his replacement. The common assumption is that through each year, each New Year’s Babe will become Father Time in turn, recording and tracking the passage while reaping the year and all its fruits.
I have a distinct memory of a few moments as a child: becoming conscious while riding in the backseat of the family car as we arrived at the beach, looking up and thinking “I'm going to remember this forever.” Crying myself to sleep because I lost my favorite toy, a black rubber snake that I would use as a whip sometimes, at the restaurant that night. Dark Saturday nights in the woods when my parents would get together with their friends to play music for hours, near babbling creeks and forest full of screeching owls. But most of all, I remember being afraid.
I was a terrified child. I had night terrors up until I was 14, usually unable to sleep more than a few hours a night. I had a vibrant and vivid imagination, and each shadow was full of monsters, creatures with mysterious desires and endless hungers coming to rend me and to continue on their way. I saw myself as something to be devoured, something that was going to end up in the gut of whatever beast I saw from the corner of my eyes.
But no fear was quite like the fear of time slipping away.
I remember being 8 years old and hungry, starving for dinner. I asked my father when it would be ready while he worked at the stove, several pots simmering while he basted cuts of pork in the oven. He gave some standard parental answer, an hour or so. I walked out to the living room and started counting the time left: an hour was nothing. There were only 60 minutes to an hour.
And there were only 60 seconds to a minute. 360 seconds left.
I could count to 360, no problem.
It was only a few more hours until bedtime. The day was winding down.
And on a Sunday night, that meant school was tomorrow. But it was one of the last few weeks before summer break.
And those weeks in summer would fly by quickly, evaporating like the dew and the frost that were sure to come after.
In fact, the year only had a few months left by my calculations.
And only a few years beyond that until various milestones: school, adulthood, marriage, my death.
And by the time dinner was served, I had arrived at the inevitable heat death of the universe, long after the death of everyone and everything I had ever known and loved. I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two that night.
Father Time, like the New Year’s Babe, has older roots buried behind him. His marker of time, his reaping scythe, is most commonly associated with Cronos, the Greek God of Time and later the Roman God Saturn, original patriarch of the Gods. According to Hesiod and Ovid, his was a golden age, when the Earth bore fruits without toil. He gave his Roman name to Saturday, his Greek name to Chronological, and above all, he gave to humanity the concept of time as a cycle, ever recurring, ever rebirthing itself and growing into its own death. Saturn, the devouring father, so afraid of his own children that he ate them to prevent any from growing full and strong enough to unseat him.
Each year is devoured by its birth. Each birth points towards a death. Each moment you can reflect on, each moment you wake up new, and every year we begin again, has already passed and the launched arrow begins to trace its path towards its target, before it is stopped bloody and its force exhausted.
I’ve been seeing a lot of friends lately, people I haven’t seen in years. And when I think about how long we’ve known each other, I feel a deep gratitude and a deep fear.
We talk about time in our world as a resource. Time is money. Spending time with those around us. Saving time. Our workplaces speak of effectively managing your time, investing it in projects that have priority, and banking your PTO. We’ve commodified the great devouring force, and every moment we get back to ourselves feels like a moment to rest and take respite from the world. But no matter how much time I get back, no matter how many precious moments I steal for myself day by day, it doesn’t stop me from knowing I will never accomplish all I want to accomplish. It doesn’t make me forget that for my friends and I, our lives will run out before our work runs out. Each day and each week and each month, like my death, is already spoken for. The only progress I make in my life is progress into the gaping maw of Old Saturn, and the only progress promised to me is to become the same hungry force of consumption.
But I've been playing chess lately.
I’m not particularly good, and I’m still learning to see through the fog of the board and the mechanisms of interplay. I have flashes of brilliance, or at least that’s what the analysis of my games tells me when it feeds my moves and options through a computer mechanism. I feel most brilliant when I can do one of two things: make my opponent take their time, or make them make a bad decision.
I’m not so arrogant as to think that Father Time is my opponent. He simply is, and all he does is consume everything before him. Eventually, his belly will be full and we’ll wink out in a singularity, the world swallowed up and reduced to a cosmic pinhole through the power of some great compression, some starved black hole.
I’ve heard it said that if you could look behind you as you entered a black hole, head twisted back to the direction you came, you could see like Benjamin’s Angel Of History, the entirety of time compressed and rolling like a video as it fell in after you, your back to the future on the other side of singularity.
If I have to go, I want to reflect on the bad decisions I gave to my enemies and the times I forced them to think until it was too late. If I have to be devoured, I want a life worth devouring. I want to wake from the dream and to build an existence that could be stuck in the throat of history.
“The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.” W.G. Sebald, “The Rings Of Saturn”
But that’s how nature works, is it? Piece by piece maybe, but not in total.
Nature kills and edits itself continuously. Each spin of the earth makes one day, each circle around the sun makes a new year and all that entails, every 26,000 years the axis of the earth returns to the point it started its precession from and begins to trace an arc around the sky once again. Each moment, each second that passes, billions of microbes are spawned and killed in an attempt to perfect their species, and in 365 days, 120 generations of fruit flies will rise and fall in the laboratories around the world so we can see evolution at play. Why should the devouring of time be any different? What if time is just the microbe of the universe tearing the rot into constituent parts to be rebuilt?
What I want, what ache for, and all the petty resentments I play out on chess boards and in personal relationships, are inconsequential. Benjamin’s Angel Of History has its back to the future, staring only at a string of catastrophes, and cannot conceive that some force is taking that same rubble apart and hurling back through a circuit into its face again. Each day and every year I am born and each day and every year I am killed, the ouroboros unbroken.
When we see Saturn devouring the child, and when we see Baby New Year grow into withered Father Time, we see eternity. When we trace the circuit of the year and demand accountability and resolution from ourselves, actions we will abandon, we see eternity. We are navigating a singular path from being to becoming, to editing and and writing, to form and concept, and the cycle always begins anew in each moment.
When I was a child thinking about the flow of time, I stared like Klee’s Angel, dumb and unknowing. When I sat on the couch this year and heard the fireworks and screams ringing out through the city, I devoured my own tail and decided to go to sleep. Like Gramsci, I knew that every day is New Years and equally that a circular return to the same place does not mean the journey has not changed you.
When you commit to repetition, when you commit to an act and a pattern, you are committing to the process of learning, the progress of all things that will never be perfected but should be pursued with all the vigor of nature at hand. We are not out of nature. We are not out of the cycle of days and seasons and years. We are trying to iterate and to understand and to pursue wisdom and perfection any way that we possibly can.
Above all, we are spokes on the spinning wheel of the universe and we will do what we have always done, but maybe this time, we do it a bit better.
Happy New Year, to all the old angels and devils and yet-to-be either.
“What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: "This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!" - Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!" If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: "Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favorably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Aphorism 341
Word Rot supports a critical self-examined life.