Chronicle of the Future The Ends of the Earth
? ? ?
TS Eliot

"... the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started"

We are back where I began these essays - with the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of telling ourselves convincing stories about ourselves. Only the story of the future seems to work and so we must perpetually knock down yesterday to build tomorrow.

Perhaps the fact that I have arrived back where I began is the point. TS Eliot wrote: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started." That is the way of things. But it is not quite where we began, for Eliot adds that, at this end, we shall "know the place for the first time". Perhaps there is a miracle in this circularity, the miracle of finally finding ourselves not in transit, but at home.

For Eliot that home was an English chapel, as it has often been for me. For others it may be a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, a synagogue or a mosque. But what might it be for all of us all at once? What kind of home is imaginable, away from the desert and the lonely road?

In Saul Bellow's short novel The Actual, the hero, Harry Trellman, rediscovers an old love, Amy. He looks into her face and, in a moment of sublime revelation, he sees her as a kind of miracle: "I stood back from myself and looked into Amy's face. No one else on this earth had such features. This was the most amazing thing in the life of the world."

In the astounding fact of personhood, Harry sees the light of the world that illuminates all else. In spite of everything, in love and in friendship and even in casual encounters, most of us most of the time retain this sense of amazement at the irreducible fact that these people, these one-offs, exist at all. Our continued sense of each other as fully human beings is, or should be, what makes us pause, tell Bill Gates to be quiet for a moment and step off the desert road.

As long as that sense persists, it will hold us back from complete stupidity. You cannot send humans you recognise as persons to the gas chanbers, the gulag or the torture cell, favourite occupations of the 20th century. You cannot even tell them they must be on this road to the future, nor can you consign them to the desert. And you will, at least, think twice before cloning them, aborting their "undesirable" offspring or offering to improve their genes.

I have long been grateful for that sign in Newark airport. It gave me much to think about as I waited for my flight to Atlanta - I was, of course, absurdly early. My anxiety had, as usual, been unnecessary. And so, amid the busy, impressive paraphernalia of an American airport, I thought again about how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and about how they are all different; but this time I also realised, thanks to and in spite of that sign, that these stories are all True. I had achieved a capital T. This, I saw, is "the most amazing thing in the life of the world", this is the ordinary miracle of being alive. It may not be much, it may be far less than we had in the past. But it is a beginning.

Go to - Next Page | Home