On “Aevum Measures” by Steven Toussaint

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I have a fondness for recondite and forgotten words, whose discovery in the corners of old books so often launches my digression into still deeper planes of historical and conceptual oblivion. Only recently have I realized that much of the work I describe to myself as “writing” consists in hours spent sifting through these sands for a private intelligible object, for a single concept the ages may have cast into the bottomless pit, but that I might rescue, jury-rig, and make useful now. I am also fond of resurrection stories, no less of words than of people.

 

In the grand cathedral of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, the aevum is an ornamental flourish, like the smile on a gargoyle. More than anything, it serves as a tiny component of Aquinas’s solution to a complex intellectual problem: how do we measure and distinguish the existence of fundamentally different kinds of corporeal and spiritual reality? Considering, for example, the difference between God’s experience of time and that of human beings, it becomes clear that the word time itself is inadequate to express the distinction, just as, elsewhere in Aquinas’ system, being will have to appear with an asterisk if we’re using the same word to describe the particular ways in which God and humans respectively are. Eternity, the unique span in which God endures, is not simply an infinite quantity of time, the mode of duration enjoyed by humans and earthly creatures, but something metaphysically other. One comes to understand, reading Aquinas nimbly outstep the objections to his argument, that in meditation on first principles we are perhaps too often measuring distances in kilograms and masses in meters.

 

Aquinas introduces the aevum as a third term, the mean between God’s eternity and humankind’s time. Simply defined, it is the measure of duration enjoyed by the heavenly bodies: the planets, the angels, and the saints. Again, its difference from time is not in degree but in kind. If “permanence of being” is God’s perfection, the total co-incidence of being with its own perpetual endurance, then aeviternal beings “recede” less from this perfection than temporal beings. As beings, in other words, they are subject neither to change nor diminishment. As created things they begin, but unlike us they remain. Were changeableness entirely foreign to the aevum, however, there would be nothing to distinguish it from eternity. According to Aquinas, with a changeless nature, the populations of the aevum have a changeful will, a changeful personality, a changeful influence.

 

The co-incidence of permanence and discrepancy that defines, for Aquinas, the peculiar lineaments of the aevum strikes me as relevant for thinking about poetry, or art of any kind. It’s an ancient cliché that psychologizes the artist as striving to create something “eternal” as his or her consolation for a transitory existence. Perhaps the aevum is the artist’s true destination. That simple but elusive end, an artwork whose actualization feels inevitable and yet surprising, recalls Aquinas’ fastidious discriminations above. Is the poet’s ideal object, in fact, the manufacture of an angel? A creature everlasting, but also capable of swerving from its intended course?

 

The theologian Catherine Pickstock describes this “non-identical repetition,” the conjunction of the same and the different, as the metaphysical character of liturgical language and action. She points to the proliferation of literary devices such as anaphora and apostrophe in the Tridentine Mass, which “engage the worshipper in a complex activity, both anamnetic and anticipatory.” According to Pickstock, the Mass construes its own duration as prefatory to salvation, whose “eschatological consummation” is not some achievement in time, not some temporal terminus towards which we advance through discrete human accomplishments. The “time” of the Mass, therefore, implicitly offers a critique of time, of human history, which arrogates moral progress to its own immanent departures and arrivals.

 

Pickstock hears something analogous in the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose fascination with interminable durations—geologic time, ever-present birdsong, eschatological anticipation, and the angelic aevum—seems to expose the triviality of human hurriedness, but also to dramatize how our very entanglement in these larger spans ensures our participation in what Messiaen called “the perpetual variation” of the aeviternal. I am particularly invested in the intersection between this aspect of Messiaen’s work and his peculiar take on dissonance. Robert Sholl identifies that Messiaen flips the conventionally negative associations of dissonant intervals such as the tritone, so that these notes and chords come to serve as leitmotifs for divine grace, sublimity, and human redemption. I am intrigued that seraphic voices, were we to hear them, might not sound consoling, or even recognizably beautiful, but penetrating, shrill, even unbearable.

 

None of the above ideas exhaust what I have tried to do in “Aevum Measures,” but I hope they establish the chain of associations that got me started.

An excerpt from ‘Aevum Measures,’ reprinted with permission from The Cultural Society. 

 

abide more tritone idle mode

if bodies into bodies steal

 

as cockles swim

or scuttle

for hollowed hull

and drawing breath

in darkness mull

infallible

and out of both

bewilder

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the dominant’s a leaky still

 

for quiet divination

for every thought

a finger on

the fret-

board’s shifting centre

and nothing dearer

than the pure heart’s

purring minor

requires no demonstration

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the poor heart’s pooling mirror

 

for rivers must

revert upon attrition

not on faith alone

deliver

trembling notes

on tearing bow

the clerics call

a devil’s acquisition

a breathing hull

as cockles cling

to boats they know

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the shaper and the shaper’s skill

 

made sharpest corners

spherical

while desperate will

sequestered crept

in steady brass

the skid to dread

we cringe

that man carves flesh

out of himself

a flying V

the tympani

a temporary residence

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the rosy cross in domic hush

 

the rosy wheel

in swansdown ayre

the melodist

with rigged guitar

embellishes

with mordents pricked

from erstwhile soaring

albatross

what miracle

so much of pain

could make it past

your theist brush

your mark of Cain

where airplanes rush

and hostile trace

abandoned ships

in space

 

abide more tritone idle mode

despite the light your light deprives

 

we see it crest

in savage angel

changefulness

in fauxbourdon

where devils scourged

Gregorians

in antiphon

where any pleasure

fifths afforded

flights aborted measure

notes neglected bird-

inflected

space a bird denies

 


Steven Toussaint is the author of the poetry collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Society, 2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014). With his wife, the novelist Eleanor Catton, he administers the Horoeka/Lancewood Reading Grant. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Steven was the 2016 Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato and is a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2017. He lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Tahera Qutbuddin with Fr. Thomas Joseph White at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting.

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Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature, The University of Chicago, and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.