Thinking about Time in the Eternal City

Funny how as we get older, we try to compensate for our lost years by contemplating our achievements: titles, possessions, family, experiences. We think of the money we made, the degrees we earned, the children we raised, the loves we felt, and after a time of reflection, we like to think, “Time flies, but I have lived!” But what is time? And what is the value of a life? What is the meaning of this coming, being and going? You know, the usual heavy-weight existential questions!

I am walking around Rome and, of course, it is natural to think of these thoughts here.  In the presence of seemingly timeless monuments of empires and religions and lives, lived in the same physical location but in a distant point in time and with inconceivably different frames of mind, many artists, philosopher and thinkers have thought about the fleeting nature of life in the Eternal City. Shelly pondering the death of his young poet friend, Keats, said, “Go thou to Rome, at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness”. And I have come!

In my backpack, I have a copy of Boethius‘s Consolation of Philosophy, a number of mental postcards from Michelangelo, Liszt and Spartacus among others, and a series of existential questions of my own. In Rome and the Vatican (and in many other parts of Italy), I am standing on a stage that has been the set for many serious plays. The performers are long gone but the props are still there. Take the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. It was once carved to guard a tomb in ancient Egypt. When Caesar defeated Cleopatra it was brought to Rome and placed besides the Colosseum. There, for hundreds of years, it witnessed gladiator fights and possibly Christians being thrown to the lions. With the Roman Empire‘s decline, it was moved to the heart of Catholic Christianity, the Vatican City. It has been there longer than any pope and has outlived civil wars and world wars, and is still standing there now that I’m visiting for a fleeting moment. The history of Rome is very rich and full of intricacies and nuances. If you are a history buff, check out the History of Rome podcast (Warning: it is pretty detailed, so be prepared for many hours if you are planning to listen to it!)

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Colosseum

Ideas are liquid and can transcend time and space, and yet, some aspects of a civilization have to be experienced in specific locations. While it is possible to get a sense of a painting by looking at a representation, it is almost impossible to experience a sculpture by looking at pictures or even videos of it. Virtual reality might change that in the future but for now you need to go to the Vatican Museums or the Villa Borghese to experience the masterpieces there. Similarly, it is hard to simulate being in a special architectural space, for example looking up to the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica or around the Pantheon‘s sacred space. And then, there’s just some spaces that are pregnant with energy and emotion: the spartan meditation cells of the San Marco monastery that house luminous Fra Angelico frescoes, or the Sistine Chapel, with its backbreaking ceiling masterpiece and breathtaking Last Judgement painting. It is quite an experience walking through the endless corridors of the Vatican Museums, up and down stairs, tired and hot and suddenly turn a corner to be face-to-face with the End of Time! Famously, when Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, saw the Last Judgement, he fell to his knees and said, “may God forgive our sins!”

When growing up in Iran, I learned a lot about the pinnacles of Western Civilization: the paintings of Leonardo, the philosophies of Socrates and Plato, the music of Beethoven and Bach. But with limited access to Europe, my relationship to the West was like having a pen pal that you have never met in person: you can learn a lot about them but not experience their presence fully. In the last few years, I have visited this friend repeatedly, finding out more about their temperament each time. In Rome the the first masterpiece that blows my mind is the sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons. How can stone capture the anguish in the man’s face, the scream of “we exist!” in his pronounced muscles the moment before they will be crushed by snakes, and the poetry of Humanity in the grip of Fortuna? This Greek masterpiece was excavated in the 1500’s and paraded through the streets of Rome after being hidden in dirt for almost a millennium. It was a sensation and shook the art world at the time. Among the people who saw it and were changed forever, was a young polymath, Michelangelo.

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Laocoon and His Sons

Michelangelo only saw the Greek sculptors of the past as true masters and did not consider his contemporaries in their league. Famously, he was fond of a badly damaged Greek sculpture known as the “Belvedere Torso” (at display in the Vatican Museums). Of the figure that was once whole, only part of the torso is left. Michelangelo used to touch this figure for inspiration and when Pope Julius II requested that he complete it by attaching hands and legs to it, he declined, saying it was too beautiful to be altered.

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Belvedere Torso

Michelangelo is, perhaps, best known for his more dramatic works, for example David, but he was fully capable of bringing out the most tender feelings out of stone. Later on that day, I looked at his Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. In this work and other masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael who paint the same subject, I feel the timeless sadness of loss of innocence in the face of ignorance . Artists are often the conscience of humanity. Looking at the  contrast between the Christian images of suffering and the Roman symbols of triumph, sometimes placed next to each other, I also think of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality in which he contrasts Roman and Christian values.

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Deposition by Raphael

Out on the street, Rome is like a piping hot bowl of spaghetti with a rich sauce: chaotic, unexpected, full of character and ultimately wonderful! In a 15 minute walk from the Colosseum to a restaurant, I walk through the backstage of a Hollywood gladiator flick, a Fellini movie set, and into a scene from a Mario Puzo novel. Inside the museums, I am face to face with timeless masterpieces. In the National Museum, I look into the empty eyes of a Boxer at Rest who has been resting for more than 2000 years!

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Boxer at Rest

In the Villa Borghese (or more precisely the Galleria within the villa), my mind is blown again: this time by Bernini‘s masterpiece the Rape of Proserpina. I can’t believe that the artist could capture such raw emotions through stone: the anguish of Proserpina, the lust of Zeus, the madness of his dog, all literally bare naked for us to encounter! I walk around the statue and look at how Zeus‘ fingers dig into Proserpina‘s flesh and how her hair flows: unbelievable! This brilliance is repeated in other masterpieces: Apollo and Daphne, Bernini‘s David, and Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius.

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Rape of Proserpina

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Detail from the Rape of Proserpina

Another idea blow my mind in Villa Borghese: When looking into the eyes of wild drunken Satyrs on the roof of a large gallery, I am suddenly face-to-face with drunken saints of Rumi! I remembered his ecstatic poem from Divan-e Shams (my translation):

“I am drunk and you are mad, who is going to take us home?

I told you a hundred times drink less, my friend!

I don’t see a sober man in this whole town,

Each worst than the others, mad and drunk!”

It suddenly occurred to me that maybe the mystical obsession with wine and drunkenness (as a symbol of divine unity and ecstasy) in Persian Sufi culture is related to the Cult of Dionysus. In fact, given the ancient history of wine in Persia, it is conceivable that wine was introduced to Greece (and later Rome) via Persia (and Egypt). Wine later became a sacred sacrament and an essential part of Dionysian Mysteries. Perhaps, later on it was re-imported into Persia as a symbol of the path to divinity. To go a step further, maybe Persian mysticism was a resurrection of Dionysian Mysteries, with an Islamic flavor but with the same symbols of ancient Greece. With these far out ideas, I decide I need to learn if anyone has looked into these themes before and also to learn more about Dionysian Mysteries in general. I also remember Nietzsche‘s poetic descriptions of the tensions between Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Greek tragedy (in his Birth of Tragedy) and how art, and specifically tragedy according to him, aimed to resolve it.

Dizzy with these thoughts, I walk down a wide Roman street at night towards my hostel. I pass a dodgy park where drunk young men are throwing empty beer bottles at each other! As I walk by, I see posters on the wall of a museum. They are quotes by a philosopher. I read: “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. Loneliness for the soul, is like food for the body. If one does not know which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” The final poster reveals that the quotes are by Seneca. The wise words echo the wonderful book I have been reading: Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. In addition to the visual arts of Michelangelo and Bernini among others, I have been sitting at the foot of  wise men who can tell me which port I should set sail to.

I found the Consolation in a free book bin on a Toronto curb one day and decided to keep it for future reading. This year as I was getting prepared for my trip to Europe, I decided to bring it along and read it on the way. As I started to read the text, I started to feel that the book was talking directly to me and I hungrily read it from cover to cover!

In the last year, I have been thinking of the questions I started this post with: What is the value of my life? What is the meaning of life and how does that translate into my next practical steps in life? As I am getting older, I feel these questions are becoming more urgent. In the past, I have looked at various spiritual traditions and social movements for inspiration but in the last couple of years, I have felt a bit depleted of direction. Additionally, recently, difficult situations have happened in my life where I have lost contact with some dear friends that I still miss and reconciling these events with my life has been challenging. Finally, I have become disillusioned in some of my ideals, but still firm in others. In short, for me, it has been, and still is, a time of questioning and reflection. I sometimes miss my past youthful passion and happy-go-lucky spirit of inquiry!

Boethius was a 6th century scholar and statesman with a brilliant mind. In addition to serving the Roman empire, he was a philosopher who was particularly interested in the philosophy of the Greeks (especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). At the height of his power, Boethius was accused of treason and was sent to jail to await his death sentence. He wrote the Consolation when waiting to die in prison. Given this grim setting, it is not a surprise that the beginning of the book is pretty dark. In jail, Boethius is visited upon by Lady Philosophy who after asking a few questions proceeds to “heal” him from his despair by means of Reason and Truth. The mood slowly moves from Despair to Joy, which given the circumstances is incredible!

In an early passage, Lady Philosophy states:

“He is in no real danger. He merely suffers from a lethargy, a sickness that is common among the depressed. He has forgotten who he really is, but he will recover, for he used to know me, and all I have to do is cloud the mist that beclouds his vision.”

When I read this passage, I was shocked by how relevant it felt to me. I wanted to have the clouds removed from my eyes. I read on. According to Lady Philosophy, a wise person should not put their trust in flighty Fortuna. Good and bad fortune come and go, and more often than not, they disappoint. History is full of examples of people who were “fortunate” and lost their fortune and vice versa. In the face of this flux, it is important to find an anchor, a Northern Star to guide one.

During the last few months, the world has seemed very random to me. My days seem to have been ruled by chance meetings and good and bad events that like waves have washed up against my shore. Lady Philosophy advises Boethius (and I listen carefully) that if you find your inner Truth, you will become free of your reliance on Fortuna and will gain knowledge of your next steps in life.

Again, I am astonished by how these words are similar to Persian Mystics that I am familiar with: Hafiz, Rumi and Khayaam. I know that the Persian poets were influenced by Greek and Roman philosophies but my intuition is that this went beyond “influence” and was more like a “reminder” of a Truth that they both knew. I read on. In my interpretation of the next passages, I understand that the only thing that is worth pursuing in the world is True Happiness, which unlike achievements, falls outside the realm of Time.  Truth is the one drop of eternity that we carry within and that lights our path in the world from one tiny step to the next. In the face of adversity and change, the one constant is the Truth in our heart.  Like a blind person following a silky rope, we will know our next steps in life if we follow our heart and see how it resonates with Love.

I have to say the combination of these ideas and the art I have experienced in Rome turned out to be a powerful eye-opening cocktail! The Consolation is full of other great ideas (including excellent discussions around the questions of free will and predestination) but for me its best gift, its greatest “consolation”, is its reassurance that I should trust my inner voice again, and walk within the world but free of it. I will strive to do this and aim to step on my path again, a path that has to be discovered and lived anew, every moment.

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Sisyphus in Mauthausen

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“Stairs of Death” at Mauthasen Concentration Camp

Touched by kisses,
Covered with bruises,
My body is a chain,
A snake eating its tail.

Step by step,
These endless stairs,
My life is a short sentence,
Written again and again.

Looking at a blind sun,
Talking to a deaf moon,
My tears are drops in a flood,
Evaporating before they hit the earth.

You won’t remember me,
And I don’t remember them,
The ones before and the ones after,
History, a silent heavy rock on our backs.

But I’ll live in your bones,
Sleep in your dreams,
Look through your eyes,
I’ll be the revolution under your skin.

I’ll push you forward and I’ll push you within,
Because we have to find out, we have to know,
What is on the other side of this coin, the meaning of this toil.

If we can’t ask life, let us ask death, and if he is also silent, we will ask our hearts, for they will know:
where do we come from and where will we go.

Note: I wrote this poem after visiting the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp Memorial. For more about my visit and the camp please see this post.

Mauthausen

The country road from Linz to Mauthausen is beautiful and peaceful. My bus stops at small villages and picks up polite and quiet passengers. The landscape is green and hilly. It is hard to imagine I am so close to a place that, for close to a 7 years, was the site of profound human suffering. I’m on my way to the Mauthausen Memorial.The Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp was one of the most infamous Nazi labor camps. During its operation between 1938 to 1945 between 120’000 to 320’000 people died there.

The bus stops. I get off and follow signs up a side road. On the walk up the hill to the gate of the memorial, I pass several beautiful country houses. Later, I find out many of these were built by slave labor for the families of Nazi camp supervisors. I hear a stream flowing beside the road. The sky is grey and I can hear birds chirping before rain. I walk past a beautiful field of wheat. The stalks are dancing in the wind. I see a small red bicycle beside a farmhouse. Life goes on.

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Field of wheat, close to Mauthausen Memorial

Austria’s cultural landscape is shifting. This is my second time in Linz. I first came here 6 years ago to attend the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP). I am attending the same conference again. Since the first time I came here, I notice many more refugees and immigrants in Linz and the villages that I pass on the way to Mauthausen. Here and there, I hear Farsi Dari (from Afghanistan) and I see a large Turkish flag on top of a cafe with mustached men sitting at the front drinking from small cups of strong tea.

I go up the country road and after a few breathtaking minutes see the camp. Mauthausen is located close to stone quarries. Linz was one of Hitler’s favorite cities and he planned to turn it into a center of Nazi culture and art. In his demented vision, his empire would last thousands of years, and so he wanted the best stones that last forever for his neoclassical imposing buildings. The camps were set here, then, as the perfect site of slave labor that would help build the empire. This changed later on and slowly even this absurd vision was lost. Towards the end of the war, the main purpose of the camp was to kill, especially Prisoners of War (POWs), through labor, deprivation and despair.

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Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial

At the memorial, I join a small group of people for an English tour. Our guide is a German schoolteacher with sensitive eyes who looks a bit like Alain de Botton. His presentation is heartfelt. While he is informative and accurate, more than anything he helps us reflect:  how is this possible? He would not offer explanations for people’s motivations and a few times when people try to over simplify things, he gently reminds us that, “we don’t know”. At one point, when reading the description of the sleeping quarters, he pauses and says, “sorry, I can’t read this. Please search for it online.  This is all documented.” I appreciate his silence: this is a memorial and not a museum.

There are many questions about the people who lived in the surrounding areas. They must have known what was going on here. How could they bear it? Our guide is patient and says there was a range of responses. A few complained, some collaborated (most infamously in hunting down more than 480 Russian POWs who had escaped in what became known as the “Rabbit Hunt”) but mostly people were silent. This silence is easy to judge from a distance. A few days after my visit, I found a short video with interviews with some of the local residents years after the war and they described how they felt about living in such an infamous place. Sometimes a better choice than blaming or dismissing is to stay present.

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Stairs of Death

We look down a high hill which is on top of the stone quarries. Prisoners were made to carry stones (sometimes as heavy as 50 kg) up a stairway infamously known as the “Stairs of Death”. Many people lost their lives here. I later walk down the steps and look at the tall silent stone wall. Sometimes prisoners were thrown off this hill to their death. Often SS officers and sometimes the kapos (prisoner functionaries who supervised other prisoners) forced the prisoners to conduct pointless exercises, such as running. Many prisoners died from exhaustion.

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Shower Rooms – Many prisoners died of exposure while waiting stark naked and wet in the snow for “hygienic showers”

In the basement of a large building, we visit shower rooms, gas chambers, ovens. In the airless concrete rooms where many spent their last moments, I feel a profound void. Rather than the presence of evil, I feel the absence of God. A place empty of love, light, humanity. Often, people talk of the mystery of God and love, and how mystics seek to experience that. I am in the presence of another mystery, the mystery of darkness and absence of love. This mystery is also part of our existence, the other side of the coin or the shadow of our collective self. Perhaps, to really experience love, one has to experience the lack of it too.

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Names of prisoners who died are written in the rooms where formerly bodies were kept before being burnt

Now I know why I am here. I feel an old pain deep in my heart: the pain of encountering darkness and having to incorporate it into your vision of the world. Like many others growing up in the Middle East in the 1980’s, I was exposed to war, revolution and extreme sociopolitical  pressures when I was a child. In a society where most people have experienced these, you don’t think of them as “traumatic”. They are part of “ordinary” life. I did not get exposed to the worst experiences directly: I did not see death first hand, did not get injured, did not disappear. But I was close enough to the people who did experience these to get second degree burns. The idea that people disappeared randomly and that there were other people out there who wanted to invade and kill us was a reality. I am far from being alone in these experiences and worst ones, as this memorial testifies. Everyday in different regions of the world, but especially in the Middle East as I am writing this, thousands of people face the harsh realities of violent human suffering: the darkness of lovelessness.

I survived. I grew up. I left. I forgot. Or so I thought. Years later, I still feel something painful deep inside: a hidden wound that you don’t know exists but hurts and makes you look for relief in the wrong places, a spell that pushes you towards an unknown point in your destiny, a quiet voice in your ear that says, “everyone you love can disappear in a moment!” These elements have created tremendous pressure in my life. Rather than making me give up, they have forced me to run forward. They have made me thirsty for life, but also afraid of disappearing. They have made me feel grateful for what I have but also afraid of losing it. And this fear is something I would like to leave at this memorial. I am tired of running and want to sit down and rest.

I start to make my way out of the memorial. I start to feel a strong bond with the people who have suffered here and with the ones who have suffered in other places and in other times: a bond of common human pain. I remember a book called “Man in the Search of Meaning” by Viktor Frankl who was a Holocaust survivor and a psychologist. Upon encountering tremendous pain and suffering, Frankl identified the search for meaning as an essential part of the human condition. Until we realize that the “unexamined life is not worth living“, we are like Sysiphus dragging the burden of our meaningless existence up the mountain of time. Perhaps our task is to face the mystery, search and find a meaning, the meaning, to our existence.

When walking in the middle of a dark cold night with sadistic guards hitting him with rifle butts, Frankl suddenly had a realization. I quote his book: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be if only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” Frankl looked his heart in the face and found his meaning. In the midst of emptiness, he was able to see the one thing that was left and could not be taken away from him. I am inspired by this idea and I also realize that this meaning is something one has to find, to experience, to live, oneself:  while the “song of many poets” are previous road signs, they are not the destination or the road.

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As I walk away from the gate, I come by a statue that rises out of the ground by the side of the road. A series of stone human heads are silently peering forward. They are surrounded by growing grass and small fragile flowers. Drops of rain start dropping from the sky. I continue to walk. The essence of the river is to flow.

To live is to love, to feel, to hurt, to hate, to seek, to know, and to love again.