Sub specie aeternitatis

sub specie

Being ill (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) concentrates the mind wonderfully. You find yourself thinking about all kinds of things very differently.



Priorities, for example. What’s important? Is my job important? Earning a salary, yes of course it’s important to me, I need food and lodging and all kinds of incidentals. But am I making a difference in the world, or bettering the human race, by working at my job? Hmm. Probably not.



How about the things I do every day? The little tasks I undertake in my job (which can be very petty). The back-and-forth at home: clean this, put that away, arrange this. Important? No. But I do them anyway.



I am reluctant to waste time, but now I have time on my hands, and it makes me thoughtful about all kinds of things. History is suddenly very appealing to me. So is children’s literature, which seems to me to be more immediate and more important than sober grown-up literature (except for poetry).  And suddenly I’m listening to music again, and it’s very satisfying.



Maybe just thinking is important. Maybe just writing this stupid blog is important. Maybe talking to people is important.  Maybe love is important.



I have lived in Providence for over thirty-five years, and I love every dreary block and corner of it. But I looked up at the skyline the other day, and thought: it’s just a city. There have been hundreds of thousands of cities in the history of the world; most of them have tumbled into dust and are forgotten now. This one will be forgotten too, someday.



Sub specie aeternitatis means “under the aspect of eternity.” It indicates looking at something from outside of time, without regard to the present moment or its little difficulties.



As Partner and I are fond of quoting to one another in moments of acceptance: “In a hundred years, all new people.”



And in a thousand years, probably mostly new cities and mostly new national borders and probably also some pretty wild new seacoasts.



In ten thousand years, all new countries, and possibly people with gills and flippers.



Makes you a little vertiginous, doesn’t it?



Here’s one of my favorite quotes about the advance of time in a single person’s life, from the end of the last book of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”:



This is a very long quote, but a very good one. Please bear with me.



There came over me a feeling of profound fatigue at the realization that all this long stretch of time not only had been uninterruptedly lived, thought, secreted by me, that it was my life, my very self, but also that I must, every minute of my life, keep it closely by me, that it upheld me, that I was perched on its dizzying summit, that I could not move without carrying it about with me.


I now understood why it was that the Duc de Guermantes, whom, as I looked at him sitting in a chair, I marveled to find him shewing his age so little, although he had so many more years than I beneath him, as soon as he rose and tried to stand erect, had tottered on trembling limbs  . . . and had wavered as he made his way across the difficult summit of his eighty-three years, as if men were perched on giant stilts, sometimes taller than church spires, constantly growing and finally rendering their progress so difficult and perilous that they suddenly fall. I was alarmed that mine were already so tall beneath my feet; it did not seem as if I should have the strength to carry much longer attached to me that past which already extended so far down and which I was bearing so painfully within me! . . . .




We are all on stilts, which grow higher and higher, “sometimes taller than church spires. “



We might fall suddenly.



But the view is spectacular.


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

5 Responses to Sub specie aeternitatis

  1. I love that passage. Thanks for sharing. Sometimes I feel amazed at how much I have seen in 59 years, mostly without traveling.

    Now I must find the rest of the Malvina Reynolds song for you.

    When we were around 15, my best friend, Mary, and I would go around singing “We’re gonna be gone in 100 years. We’re gonna be gone, so drink up your beers” (or a more dignified “dry up your tears”.

    Malvina’s song “This World (Love It Like A Fool” ends:

    “Oh, this old world is all I know,
    It’s dust to dust when I have to go from this world,
    This world, this world.

    Somebody else will take my place,
    Some other hands, some other face,
    Some other eyes will look around
    And find the things I’ve never found.

    Don’t weep for me when I am gone,
    Just keep this old world rolling on, this world,
    This world, this world.”

  2. P.S. Your blog regularly gives me a lot to think about.

  3. Alice Sylvia says:

    For me, you were often the light I needed to brighten an awful work day. And for what it’s worth, watching your tarot card readings taught me to trust my own instincts a little more. I learned that it’s okay to put the manual aside, and read the universe straight up. I’m still not as brave as you, but your blog helps calm this nervous Nellie.

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