Nikolai Ge, “Old Park”

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets,

Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

The garden is a major motif in Four Quartets, an Edenic place at once remembered yet forgotten, lost yet never possessed, a past somehow always present to us – yet only in our future. It is a dead garden, a living garden. Wild and secluded. A wisp enfolded everywhere in Eliot’s poetry, as delicately present as a ghost through a windowpane.

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner.

This is memory for Eliot: a thing at once squandered and cherished. A looming history half-recollected and half-understood. All our memories pool around a garden of dead rose-leaves and hushed air, empty save for its overgrown green. We must imagine the garden with a kind of oriented disorientation, a point of hyper-clarity mossed by an ambiguous relationship to time: is the garden – is the past – dead, or is it alive? Is it lost or will it be found? Eliot’s answer is Yes. All these things: Yes. The garden persists in disequilibrium.

Well and good. If strange. What do you mean, Mr. Eliot?

I remember not so long ago feeling a vertigo similar to the one Eliot describes in his garden. I was sitting with a friend at a sports bar – of all the places to find a quiet academic – watching some basketball. We observed the action in studied silence, both exhausted after a long week. I touched my glass and turned it with lazy fingers, watching the iridescent fragments of amber shift across the dark wood table. My friend nursed his drink whilst I focused on my vague light show. I imagine that little could have depicted us more vividly as the weary, highly educated twenty-somethings that we were that evening. Perhaps we should have brought books. That is certainly not beyond us.

“I want to play catch with my dad,” I said, the thought seizing me without warning. “We used to, all the time. Me and my brother and my dad.”

“We did too.” My friend’s voice was soft, wistful. A long pause stretched between us before he continued: “Do you remember playing outside until the sun went down?”

“Yes,” I whispered, flooded suddenly by the memories. I remembered the purple sky and orange light, the fireflies floating across the grass. The breathless exhilaration of a long day fully spent. I had forgotten. I do not often sit and remember my childhood; I am not a deeply nostalgic person, and there are things in any case that I do not care to recall. Now I remembered something so simple and pure that I could not help feeling a sharp sadness for it. It was a faraway land, and I was a traveller long distanced from that place. I stared at my drink.

The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Memory bears an odd futurity within itself, or I should say that memory always relates to the present, which means that it always relates to something ahead of itself. We are nostalgic for the past inasmuch as we may wish it were our present; we lament inasmuch as we wish it would have been something else; we forget inasmuch as the present causes us to rethink the past. And yet there is danger here, a danger that we might be lost in the past. That it might consume us rather than be purified in us. “Enter,” the angel says to the Pilgrim at the gate to Purgatory, “but I warn you, he who would look back, returns again outside” (Purgatorio IX, 131-32). He who looks back may never look forward. Yet still I yearned for the breaking rush of purity I felt at the shards of memories, and my sadness rested in knowing that the past remained in the past – and that this is why it is dangerous to linger too much.

Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

The yearning that the past draws from us directs us – if it directs us rightly – toward the future. This is also how memories bear futurity: they teach us what we desire, even if it is felt as a loss, and when desire dawns on us we may seek after our future fulfillment. We remember, and so we dream. Dream for a newness that resembles the old. Here is the danger, though; here is precisely the angel’s warning against Dante. We cannot merely bring the past into our present. It will only persist then as the past: I am no longer a child, and this is good. “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor 13:11). We are creatures of time, and time means change. This is good. This is who we are. So merely bringing back the past, merely returning to the garden, is not enough.

It must be a different garden, and yet the same one. It must be a transfigured place, enfolded in the new and the old. The same desire, yet honed. Memory, if it is to be redeemed, must become something other than what it is while yet remaining the same. What I yearn for in my childhood is not childhood itself. I yearn rather for an adulthood that sees in its future a joy that surpasses its childhood, yet finds those old joys in that future.

And that which was broken in childhood may yet be redeemed in that same future.

It is an impossible yearning. Unless a Word should call us to the garden we know and cannot find.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)