. . . to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Though we've always called it our Tiffany chandelier, it isn't a chandelier but rather a pendant lamp. We don't know whether it's Tiffany or just Tiffany-style, but it is more than a century old. It shows its age: one of its ribs has come loose on the inside. I've seen modern knockoffs of it: the cheap glass lacks striation and texture, and the knockoffs are made of flat panels, whereas our chandelier has only rounded surfaces.
It doesn't come from England and has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. It's just this: my mother-in-law's aunt-by-marriage was once in service at a house where Dickens had lived. She did the same work in America, and the family for whom she worked gave her a wedding present.
Its pattern is called "Grape:" clusters of little red circles against green leaves, and the background is a variegated brown like peanut butter swirled in ice cream. Its circle of light discovers the table and those gathered round it; the rest of the room rests in softer amber, a butterscotch light. This lamp has now hung from six ceilings. The last of these is the story I have to tell.
Illud tempus -- that's what Mercea Eliade called it. That time, as opposed to this ordinary time. The time in which cosmos was made out of chaos, when Marduk slew Tiamat and made heaven and earth from the split parts of her body, or the time as some say when heaven and earth came together again in the flesh of an infant -- such time is not like this regular time of ours that just goes on and on. Not this time but that; not of this world but out of it; not secular but sacred. Illud tempus is always the same time it ever was, the original time, the time in which the world was made and life becomes possible. It isn't after or before anything. Every Christmas is the same as the others, always starting over again but knowing how it's done.
That's why there is so much sentimentality, tradition, repetition. I'm too old and by this time of year too tired to keep track of traditions any more; but we could count on the younger daughter to remember everything -- the height of the tree, the colors of the lights, which ornaments and how many, the size, shape and color of the candles born by the wire reindeer that draw a wire sleigh across the top of the piano -- because she knows that it isn't about now but about how it will always have been: it if doesn't take us out of clock-time and into the timeless presence of incarnation, then it isn't Christmas at all.
Philosophers have always been interested in meaning and in how things come to mean other things. It happens all the time: these letters for instance, arranged in certain patterns, are worthless except for what they represent in your mind as you scan them; how can this happen, that things stand for other things that aren't even things, aren't even there? Human life is inconceivable without it, but how can the mind conceive of the condition of its own existence? It's called semiology.
The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce distinguished three kinds of signs: the icon, the index and the symbol. Icons mean something that they resemble: the printer icon on this computer looks sort of like a printer, and Byzantine icons look sort of like the Virgin Mary or some other saint. Indices point to what they mean, often by a causal connection: the lowering cumulus clouds predict rain, and the brevity of a bar on the thermometer recommends that I wear a coat outside. But the mind's true subversion of reality occurs in the Sherwood Forest of symbols, where the rules are forgotten and anything can come to mean anything, so long as those using the sign agree. The most outrageous of all symbols is perhaps the Cross, which is nothing originally but two pieces of wood nailed together; which came to mean by Roman custom the agonizing and shameful death of a traitor; but which in the stories of one prophet's execution came to stand for his restoration and eternal life. The means of death now represents for millions their victory over death. It goes to show you that the link between the thing that means something (called signifiant by Ferdinand de Saussure) and what it means (signifié) is a marriage of convenience and utterly arbitrary.
Anything can mean anything, to those who agree on the meaning.
My world has been disrupted since last Christmas. I'm not in the same place. I've lost thousands of generous and friendly books and a study the size of some people's parlors with floor to ceiling windows, eight acres of woods and streams and the kitty who used to roam them with me. There are gains as well as losses. I am proud to live on the crowded island where twelve gates welcome the world, in the city where (according to my radio station) eight million people live in (mostly) peace and enjoy the benefits of democracy, most of which are only a subway ride away. Every day I greet a few more of my books who have survived. My music traveled with me, stored in a tiny shiny box. And the study I now share, where I write these words, is smaller but flooded with sunlight.
Our chandelier however lay for months here in the study, perched on boxes of unpacked books, waiting for the super to install it. Just before the holidays it went up, replacing the harsh overhead fixture that had glared on the dining table. And now our friends can see the red grapes and green leaves, and the soft amber light, that bless our home. The table itself and the sideboard opposite it are restored from their place in Gramma's house to something like their original splendor of tiger-oak. Right next to it an eight-foot tree with a selection of the familiar ornaments and hundreds of white and red LED's.
I was waiting for something.
I was waiting for this lamp that is not a chandelier, that has nothing to do with England or Charles Dickens, to bring the spirits of Christmas, the memories and artifacts of a family that is not mine but rather my wife's family, to this extraordinary occasion. I know where I am now. This is illud tempus. And it is also ille locus. I've been traveling here always. This is my place, and I had not known it.