An eternity scarcely begun…

James Joyce (1882 - 1941)

James Joyce (1882 – 1941)

Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And, remember, it is an eternity of pain. […] To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! […] Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to the remotest space, and a million miles in thickness: and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried it all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain: and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; and even, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun”.

From the novel “A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce (1916)

The Bible reverberates with visualizations of aleph naught infinity using the parable of endless grains of sand: “God, how difficult Your thoughts are for me, how vast their sum is! If I counted them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (Psalm 139:17-18). “By Myself I have sworn, says The Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:15-17). “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured” (Genesis 41:49-52). The same parable passes on to James Joyce’s autobiographical novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, where in a stunning passage a preacher’s sermon approaches the notion of infinity in quite a similar though somewhat frightful manner.



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