A day is a pyroclastic flow of time, from when you erupt into wakefulness first thing in the morning until you settle at last, still smouldering, into dreams again at the end. Time is continuous like a river or a rock, but as our daily events tumble forward under the gravity of existence and its myriad exigencies, we break it into hours, minutes, seconds, moments of various durations, starts and ends and passages. The crush of the morning and evening commutes, the commingled minutes and minutiae of our jobs and our shopping, the conflicts and comity, calms and enmities, of comrades and committees, the innumerable numismatic munificences and noetic illuminations, all tumbling together, edge to edge, happening to happening. The candle burns down, and as it combusts time busts; we rise bolder in the morning, but the boulder is at last the sand in the hourglass. A turn of a page, a lift of an eyebrow, an utterance, an interaction, a contretemps, all mutually triturated; even the lodestones of our most magnetic ironies are filed away. All is comminuted. Finally the dust settles, and it becomes fixed in memory: another day interpellated in life by the holy rolling stones of broken moments.
I have made allusions here that may not be plain. Let me tell you about a bit of history of which I first read in my childhood. On May 8, 1902, on the island of Martinique in the West Indies, the volcano Mont Pelée erupted. It spewed forth a pyroclastic flow: a nuée ardente, ‘glowing cloud’, a burning mixture of hot gas and stones, tumbling down the mountain at the speed of a jet plane. Pyroclastic is from Greek-derived roots, pyro ‘fire’ and clastic ‘breaking’, because the stones in it are breaking as they burn. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pyroclastic as “Designating, relating to, or consisting of rock fragmented by volcanic action or comminuted in the process of eruption.” Comminuted? It defines comminute as “To reduce (solids) to minute particles; to break, crush, or grind to small fragments or to powder; to pulverize, triturate” – from Latin com ‘together’ and minuere ‘make smaller, lessen’. In as little time as it took you to read those etymologies, the pyroclastic flow burned through the capital of Martinique – the town of St.-Pierre, the “Paris of the West Indies” – annihilating as it comminuted. More than 30,000 people died in a flash. Only one person in town lived, kept safe by thick walls from the burning that flashed through. The thick walls of a windowless prison cell. Auguste Cyparis, the man in the cell, had been locked up the night before after some contretemps in the street – a fight, perhaps? Did he kill someone? Only one person who knew survived, and that was Cyparis himself. Although he did not escape without burns, his crime saved his life; we may say his sentence was commuted by comminution. People who know French will recognize another irony: Saint Pierre means not only ‘Saint Peter’ but ‘holy stone’.
At the ends of our days, we are survivors, too, emerging with permanent marks at least in our memories from the holy heat of the day. But are we Cyparis, who set out to see Paris of the West Indies and ended up séparé, spared, and rescued from his prison four days later? Or are we the mountain, Mont Pelée, with a name so like that of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes – but actually just meaning ‘bald mountain’? Or are we the pyroclastic flow that peeled forth from it and pulverized as it poured down? Do we disgorge time, do we fragment time, are we burned by time but saved by… by what, exactly? Which thing saved Cyparis?
Perhaps we are all three. We create time, we move with time and break it up, we survive the onslaught of time. And then we go back and do it again.