This is a partial history of the literary topos “sub specie aeternitatis”. The Latin phrase means “from the perspective of eternity”. Eternity is the way God sees the universe, not as a succession of moments in time from past, to present, to future, but as a simultaneous present which includes the past and future as if they are already and always present. This temporal simultaneity is accompanied by a spatial totality and simultaneity. In both Chaucer and Dante the protagonist ends life’s wanderings and struggles by being carried up into the heavens and looking back on earth from the point of view of eternity. Their literary source is Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. The vision results in epistemological transformation that provides consolation or “contemptus mundi”, the rejection of earthly concerns. The “sub specie aeternitatis” vision is both a revelation of the nature of the universe, time, and the protagonist’s place in them and a disillusionment that radically changes the protagonist’s understanding. The work of literature and the reading of it are potentially transformational. For the pagan lover Toilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde the “sub specie aeternitatis” vision results in religious conversion as well as epistemological transformation. Boethius, whom Chaucer translated, offers an analogue to the vision in the way humans perceive a sphere through their senses and reason. Dante’s version of the vision in Paradiso xxxiii is the most famous literary example as the protagonist’s vision merges with the vision of God as an intense ray of light. The conversion and consolation associated with the “sub specie aeternitatis” vision takes cosmic dimension in Dante. A modern example is Jorge Luis Borges’ parody of Dante in his story “The Aleph” where a satiric vision takes place not in the heavens but in the basement of the house in Buenos Aires. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote the “sub specie aeternitatis” trope is present by its deliberate omission, and yet performs the functions of epistemological conversion, transformation, and consolation in Don Quixote’s death. One brief sleep and Don Quixote passes from dreaming (in Borges’ sense of the word) a reality from the fantasy of his books of chivalry to a true reality, similar to the conversion Troilus experiences from the sorrow of love to the pure felicity of heaven. With Don Quixote and the realist novel the “sub specie aeternitatis” vision may seem bound for extinction, at least with its cosmological apparatus of heavenly spheres, but it finds new form in the ending of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The final reading of Melquiades’s parchments reveals that the sequential events of the novel exist as if in a simultaneous moment, like God’s eternity, embracing all time and space in one, before the vision vanishes forever.
From the Perspective of EternityEnglish Faculty Publications
Citation InformationMcAllister, R. (2016). From the perspective of eternity. Journal of Literature and Art Studies, 6(10), 1149-1154. doi:10.17265/2159-5836/2016.10.005