Nothing lasts forever, not monuments or mountains, not deserts nor seas, not stories or knowledge, not emperors or kings. Everything comes to pass, some things more rapidly than others. In an age of digital permanence, where our signatures are everlasting and our footprints fall fossilised forever, there’s something beautiful about fragility, something magical about the moment itself, something to celebrate in impermanence.
Flowers fade: the youthful exuberance of tender stems flowering into adulthood, turning towards the sun, cut for their beauty, displayed signs of affluence, then wilting, trooping, shedding petals like minutes from the hour, discarded and dying, returning to their roots, or rather the roots of others. A cycle of life and decay, powered by the sun. A cycle of beauty and death, and beauty in death, and life through death, everlasting.
Life is measured in time, and yet time itself is a matter of perspective: the bees that pollinate the flowers existing within a perspective of their own life, microscopic by our standards, yet we in turn are diminished by geological timeframes, mere motes of dust in the air as mountains are ground into sand by the wind and friction of elapsed time.
Those things that seem most permanent are permanent simply through the illusion of time: permanent in our lifetime, but transient in the scheme of things.
Paper yellows with age: it’s auto destructive, the very chemical processes that give it life are architects of its own demise. To commit something to paper, the metaphor of fruition and permanence, is laid waste by irony when we understand that we are simply consigning it to a more lingering and. But ideas persist past paper: stories are told and retold, from words in the air, to vellum, through paper, and into the digital, but we are deluded if we believe that our perception of permanence is anything more than that. A perception. Not a fact.
Everything is claimed by entropy in the end: stories can persist over great lengths of time, adapting and evolving, re-contextualised and translated. Stories give the illusion of defying their own limits, of escaping their own perspective, and yet whilst the words may remain, the meaning may easily be lost. So much is contextual and culturally imbued, that instead of words losing their meaning, the meaning may be lost around the words. Words left isolated by time itself, orphaned of their context, detached from their meaning.
Words change, invented, adapted, subverted, and claimed. A segway from one thing into another. An adapted meaning. Words to which we ascribe great power, words transcribed into permanence evolve into something far more fluid. The words remain as brittle skeletons of past meaning, mere fossils of thoughts that have fled.
Performance is an expression of impermanence: taking that which was written and presenting it in the moment, and in that moment alone. For sure we can record and capture and attempt to emulate, but ultimately the moment has gone, and every photo is better pale impression of the reality that went before. A higher frame rate and deeper definition merely reinforces the lie that we choose to believe, that we can defy time itself and keep every moment forever, slowly subsumed beneath layers of history, the present crowded out by perpetual recognition and reflection upon the past.
But the past fails to exist if we no longer have meaning for it: when society is done with the lessons, when culture has evolved to the point where all meaning is lost, the memories themselves become meaningless. Sometimes society chooses to forget, sometimes it forgets through negligence.
Sometimes we want to forget, we seek impermanence, we influence stories to rob them of their power, to discredit and disown them, to deny and destroy them. Stories are tricky things, with a habit of persisting despite our best intentions to own and control them.
The actor creates meaning in the moment through their interpretation of written words into the three-dimensional space: through their movement, tone, inflection, hesitation, repetition, and raw energy, they draw the character from the page, like a sculptor teasing form from the stone itself, they create a momentary life and that which has none until time robs it of that life, relegating to memory of the performance alone.
Yet had we captured that image in stone, the stone itself is in permanent: softened through acidity of rain, eroded by the passage of time. The sharp, delineated features fade as memory fades, the echoes of meaning becoming fainter as they rebound off distant walls.
Writing is a performance in its own right: the performance is dynamic in the moment, played out to an audience of editing, refinement, and reflection, only shared after the final curtain call. Writing is already dead when it comes to us: the fossil of thinking already thought. In our responses, our replies, and our pleading,we are simply throwing more words against the wall. The thinking that was done, the words that were written, can never be unsaid. Only time itself can rob them of their power. We can burn books, but never the words themselves, which float like smoke in memory and story, evasive, elusive, always seeking to nest in the next mind.
When we travel we exist in the moment: the memory of the path that we have trod reflected in the journey still to come, but only here at this moment in this time are we fully present. The memories and photos of the journey we have taken are merely prompts the memory and imperfect recollection. The planning we do for future sites is simply aspiration. The only thing we can ever truly know, is that which we know now. But in the future the new things that we learn will change what we hold to be true. I will never be again the person that I am today. You will never be yourself tomorrow, but rather renewed, reborn, reinterpreted to exist in a new time behind the same face.
We paint our world upon our understanding in the moment: and it is always within our own context that we see it. A community of individuals, divided by the things that we know to be true.
Impermanence gives things meaning: if we lived forever we would not value today. It is the impermanence of the flower that lies at the heart of its beauty. The validation of youth is old age. The beauty of stories is in their ability to persist, not forever, but simply beyond the horizon that we can see. Things made of steel and stone may try to persist through mass and strength alone, but in reality the finest porcelain, the most delicate idea, the things of greatest beauty may be those which last the longest.
And if our stories don’t persist in their current form, maybe it’s through their influence, their reinterpretation, and the ways that they change people as they pass through that we achieve our closest thing to immortality. Not a mountainside monument that will last forever, but rather one point of beauty in a long journey, one component of the view that goes past, one single point comprising part of a wonderful vista.
As the last note of the song fades, we feel not sadness but celebration. We feel a release, the cyclical nature of music itself is a recognition to the fact that it must end. Its ending is what gives it power.
I have a friend who is giving away art: he is exploring his own sense of loss and permanence. He is taking the power of loss to give the artefact some kind of intrinsic or imbued value beyond that which could be ascribed by owning it himself. As the artwork leaves his possession, he may never see it again, he may be no further part of its story, its time with him is done. But the person who finds it may ascribe new meaning: they will interpret it in their reality. Whilst impermanent and fragile, that single image may partake in multiple performances, interpreted and reinterpreted, and even though there is no one person to read the story, it still has a story. Beauty through its own impermanence.
Nothing lasts forever, yet still we don’t rail against impermanence, but rather embrace it, through song and poetry, story and art, things which are fluid, adaptive, highly personal and desperately delicate. We find beauty in these things through their impermanence, not despite it.
Performance itself becomes the thing, not overly rehearsed, not scripted down to the last moment, but spontaneous and emergent, slightly chaotic in its execution. Sometimes we need spontaneity, sometimes we need to get lost, if only to understand that we are never fully found, that nothing is ever fully under control, that a sense of understanding is itself impermanent
We hold our books in libraries, our artwork in galleries, our artefacts in museums. We seek permanence for those things which are intrinsically fluid. But let us never forget the beauty of impermanence and fragility.