Eternity described by James Joyce

The voice is that of a priest in 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' by James Joyce. He is trying to convey to his congregation what an eternity in Hell would be like. It is an impressive description of the idea of eternity, and  terrifies the young Stephen Dedalus…


''Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? ..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 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, hair 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 away 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 all been carried away and if that 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 even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.''

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    • I kind of ignored the bit where it was a bout Hell - it was the vastness of eternity that he captured descriptively that I found stuck with me. Very similar to the old Buddhist description of a vast mountain being rubbed by a piece of silk once every millenia and the time it takes for the mountain to be worn to the ground is the definition of an eternity. The book is good, I have not read it sequentially in one go, I've been dipping in and out at random, just because I love his over the top type of lyrical language - he is always in some state of inner crises or poetic drama and doesn't hesitate to describe it! The book is really about James Joyce's rejection of the Catholic faith in the end, and his commitment to life as an artist. In the meantime as he gets to that point, it is very descriptive of some theological ideas and practices. And sin! :)

    • It's great that you had that old man to help you, fortuitous how things like that happen in one's life.


      It occured to me that James Joyce's famous story 'The Dead' is about a gathering at a party, near Christmas time. Maybe it would be a good one to read around Thanksgiving.

      It starts on page 96 of this PDF, which is from Trinity University, so it is safe to open -


      It's long for a 'short story', poignant, a lot of surface stuff, but deep down moving in the end. My old friend who was a great Irish author, used to ask a group of us to read it out loud to him at least once a year, he loved it so much. We did that for 10 years, until he died. There is a movie of it too, with Anjelica Huston.
    • Haha that last line make me laugh out loud. :)

      It is great you had that reaction, to see inside his head. I did not feel moved by him or any character either. It was the snow at the end lying equally on the living and the dead that I found moving, the flow of nature that blanks out, or covers over, or washes away the inconsequential petty details of all our lives, that we attach so strongly to, the death grip.

      It's funny waht moves people. Husband and me went to see Grindelwald at weekend. All the way through i am feeling loads of conspiracy theory ideas about elevation of occult,, the emotional manipulation, and the subversive darkness narrative and conditioning of children going on via the movie, even was angry by times at the political elements, though of course the CGI etc is impressive. Later husband said he cried at parts and I was genuinely shocked! haha! poor fella, I gave him a punch on his arm for crying at it :D

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