Passing by

Turning to page 41 of The Restored Finnegans Wake, where

one is continually firstmeeting with odd sorts of others at all sorts of ages

, we find somebody being asked to tell once again

that fishabed ghoatstory of the haardly creditable edventyres

which form the matter

of the most commonfaced experience

. But who is this somebody now?

it is a slipperish matter, given the wet and low visibility (since in this scherzarade of one’s thousand one nightinesses that sword of certainty which would indentifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone

whose turn it is to tell the old ghoatstory.

Packed into those words indentifide and idendifine are intimations of dendritic branching, dividing, defining, ending, teeth, finish and faith, as well as identity. The body it seems is itself a ghost of an old goat who will ever scape the sword of would-be certainty: it would pass right through, as the body passes through time without making a mark on it.

Another Irishman, W. B. Yeats, composed for his own tombstone a remarkable epitaph:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Since he died in 1938, Yeats could not have known that his epitaph bears a striking resemblance to the shortest saying in the Gospel of Thomas, 42:

Jesus says: ‘Become passers-by.’


There is much that can be (and has been) said about this saying and its various translations (see Meyer 2003, 59-75); but let us add a few suggestions. First, the two words of this saying link identity (‘become’) with dynamic itinerancy (‘passers-by’), and thus compress the concept of semiotic closure into an expression the size of a mustard seed. In another context, this same seed could sprout an expression like that of Dogen: ‘Impermanence is the buddha-nature.’ Moreover, the Coptic root of the word translated ‘passersby’ is derived from the Greek parago, which is remarkably similar to the Sanskrit word paragate, which appears in the mantra at the climax of the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, a very brief and essential Buddhist scripture. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (1988, 50), paragate ‘means gone all the way to the other shore.’

The whole mantra is Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. Nhat Hanh translates ‘Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha!’ (the last word being a ‘cry of joy or excitement’). This is also related to Tathagata (‘thus-gone’) as a title of the Buddha. (Leighton and Okumura (2004, 103) render it as ‘the one who comes and goes in thusness.’) Thomas 42 could then be read as an exhortation to seek enlightenment – especially in the Zen context where practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice (rather than a “state” that you aim to arrive at and dwell in eternally). There is also a parallel Islamic saying – ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there’ (Meyer 2003, 70) – which may spring from the same source as Thomas 42.

Life depends eternally on chaotic itinerancy: try to fix it and it founders. The point is not to stand on the other shore, or to be Somebody, but to be thus gone.

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