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W. Scott Olsen Headshot

Such Hope

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Here is something I have learned. There is a genius to mortality.

Imagine Gallery 39 at the British Museum on a Wednesday morning. Outside, a typical London February. Cold. Windy. Passing showers. Bits of sun that promise an early spring. A season about to change.

Inside, the doors have just been opened. School groups crush at the case for the Rosetta Stone, then move on toward an undecipherable Egypt. Other groups make their way to the Elgin Marbles or the café. Intrepid loners find their way to the Sudanese slit drum, the Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine, the whole of Sutton Hoo.

But upstairs and back toward the front, in the southeast corner, I am watching people watch a clock. It will be hours before I go any farther.

It sits on a table in the middle of the room. A brass clock under glass in a satinwood case. There are columns on the four sides, an open square frame. A type of roof holds three circles, three dials that show hours, minutes, seconds.

It is, to be clear, a very pretty clock. But the Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery of Clocks and Watches is filled with very pretty ways to measure what we have spent and what we have left. Grandfather clocks. Pocket watches. A regulator made for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. An armillary sphere from 1550. Wooden jacks that strike a bell. A musical clock with miniature organ pipes.

Pretty is not why people stop to watch this particular clock. And every one of us stops.

A ball rolls in grooves on an inclined plate, a turn at each end. And when the ball reaches the bottom of the plate, a spring is released and the plate tilts the other direction. What was the bottom becomes the top and the ball keeps rolling. Forever downhill. Forever forward. 2500 miles every year.

I would bet not a soul in the room could tell me what time the clock displays. People pause -- everyone pauses -- to watch the ball in its track. To see the plate tilt. To be -- what? Reassured.

A woman named Laura Turner, a curator of the Horological Collections, points me to a book called Clocks by David Thompson.

Although his clock was a serious attempt to improve timekeeping, it was anything but successful in that respect. On the other hand, the design found immediate popularity, and clocks incorporating it have been made by numerous makers from the early nineteenth century to this day. While many see these clocks as an attempt at perpetual motion, there is no mystery involved. The ball rolling down the track does not drive the clock, but simply determines the rate at which the clock runs.

I am reading metaphor. The ball does not drive the clock or our lives. It simply determines the rate. A group of school children rush into the gallery. Every one of them wears an identical blazer. They carry notebooks, pens at the ready. When the plate tilts, one of them gasps. Some move on. Several stay to watch the plate move again, and then again, and then again. Gravitas, not gravity, draws them to the rolling ball.

Each time the ball reaches the end of its run it hits a release lever which unlocks the grooved tray. The power of the mainspring is then transmitted through a train of gears which tilts the tray and locks it so that the ball then begins its journey back down the track until it reaches the bottom and triggers the release to repeat the process. The ball is timed to take just thirty seconds to make its journey, but all manner of influences such as temperature change, humidity change and dust on the track conspire to make these clocks bad timekeepers.

This is Sisyphus in reverse. Instead of pushing the ball uphill, only to watch it roll and bounce back into the valley, this is mortality under glass. Our lives, I think. The process of aging, of decay, of youth becoming something less energetic. Even so, this is not why everyone stops.

Sisyphus had his moment, the hour of his descent. We watch the ball, all of us in this room, not to see it reach the end. We watch to see the end itself transformed, removed, changed, lifted up, perhaps transmuted.

This is the genius of mortality. If we were not at risk of losing it all -- of having our lives mean nothing -- we would not hope for the opposite. There is a way of looking at the world which says our perception of approaching death gives us Mozart, Ballenshine, Shakespeare, the courage to talk to a pretty girl.

The ball reaches the end. The spring is released. The plate tilts. There isn't a moment, not even a microsecond, the ball isn't rolling forward.

Children smile when the incline shifts. Mechanical wonder, they think. The simple fun of how things move. Adults smile when incline shifts as well. I can almost read their minds, if not their hearts. Hope, they say. This clock is evidence of hope. Not evidence of time. An evidence of philosophy. An evidence of hope. I am not going to say this is a religious clock. But I would not argue with those who would.

I am not an old man. But I am old enough to see my old man self approaching. I watch the ball roll toward the end. Thirty seconds, more or less. This clock is a terrible timekeeper, the rate of its measure changed by everything else in the universe, dust and dark matter too, which is exactly as it should be. So yes, I smile when the spring is released and the end becomes the top. As Camus said, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."