No Stone Unturned
When you think of something permanent, what first probably comes to mind are the “everlasting hills,” or at least a piece of one, which we call a rock or a stone. That’s why we use stone to mark graves, which has the additional advantage that you can “inscribe” something on it. But of course, we know that this “permanence” is only relative, and that rocks wear away like everything else. The inscriptions go first, so the stone becomes a memorial to someone unknown. But by the time they are that old, it hardly matters anyway.
Thomas Gray, writing his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” reflects on the “frail memorials,” to people already forgotten, by which he is surrounded. But even today, in my own neighborhood there are small plaques dedicating certain trees or benches to people I never knew, and often the plaques have already become illegible.
But, when it comes to our relations with rocks, Greek mythology has given us the image of Sisyphus, condemned eternally to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill. Then, just when he’s nearly at the top, it rolls all the way back down, and poor Sisyphus must begin his task all over again. This legend inspired me to use the same image to illustrate one of my epigrams, which asks, “HOW MUCH LONGER WILL IT TAKE ME, IF I NEVER MAKE ANY PROGRESS?”
But, as for stones in general, our culture tends to give these objects a bad rap, for being hard and cold, and dead. They also tend (depending on circumstances) to be burdensome, worthless, and dangerous. They obstruct your way. They blunt and deflect your tools. Even a small one in your shoe can literally be a big pain.
But that’s only one way of looking at it. There was, in fact, a whole era of human development, lasting over three million years, before metals came into use, known as “The Stone Age.” People spent enormous quantities of time and labor erecting monumental stone structures whose remains are still to be seen on almost every continent. I myself have visited one such remnant, called Stonehenge – in the days when the public was still allowed to approach and actually touch the stones.
But there are also single large stones which have acquired semi-mystical significance. For example, there’s the “Stone of Scone” on which Scottish kings were crowned, until 1296, when a victorious Edward I brought it to London, where it has ever since formed part of the British “Coronation Chair” in Westminster Abbey. I was living in London in 1950, when that Stone was actually stolen by some Scottish nationalists, who managed to retain it for more than a year, before it was found and restored (fortunately in plenty of time before the next monarch, Elizabeth II, was crowned).
Of even greater importance, to far more people, is the “black stone” around which the structure known as the Kaaba has been built in Mecca, the holiest place in the Islamic world. Every pilgrimage to Mecca is supposed to include going seven times around this shrine. The actual stone is said to be a meteorite.
I have no personal connections with that part of the world – but I can, however, claim to have “kissed the Blarney Stone,” although it does not seem to have endowed me with any great persuasive powers. This storied Stone is located in a wall of Blarney Castle in southern Ireland, at a point which is so difficult to reach that (when I was there) a man made his living holding the feet of tourists so they could lean over a battlement and get close enough to perform the required osculation.
Our language and literature are of course dappled with stone-related references. But I have to admit that, despite conventional explanations, the proverbial rolling stone which gathers no moss has always puzzled me. For one thing, stones in general don’t roll of their own volition, so I find that image in itself hard to conjure up. And then, who wants to gather moss anyway?
Much more meaningful to me is the deeply compassionate expression attributed to Jesus, about punishing an adulteress (traditionally by stoning to death): “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Finally, let’s not overlook the precious stones we call gems. Here again, I can claim a connection, through my name, “Brilliant,” which any good dictionary will tell you is a diamond, cut in a special way, for maximum sparkle.