For whom the Bell Tolls


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On June 3, 1963, the bells of the church of San Nicolas de Bari rang in the afternoon. They announced the death of John XXIII. I remember hundreds of people with sad faces, some crying, crossing the railroad level crossing that crossed Miranda de Ebro. They came down from San Juan del Monte, where the saint’s feast was celebrated. I heard those bells ringing dead many times. Its sound has remained indelible in memory. And I have thought over many years about its meaning. I remember reading a text by Hegel in which he described how, as a teenager, the slow tolling from the tower of the city that communicated

the death of the ruler.

Hegel wrote many years later that the resonance of the bell, which he defined as “an internal tremor,” remains unchanged for a long period of time while historical cycles change and people disappear. But eventually the metal cracks and ends up being melted.

The bells express at the same time the continuity of the generations and the presence of death in daily existence, whose fragility is highlighted when they announce the end of a life, sometimes, of a friend or an acquaintance. For a few minutes, their sound bursts in wherever we are to underline that one day they will also double for us.

The tolls remind us of our ephemeral condition, but they also exorcise the presence of the corpse that shows the contagious power of death and produces a shudder of horror. The sound fades into thin air and that very intangibility makes the loss more bearable.

Some summers ago, I was sitting on the petril of the Church of Baredo, a parish in Baiona, when the death bell rang. There was no one around and it was an electronic recording. At the door of the temple, next to the cemetery, there was an open book of condolences. Death has never been so impersonal in character.

Lacan said that objects make one thing present and absent at the same time. And that is especially true with the bells, which arouse feelings of joy or mourning while at the same time evoking the remoteness of all being.

In Catholicism, bells serve to establish a connection between God and men. But there are cultures that associate their sound with an expression of divinity, of an beyond forbidden to knowledge. This is a profound truth because the bells make unconscious registers resound within us that escape reason.

We can hear as something routine the signal of a clock or the sound of a factory that marks the end of the day, but it is impossible to remain indifferent to the funeral tolling of a bell that signals a kingdom, hell or paradise, from where no one has been able to return. .

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