On University Avenue in Toronto a memorial sculpture reaches heavenward commemorating fallen Canadian airmen and -women. It takes for its name the motto of the Royal Air Force: Per ardua ad astra. This is often translated as “Through hard work to the stars,” but ardua is the accusative plural or a noun, nominative singular arduum, literally meaning ‘steep place’ and figuratively ‘difficulty’. It is the source of our English word arduous. The motto could perhaps even be translated as “Climbing steeply to the stars.”
We have never reached the stars. We have never even come close. Their light comes to us, but our bodies cannot get to them. We have gotten to the moon, and we have sent probes to the sun, our one local star, but those pinhole glimpses of the empyrean that freckle the night sky are beyond reach, no matter how steep the climb. There’s no point in promising otherwise.
But that’s not the point, is it, really. I mean, yes, the stars are supposed to be metaphors for our dreams, but they’re not a great literal metaphor; they’re entirely unreachable, and what would we do with them if we got them? No, the point is not the attainment. The point is what they spark in us: desire. Here is a poem that Heather Wheat (@heatheryreads) wrote recently:
We were never
meant to touch
only to lust
We receive their light, the rays of their flames, and something in us glows in response. This is the point. Hard work is of no value if it has no relation to desire. It should be fuelled by desire, and its result should be either the attainment of desire or the enjoyment of feeling it. The arduum is a route, the steep stairway to heaven, but the true means and end is ardor: Latin for ‘flame’, for ‘brilliance’ (literal), and for, well, ‘ardour’: fervent desire or love. (When we spell it ardour it is because of the word’s transit through French on its way to us.) The accusative plural is ardores, and I would say Per ardores ad astra: through ardours to the stars.
The flames of the stars cause our own flames to burn, sympathetic ignition at a distance. They will never receive our bodies – they would just burn them if they did – but our burning desires will send our light back towards them and, more importantly, towards those nearer to us.
And in our lives, too, we have more local stars, inspirations and aspirations; we do not need to touch them, it is not to us to capture them; only see what burns in them and the same flame will lick up in us. Through ardour we become stars, the objects of our own yearnings.