Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Last night, I did something completely counter-intuitive to my normal routines. It served no real purpose and robbed me of sleep in a way I have been acutely aware of all day. But it also jogged me from my usual track.

Three a.m. found me out in the dark, in the cold, craning my neck, waiting intently to see brief sparks of light in the sky. I can’t tell you why. I am not an astronomy enthusiast. A meteor shouldn’t really even be much of an awe inspiring sight for a hyper-stimulated jaded 21st century soul.

I live in the city, and so most of my vista is a calm bluish black sea only occasionally marked by a tiny dot of light. Before I ever saw a densely packed night sky from somewhere truly dark I was already on my way out of the borderless visionary world a child inhabits. Looking up at the sky in the city, it was difficult to keep my mind on the task at hand with nothing to focus on. Focusing on nothing is the same as being adrift. After a brief struggle against the current, I gave in; and since there wasn’t much to see, I settled into just being where I was at. Being aware of the chill wind on my cheeks. Aware of my body swaying because I was a little dizzy. Aware of how many things there are in my surroundings that obstruct a view of the sky. Aware that I felt a peculiar thrill at standing around doing nothing in the middle of the night.

I began to feel really satisfied with my purposelessness.

We have always looked up into the night time sky. Our ancestor’s ancestors stared up at the same points of light. We peered at the stars before we had fire of our own. We were staring off into the abyss when we were still covered in fur. We don’t even know most of the stories we’ve told about the preternatural sky.

In my mind, all roads always lead to Rome. Lately, Rome is the chasm inside us separating what we know and what we do. All my thoughts and reflections poured out into the sky. I started to have a very tangible sense of stepping off an island, into history.

Everything I struggle with in my day to day life, everything I try to understand and everything I do is so very wrapped up in one brief ahistorical moment for humanity. Space shuttles and skyscrapers. I-pods and websites. Customer service over the telephone all the way from India concerning services that isolate us. Anthropogenic climate change. Microwave ovens and nuclear reactors. The absolute perfection of divorcing meaning from words in the political and economic sphere. One’s tribe scattered all over the globe. The mind numbing disconnect between how most time is spent and what feels meaningful. Mandatory schooling to ensure a clock and regular routine is followed. Business administration understood as a far more important activity than poetry, gardening, philosophy, carpentry or lovemaking. Religion as a virtual stamp of ignorance. Prayer as a mark of naivety. Fighting a perpetual war to maintain supplies of poisonous goop to run machines that drive us insane.

Looking into the sky, thinking of everyone before me who has looked into that same sky, I am reminded that the moment in time I live is the tail end of a brief and perverse experiment. An experiment that includes a savage battle to deny history, to unrelate ourselves from any narrative of our species or surrounding. An experiment that requires voluntary insanity, a psychotic break that allows us to view ourselves as separate from everything else and allows us to imagine machines and then dream of refashioning ourselves in their image.

And it is an entirely ahistorical moment. A few hundred years ago, a few thousand years ago, a few tens of thousands of years ago, a few hundreds of thousands of years ago, all of those souls looking up at the stars and wondering and dreaming have more in common with each other than with us today. We stand alone in our radical departure bubble.

The machine age depresses me, and I mean that with a capital D. The machine age tries to take away the sky. The sky is not a field of gods or lovers. It is not a Zen meditation on our humble nature. For the machine age, stars are nuclear reactors, comets are exploitable resources, and planets are somewhere to develop the next commuter suburb. Space is a growth opportunity. Space is like everything else to the machine age, quantifiable units of production.

But when I step out into the cold, and guilelessly wait to see a “shooting star”, I step out of all that for a moment, step back into history. And I know that around the world, millions of other people step out into the night to stare off into the distance. I think of us all looking up and being human, being narrative creatures, being delighted. I think of families with their sleepy children looking up. I think of young couples holding hands. I think of everyone staying up late to forget the driven day and releasing themselves back into a paradox of primordial and eternal.

It doesn’t make what we are doing in the world go away. It certainly doesn’t bring any salvation. But for a few moments the night infuses me with the knowledge that the machine age isn’t as powerful or complete as it seems.

1 comment:

  1. I can relate--in principle, anyway. The sky in Denmark is unbroken overcast for months at a time over winter. And it's been literally a decade since I've been somewhere I could really see the stars at night.

    This post makes me aware of a sort of cognitive dissonance on my own part. On balance, I like civilization; I think I'm very fortunate to be alive at this particular time in history, and a lot of what motivates me in what I do in life is the idea that people in the future should enjoy these things too. (Hopefully without all the bad stuff that comes with it.)

    But the downside of caring about the future of your civilization is the pain that comes from knowing on some level that nothing you do is really going to change where it's going. (As I write those words, they don't really resonate with me. If they did, I would be very, very upset.)

    But, as you point out, people looked up at the stars tens of thousands of years before us and, assuming there are still people then, will do so in another ten thousand years. There is some consolation in knowing that there are some things in the universe that we cannot possibly screw up--in fact, that most things fall into that category.

    None of which changes my desire to do what I can to keep my civilization going. But it means that at some point, if and when the futility of it really does sink in, it won't be completely devastating...

    It's a cliche to say that looking at the stars reminds you how insignificant you are, but it's true. More to the point, it reminds you that being insignificant isn't such a bad thing, all things considered.