Symphony No. 5; Allegro
Yehudi Menuhin (cond.); Menuhin Festival Orchestra
The View from Here
The music comes from the opening of Schubert’s Symphony #5. It captures for me a simpler time and evokes a rural countryside and village life. Of course the rural countryside and the village may have less to do with the music than with my first hearing the music when it was used as the opening theme for a series of PBS Mystery broadcasts starring Joan Hickson as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. This lyrical piece of music was played behind images of various individuals with somewhat diabolical expressions on their faces that seemed in ironic contrast to the music. But the point is that often how we see and understand something has as much to do with the circumstances that surrounded our first exposure to that “something” than anything inherent to that “something.”
The painting is of the early Greek scientist Archimedes. He got a lot of things right; perhaps the world of mathematics is a bit more stable than other worlds. But he was also a scientist, and the world of science is not quite as stable as that of mathematics, but even there he has held up pretty well. Still, living when he did, he would have believed, or at least accepted as working hypotheses a lot of science that has since been discredited. What we believe about the world in which we live is shaped by the presumptions of the times in which we live.
Lucien, the Greek satirist who lived about three hundred years after Archimedes, sent some folks on a fantastic voyage to the moon. The ship was caught in a severe storm and landed on the moon. The story was called “A True History” and it begins with Lucian stating there is not a word of truth to it. He was having fun with the historians of his day and though he is describing a voyage to the moon, he does not expect anyone to believe the voyage in fact took place or was in any way possible. The idea of people walking on the moon did not harmonize well with the science of Lucian’s day, but we might be more open to the possibility.
But though the science changes, the human psyche and the human character does not change quite so much. There have been “reality” programs on television that have placed 21st century folks in 19th century and earlier environments to give us all a sense of what life was like in those times. But of course these programs cannot deliver what they promise, because pilgrims landing in New England or settlers farming or ranching the Western Territories of the Louisiana Purchase did not give up electric blankets or backyard swimming pools when they set out on their journeys and though they gave up some comforts they did not give up the same comforts or nearly so many comforts as those that would try to journey back from our more modern age.
But though their battles and their struggles are not our battles and our struggles we can relate to the concept of struggle and fighting for what is important to us and to our future. We can draw inspiration from their experience even if we cannot share it in the same way they experienced it. So though I cannot be Natty Bumpo in the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War America, I can draw inspiration from him as I set out to confront my own frontiers. This is an important aspect of story, when we enter a story we discover something about the human psyche that our experience alone cannot teach us. Emerson and Whitman suggest in their essays and poems that we learn from history lessons that enable us to live more effectively in our own time and to live more truly to our own characters and consciences. If when I read history I do not understand that Caesar had to confront in himself the same fears I have to confront in myself then I am not imagining a real Caesar, I have stripped him of his humanity.
Claudius Ptolemy: The World
Johannes Schnitzer, engraver
Claudius Ptolemy, cartographer
The map is of the world as it was understood in the second century, and was still understood in the fifteenth century when this engraving was made from Ptolemy’s original. This is the world as most in Europe would have imagined it at the time Columbus set sail for what he thought was the orient, or the right hand side of the map. When he undertook this voyage he believed he knew where he was going. He did not believe he was going where no man had been before but was taking a different route to a place people went everyday. It was only by accident that he ended up in a place where no European had been before, or at least had not been there in quite some time. This is often the story of discovery; we find something profound when we are looking for something else, often for something more mundane than profound.
The value of stories like that of Columbus is that journeys into the unknown are just that and no matter how we prepare and what we set up for expectations we are likely to be surprised. On the other side of the coin are the consequences of such a voyage. It is to be hoped that those that journey today into the unknown will not explore with the attitudes towards those they encounter that guided Columbus and those that followed him; that we can explore our frontiers without exploiting the frontiers we encounter.
Larry McMurtry in his book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen writes about his family coming to the Texas frontier when it was still the Western Frontier. He is known for the western novels he has written, novels both in the spirit of the romance of the west and the reality of the west. He listened to stories of exploration that were the stories of his family.
Frederick Jackson Turner defined America by its western migration and the spirit that drove many Americans westward. The final migration began in the 1860’s and by the 1890’s there was no longer an unsettled corner of the United States. As a people we have been shaped by stories of exploration and reaching the western edge of our continent. We tried for a time to explore the frontiers of space, but it appears we have lost interest. As a child I would get up at four in the morning to watch the launches of the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecrafts. I watched people walk on the moon for real. My map is very different from Ptolemy’s and the modern frontier is a different frontier from that encountered by Columbus and his European friends.
There was an article, “Science and the Sublime” in The New York Times this week that I found intriguing. It is a review of a book by Richard Holmes on science in the era of the Romantic poets. Holmes wrote a book, I think it was called Footsteps, a number of years ago that gave me a great deal of pleasure in which he took a walking tour of France following the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson for his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The two journeys were separated by about one hundred years and the second book in many ways documented how the world had changed over that century and ways in which it had stayed the same. His new book, though, explores ways in which new discoveries in science (at least new for the eighteenth century) influenced the work of the Romantic poets. The stories they told and the poems they wrote began to be shaped by a different view of the universe.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for an audience that believed in a supernatural reality. For them it was perhaps plausible that the murder of a king could turn the natural world on its head and cause the sun to spend many months, if not years, hiding behind clouds and though stories with ghosts and monsters and a supernatural world penetrating the natural one remain popular to this day, they are not, I do not think, believed in the same way they were by the Elizabethans. When Mary Shelley creates her monster, she tries to surround it with a patina of scientific plausibility. When modern readers read Frankenstein and encounter Shelley’s reference to Darwin, it is a very different Darwin that comes to our minds than the one Shelley had in mind.
Charles Robert Darwin
A copy made by John Collier
Charles Darwin changed the way the world is seen and many that deny the theory of evolution embrace, at least in practice, the notion of natural selection or survival of the fittest. The images above and below capture the two views of Darwin that persist to this day. The painting above is of a gentle, grandfatherly looking old man, a bit benign in his appearance and a bit sad. The image below is a caricature that appeared in a satiric magazine. His body has a serpentine twist to it and the expression on his face and the look of his eyes are troubling to say the least. Those that embrace Darwin see him in the light of the first image, a wise old man whose life had more than its share of sadness. Those that resist his view of the world see him as the more demonic figure suggested by the caricature. But his vision has permeated our story telling and it would be difficult for those looking back at us to understand us without understanding Darwin as it is difficult for us to look back at the Middle Ages or the Renaissance and understand those that lived at that time without understanding the Bible that shaped their view of reality.
Caricature of Charles Darwin from Vanity Fair magazine
“Coide”, a.k.a. James Jacques Joseph Tissot
Science fiction is largely a 20th and 21st century genre. There are elements of science fiction in stories written earlier, Swift tries, for example, to make his floating island appear scientifically plausible, but the story has little to do with science, except to ridicule what he disliked about science. But the science in a modern science fiction story is an important part of the story telling, even if it is bad science. That said though, it is still the characters and the way they deal with the situations in which they find themselves that hold our interest. Jules Verne, and after him Isaac Asimov, looked down on writers that placed too much importance on character, thinking it was the plot and the science that carried the stories. And though the characters these writers created were often superficial, the conflicts and the problems they had to resolve resonate with readers. And even if he is not as well drawn a character as those found in other stories of the day, Captain Nemo has become iconic in our culture and his submarine the namesake for many real submarines to follow.
At its heart science, like theology, wants to understand where we came from and why we are here and we look to science to provide many of the answers we once expected religion to supply. Perhaps this plays a role in orchestrating our emotional response to science fiction and enables us to embrace characters that would be less satisfying in other settings. Still, more often than not, it is courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity, among other character traits, that hold our interest in these characters and their stories. We want to penetrate that which separates us from these values; we want to know the secret to infusing our own lives with courage, resourcefulness and tenacity. We admire characters that exhibit these traits because we know how difficult it is to develop and nurture these traits in our own lives.
HandMade Films/AVCO Embassy Pictures
It is difficult for me to imagine a story like Time Bandits being told in a pre-scientific age. When Aeneas and Odysseus visit the underworld and as a result visit past experience, they are not actually visiting the earlier times, only the dead associated with earlier times. In the film the characters travel through various points of history, past and present and future, as well as a few parallel universes where different rules seem to apply than apply in the world in which we live. Perhaps Dante had a similar kind of story to tell in his Divine Comedy that involved travel through a parallel universe of sorts, but again the stories do not take us to another time in history only tell us of these other times, though his ascent through Purgatory and into Paradise do tell a story of a future that was real to Dante.
Image to Replace Calabi-Yau
The image is supposed to suggest something about string theory, but I do not understand enough about the theory or the physics behind it to know what the image is supposed to suggest about string theory. Though, when I look at it the image suggests ideas of a universe that fits well into a science fiction story. To me the image suggests a universe with shortcuts, so that flying from one end to the other might be expedited by wandering into one of the tunnels, or what look like tunnels, that might convey the traveler more quickly to the other side. I think this might make a good story, but I do not know if it has anything to do with what string theory has to tell us about the universe.
But that is the nature of story telling. Henry James said that we must concede to the writer his “donnee”, his premise, his concept for the story. It is then the author’s job to suspend our disbelief. We will accept a few implausibilities from time to time, but on the whole the narrative has to create a sense of reality that remains true through the story. We may not accept that witches are on the prowl that might lay traps for unwary soldiers or that horses will become cannibalistic, but we will concede the point and then enjoy the story that Shakespeare tells. It is not that we are willing to accept what we believe to be impossible, but that we want to know how to behave when we are confronted by life’s surprises. That too is part of the mystery and much that is regarded today as commonplace was once thought the product of an over active imagination.