Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I never watch the stars

I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet, but upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky that I wished on over and over again, sparkling and broken... 
- "Ride" monologue, Lana Del Rey 
I wish I had words to convey the magic I felt that Sunday night on the coach back home to London when Andi and I spent hours talking about boys and debate (and boys in debate) and high school and college and all those memories we'd made in places we thought of as home thousands of miles away from where we were. Growing up, I was always the kind of girl who dreamt of the glittering city lights of Paris or Prague, but that evening I realized that maybe I never gave the night sky a chance. I pulled back the mesh curtains on the bus window to see thousands of stars shimmering against the cool blackness above the Scottish countryside, and it was the kind of moment you remember as a snapshot in a dark room of memories waiting to be developed.

The closest I'd come to understanding that feeling of magic and insignificance in recent years was in 2012 in Indianapolis when I was preparing for NFL Nationals in policy debate. The resolution we were debating that year was the United States federal government's hypothetical expansion of space exploration and/or development; it was 3am before the first day of the competition and I was desperate: I asked one of my friends if I could read his critical case on reducing light pollution as my Plan B because my Plan A, the case I read when I won my bid to nationals, was no longer inherent.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I didn't have the guts to read "the United States Federal Government should mandate the use of full-cutoff shielding on all outdoor light fixtures with a hard limit of 20-candle feet" as my resolution at nationals even after frantically writing 70 pages of 2AC blocks that weekend (I ended up going with Plan C to bring Constellation back when I went into my first round Monday morning, which was a decidedly safer (read: more boring and predictable) case), but the evidence I'd read in the early hours of dawn about the "underview effect" was some of the most fascinating astronomy-related lit I'd encountered. If astronauts experience the overview effect when they glimpse the fragile beauty of the Earth from space, the rest of us stuck here in the gutter can experience its inverse when we look up at the stars.

In Dr. Glen Mazis' essay on chaos theory, he explains how our encounter with the darkness in night sky forces us to realize our position as single "threads" in the "fabric of the world" that expands into something greater than ourselves through Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's conceptions of ontology:
Woolf writes, at the beginning of the stunning 25 page interlude that details time's passing, that "a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness...there was scarcely anything left of the body or mind by which one could say, 'This is he' or 'this is she.'" It is because each person is only a rhythm in the beating of these forces, a way in which they come into a certain rhythm for a time, known as Mrs. Ramsey or Lily Briscoe, that suddenly, by some absurd little occurence that rhythm can cease to be. However, it is only in this same sense of precarious reversibility, what Merleau-Ponty called a "thread" in the "fabric of the world," that one is also part of a resonating, circulating, and cooperative articulating--dialogically--with the world in perception, in speech, in love, in art, in thought, etc. The illumination and the darkness are inseparable, moments of a fragile process which transforms in differing moments of its shimmering rhythms. Reversibility not only means that both sides of the relationship make each other be what each is in its discrete identity, but also that this relationship is itself double-sided: both comprising the illumination of "this Visibility, this generality of the Sensible" (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 139) as a shared power of human-world, but also yielding darkness, disintegration, and recalcitrance.
 - p. 10
This intersection in academia between physical science and the humanities crosses somewhere in our conception of the night sky, and what I loved most about that affirmative case was that it really struck a chord in my understanding of why we go to and look at the universe above in the first place: what do we live for? What is our purpose? What are we doing? Why are we here? Mankind has looked to the stars for answers to questions of our existence for as long as human memory can remember because we believe in illumination in darkness; we believe that the rust and stardust from whence we came and will one day return to mean something, even if we can't understand it.

I saw Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) a few weeks ago, a spectacularly dizzying and nearly three hour long film about physics and hope for a dying Earth. Amidst crop failures and dust storms in the American Midwest, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon what's left of NASA and makes the decision to join a team of astronauts following up on a reconnaissance mission to a different galaxy, promised to be capable of sustaining human life.

For all its clinically clean spacecrafts, intergalactic silences, and grand ambitions to save the world, Interstellar never lets go of the importance of the individual's attempt to make sense of his or her personal significance in the ever-expanding universe. I've spent this semester studying moral philosophy (the origins of political economy theory) and perhaps the most frustrating conflict in this discipline is trying to reconcile the desires of an individual vs. the desires of civil society as a whole. This film reverberates around the reason why practice is where theory fails: we say we want to save the world, but when we're pushed to the brink of our humanity, our desire to save ourselves is what we ultimately live and die for.

Seeing the stars in Scotland last August reminded me of a different night almost a decade before: when I was nine, my dad brought my mum and me with him to one of his favorite fishing spots on the remote shores of Camano Island about an hour's drive from my hometown one clear September night. It was nearly midnight when the high tide reached its peak, and when I woke up and looked outside the car window, I saw stars by the thousands for the first time in my life.

In my memories I consider that night to be the first definitive moment I'd ever truly been inspired to want to become a writer when I "grew up." I couldn't stop myself from dreaming up stories I intended on writing, and somewhere in a cardboard box beneath my bed back home in Washington, I still have fragments of story ideas that ran through my mind jotted down in an old journal I half-heartedly kept back then.

Even though I never watch the stars (there's so much down here), I'm endlessly fascinated by the way we ascribe meaning to things and moments we don't quite understand.

xoxo, vivian

- The photo at the top of this post was my favorite of many similar shots I took throughout the day I toured the Scottish highlands by bus, which was alternated between rain-drenched and crystal-clear at various hours and points in that twelve-hour journey. The coach ride from Edinburgh to London I mentioned in the post was from the same day (or night, I guess is more accurate) but my digital camera is far too inadequate for shooting stars. 
- The underlining/bolding of the Mazis passage is intentional; it preserves the formatting style of policy debate evidence.
- The alternative title to this post is "poetic shit about stars," inspired by the title of one of Joyce's blogs (hi Joyce, thanks for liking/saving my posts on Bloglovin') The title I ended up using is a line from Lorde's "Yellow Flicker Beat," which was first performed/released online the night of her concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley a few blocks from where I live.

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