Among the earliest forms of writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs were known long before they were deciphered. Despite the famed insanity of Napoleon, his visit to Egypt led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and we’ve been able to read what was once pure mystery for over a century now. A week ago today, Rosetta, a robotic space probe, landed on a comet in flight. For a guy who finds a rendezvous with a bus that runs on a supposedly regular schedule a challenge, this is nothing but mind-blowing. If you know the math, you’ll go far. Comets, you see, have long been the provenance of both religion and science. The ancients, apart from being very religious, we also first rate astronomers. Limited by a universe that circled the earth, they nevertheless figured out how to predict things like solstices and eclipses and phases of the moon. Some suggest that megalithic structures as impressive as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza were aligned to significant celestial events. The eyes in the skies.
Comets were generally considered harbingers. Even in ancient times they were difficult to figure out; their orbits aren’t easily deciphered and some never survive their close encounter with Old Sol. Still, they can be impressive. Living in the cloudier climes, glimpsing comets is not a guarantee. Light pollution, especially on the horizon, interferes with all kinds of observations. Now, however, the European Space Agency has shown us that it can be done without seeing where you’re going. A decade of travel time, after at least as long of planning for the trip, and you can boldly go where no person has gone before. Recordings of the electromagnetic frequencies, translated into human audible range, confirm everything from Predator to Signs. 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has its day in the sun and 2001 every day comes closer.
Just a year ago comet ISON disappointed many in its failure to live up to the hype. In our workaday world, we’re eager for a harbinger of some kind. A sign that something out there can still evoke wonder. Comets have long been stripped of their religious garb. They are merely rocks and ice lit up by the sun on their weary trek through the cold loneliness of space. Still, landing on a comet can’t help but change our perspective. It’s like looking at the earth from the moon. Or Mars. We name our planets after gods, but comets bear the names of human discoverers. And we have constructed our own Rosetta stone to read the mysteries of the universe. Meanwhile, the bus waits for no one. If you calculate the trajectory correctly, you’ll hopefully get to work on time. And that, after all, is what really matters.
Posted in Astronomy, Current Events, Movies, Posts, Robotics, Science
Tagged 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, comet, Comet ISON, European Space Agency, Rosetta probe, Rosetta Stone
Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.
Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.
In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.
Posted in Astronomy, Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronomy, Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, Sputnik, Stanley Kubrick, Star Wars
Halloween may be over, and more’s the pity. Still, Halloween is simply the entry point to longer nights and opportunities to revisit what scares us in the dark. I have to admit to feeling a twinge of justification at reading Richard Corliss’s article “Never Watch Alone: Hollywood’s newest horror films remind us why fear loves company,” in this week’s Time magazine. One sentence in his piece on culture made me smile: “Horror movies are a rite of passage audiences never outgrow.” Okay, sure, the demographics may catapult me into the more geriatric of viewers, but I generally take my medicine neat. I do watch horror movies alone at night. And I never hit “pause.” To be honest, I have no idea why I do it. I do not like being scared, and I certainly don’t enjoy slashers. I am, however, seeking something profound.
Over the weekend my wife volunteered to watch The Shining all the way through with me. I’ve seen the movie five or six times, and I can’t seem to tire of it. The use of blood is sparing, and the pacing is positively Kubrickian, but it never fails to leave me contemplative. Don’t we all fear the madman that lurks inside? There may be ghosts in The Shining, but it is one of the least supernatural of thrillers. The monster is the protector, and nothing quite equals that disconnect for night chills. Corliss highlights the prequel to The Conjuring in his article, a movie called Annabelle. It is now on my must-see list, although dolls need not be haunted or possessed to be scary. Like Jack Torrence, they inhabit the uncanny valley of that which is close enough to human to be frightening. According to the pundits on the web, there is a real Annabelle doll collected by Ed and Lorraine Warren as a possessed toy. Debriefing with my wife after The Shining demonstrated the point Corliss was making, however. It helps to talk it out.
We spend much of our lives, I contend, trying to avoid those things that frighten us. Horror films do us a psychological service by bringing them to the surface, like desensitizing a child to spiders or snakes (at least the harmless kind). As we watch we learn what it is to be human. Religion, like horror films, is often a response to fear. Despite all our science, the world does not operate according to logic. The inexplicable happens. The horror movie allows us to explore the “what if” that science disallows. Once upon a time we went to church and held onto a crucifix. Today’s vampire is unfazed by our religious baubles. Exorcisms don’t always work—at least not completely. And the longer nights may be because the northern hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Or maybe, just maybe, it is something more.
Posted in Current Events, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Annabelle, Ed and Lorraine Warren, horror movies, Never Watch Alone, Richard Corliss, The Conjuring, The Shining, Time magazine
While the appellation T. E. Lawrence may leave many scratching their heads, “Lawrence of Arabia” will still garner nods of recognition. Of course, having a major movie made after you is a pretty good way to retain currency. Being a student of the history of religions, focusing on those of ancient West Asia, I read about Lawrence as I was doing background reading on what would eventually become known as the Middle East—another contrived name. Lawrence, who apparently disliked being called, “of Arabia,” along with Gertrude Bell, played a formative role in what would become a theater of European entanglements that continue to cause trouble to this day. The First World War gave opportunity for colonial interests to play out in the tribal polities that had worked in that part of the world for centuries. The fact that many of these countries are oil rich didn’t hurt.
Yesterday, starting very early, my wife and I settled in to watch the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Since it was released the year that I was born I might be forgiven for missing the first run in theaters, but I really hadn’t had the opportunity to see it before. Sure, you can pick up the DVD in many bargain bins at video stores—now also becoming rare—but a day with four free hours to watch a movie is also an endangered species. What struck me the most about the movie, after the commitment it takes to spend so long watching it, is that the few women who appear in it have no lines. Or lives. No woman speaks for this entire film. Although the portrayal of the Arabs is positive, the utter invisibility of half of all people on the planet is somewhat bewildering. Although not shown in the movie, Lawrence was known to be able to pass himself off as a woman, it is said. Yet the real women are missing, as if their stake in the world following the war just didn’t matter.
It may have been intended as a man-cave of a film—fighting scenes (although mild by present-day standards), things blowing up, and an awful lot of masculine bravado make up much of it. Still, men are not known for sitting patiently while minutes and minutes of visually lush desert scenery and blur shots of the sun take up so much of their weekend time. Yes, women did not fight in the field during the war, but they were an important part of the story. Gertrude Bell, as I mentioned, was a key figure in the drawing up of the boundaries of the Arab world. The movie isn’t about her, nevertheless the women show up in numbers only twice, once to wave goodbye the to army off to take Aqaba and then as nurses to help the overflowing hospital in Damascus. In neither scene do they talk. Perhaps it is intentional, but such a tactic made the desert seem very barren indeed. War has victims of all genders.
The Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.
Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.
“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.
Posted in Books, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Science
Tagged Dracula, Frankenstein, Gothic, John Polidori, Ken Russell, Mary Shelley, Roseanne Montillo, The Lady and Her Monsters