259. Possession in great measure (IV)
“The problem today is that too few people look at the stars,” a Catholic priest once said to me. This statement is often made, perhaps so often as to be a cliché; it is, however, not the entire truth. People today do look at the stars, but they do not see the stars: there are really two ways to look at the sky, and we practice only one—our vision precludes the experience that the priest expected to happen when people look skywards.
From about the mid-1970s, the popular-science television series began to infuse audiences with a particular relation to the sky. It started with Carl Sagan, but perhaps it went back far beyond—he was merely the first to become a sensation. He was not really, whatever his qualifications, an astronomer: he was a preacher in a degraded nature religion.
There are Christians who will claim that we have reverted to paganism; not so, we live in a post-Christian world, and post-Christianity is not the same as pre-Christianity. The pagans thought the rocks, trees, and sky spoke to them; but the modern nature worshipper follows a materialist pantheism. “When I die,” this type says, “I’ll go back to nature, to the rocks and soil.” For the pagan, the rocks and soil live; for the modern, this expresses his return to the nitrogen cycle. There is no beyond to his pantheism, it is just that he will be absorbed into material nature and this makes for a better metaphor than the idea that there is an invisible man in the sky; it maintains a scientific view.
Sagan’s mantle has been taken up by figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson: these men are media priests; and they tell a story that is supposed to comfort, a story where science improves every year and people involved in the sciences are benevolent, disinterested, and rational in their goals. They will show a picture from a space probe and say: “In the end, this picture shows a mote of dust; this is the Earth, where every human who has ever been born and died lived; every dictator, every saint—every humble peasant.” The purpose is to replicate the awe that used to be felt through religion, except now the message is that we can be aware that we exist on a mote of dust as one species, one species under scientific-technical observation; and so it is science that reveals our universal sameness. “We’re just bits of stardust,” says the man who supports the European Union, “just like in Star Trek everyone has to work together, because really we’re all nothing—except insofar as science tells us everything that is true.”
This feels a lot like awe, but it is not so—it is ersatz awe, it encloses. The other way to look at the stars is to go to the desert outside Las Vegas deep at night—and be careful to watch your step for snakes. As you look up, you are obliterated by the vastness; it is inhuman, it is sublime—it is awesome. To apply a measurement, a sensor, or a probe to this sky is to humanise it; a human ego intrudes—the human ego that chatters and is polite—the human ego that runs Netflix specials; the rich voice that says: “It’s okay, it’s vast and meaningless but man and his contrivances are at the centre of it all.”
Look up with your own eyes, without preconception: now you really know you are nothing, it is not an intellectual game for social credit; and because you are nothing, you become something. The simple voices, stilled in adulthood to appear clever and respectable, come back: the nation, the tribe, God, the starry sky, the race, and more—so simple, yet so powerful we push them away with our clever games and say we have forgotten. We forget to remember, we are nothing; and so we pretend we are nothing being something—and yet the deep ink-blue calls out.