Posts tagged Existence
Posts tagged Existence
Carl Sagan once noted that “the universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent” to human life. The observable indifference of nature does not however imply that human life is somehow inherently unworthy of dignity. For unlike the inculpable and apparently immutable laws of nature, human beings are capable of choice. Because nature has no preference for or bias against life, the value of human life is therefore ours to determine.
If we choose to value the happiness and safety of others, then human life will have real value. If instead we add unnecessary tragedy to an already unstable existence, then human life will have little value. The indifference of the universe is merely the context in which these choices occur - the choice to value human life is still ours.
Modern music has created an effectively limitless context of sounds. Everything is fair game - strings, synths, brass, industrial noises - the only relevant question is whether or not it all “works”. As a result, modern music forces us to acknowledge the abstract reality that thoughtfulness is entirely independent of medium and style: art is either well-done or it isn’t.
Telefon Tel Aviv was a Chicago-based duo that produced some truly spectacular, truly modern, electronic music that made use of a maddening variety of noises and textures. At the time their music was dubbed “IDM” - intelligent dance music - but my personal view is that it’s just great music that happened to be beat-heavy and electronic.
I had tickets to see them perform at the Guggenheim Museum in 2006, but their flight from Chicago was delayed, and the show was ultimately cancelled. Three years later, one of the two members of TTV, Charles Wesley Cooper III, died, and unfortunately, I never got to see them perform live.
Being animated, and impacting the things around you in an organized manner, is a key distinction between living matter and the rest. And in that regard, creating objects, images, songs, and institutions that people continue to interact with extends the lives of their creators - they form a fossil, a thought or a moment suspended and sustained. The capacity to create these artifacts gives us the ability to communicate with and touch the lives of people far beyond the term and geography of our corporeal existence. So despite never meeting Charlie Cooper, he continues to exist as an imprint, like the scores of other artists and thinkers that have contributed to the context of my life. In general, death forces us to acknowledge the abstract nature of human interaction - we know others by interacting with them, and some of us seem to stick around for a little longer.
The Tree of Life is not a subtle film. Set to the tune of life, writ large, Terrence Malick explores the narrative of human existence in the era of cosmology and evolution. Beautifully shot on earth and in the heavens, this film reaches overwhelming heights. The “lacrimosa”, set to the indifference and cosmic violence of creation, is shamelessly grandiose, complete with a bellowing choir, bells, and a pipe organ, each ultimately silenced by the volcanic machinery of life.
Physicist and all around amazing human being Richard Feynman is one of my personal heroes. While it may be the result of a lack of YouTube videos of earlier scientists, I know of no other human being that managed to employ such an unpretentious balance between lucid, brutal intellectual honesty and modest, childlike curiosity. That a man who helped build the atom bomb can say with the utmost sincerity that he doesn’t “feel frightened by not knowing things” about this life brings me unparalleled faith. After all, it’s “the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly”.
Congratulations on surviving yet another year on this “pale blue dot” we call home.
Happy New Years!
With all the material comforts of modern western life, it is easy to forget that life was not always a pleasurable experience, and still isn’t for the majority of the human beings alive today. Submission to a higher order seems unnecessary, even demeaning, to someone that has a fair degree of command over their life - at least over a certain range of likely outcomes. But when all the likely outcomes of existence point to unhappiness and suffering, it should be no surprise that sanctuary in something pure and distant is sought after. In my mind this is what gives rise to an obligation of tolerance - those of us fortunate enough to not require faith to move us onward day after day should not judge and demean those who still need an exogenous theory of existence to maintain sanity and happiness.
To the chagrin of Charlie Brown, Christmas has ironically turned into a celebration of material wealth and comfort in the west’s wealthy economies - eating large dinners, buying presents and generally enjoying the physical comforts of modern life. But even the most cynical among us (namely me) have trouble denying the power of Christian art. The high drama of salvation, and the submission to the inevitability of suffering, is a universal theme that people of all faiths (and no faith) can relate to.
Beginning with a rumination on one of my favorite lines by Shakespeare, Woody Allen walks through the inevitability of change and death, and the impermanent nature of not only individual human lives, but that of humanity itself and the universe as a whole. Alluding to the indiscriminate nature of these destructive forces, he correctly points out that all things, including all human beings, will eventually die and disappear without a trace, without regard for their social status or moral standing. Knowing this, “knowing the worst”, he sees art, not religion or superstition, as the cure for the existential crisis that follows.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5)
I woke up this morning and observed two things: (i) the world did not come to an end; and (ii) gravity is still observable.
The scientific method - give it a shot. Your calendar will work a lot better.