an ancient thrill

It is 1915.

In seeking supporting evidence for his groundbreaking theory of general relativity, Einstein applies his equations to Mercury’s orbit, which has long puzzled astronomers as it does not conform to classical Newtonian mathematics. Einstein succeeds in resolving this discrepancy and describes the moment as so thrilling that he experiences several hours of heart palpitations.

His heart hammers rhythmically, rapidly, echoing the dancing heartbeat of a bush hunter stalking antelope on the golden African plains. He realises, at this very moment, he alone wields complete understanding of the movements of heavenly bodies suspended in a limitless universe.

Perhaps this is what Einstein feels: the ancient thrill of mastery, however minuscule and momentary, over all things imaginable.

recollections

12, Flinders’ Ranges, the Outback: Huddling around a lonely fire, dogs slinking about at the edge of darkness. We skewer sausages and roast them, with the dusty land, the infinitude of stars as companions. In the morning, I wake early and with the rising sun, trek out to see the kangaroos grazing amidst the bush.

15, Sabah, Malaysia: Chased by a storm at dusk, we stop at a deserted prawning farm by the river, the smell of marshland and rain heavy in the humid air. We pull at our lines to draw the prawns and the water bubbles as fish surface briefly. Then the skies break and rain batters the zinc roofs, vestiges of a fading era. A great peal of thunder and for a brief second white lightning illuminates the entirety of the marshes as the building shakes. Plunged into semi-darkness as the electricity goes out, we wait, a little shaken, for the lights to come on.

17, Yosemite, California: My brother and I step out onto the ice and it cracks ominously. He throws a stone, breaking the placid surface of the lake where it is yet unfrozen. I can see bubbles, tiny and fragile, in the clear ice beneath my feet.

19, Bagan, Myanmar: We sit outside a temple on flimsy chairs, sipping sweet coconut juice through pastel plastic straws. The dusty ground is the color of burnished copper, as is everything in this sacred region. Behind us, miniature wooden puppets hang spookily in a tree, the late afternoon sun casting strange shadows. Later, we cycle by starlight over treacherous dirt roads past fields of dry, uncut grass and the sensation of flight, of freedom, is exhilarating.

In the Midst of Such Paradox

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Sage advice by Barry Lopez.

On the Alhambra

The Alhambra is a mystical, beautiful place, a Moorish fortress palace sitting atop a hill rising above the Spanish town of Granda. It is a relic from the time when the Moors ruled Granda and filled it with music, artists, poets and poetresses who dreamt up poetry “like the language of doves”. Granada, the birthplace of the spirited poet Federico Garcia Lorca and his passion for duende. Lorca, Leonard Cohen’s greatest influence and probably the greatest Spanish poet to have graced this earth, lived and died in his beloved Granada at the hands of fascist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.

Lorca, who weaved immortal words from duende, Spanish nights and roses:

Today in my heart
a vague trembling of stars
and all roses are
as white as my pain.

Listen to Frances Mayes describe the Alhambra’s Courtyard of Lions:

“The root of the word paradise means “walled garden”. The enclosed Islamic gardens profoundly influenced the western medieval gardens. The cruciform designs of the monasteries conveniently paralleled Christian iconography, but the design previously reflected the Islamic concept of paradise, with four rivers flowing out in the cardinal directions from a single source. “Four-chambered heart,” Ed muses. “Did they think of that too?”

Leslie Stainton speaks of the view from the Alhambra:

“From the heights of the Alhambra I have often watched the sun linger on the horizon and contemplated the mournful sound of Granada’s church bells at dusk. Lorca said there were a thousand of them. They blend with the music of the city’s two rivers and its hundreds of fountains and hidden springs. The water in Granada is somber. In its presence you feel you have touched the city’s pulse.”

Intricate and elegant Arabic inscriptions have been carefully carved into the walls of the Alhambra. Tourists and visitors continue to be perplexed by the artful words, a language beautiful but incomprehensible. “The form of script is angular kufic, whose uprights sprout into decorative foliage, or intertwine; curlicue cursive; or a mixture of forms. In a culture that banned human images, the form as well as the content of the calligraphy was designed to exalt temporal and heavenly rulers.” These writings have been decoded by researchers and they reveal stunning lyricism.

On the basin of the Fountain of Lions:

For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don’t you see how the water spills on the basin,
but its spouts hide it immediately?
It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over with tears,
tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer.
Isn’t it, in fact, like a white cloud
that pours its water channels on the lions
and seems the hand of the caliph, who, in the morning,
grants the war lions with his favours?

And in the Hall of the Two Sisters, it is declared:

I am a garden adorned by beauty:
my being will know whether you look at my beauty.
Oh, Mohammed, my king, I try to equal
the noblest thing that has ever existed or will ever exist.
Sublime work of art, fate wants me to outshine every other moment in history.
How much delight for the eyes!
The noble one renews his desires here.
The Pleiads serve as his amulet;
the breeze defends it with its magic.
A gleaming vault shines in a unique way,
with apparent and hidden beauties.
The hand of a devoted to Gemini;
and the Moon comes to converse with her.
The stars wish to rest there,
and not turn around the celestial wheel,
and they wish to await submissively in both courtyards,
and serve tenaciously like slaves:

The Alhambra stands as one of the pinnacles of Islamic architecture, overflowing with light, shadows and the Arabic love of numbers, poetry and geometry. I shall continue to dream of it, hazy in the golden sunlight, the sound of water trickling past walls carved with untold stories, a paradise tended to by the hearts, hands and minds of men.

Love is a temporary madness

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.”

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Begin anew each day

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

On Stanley Kubrick and the meaning of life

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

I recently watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I finished my last day of lessons for the semester, met up with my brother and we caught the IMAX showing of Interstellar, which was mindblowing. But that is for another day. Afterwards we bought trays of sushi and discussed gravitational time dilation, the cheesiness of love as a “quantifiable” force. That night, through googling Interstellar I learnt that Nolan had been heavily inspired by 2001. I’d heard of Kubrick’s work: the massively violent A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut etc. but I’d never been moved to watch any.

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Watching 2001 was a strange, awe-inspiring experience. Rather than what Hollywood expected, Kubrick gave us a massively artistic work that would not be out of place in some avant-garde museum or arthouse cinema. From the first act of the dawn of mankind, the iconic transition from the bone to the spaceship, the haunting end, it is a painstakingly crafted film. Though filmed in 1968, its influence on modern space films is evident: Star Wars, Sunshine, Interstellar, Aliens. Kubrick was incredibly visionary. Artificial intelligence, robots going bad, distrust of technology and TPTB, aliens (and NOT little green men or crude monsters, but sleek, menacing black slabs). The maddening, dizzying techno wormhole at the end, with mysterious shapes resembles an LSD trip. How insane it must have seemed in the confines of a neighbourhood cinema in 1968. Some might call it a boring, tedious film, but its purpose is not entertainment; it is to provoke thought, it is Kubrick’s thesis on our place in the universe and our future. This is him throwing down the gauntlet.

I might do a full review on 2001 someday, but my mind is still unsettled. I went to sleep afraid of waking up to a black monolith standing over my bed.

Stanley Kubrick was an insightful man. His interviews are a joy to read. While I am writing this, I am listening to a 1966 audio interview of him, which can be heard here. My favourite interview has to be the 1968 Playboy Interview, courtesy of Brainpickings which featured some extracts in an article. They are reproduced below and are infinitely inspiring, much like Carl Sagan’s words.

Playboy: Thanks to those special effects, 2001 is undoubtedly the most graphic depiction of space flight in the history of films — and yet you have admitted that you yourself refuse to fly, even in a commercial jet liner. Why?

Kubrick: I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man’s chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose. We’re fortunate, in a way, that our body, and the fulfillment of its needs and functions, plays such an imperative role in our lives; this physical shell creates a buffer between us and the mind-paralyzing realization that only a few years of existence separate birth from death. If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should be bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?

Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie….But even for those who lack the sensitivity to more than vaguely comprehend their transience and their triviality, this inchoate awareness robs life of meaning and purpose; it’s why ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ why so many of us find our lives as absent of meaning as our deaths.

The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache; but as clergymen now pronounce the death of God and, to quote Arnold again, ‘the sea of faith’ recedes around the world with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ man has no crutch left on which to lean—and no hope, however irrational, to give purpose to his existence. This shattering recognition of our mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than I suspect even psychiatrists are aware.

This segment cuts to the ultimate question of why we should value life. And his last line (my favourite quote of his) inspires such hope (or the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words).

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

Kubrick: The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Vincent Brady: Of Fireflies and Planetary Waltzes

Vincent Brady is in love with the night sky and fireflies; and so are we all. There is a particular phrase that comes to mind, Stanley Kubrick in his interview with Playboy magazine who uttered this truth:

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

And Brady has done it. If our age is one of disillusionment, terrorism and the degradation of morality, then Brady’s work must be one of the millions of flickering lights out there, to provide respite from the darkness. He captures the stately waltz of planets, stars, galaxies, dark matter in his series ‘Planetary Panoramas’. From the heavens to the earth, where the dazzling displays of fireflies are suspended in time, forever, in his timelapse series on fireflies in the wild. And the message is clear: there is still beauty left in the world. We are part of something extraordinary, all six billion of us. There is something worth treasuring. We have to look no further than the skies above us.

If I may be permitted to share some of his wonderful fine art photography:

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash;

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash; Fireflies of Fitzgerald

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash; Fireflies and Lake of the Ozarks

And from his Planetary Panoramas: 

Vincent Brady: Planetary Panorama Project &emdash; Milky Way Rising at Delicate Arch

Vincent Brady: Planetary Panorama Project &emdash; Landscape Arch and the Milky Way

Give his magical time lapse videos a watch:

Visit his website here.