- Click for the glorious full-size image
I could go on a rant about how NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is losing its funding, but instead I’d just like to muse briefly on the universe. Look, look at this image of a Milky Way band – that is to say, this is just a segment of the one galaxy we happen to be floating around, which is to say a segment of one out of an estimated 170 billion clusters of an average hundreds of millions of stars each (give or take a few exponents, depending on the specific galaxy), plus dust and rock and dark matter and…
For around 15 minutes in Terrence Malick’s remarkable new film, The Tree of Life, we witness the birth of the cosmos, of our little sun, our much littler planet, and of the life upon it which we so value (and ignore/destroy, &c.) and wish to understand. This does not happen in the beginning of the film, and why should it? Creation, it should also be noted, as manifest by hints of the dust and heat and gas from which everything has sprouted, shows up throughout the film for brief moments, brief meditations, brief, patient, sometimes voiced-over, sometimes silent, appearances. The right words for this vision fail me, at the moment. Curious, though: the above image gives me a sense of my own smallness; The Tree of Life similarly made me feel small; and though both present me with (vastly differently delivered) direct evidence of my ignorance in the face of both all of creation and the mereness of even just my own life and vantage point, nevertheless while the above image inspires in me a sense of wonder, excitement, eagerness, the film inspired pain, pause, sadness. These are not so fiercely opposed as one may, from my phrasing and word choice, at first believe. But nevertheless they are different experiences, and what I’d like to most focus on for a brief moment is the pause.
The image of our section of our home galaxy also gives me pause, but really I just pause to think, with wonderment, how magnificently beyond me creation is. This pause is intellectual. It is the self-consciousness of reflection. The Tree of Life, on the other hand, made me feel as if I had to put my life on pause – not to hit the brakes hard, as if on a locomotive heading towards a gap in the tracks, but to leap off the train altogether and stop. Why? Because of the power of my cluelessness, because of the inertia of it. That I have no clue is not necessarily a problem, but that I often don’t seem much to mind or notice, I think, is. Or, more importantly, perhaps it is not a problem at all. If it is not a problem at all, one might be tempted to say, then what’s the point of pausing? Because I don’t suppose it to be true – therefore, if it is (in any way), I must become capable of learning it. I doubt this is very clear, because it is not very clear to me, and I have not in fact put my life on hold (which seems, actually, a problematic way of pausing, because it implies the knowledge that my life is less valuable than the insights I would gain from separating myself from it – which strikes me as romantic and unnecessary and misguided, &c.), but instead have added the experience to the recent collection of such moments I’ve been having, with myself, in conversation with others, and, now, at the movies.
Go see The Tree of Life, it’s friggin’ beautiful.