Newton’s first law of motion: an object is either at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted on by an external force.
There is no escaping this law. It is true on earth, and it is true in space. George Clooney, in the movie Gravity, knows this, as he unhooks his tether with Sandra Bullock, to give her a chance to survive. With no hope for himself, he drifts off, above the beautiful, blue-green earth. He implores her to survive, and we last hear him calling out, in astonished awe, at his view of the sunrise on the Ganges River. He is the first man to go to heaven. . . still alive.
In the magical beauty of the earth’s orbit, in the great, pervasive mystery of space, Sandra Bulloch is alone, in terror. Death could come so quickly, so indifferently, as it has for her companions. Her anxiety is a storm. Life and rescue are still possible, her destiny is all up to her. She will have to save herself. She grabs onto any hold she can.
All the while, the earth is just there, in all its splendor, the place where everything has happened, and where everyone has lived and died. There are no signs, up there, of all the human trouble and misery, down there, just an aura of innocence and peace, as if humans never were.
This silent majesty is strangely comforting. The earth and the stars are right there, and they have the answers. A great. . . truth. . . is out there. Lifeless space, the living earth, the mystery of time. One senses that there is a knowing presence, filling the emptiness. It is so close, and yet out of reach. What, really, is this earth doing here? What, really, is gravity?
This story has biology, too, a man, a woman, and a child. The man sacrifices himself for her, men do that, and she grieves, terribly, for her child, who has died down on earth, sometime ago. Does she blame herself? A mother would. She has suffered love, a force we can’t see, a force that makes humans care more about others than they do about themselves. It is an attractive force, but it’s not like gravity, it is not inversely proportional to distance. Loved ones feel part of each other, across space and time.
In this unending, eternal present, why do humans suffer? The past and the future concern them, and bother them. It is life that feels and suffers the hopes of time.
Like the first sea creature that was able to get on to land, eons ago, she gets back on to earth, to solid ground, back from death and heaven.
Existentialism: “the unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad, a free agent in a deterministic, disorienting, and seemingly meaningless universe.”
In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’. With great pomp, in the first round, he won. Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats. For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge. This was a. . . mistake. Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s music into a dazzling composition. Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!
Such was the great Beethoven. He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery. He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music. Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.
In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.
“Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life. Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth”
And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.
His music is his autobiography. Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique. He realizes he is going deaf. The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.
“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits. He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”
On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house. In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song, a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever. On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song. And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.
On December 13, 1963, Corliss Lamont hosted the 172nd anniversary of the Bill of Rights in Washington D. C., and presented the Thomas Pain Award to . . . Bob Dylan.
Mr. Lamont was the son of a wealthy banker, a graduate of Phillips Academy, Harvard, Oxford, and Columbia. He had a PhD in Philosophy. He celebrated atheism. In 1932, he visited the Soviet Union and found a very promising, enlightened society. The secret police were “courteous and efficient and good natured“. There were hungry people begging for food, but “most of these beggars are people who are too lazy to work, since every Russian can get a job if he wants to“. He found “charming” the sight of head shaven, marching youth, “freed from their mothers and the bourgeoise ‘trip’ “. He led the Friends of the Soviet Union, to “Hail the glorious achievements of the workers and peasants of the USSR – where starvation and unemployment have been abolished.” He sided with North Korea, the Soviet denial of the Katyn Massacre, and with Fidel Castro. He was a personal friend of the father of Kathy Boudin, the Weatherman underground radical.
In New Orleans, in the Summer of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was passing “Hands off Cuba” leaflets, with copy written by . . . Corliss Lamont.
Bob Dylan, awkward, new on the national stage, ambivalent about the self-celebrating, moral preening of Important People, not wanting to offend and yet not wanting to embrace, gave a disjointed, rambling speech. “It’s took me a long time to get young“. He spoke of their “bald heads“, and remarked that “I’ve never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels”. He then went on to say: “I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where – what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him.” This did not go over well.
Remember that many people, already, were not thinking that Oswald was guilty. Framed perhaps, and young, and awkward, and arrogantly bold, and perilously sincere, and perhaps doomed to be forever misunderstood. Not unlike Mr. Dylan, . . .no?
Dylan wrote to “explain/not explain”:
“when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times
I am not speaking of his deed if it was his deed
the deed speaks for itself
but I am sick
at hearin “we all share the blame”. . it is so easy t say ‘we’ an bow our heads together
I must say “I” alone an bow my head alone
when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds
for it is I alone who is living my life. . .nobody tells me how any of ‘m cries or laughs or kisses, I’m fed up with newspapers, radios, tv, an movies an the like t tell me. I want now t see an know for myself an I accepted the award for all others like me who want t see for themselves an who don’t want that God-given right taken away
out! out! brief candle life’s but an open window an I must jump back thru it now
respectfully and unrespectfully, Bob Dylan”.
“He was just a sickly kid who loved heroes” – Jackie Kennedy, with Theodore White, 1964.
He had a “rigid and physically distant mother”, and a domineering and demanding father – “We want winners, we don’t want losers around here.” Jack Kennedy, Barabara Leaming, pg. 61, 2006.
Joseph P. Kennedy, in 1962, was worth of $500,000,000. The Kennedy’s were not just rich, they were super-rich.
It is so natural for the wealthy to be self-centered. They are more valuable. They do have more to lose.
John F. Kennedy was self centered, and witty, engaging, charming, and a war veteran. He was famous from the start, his entire life stage-managed by his father. And he was haunted by losses – his older brother, his favorite sister, war comrades, and his own health. He was very uncomfortable with emotional intimacy.
“I once asked him why he was doing it, why he was acting like his father, why he was avoiding real relationships, why he was taking a chance on a scandal at the same time he was trying to make his career take off. “I don’t know, really. I guess I just can’t help it”. He had this sad expression on his face. He looked like a little boy about to cry.” Dallek, An Unfinished Life, pg. 152.
“Kennedy had a sense of history, but he also had an administrative technique that made the gathering of history extremely difficult. He hated organized meetings of the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and therefore he chose to decide policy after private meetings, usually with a single person.” James Reston, November 22, 1963, New York Times.
That single person was almost always his brother. In the Berlin crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, and Vietnam, he was a tentative, and secretive, a reluctant leader. The most powerful government in the world had great difficulty knowing its commander’s direction.
And the stakes were getting very high. The window of ‘opportunity’ for a ‘successful’ nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union would close. . . in November of 1963.
“Mr President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you!” . . . And then the plaza rang with the first gunshot. . . The first bullet tore through Kennedy’s throat, and his arms went up as if to block himself from further injury. His wife turned to him, and just as she did, another bullet shattered his head. . . .She remembered the strange elegance of his demeanor. “His expression was so neat: he had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off; it was flesh-colored not white. He was holding out his hand – and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from this head. . .He had such a wonderful expression on his face. You know that wonderful expression he had when they’d ask him a question about one of the ten million gadgets they’d have in a rocket? Just before he’d answer, he’d look puzzled; . . .and then he slumped forward.” Jackie Kennedy, Four days in Dallas, Bugliosis, 2009.
“Across the land, turbulent air flowing from the chilly north encounters the breezes of the hot south. As the two fight it out over the plains, tornadoes are spawned. Ninety percent of the worlds tornadoes occur in North America.” The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery, 2001.
Long before it became the first global human empire, North America was a climatic dynamo affecting the entire earth.
Unlike any other continent, it is a giant “inverted wedge”, 4000 miles across the in the sub-arctic north, sixty miles across in the south, with the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Rockies Mountains to the west. This wedge is a giant. . . carburetor. . . funneling super-chilled Canadian air southward in winter, and warm Gulf air northward in summer, generating explosive storms, torrential rains, giant lakes, thunderous rivers, and intense seasons that have fueled an evolutionary combustion of plants, reptiles and mammals. This includes the great forests of deciduous trees that shed their nutrient-drained colorful leaves in winter , when the sunlight is low, and reabsorb their fertilizer energy in the spring when the sun is bright. And not only leaves, seedlings too, including nutritious, soft-shelled nuts that entice small mammals to carry them away and bury them. North America invented squirrels. Native american societies, too, thrived on the gathering and storing of nuts. Only in North America did inland complex societies arise that were not based on farming.
Sixty five million years ago, North America was two continents separated by a shallow sea, the BearPaw Sea, covering what is now the great plains.
And. . .then. . . a renegade Manhattan-sized meteor from a broken asteroid escaped the gravity of the asteroid belt, and found its way toward Earth. It lunged in from the southeast and across the equator and crashed into what is now the town of Chicxulub, on the Yucatan peninsula. It struck with a glancing blow “like a giant golf chip shot“, at a speed of 54,000 miles per hour, digging a celestial divot straight up into the BearPaw seaway, with a collision blast of a 100 million megatons of TNT, 2 million times greater than the largest nuclear bomb ever made, exploding a hole 3 miles deep and 100 miles wide, and creating a tsunami wave . . . one-half mile high. . . that smashed the whole world. With heat one thousand times that of the surface of the sun, the entire North American forest was ‘carbonized’ – incinerated – all the way to the Red Deer River valley in northern Canada, and even across the Pacific Ocean to Hokkaido island of northern Japan. Fourteen genera of dinosaurs immediately became extinct. The Age of Giant Reptiles cataclysmally ended. The lee of the mountain ranges of the Appalachians and of the Sierra Nevada and inside the Arctic Circle were the only areas of sanctuary for life.
For many, many years, debri, dust, and smoke blocked out the sun, freezing the land, and poisoning the atmosphere with sulfur and acid rain. This was “Impact winter”, the long “polar night”. . .that starved planetary life.
It would be centuries before the charred North America would turn green again, slowly rejuvenated by a. . . fern, Stenochlaena.