The astronomer Fred Hoyle once observed: “Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.” Which is to say it’s twelve hours nearer to us than Cape Town is to Johannesburg.
Imagine such a perpendicular journey:
100km above sea level we cross the Karman line — the defined frontier between our atmosphere and outer space.
You can breathe because such is your imagination. Look — there’s a little bit of Timothy Leary whose ashes — along with the remains of the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, and several others — were carried into the thermosphere on a rocket.
It bears reminding that what we’re gazing out upon is what is termed “look-back time”. If a star is 1000 light years away, we are observing what that fixed point was like 1000 years ago. In this instance — given our Gregorian calendar — a snapshot circa 1013. I have no idea of what happened in 1013. Wikipedia informs me that King Sweyn Forkbeard invaded Albion in July, and by December the Dane was proclaimed King of all England. 1000 light years ago, the two largest cities on earth were al-Zahra in the Umayyad caliphate of Spain and Kaigeng — the capital of Sung dynasty China.
Somewhere between Leary and Forkbeard, I catch sight of the following sentence floating like a cosmic screensaver. It comes from the literary theorist Terry Eagleton:
To see the world aright is to see it in the light of its contingency.
It spreads out like some Aurora Borealis. We stare at that and in studying it again — notice another line:
And this means seeing it in the shadow of its own potential non-being.
And just like that … we fall from this scene right through the blank space around these words … and you’re reading an online opinion piece that I’m writing in this coffee shop. A few tables away from me, a long-faced couple are pointedly engaged in a whisper war.
How absurd the world in which we live: although we find ourselves on the only known life-supporting planet in this looking-glass universe, many of our fellow travellers experience their existence as mean and narrow. “Métro boulot dodo” as the French describe the rut of a pointless life — subway, work, sleep. (The original version goes: “Subway, work, bars, fags, sleep, nothing.”) Not to mention beyond our flat white vale of tears — the billions’ deprived and oppressed.
We live in an eternal capitalist present. And in it, we think everything is fixed and real. Of course, there’s stuff that we’d prefer changed but the first principles — “private property” say — we believe are self-evident. The most fundamentalist are the economists and politicians who come on all solemn about “growth” and “the national interest” etc. The Forkbeards of today like to think that their dogmas are part of a perennial order. What, after all, could be more natural than “supply and demand” or “the state”? It’s human nature. The poor? Well to quote Jesus in Matthew 26:11: “The poor you will always have with you.”
To be honest, I sometimes can’t read the newspapers. I’m sitting with one right here that I’ve barely opened. Occasionally, you see, I feel like a lost sock in the laundromat of the news cycle. (I wonder if Professor Eagleton is right: if we could keep our death always in mind would we behave more virtuously? Would it “be easier to forgive our enemies, repair our relationships, abandon as not worth the trouble our latest campaign to buy up Bayswater and evict every last one of its tenants”?)
By the time I get back to the car, it’s rush hour. I’ve got my media player on random shuffle. Somewhere, bumper-to-bumper close-to-dusk it’s track 14 of Bill Hicks’ Rant in E Minor:
I was over in Australia and I was asked, ‘Are you proud to be an American,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t have a lot to do with it, you know. My parents fucked there, that’s about all … I was in the spirit realm at that time. “Fuck in Paris! Fuck in Paris!” but they couldn’t hear me, cos I didn’t have a mouth. I was a spirit without lungs or a mouth or vocal cords.’ They fucked here. OK, I’m proud.
I hate patriotism. I can’t stand it, man. Makes me fucking sick. It’s a round world last time I checked, OK? You know what I mean? I hate patriotism. In fact, that’s how we could stop patriotism, I think. Instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags, we should put pictures of our parents fucking. Gather people round that flag, and see your dad hunched over your mom’s big four-by-four butt. See if any boot rally mentality can circle around that little fuckin’ image. Goddamn, I’m out of here! Fuck it! Get your mom, shut up! Let’s go garden.
Mr Hicks knew all about the Karman line and these gridlocked motorists, some of whom glance at me and seem to say:
Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.
First published April 2013 by Rolling Stone.
Follow Chris Rodrigues on twitter: @klaaskatkop