September 2012

Top of This issue Current Issue


Sy Schechtman

Joyce Carol Oates, a most talented and equally prolific author has produced many a literary gem, in the novel and in numerous short stories. One of these latter works impressed me very much, but it is quite a while since I read it, and though its’ exact name escapes me---about 10 or 15 years have intervened—the message it implied was dubiously clear and rather ominous. If that sounds like an intellectual clash that refused to be buried with the passage of time—so be it! This nightmarish scenario still lingers, indeed, even more presciently with the passage of time. A grim reminder of the truth of that old wisdom that one should of be careful of what you pray for as it may occur in some malignant or sardonic way not quite so happily!

In the Oates’ story a festive cruise ship is departing some major west coast port, perhaps from Long Beach, San Francisco, or San Diego, for some not too distant fabled luxury isle not too far away. Just for a week’s jaunt or some other short term time frame! And the band almost continually plays on and the festive mood is almost always adhered to as they sail this almost wondrous short journey.

. Soon their goal is achieved; they all disembark rather exuberantly with this relaxed vacation mood intact. But they are then told that this is only a one way trip--- something they were blissfully unaware of. End of story, except that the disembarked people, somewhat dumbfounded, can still hear the departing ship’s dance music still above the rustle of the waves lapping against the departing, receding cruise ship.

What still resonates now somewhat loudly is the hollow feeling that, “there but for the grace of God go I”! And the ultimate wisdom in the old Indian folklore custom of the calm acceptance of mortal limits by giving the doomed mortal person in his or her old age a canoe and paddle and blanket and some food as part of the requiem for material, mundane, life. Feelings such as these are in keeping with the mortal experience of most of us. Our earthly lot has been rather minimal so why expect more? But this is certainly not true with a good deal of people in this most fortunate of current generations who have been led to perhaps believe that our rather opulent current earthly life would also lead to similar upscale rather heavenly paths of aftermaths! --of course in some nebulous now soon to materialize technologic entity! Even, to borrow an old George Bush senior label like “voo-doo” science. We already have quarks, mesons, and gluons and half live measurable(?) physical elements that have only the blink of eye’s duration, all supposedly in daily existence. And, of course so some of us are also hopefully mesmerized by the mystery of the Black Holes radiating energy into space and affecting the pull of gravity and the strong probability of many more planets in an endlessly expanding universe. And a mere fifty years ago we were mostly concerned that a static equilibrium would be imminent and then in a million years or so the inevitable pull of gravity would halt this outward thrust and a sort of equilibrium would be achieved, to be followed inevitably by the ceaseless pull of gravity causing a gradual implosion of the universe. Except perhaps other black holes may appear causing or exciting more mischief in the vast heavens. Indeed, at the moment, however, ,the rate of acceleration, the fleeing from each other, is accelerating and soon will be beyond the 42 billion year beginning visible threshold. That is, since light only travels at the puny speed of 186,000 miles per second inevitably we will be out of sight range of the of the visible horizon because of the increasing speed of our cosmic flying apart. Beyond our visible horizon there will most probably still be a physical entity unseen by we paltry earthlings, unless we continue augmenting our own solar technology beyond our already refurbished Hubble Telescope.

Is it not feasible, possible or even entirely realistic that in our little solar, somewhat truncated, mere several billion light year area that we fondly call our home base in the Milky Way Galaxy, that the basic physical laws may not always be scientifically identical? The liquid water for us, as the temperature cools and changes to a solid, below 32 degrees on planet Earth,---our home base,---- we call ice. But unlike other liquids it starts expanding again below 27 degrees as anyone knows sadly if milk or coke was mistakenly put in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. This expansion is vital and has to happen for marine life to continue to evolve and exist. Is it the same on other planets? There is also Einstein’s famous ‘fudge factor” which is for still hard to reconcile aspects of Einstein’s E=MC square. And also the hard to reconcile certain aspects of minutiae that make up quantum mechanics and seemingly conflict with his grand theories of general relatively. But Einstein was not an atheist; for sure an agnostic, who could, on reflection hear the “music of the spheres” the vast but seemingly orderly heavenly vistas for His human creatures to understand and exploit and thus hopefully create a new Eden that would make for stasis, a sort of dynamic equilibrium between the celestial objects. However, as we now realize, the planets are accelerating their expansion---as if fleeing from each other. Far from the more comfortable vista of gravity that he thought his equations portended----a completely harmonious unity of the physical world.

But how does the more erudite, sophisticated individual contend with some of the less wholesome prospects of old age, as the accruing, inevitable physical defects increasingly impinge? Not like Joyce Carol Oates sardonic attempts to satirize, as above. But why not with still the all the possibility that the almost eight billion people on planet Earth have already achieved. A much more noble end, as with the rather dignified, elevated, possibly stoic acceptance that Alfred Lord Tennyson projects In his poem “Ulysses”. This is just beyond the epic battles of the Trojan War, and Ulysses and his men are returning rather triumphantly after their long expedition to fabled Troy, which they had just destroyed. And with just cause.

“………… and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

To sail beyond the the sunset , and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that all the gulfs will wash us down

It may be we will touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now the strength which in old days

Moved heaven and earth, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

What beautiful, restorative, fulfilling “marching orders” for the coming end of our days as mortal beings on Planet Earth! And with the spirited discussions among the astrophysists and and modern somewhat dubious philosophers, one can still easily discern the God of Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount of his only son Jesus, and perhaps even Mohammid at times. Even if we realize that we are in our own home galaxy—the Milky Way. At home with perhaps another million or so other planets, some of which have eager occupants such as us, still seeking the same enlightenment that the Lord initially commanded on this rather marvelous place we now inhabit.