Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmic Writer

Post title inspired by the dreamy T. Rex classic.

Last night I finally watched the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's rebooted Cosmos. (Technically I watched it on Sunday night when it originally aired, but I couldn't hear it thanks to drunk 40-somethings and their terrible taste in music. Long story.) It was everything I hoped it would be. I knew Tyson would be the perfect host; his Twitter feed has long been one of my favorites, and I follow his online/television presence closely. The obviously-expensive graphics were appropriately awe-inspiring--the new animated sequences were beautifully done as well--and it paid homage to the original Carl-Sagan-hosted series without copying it verbatim. It's up on Hulu. I highly recommend that you watch it.

One reason I enjoy the Cosmos series so much is that it fills me with a sense of wonder--far more so than any religious experience ever did. I was raised Catholic, and not for one second in a Mass have I ever been so inspired and amazed as I have--well, maybe not while watching Cosmos, but at least while considering the cosmos seriously. We are so small, we are a speck of almost-nothingness in the immensity of the known universe (not to mention the unknown universe--or universes), and yet we exist, and we have consciousness. How crazy is that? It gives me the stomach-droppy feeling. I like the stomach-droppy feeling.

There are several reasons why religion does not give me the stomach-droppy feeling, but I will only detail the two most important here. First, religion wants us to be ashamed of ourselves. Rather than celebrating the miracle, the sheer unlikelihood that is our existence, religion tells us that we're all wrong. That we're sinners, that we must be redeemed, that our existence isn't a miracle at all--some being up in heaven got bored and made us one day. I realize that I'm generalizing; I'm using the word "religion" rather than the perhaps more appropriate "Catholicism/Other-Christianity-to-which-I-was-exposed-growing-up." Unfortunately, there isn't enough space in this blog post to adequately examine each world religion. Furthermore, "religion" is shorter and easier to type.

My other problem with religion is that it is hypocritical. Jesus says "love your neighbor"--except for gay people. Oh, I'm sorry--we can love gay people, we just can't let them have sex. Jesus hung out with women--prostitutes, even--but women certainly can't be priests. And by the way, ladies, if you get raped it's probably your fault for being immodest. And then there's the child molestation. I'm not even going to go into that. Nor will I go into all the horrific wars that have been fought in the name of religion, all the "righteous" killings that have occurred, the forced conversions, the forced ignorance. Even the nicest religious practitioners don't ask questions. Religion discourages asking questions.

We can ask all the questions we want of the cosmos. The cosmos does not hate, and the cosmos cannot be hypocritical. It can be confusing and paradoxical at times, but it never promised it wouldn't be. And as part of the cosmos, we are just as amazing as every other part of the cosmos. There is nothing inherently wrong with us.

However, Neil deGrasse Tyson said one thing on Cosmos the other night that bothered me. I can't remember the quote exactly, but it was something to the effect that the cosmos is more wondrous than anything we humans could ever imagine.

Is that true? If so, it undermines the entire profession to which I aspire. I am a writer--a professional imaginer. Why can't I imagine something bigger than the universe, or even the potential multiverse? Just because you haven't imagined it, Neil deGrasse Tyson, doesn't mean I can't. What I imagine may not be provable or even true, but that doesn't mean it isn't real. For me, the imagination is tangible. If I make something up and write it down, it may not be true, but it is real.

Here's something that is true: Harry Potter* has more deeply impacted my life than contemplating the cosmos ever has. Harry. Potter. A fictional person in a fictional world with fictional powers. Harry Potter would fail any scientific test, he cannot be proven, but for me he is real and he has altered me. Harry Potter gives me a bigger stomach-droppy feeling, albeit a more familiar one.

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? 

On Sunday's episode of Cosmos they profiled Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian monk who was excommunicated for preaching that the universe was infinite and that Earth revolved around the Sun. Bruno's beliefs about the universe were based on a vision; he had no scientific evidence for his beliefs whatsoever--as the writers of Cosmos rightly pointed out. If Bruno could imagine an infinite universe, something far more wondrous than any knowledge at that time could prove, why couldn't someone imagine something more wondrous than the universe we know now? Why couldn't that person be correct?

Why shouldn't I find literature and art just as wondrous, if not more so, than the cosmos? After all, they share some positive traits. For instance, art and literature frequently ask us to question what we know. Art and literature can be confusing and paradoxical, but they never said they wouldn't be.

There's just one problem: art and literature can also demand that we don't question. Art and literature can demand that people hate. For every Harry Potter there's a Mein Kampf. Art and literature are created by hypocritical people.

Am I wrong, then, to worship art and literature more than the cosmos? Should I be having an art-and-literature-crisis-of-faith? I would say that I worship art and literature on the cosmic level--on the basis of the miracle that they came out of the human brain, all of which was a happy accident--but I'd be lying. Such a claim would ignore the words, and the words are the important part. The words are what changed me, and continue to change me.

I'm not certain how to resolve this. It's certainly an interesting conundrum, though. I'd be glad to hear your thoughts on the subject. Yeah, you.

*I chose Harry Potter here because the series was particularly special to my life; however, I mean for it to stand in for all literature and art that has affected me in such a way.

EDIT: Reading this over again, I would like to point out that I absolutely believe myself to be a flawed and hypocritical person. However, that doesn't mean I aspire to flaws and hypocrisy, if that makes sense.

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