Thursday, March 01, 2007

Telescopes and bayonets

One of those rare mornings here when the air is full of a soft mist and the sea and sky meet at an indistinct horizon. The sun didn't so much rise as seep into the deep half of the world, a hazy melt of liquid color percolating upwards and spreading horizontally like a wine stain in cloth. Walking the beach was like striding along the edge of infinity. Remember that famous woodcut, from a 1888 work of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, of the fellow poking his head through the terrestrial sky and spying the wheels and workings of the universe beyond. It was like that. I felt as if I walked into the sea I might find myself emerging into Elysian Fields beyond.

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake," said Thoreau. Flammarion was awake. He wrote: "What intelligent being, what being capable of responding emotionally to a beautiful sight, can look at the jagged, silvery lunar crescent trembling in the azure sky, even through the weakest of telescopes, and not be struck by it in an intensely pleasurable way, not feel cut off from everyday life here on earth and transported toward that first stop on the celestial journeys? What thoughtful soul could look at brilliant Jupiter with its four attendant satellites, or splendid Saturn encircled by its mysterious ring, or a double star glowing scarlet and sapphire in the infinity of night, and not be filled with a sense of wonder? Yes, indeed, if humankind -- from humble farmers in the fields and toiling workers in the cities to teachers, people of independent means, those who have reached the pinnacle of fame or fortune, even the most frivolous of society women -- if they knew what profound inner pleasure await those who gaze at the heavens, then France, nay, the whole of Europe, would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets, thereby promoting universal happiness and peace."