Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The standing chill

A headline in a Scientific American story about the evolution of galaxies: "The universe has run out of steam since half its current age. Mergers have ceased, and black holes are quiescent." Oh dear, that's all I need. Cosmic metaphors.

The universe's problem, it seems, is something called dark energy that makes up abut 74 percent of what is. Astronomers don't know what dark energy is, but it has the opposite effect of gravity. It pushes things apart, stretches the universe thin. Accelerates the long slow glide into dark oblivion.

A few hundred billion years from now other galaxies will have receded from our view. Within the Milky Way, the last dregs of energy will be squeezed from star-birthing nebulas. Stars will die; no new stars will be born. The night sky will grow dark. Somewhere, in a last fading pool of cosmic warmth, life, which for billions of years had burned among the stars like a cool blue flame, will flicker out.

I think of Philip Larkin's poem Aubade:
I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

It's a grim poem from a poet who could be grimly fatalistic. But he got one thing right: Everything dies. Galaxies. Stars. Humans. Life itself. The sure extinction. He got this right too: Death is no different whined at than withstood. Death is part of the equation, part of a universe whose origin and ultimate fate is perhaps beyond our knowing. We make our own meaning. Invent gods. Invent the consolation of immortality. It would be lovely to believe, but the age-old notion that the universe was created just for us is no longer possible to maintain. Hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Born in fire. Destined for cold annihilation.

Art. Religion. Procreation. Drink. We all deal with the sure extinction that we travel to, each in our own way. I don't begrudge Larkin his morbidity, nor the believer her hope of Paradise. I immerse myself as deeply as I can in the glorious and mysterious thick of things, and sail with the galaxies into darkness.