Saturday, May 01, 2010

Laughing in the dark

I wrote here not long ago about Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Hecht is a historian of science at Nassau Community College in New York. What her doubters have in common is a tendency to march to their own drummer, to question received wisdom, and to examine the bases of their beliefs.

At the heart of her analysis of doubt lies what she calls a "meaning-rupture." We live between two divergent realities, she says. On the one side, there is the world in our heads, a world of reason, love and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond human life, a world which shows no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy. In the weird and discordant wonderland between these divergent realities believers and doubters make their homes.

In my earlier post I said: Believers respond by transposing human characteristics onto the universe. Doubters suggest that mysteries are to be enjoyed, not solved, and that we will be happier if we regard the universe and existence itself as mysteries.

When I read Hecht's book, I noted from the author's bio that she had also published a much-praised book of poetry , The Next Ancient World. Interesting. A historian of science who is also an accomplished poet. I ordered the book through interlibrary loan. What, I wondered, would the poet do with the seeming mismatch between human aspirations for cosmic purpose and nature's silence?

I am pleased to report that as befits a doubter her poetry is full of wit, whimsy, and a playfulness that is serious without ever taking itself too seriously. She does indeed "regard the universe and existence itself as mysteries," and revels in it. Hecht gives a big snort to fundamentalists on both sides of the "meaning-rupture." She's not out to proselytize. She just wants to have a little fun with her existential angst.

You can find a poem from The Next Ancient Wold here, and a poem from her newer book Funny (all of which incorporate a joke or two) here.