If Things Look Down, Look Up

Posted on December 3, 2007

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Milky WayThis is a marvelously inspirational column by Thomas Hoving, heartlessly stolen from the December, 1985 issue of the now-defunct and oft-lamented Connoiseur magazine.

Early this fall, I had one of those “Chicken Little” kinds of days. Not only the sky but the whole world seemed to be collapsing. Riots, bombings, apartheid, earthquakes, and plane crashes dominated the news. There was less fruitful discussion on disarmament than in a decade. What apparently was an entire family of navy people had betrayed us to the Soviets.

The hot new artists in SoHo seemed to be broadcasting a message of anxiety and disaster. Nor were the other arts, which so often offer solace, of much help. The wells of creativity had surely dried up. No one expects brilliance from the fall television fare, but we don’t need this season’s seepage of sewage, either. And the fact that not one but two new magazines entirely devoted to gossip were to appear – one having Princess Diana on the cover; the other, Joan Collins – an indication of our chief interests? If so, we are already awash in trivia. Did you know, for example, that Bijan was going to launch a perfume? Or that Halley’s comet might wander into another solar system this time around? That last brought to mind the waggish Daily News headline announcing that a killer comet was going to destroy the Earth: “SERIES OFF, NO WORLD!” And when that in turn reminded me of what George Steinbrenner has done to the Yankees, I knew for sure that Chicken Little had come home to roost.

Yes, the weather was rotten, with this, menacing clouds scudding close to the ground. The air seemed two parts hydrogen and three parts depression. Then, suddenly, the gusty winds stilled. The clouds abruptly disappeared seaward, leaving a cool atmosphere of such pellucidity that you’d have thought an immense diamond had replaced the Van Allen belts.

I looked up to the night sky, and there, a few feet above my head and at the same time a billion light-years away, lay the canopy of the Milky Way. The glory of the sight exhilarated me. Here was something no mortal had made up, manipulated, hyped, gussied or tarted up. Here was infinite mystery, the enduring dusty glimmers of the first trillionth of a second of the birth of the universe. I could only reflect on how different those heavenly bodies are from us willful, cruel, posturing mortals! The shimmering dome of the Milky Way seemed everything we humans could never be – orderly, mathematically pristine, revolving at benevolent and polite distances from one another. Up there could be no fools, fakirs, killers, crazies, or sleazes devoted to bad manners and bad taste. Nothing but perfection.

The clear air had brought a chill with it, and, before going inside, I looked up once again at that majestic curtain and felt lifted and peaceful. Suddenly, a shooting star ripped through the firmament, and that brought me to my senses. I laughed. I realized that I had been wrong on two counts. Chicken Little hadn’t come home to roost. There is as much good news as bad – more, in fact – but you have to dig it out; and there’s more substance than trivia…

And my fatuous idea that the Milky Way was utterly pure was wrong, too. Up there in the billions of stars, there had to be some bums and phonies: that shooting star, other mavericks spinning wildly and crashing into innocent ones, greedy black holes, overbright and arrogant stars, shyster stars, stars with the most vulgar taste. I had to smile at my early reveries. The sky isn’t pure, but it sure isn’t falling, nor is humanity, either.

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