The caption at NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" page reads: "Atlantis to Orbit."
The filename of the picture reads: nightlaunch.
And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within it all the same.
In thinking about this brief essay I could not help but think of a longer one by Doctor Bob at The Doctor Is In about a "civilized" European nation that cannot stop itself from taking the next step down into the pit; its people driven, as "reasonable" people always are, by the inexorable demands of "what is reasonable."
In the work of Goya we see how that great soul, having walked the carnage cloaked landscapes of his era, came to understand the deepest cry of the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. ["The sleep of reason breeds monsters."]
Ah well, the bones of the Enlightenment lie buried in a shallow grave somewhere along the Western Front. It had some nice ideals, but left us living rapt in the spell of Reason.
And now we are a "reasonable" society. Now we are a "scientific people" swaddled in a million theories of management -- convinced that all of creation can be, somehow, managed through the limitless employment of Reason. Many of us, as we have seen in the past month, worship "intelligence uber alles," that strange and deadly viral god of the mad mind that kills the soul long before it kills the nations that embrace it. We see the apotheosis of this worship leap up from the dazed lands of Europe. We see it arc across our own skies. We feel the sting of its acid rain on our upturned, stunned faces.
Reason. Its gifts are many. It enables us to raise "Atlantis to Orbit." The poetry of that is only exceeded by the reality of it; by all that lies behind the sheer raw ability of the smart monkey to organize itself to achieve it -- the mathematics and the metallurgy, the pulses in the silicon chips that hold and control the fire that slices up and beyond the sky. And the systems and wires and waves that bring these thoughts from my fingertips to your eyes now.
All these, and whole Alps of others, are the gifts of Reason.
But there are darker gifts of Reason; gifts revealed by the languor with which a whole people fall "half in love with easeful death." Why? Why abort this child? Because it is reasonable. Why kill this old and feeble person? Because it is reasonable. Why take from them according to ability and give to others according to need? Always because it is "reasonable." Reason commands it and Reason has, in this modern era, become a vengeful and a jealous god.
If it is true that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, can it not also be true that the constant wakefulness of Reason breeds its own peculiar hallucinations; its walking horrors?
We depend on Reason when we flip a switch, step on a brake, or seat ourselves in pressurized thin metal tubes that hover 40,000 feet above the earth and move at 500 miles an hour. This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives. And yet... and yet...
And yet, hovering outside of Reason, we still somehow sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules. We sense, no matter how many times we are told the opposite, that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.*
And that, as we now move more deeply into Advent, we move -- in our long sweeping orbit about our home star -- closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith -- even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had -- this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle.
Our Here. Our Now. Our miracle. Impossible but actual. On this unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago from starstuff and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the far stars in our searching.
On the one hand, it is clear that Reason demands that "We shall not cease from exploration," while on the other it may well be that:
"... the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
And while nothing in our Book of Reason can tell us why, its endless banal chapters on irony would need to be excised were we to discover that all "Enlightenment," all our "Age of Reason" has wrought is but a frail and flimsy ladder to the stars where we could at last put out our feeble hands "to touch the face of God."