Struggling to absorb the wondrousness of Philae, the observatory device shot into space this week to stick to and photograph a comet, I can only fasten on the verb: harpooning. It’s a suitable invocation of an attempt to fasten ourselves to mystery, to the curved back of the large beast hurtling past our limited world and away into its limitless own. Melville would approve.
Except the harpoon didn’t catch. The device bounced, for 2 hours, while “the comet rotated beneath it.” Wow. One scientist’s words I heard were appropriate: even not getting this right, he said [I’m paraphrasing], is not a failure in the grand scheme of things. Because they tried. As artists, and voyagers, and scientists, and humans in general always do and always have. We try. Philae itself (not file, where my Southern brain first went) is named after an ancient device of decoding and knowing, one stone used to read another. We want to know. That’s our joy and our curse. We want to know.
Preparing to descend again into the work against Keystone XL in the wake of the midterm elections, I’m thinking of how we can continue to fight the casual, use-value approach to the world that has led us to pollute our own planet and think seriously, in some quarters, of colonizing others. Let the awe of the Philae launch and the photos it’s sending back – humanity’s first sight of a comet close up — sober us into a realization of our own place in the stream of time and the great ocean of the galaxy, so small, so small. Let it humble and dazzle us, in the way Melville’s Ishmael would recognize, gazing from his small boat into the eye of the whale-calf gazing back from its own unknowable world. Let it redirect our gaze on all that is already around us as well as all that lies beyond the realm of our sight, all that is out there in the galaxy where human plans and narratives and self-importance mean less than nothing.
There are not only images but sound recordings from Philae too. And now we can hear a comet sing.
Tonight, trudging through the bitter cold to my car from another meeting, through the fog of work and general First World pseudoproblems, I saw something hurl through the air above a streetlight, so bright and large it looked like somebody had set a soccer ball on fire and tossed it off the roof of the nearby dorm. But it was a shooting star – fierce, shaggy, spark-scattering, pale orange at the edges, hurtling across the sky long enough to freeze me in place, registering all of this in wonder and shock. I thought belatedly of the plans and hopes I’d been turning over in my mind at that moment and hoped that star was some sort of blessing, like the Ancient Mariner with his water-snakes, that would be more real for being unexpected and unlooked-for. But then I let that thought go. No need to harpoon the comet. Just let it be what it is, burning itself onward, glorious and not unseen.