Do settle in: this is a long read, but all we have is time these days, after all…?
I. A Lecture on the End of Time in a Theatre Soon to Close
Eleven days ago, before the tyranny of a pandemic virus would take hold over California, I took my dad out for a birthday dinner at a new Thai place in town, and then to a lecture from Columbia University Professor and leading string theorist Brian Greene. It was a full house of people eager to hear Greene’s position on the “end of time”: Does this exist? If so, how will it happen? How does human history figure into the end of the universe?
Greene proceeded to give a bombastic lecture, with elaborate animations and soundscapes, of the circumstances leading up to the end of time, which manifested themselves in a complex relationship between dynamics of Entropy (disorder), Evolution, and Eternity.
According to Greene, the extinction of humanity “from one thing or another” would happen well before the earth would fall into the dark, dead sun, and black holes would suck up matter until there would be none left and then collapse in on themselves. The end of all existence would follow the final bit of entropy that is released upon the act of the generation of a final thought…only for some of those entropic particles to meet eventually somewhere in the void and become something, leading to (eventually) a new Big Bang, a new expanding universe, a new Earth (or Earth-ish thing), and all the rest of it in a great, meta-cosmic cycle.
Now, if I had been quick enough to line up behind all the eager physicists jostling for a turn with the mic during the Q&A, I would have asked, “why is thought the final thing to precede nothingness, followed by eventual somethingness?” Why couldn’t that thing be anything else? A cat, or a book, or a bottle of whiskey? Perhaps for Greene, thought is just a placeholder for whatever the final thing is. Perhaps he is extending a consolation prize to the creationists after claiming that there is no intelligent design, or designer in the universe, by presuming that in the end (and thus in the beginning) was logos (word, thought) after all.
Perhaps, as was his consistent refrain when he rounded up a not-completely-resolved point in the talk, or when his querents asked too complicated a question, you just have to read my new book.
II. If We Know Nature, Can We Control Her?
This is a question that comes to me in the present circumstances, when many worldwide are stuck at home watching the increasingly harrowing news about more cases and more deaths, or otherwise in grocery stores, panic-buying pasta and toilet paper, even when our world leaders say that the supply chains are still solid. They say that if we shut ourselves up in our houses, the virus will burn itself out in its failure to find new hosts within a few months.
Do we know better? Are our mathematical models and social distancing strategies superior to the instincts of a virus that has no cognition (as far as we know)?
It was not Greene’s claim about the lack of intelligent design of the universe; nor his assertion that we have no free will because our constituent particles determine our actions; nor even his postulation that, if particles by natural succession make predictable patterns in structure, there might be a floating brain structure identical to his own brain out in space, thinking the same thoughts as he is and imagining that it is a human, giving a lecture in front of hundreds of people when actually it is a floating brain – it was none of these claims that I found most arresting.
It was one graph he showed us that demonstrated the accuracy of mathematical models for determining the distribution of heat in the universe (as was confirmed by observable readings), and his comment that, “See, we can make these mostly reliable calculations, and we have some control.”
Control of the natural world through understanding, I assumed he meant, so that science becomes not merely a means of knowing through observation, but a means of using the language of mathematics to penetrate the cosmos with incisive predictions about the end of all life, matter, and time. [Yes, he did concede that mathematics may indeed not be the only, or the best language available to us to know, in the Q&A].
This presumption to know irritated me, and I rather begrudged him this statement that night. I asked Venus Genetrix, Nature herself, to disprove his predictions, to keep her mysteries fully intact. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose…
But then I realized that I habitually look to establish a similar sense of “control” in my own research. I study Greco-Roman literature and myth, and my colleagues and I often presume to know, to have some control over (our understanding of) these cultures, and the function of stories therein. I too like to give the logos of thought and analysis presiding importance, rather than to let the object of my thought stand for itself and remain resolutely unanalyzed.
As interested as we in that lecture theatre were not two weeks ago in what the end of time will look like, this week we would all like to know when we will even be able to enter a theatre again, when things will return to normal, and at what human price. This knowledge, this control myself and innumerable others around the world would do much to redeem.
And as a yogi, the processes of “letting go”/”surrendering” to nature that we hear as stock instructions in the classes that are now live-streamed by teachers in self-isolation, ring numbly in my ears. These instructions demand a radical renunciation of my own acute experience of needing nature to be more predictable, to follow our well-researched strategies for its containment.
When things are most at stake, the real yoga begins, and asks us whether the question, “Do we have control?” is the most important one.
III. The Control We Have?
It is the first day of spring. Day 1 of the California Governor’s stay-at-home order, whose end has yet to be determined.
The world has changed so rapidly in the last few months that we have had no choice but to live under the reign of this new, invisible power, a respiratory disease that has become a global pandemic. People have died, and continue to perish by the thousands in the hardest hit countries: Italy, China, Iran, Spain. The California governor predicts that 56% of Californians could contract the virus, unless we all undergo prolonged, rigorous self-isolation.
Many of us can work from home, but many of us cannot work at all, have no choice but to apply for unemployment insurance. Those who work in the arts, entertainment, hospitality, travel, and especially airline industries are the worst affected. Many countries have closed their borders.
The landlords cannot evict their tenants, residential or commercial. The schools and libraries are closed. Most of the courts are closed. The restaurants are open only for take-out. The grocery stores are packed with shoppers who deplete the pasta shelves and the meat counter before noon.
This enforced isolation began as mere social distancing (maintaining a distance of six feet from another person) in public places and transmuted itself into the complete desertion of public places.
And now, we do everything at home: see friends virtually, work remotely, take live-streamed yoga classes, watch a lot of Netflix, play board games, (hopefully) have lots of fulfilling sex and deep discussions. And the end of this is indefinite.
When I watch television or films these days, I feel as if I am on a long-haul flight. I watch people out in the world, engaging in social activities that I must wait to experience again. Until we’ve reached some destination of normalcy.
I find that the biggest impact this phase in world history has dealt me is the realization of our human connectivity, the understanding that for the first time in my life, death has a common face globally, a coronavirus. At the same time I and many others practice an anthrocentrism that balks at the splendor of the natural world that lies beyond our shut windows. Why does nature not see what is happening to us? Why do the trees still dance in the wind, and the bees fill the lavender bushes and the winking stars of Orion continue to float somewhere past my roof?
Yet for some, this current situation carries few new perspectives, or existential quandaries.
When walking past a new build in my neighborhood, where a large contingent of the builders are of Latinx descent, I overheard two blonde women who were surveying the building project and reflecting on their own experiences as overseers of home improvement works. One of them said, “My girlfriend Lori and I share Santos…well, I shouldn’t say we share him. He works for her six days a week”.
Shortly after this, I heard a young man frustratedly shouting into his phone, “Can’t he and I just split the fee? I said I was interested in this role, and now he goes to the fucking company about it?!”
The anxieties of work, politics, and the everyday violence of belittling, racist objectification of others somehow still prevails in the midst of Nature’s appeal to us all to wake up.
Assuming that Nature is intelligent.
IV. Making Meaning in the Madding Maelstrom: Some Attempts
Dr. Greene delivered his talk not two weeks ago at a theatre that is now shut. And now no one can sit at the counter at the Thai restaurant in the bustling public market.
The restaurants and coffee shops have cleared out all their tables. A big void in front of the counter gapes open, and people swirl around there in an invisible vortex, giving each other a wide berth, looking nervously over their shoulders as they wait for the barista to add cream to their coffee, as the self-service area has been dismantled.
At the grocery store, the meat, produce, bread, and pasta go first. Only skim milk is left. People slide past one another, nervous and smooth as electric eels, crackling with nerves. The manager stands in front of his desk, hands on hips, looking analytically and anxiously at the shoppers whose faces are pinched with scarcity, who smile nervously.
Next week I will be giving a lecture (via Zoom) on myth and multiculturalism in Pompeii to graduate students in a comparative mythology program. In the initial stage of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city in the summer (or fall, depending on whom you ask) of 79 CE, the city experienced twelve hours of pumice fall before the pyroclastic flow hit: twelve hours of admonitory earthquakes, of the harbor being girded by a floating barrier of fallen porous volcanic rock that blocked the advance of Pliny the Elder’s rescue ships (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16). Meanwhile, people in Herculaneum, the smaller community on the other side of Vesuvius, saw the pumice falling on their neighbors in Pompeii, and may not have known that they were also in for the acute force of the pyroclastic flow that would bury their city.
Has this stay-at-home order been issued in time for the warning? The pumice fall? Has the pyroclastic flow hit? Do we have the control to anticipate when it will?
They have skipped the animal testing of the prospective vaccine for the virus and are moving to human trials, but they are still working with a timeline of approximately 18 months.
Do we have control?
In China the worst seems to be over, and they are opening the schools and the restaurants again. They are leading the navigation of this fleet of countries, sailing on with closed borders and socially distant citizens, into uncharted waters of global survival. Will there be a second wave, a new squall of disease? We are already venturing out to test this, like wildebeests that must return to the watering hole after the crocodiles that took a few of their number have sunk back below the surface…
Do we have control?
And still, Nature continues its reliable patterns. The spring storms surge. The land is green. The wildflowers are blooming in the hills. The world smells like nature’s apothecary here in California. Wild sage and sweet chaparral. The birds sing the fragrances of the plants.
Meanwhile, our loci of control are still revealed to us. My yoga practice. My Pompeii lecture. My book on Greek tragic women. My small stash of toilet paper. My practice of rigorous social distancing as a means of protecting my mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is most at risk from the current threat. I do not know whether my peers are observing the same measure of isolation as I am. I need to break my Lenten fast and get back on social media, I guess.
I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu before the museums closed. I took some photos of Athenian vases, Roman frescos and sculptures. I sat in the ocean-facing garden of the museum, which is built as a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri, a massive residence in Herculaneum buried under 20 meters of ash, a monument containing a library of scrolls whose words we have yet to develop the technology to read.
Another example of the word as the end and the beginning.
Keep well and safe, everyone! Thanks for reading.