Work in Progress
Chapter VI. Athena at Work
Her hands lay across the open book’s pages, drape over the edges of the large tome, caressingly, possessively, for security. She is holding on to her last portal into sanity.
Her tired eyes are closed, her forehead wrinkles relatively smoothed, and her glasses hang from a chain about her neck. Her fingers begin to tremble slightly, as if she were trying to take in the words through magnetic osmosis or to begin reading raised braille dots on the page. She is reflecting, dreaming, remembering something the words just read called to mind or, even, what she anticipates the as-of-yet unread words might bring. Her head is thrown back, her long, thin legs stretched out under the table—a stance of gentle rapture, from the wave of steel gray hair across her forehead to her worn Persian slippers. Her faded flannel dress has an air of monastery robes about it, and its skirts fall like marble drapery over the length of her legs, a field of rivulets, grooves to get lost in.
When suddenly she comes to life and reaches for her pen. Folding her long body into an accordion of tension, the appearance of harmless repose is reversed. She is a jagged lightning bolt—all angles—elbows, knees, deeply cut neck creases like paper fragments folded into triangles, clenched fingers; her bright eyes shooting arrows, her mouth laughing and cursing, as her pen gathers all the disparate, seemingly unrelated elements of the world into consilience, correspondence, crystalline contrast, smoothing the broken glass edges of contradiction and impossible dissonance into a temporary form. So that we can all breathe for a moment before it all breaks asunder once more and leaves us desperately anxious and nauseous from the pervasive disorder that otherwise seems to prevail.
She is studying Copernicus again, , wherein the Great World Transformer defended the marvelous symmetry of the universe. The basic axiom of ancient astronomy—this, an early instant! For now, contemporary physicists, too, judge the rightness of their formulae like this!—Yes, the basic axiom was that all planetary motions be circular and uniform, or composed of circular and uniform parts! Beautiful! Frick and Watson, too, knew they had discovered the shape of DNA when they encountered the double helix, because of its ! But the more scientists before Copernicus learned about planetary speed and positions (why did planets sometimes seem brighter if they were uniformly spinning around the earth?), the less this axiom appeared to hold; Ptolemy, that scapegrace! had located the planets off center from their true axis by allocating each heavenly sphere a second axis of rotation. He violated the principle of perfect circular motion. Made a mess of things. Then came Copernicus! Another of Athena’s heroes. Copernicus struggled to reconcile what was seen by scientists with the cosmic harmony they knew must exist, with Beauty, by nudging the Earth from its accustomed resting place at the center of the universe. All of early science, Athena saw, was based on the desire, nay, the necessity, of reconciling Natural Laws with Harmonic Beauty! Real reconciled with Ideal.
Although our senses tell us that the Sun is moving, our senses deceive us: the earth, just like any other planet, is circling around the Sun. Ridiculous that people today think that heliocentrism was resisted out of an earth-centered egotism. Because we narcissistic humans could not help but see ourselves as all-important! The reverse is true.
In fact, early thinkers did not think the earth worthy to be elevated to the “heavens”. As if the world were a vertical picture seen from top to bottom (now Athena stopped writing to draw a little picture of this), the Earth was seen as sublunary, located the moon, and the repository of all things mortal, dirty, and material. The Sun and the Moon and the stars, on the other hand, were the realms of Divinity, of God and the angels. Copernicus’s revolution, not even fully appreciated now, 600 years later, was not merely to make the Earth revolve around the Sun, but to the Earth with the Cosmos! By joining the Earth to the Cosmos, he overturned the very idea of the Heavens as a separate and opposed realm. Copernicus disproved dualism! And proved that each physical body acted upon other physical bodies.
The “heavenly” bodies exercise a magnetic pull, and their movements and transformations effect changes on Earth. The Great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn of 1524 was expected to instantiate a transformation of the whole world, for all regions, kingdoms, provinces, states, ranks, mammalian beasts, marine animals, and everything that was born of the earth. Athena read that during the total Lunar eclipse of August 1523, “the Moon daubed itself with the Sun’s color; it glowed as it had before throughout the hour of totality, reflecting all the dusk and dawn light that spilled into Earth’s shadows from the day before and the day ahead”. The Great Conjunction in the Sign of Pisces was expected to bring watery disasters, mass drownings to rival Noah’s Flood. When nothing happened, Believers noted that the Great Conjunction of 1345 required two years to unleash the Black Plague. If not waves of literal water, the Conjunction did release waves of religious dissent, or political unrest, the spread of Lutheranism, and the German Peasant Rebellion. While Athena did not believe in omens, portents, or Astrology, she was obsessed with the scientific and ethical question of causation. And wondered, does she, herself, effect even the slightest ripple in reality?
Essay on Moral Certitude
On the way to the fen, we discovered a tiny helpless mouse shivering in the middle of the dirt road. Upon approach, it did not scurry away, as mouses are known to do, and we three adults and one thirteen-year old boy were faced with an ethical dilemma. After impulsively and frantically waving away the car that was swiftly approaching, we concluded that the poor little mouse was either hurt or had been born lame, as one of its legs was splayed out like a frog’s leg, rather than neatly tucked underneath its soft, furry body. We wanted to move it out of the road, and after many awkward attempts, some of which impelled the mouse to desperately try to walk—but it could only roll, which terribly irregular mode of mouse transport was very painful to observe—using a large leaf and a flat rock, Andy and Susi managed to deposit the creature among the wild flowers and weeds along the road side, a better place, we all felt to be devoured by a hawk or a snake or a cat. A place out of the way of speeding cars.
On the lush and lovely path to the fen, which, Andy explained, is different from a bog in that it is fed not just by falling rain water but also by spring-like sources coming from below, I remarked to Susi that the more humane thing to do would probably have been to have bashed its little head with a rock; for it was probably in pain. Andy then began an excursus on the cruelty of nature, which is unceasing, even as we beknighted humans go for nature walks imagining that the woods are Edens of bucolic peace and kindness. Susi shushed him so as not to scare off the two little birds who had alighted nearby, but no ethical person can ever really quiet the voices in one’s head clamoring for some decisive answer about how we are to best live in a world of cruelty and suffering, a world where we may ignore, but only by willful ignorance, denial, or bad faith, the suffering of others, and where—as we are increasingly informed by contemporary social morality—our own pleasures and happinesses may themselves be the cause of the sufferings of others.
When I was about twelve years old, I discovered that there were children starving in Africa and started a campaign to raise money to feed them. I painted large ink paintings of hungry, bloated children and brought them to the train station during the morning commute, and collected change from the guilty businesspeople before school. At school, I was horrified if a friend flaunted a new seven-dollar frisbee, because that money could have fed X number of children for a day. I formed a club, but the only person I can remember helping me was my friend, David Callahan, who accompanied me once or twice on my collection campaigns at the train station. One very cold morning, we did something I felt very conflicted about. We used a few dollars of our collected money to pay for hot chocolate at the diner. I suppose we justified it because all non-profits have overheads and we weren’t getting paid and… Soon after a more sophisticated friend of ours told me that any money I sent would just get eaten up by the groups that allegedly distribute the funds; that I was silly to do it; that it made no difference.