Monthly Archives: March 2011

“Yes, I exist, and you are not alone”: Roger Ebert on the indifferent universe and the consolation of art

Roger Ebert has written a wonderful essay that considers humanity’s place in an indifferent, unfathomable universe — what Camus called “the unreasonable silence of the world” — and the need for wonder, curiosity, existential courage, and art:

The universe is too large for me to comprehend how large that really might be. I’ve seen those animations where Earth shrinks to a pin point, and then the sun shrinks to a pin point, and then the Milky Way shrinks to a pin point. The whole map might as well shrink to a pin point, along with the horse it rode on.

None of this immensity is affected by what I think about it. It doesn’t depend on being thought about. If it is true that our galaxy alone might contain 30 to 80 million earth-like planets, and if every one of them were occupied by sentient beings, it doesn’t depend on what they’re thinking, either. It all simply exists. […]

Socrates told us, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I think he’s calling for curiosity, more than knowledge. In every human society at all times and at all levels, the curious are at the leading edge.

But what good does it do me to think of the universe as an unthinking mechanism vast beyond comprehension? It gives me the consolation of believing I conceive it as it really is. […]

My curiosity leads me to science, my admiration for logic leads me to the Theory of Evolution, my pride rejects simplistic fables to describe the facts I observe. Where do I find my consolations? There are many ways to be consoled. Everyone deserves to find their own way, and find such peace as they can. I find my greatest consolations come from Art. An artist can express my feelings as in the same way as an intelligent signal received from one of those 1,235 dots. Such a signal might translate as, “Yes, I exist, and I want to shout to you across space and time that we are not alone.”

A message from light years away would probably miss me in my box of space and time, but I find that Art can shout to me across a few years or centuries, and it carries the same message: “Yes, I exist, and you are not alone.”

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals —
and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Man delights not me — nor woman neither,
though by your smiling you seem to say so.

That’s what we are, a quintessence of dust. That Shakespeare could so conclude, and then end with a little joke is, to me, a great comfort.

There’s much more to it. Read it here.

(Image via Journey Etc.)

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“We are electric pulses in the pathways of the sleeping soul of the country”

More goodness from the brilliant Frank Turner. This one (titled “Dreams” in the video, but officially “I Am Disappeared”) is off of his upcoming album England Keep My Bones:

Listen to the full-band album version here.

Update: Here’s a lovely mini-doc from filmmaker James Henry:

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Neither faithlessness nor false certainty: Kenan Malik on God, science, and the burden of moral choice

Kenan Malik, a new favorite author of mine, criticizes both the notion that morals derive from God and the notion (proposed by Sam Harris among others) that morals derive from science:

At first glance these two approaches — that God tells us what to do, and that science defines right and wrong — seem to be distinct, indeed almost polar opposite, approaches. One alienates moral values to a transcendental realm, and makes them the personal choice of a deity, albeit an all-powerful, entirely good deity. The other suggests that values emerge out of human needs, and that such values can be discovered by scientists in the same way that they can discover the causes of earthquakes or the composition of the sun.

I want to suggest, however, that these two approaches have far more in common than might appear at first glance. In particular, in the desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values, both diminish the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. Both seek to set moral values in ethical concrete. […] Continue reading


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Books are made of win

Sam Grobart at the NY Times lists gadgets to get rid of, and gadgets to keep. In the “keep” pile: books.

Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries.

Indeed. Neil Gaiman agrees:

Paper books are really, really useful things. They are wonderful things. I’m still convinced that the paperback book is something that will probably live forever. Because it’s cheap, it’s cheerful, you can drop it in the bath, you can put it in your pocket. It’s driven by sunlight. You can find your place in it in seconds.

(Granted, his very next line is “But there are places where Kindles win,” but the point is that physical books haven’t lost. Not by a long shot.) Continue reading

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“Climb ev’ry mountain”: reimagining The Sound of Music

The Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata has run The Sound of Music through a kaleidoscope of musical genres and come up with something vital, exciting, and new. Here’s their take on “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” featuring Everett Bradley, Victoria Cave, Carolyn Leonhart, and up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper TK Wonder:

More on the band and the project here (and a Weekend Edition interview here). I’ve just seen their March 22nd show at the Highline Ballroom and they were magnificent. If you love The Sound of Music and are open to seeing a very talented band take it apart and joyously put it back together, do not miss this.

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“This world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.”

Lately I’ve been featuring some wonderful videos from the recent TED conferences. Here’s one of the best.

Poet Sarah Kay performs two fiery spoken-word pieces, “B” and “Hiroshima.” In between, she talks about courage and terror; about finding her voice apart from public expectation; about shedding the armor of cool and hip, and walking through life with open hands; about her inspiring work with students in Project VOICE; and about the power of spoken-word poetry to open doors inside us, to forge connections, and to reawaken us to wonder:

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately — about how it’s more fluid and expansive than the boxes of race, gender, and culture that we’re always trying to stuff ourselves into — Kay’s take on it caught my attention. Continue reading

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The Ahn Trio performs Balakrishnan and Piazzolla

I love David Balakrishnan’s original “Skylife,” as performed by the Turtle Island String Quartet (before they dropped the “String” from their name). And Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” has had many sublime incarnations. But this?


(via TED)

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