Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Past Future of the Arts

by Drew Martin

I once wrote a paper about extraterrestrial communication and structural Marxism, which questioned why some people want to communicate with (potential) aliens and why they would expect aliens to want to communicate with them.

Thinking about this paper recently, I recalled two books that have interesting comments on the arts, media and outerspace; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke and The Martian Chronicles (1946) by Ray Bradbury.

In 2001, astronaut David Bowman passes time in a manner that is the equivalent of surfing the Internet:

He would have six off-duty hours, to use as he pleased. Sometimes he would continue his studies, or listen to music, or look at movies. Much of the time he would wander at will through the ship's inexhaustible electronic library. He became fascinated by the great exploration of the past...

The reference to "Odyssey" appears in the continuation of that passage:

... and he began to read the "The Odyssey," which of all books spoke to him most vividly across the gulfs of time.

What prompted me to return to 2001 was remberance of this passage:

During the last three months, David Bowman had adapted himself so completely to his solitary way of life that he found it hard to remember any other existense...

At first, needing the companionship of the human voice, he had listened to classical plays - especially the works of Shaw, Ibsen, and Shakespeare - or poetry readings from Discovery's enormous library of recorded sounds. The problems they dealt with, however, seemed so remote, or so easily resolved with little common sense, that after a while he lost patience with them. So he switched to opera - usually in Italian or German, so that he was not distracted even by the minimal intellectual content that most operas contained. This phase lasted for two weeks before he realized that the sound of all these superbly trained voices was only exacerbating his loneliness. But what finally ended this cycle was Verdi's "Requiem Mass," which he had never heard performed on Earth.

The "Dies Irae," roaring with ominous appropriateness through the empty ship, left him completely shattered; and when the trumpets of Doomsday echoed from the heavens, he could endure no more. Thereafter, he played only instrumental music. He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally with Mozart. And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years.

Coincidentally, the section of The Martian Chronicles that I have also thought about is titled: June 2001: - And the Moon be Still as Bright.

An American crew has landed on Mars only to find a great civilization recently wiped out by chicken pox.

A member of the crew, Spender, is horrified by how his fellow astronauts are behaving so he leaves them to find out what great culture they had missed.

Spender says to his captain:

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it is out of the way and served no large commercial purpoae. And Egpyt is a small part of Earth. But here, this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We'll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont sea, and there'll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won't ever be right, when there are the 'proper' names for these places."

The captain responds:

"That'll be your job, as archaeologists, to find out the old names, and we'll use them."

Spender also offers:

They (Martians) knew how to blend art into their living. It's always been a thing apart for Americans. Art was something you kept in the crazy son's room upstairs. Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion perhaps.

They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and beautiful. It's all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: 'In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.' A Martian, far cleverer, would say: 'This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.'

In another passage:

He (Spender) put down the thin silver book that he had been reading as he sat easily on a flat boulder. The book's pages were tissue-thin, pure silver, hand-painted in black and gold. It was a book of philosophy at least ten thousand years old he had found in one of the villas of a Martian valley town.