They were shining there for you and me, for humanities, Faletra
Dear Reed College Quest,
I am writing to express my enthusiastic agreement with Albert Kerelis’s “How to Hear the Starry Message” in your March 4, 2022, issue. The article captures well Galileo’s sense of wonder at his first telescopic observations, and Kerelis’s salutary reminder that “science is all about interactions” — interactions between a world of external phenomena and the internal world of the observer — deepens my own conviction of how integral the disciplines we normally distinguish as “the sciences” and “the humanities” are to each other. Kerelis emphasizes how the difference between “how the moon looks” and “what the moon is” stands as an invitation for us all, scientists and humanists alike, to consider how routinely, blithely, foolishly, tragically we elide or obfuscate this difference.
I recall a favorite line from the poet Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: the narrator of the story remembers being a little boy and receiving as gifts “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.” The boy is more aware than many adults I know of how the objective observations we can catalog about a thing somehow don’t add up to our real experience of it, or probably to its real experience of itself. There is a similar moment in C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the (rather obnoxious) character Eustace quips that “In our world … a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Are stars indeed merely gargantuan hydrogen reactors, or are they also, as Dante Alighieri believed, le belle cose — beautiful things? The two positions are not mutually exclusive. In restoring Galileo the observer, Kerelis’s exhilarating account also restores the possibility of beauty to our perceptions of the universe.
We can, if we choose, compartmentalize; we can conveniently bracket beauty (and all meaning) from being. We can live in a world where we pretend that the interactions (the observational mind, the “inner life”) don’t matter and that the difference between how a thing appears and what a thing is doesn’t matter — where a wasp or a star or the moon or any of the ten thousand things can be reduced to so much mass, so much energy. But we murder to dissect.
Professor of English and Humanities