The Miracle of Gravity

You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?

As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.

The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.

Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.

Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.

It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.

As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.

If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.

Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”

As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.

So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray. 

This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.

Gratitude as a Measure of Technology

Last Thanksgiving I posted a few lines from G. K. Chesterton on gratitude. Chesterton carries some weight around here; you’ll notice that another of his memorable observations serves as the tag line for this blog. Chesterton had his flaws, of course, but we would all do well to cultivate the kind of gratitude that pervaded his posture toward existence. His conversion, for example, was famously occasioned by an overwhelming sense of sheer gratitude for the resplendent gratuity of being and the realization that there must be some Being to which such gratitude should properly be directed. And Chesterton’s gratitude and mirth also infiltrated the thinking of another individual who looms large on this blog’s tag cloud, Marshall McLuhan.

And so, perhaps establishing something of a tradition, here again is Chesterton on gratitude:

  • “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
  • “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Last year I paired Chesterton with a poem by Wendell Berry, this year I want to tie gratitude more directly to the question which lies at the heart of much of what I write here: How do we live well with technology?

Chesterton, as the latter quotation suggests, recognized that there was much more to be thankful for than the food on our table. He recognized that God’s gifts encompassed the whole of lived experience.  This led me to wonder what else we might add to that list of activities before which we ought to, and would gleefully, acknowledge a debt of gratitude; and more to the point, I wondered what technologies we might include in such a list. This in turn suggested the following thought: Might we measure the value of a technology by the degree to which we were grateful for it? Could gratitude, in other words, be the measure by which we evaluate our technologies?

Evaluating our technologies, placing them on the dock as the Brits might say, interrogating them (although perhaps not under “enhanced” techniques), these are necessary if we are to live well with our technologies. They are part of the work of attaining a critical distance from our technologies so that we may learn to use our tools toward human ends, rather than find ourselves being conformed to the logic of our technologies. But how do we do this? By what standard or measure do we evaluate our tools and what do we have to know about them in order apply whatever standard or measure we arrive at? Well, it’s complicated, but here is one way to approach the matter.

Gratitude — unlike, say, the “Like” button — is a complex response, and yet one that is not difficult to formulate. As a response it is deeper, more layered than mere approval or even enjoyment. Some of that for which I am grateful, I would scarcely label pleasant; and some of what I might not call unpleasant, would yet fail to trigger gratitude. In this way gratitude becomes a telling measure of what we value, what is meaningful, and what adds genuine value to our lives.

Chesterton’s point, of course, is that there is for most of us very much indeed for which we ought to be grateful. One might be tempted to say that finally there is very little for which we ought not be grateful. Gratitude was for Chesterton more a way of experiencing life than a discreet response to a list of items and experiences. But gratitude does admit distinction. We are justified in ranking that for which we are grateful. It is coherent to ask what one is most grateful for even if it makes less sense to ask what one is least grateful for.

So with all of this in mind, then, we might ask two questions of technology: Am I grateful for it? and, In what relationship does it stand to the things for which I am most grateful?

The first of these questions is the most straightforward. But answering it, and following through on the implications of our answers may prove instructive. So, for example, from where I sit I can see my refrigerator. We are so used to its presence in our houses that we take it for granted and we may not immediately think of it when we think of technologies in our lives. But, of course, it is a technology and I find that I am indeed grateful for it. But if this is not to be a superficial exercise, I should also ask why I am grateful for it. In this case, and perhaps most cases relating to particular technologies, it is not necessarily for the thing itself that I am grateful, but for what it enables; namely, the preservation of food that I both need and find enjoyable. This signals something about the value of our tools: it is often derivative. I may be thankful for the presence of a friend whether or not that friend is at that moment “useful” to me. But it is rarely the mere presence of a technology for which we are grateful.

I might also ask if I could do without the technology as a measure of my gratitude for it. As for the refrigerator, I would have to say, not without great difficulty. Now, having affirmed my gratitude for the refrigerator, I should also ask what makes the refrigerator possible? This becomes a lesson in the complexity of technological systems. Refrigerators are not of much use without electricity and so, when I think about my gratitude for the refrigerator, I have to consider all that makes the power grid possible. Taking these connected factors into consideration might temper or complicate my gratitude or it might extend my gratitude further still.

But, staying in the kitchen, what about the microwave? If I ask myself, “Am I grateful for the microwave?” I find that I am hesitant to say “yes.” I realize that the microwave is often very convenient and it has saved me time and effort on countless occasions. Yet, I am not quite grateful for it and this is the thing about gratitude, either you feel it or you don’t. Admittedly, it is possible in principle for someone to lack gratitude when by every objective measure they ought to be grateful. But — narcissists, misanthropes, and teenagers aside — how common is this really? I can’t bring myself to say I am grateful for the microwave even though I can say I am grateful for the refrigerator. That signals something, no?

Why the hesitation? The microwave, for one thing, is not quite necessary in the same way as the refrigerator. It would take a few adjustments, but I could do without the microwave well enough. And what does the microwave secure that is unique to it and not a conventional oven? Efficiency, speed, convenience? For whatever reason, these fail to elicit gratitude from me. Now, let me quickly add, gratitude is sensitive to context. A single mother of four who works throughout the day and then comes home and has to prepare dinner for her tribe may readily profess her deep gratitude for the microwave. No argument here. This reminds us of the complexities of technology, human context is a part of the equation when evaluating a technology and that is a dynamic and unstable variable. Rarely can we take a technology as a discreet object and evaluate it apart from the uses to which it is put in the context of particular lives and concrete realities.

When we consider digital technologies, things get even more difficult to parse since we are no longer dealing with singular items with a narrow range of functions. The Internet and the growing number of devices through which we access it, infiltrate so many dimensions of lived experience that it may be difficult to apply the standard of gratitude meaningfully. When thinking of digital technologies, then, it may be better to examine the sets of practices that gather around particular platforms and applications rather than the devices in themselves.

And since digital technologies diffuse into the fabric of everyday life, this also leads us to the second question, in what relationship does a technology stand to the things for which I am most grateful? In many cases, we might have little cause to be grateful for a technology in itself. It is rather for the role the technology plays within the complex dynamic of everyday experience that we may or may not be grateful for it. The single mother, for example, may be most grateful for time spent with her children. In which case the microwave, which theoretically reduces her time in the kitchen, frees her up to spend more of her precious time with her children. I realize that in real life the distribution of time is rarely quite so simple, but the basic principle seems sound enough — a technology’s value is heightened if it stands in positive relation to that for which we are most grateful. Under different circumstances, the microwave may in fact undermine that for which we are most grateful by, for example, atomizing and dispersing members of the family rather than drawing them around the work of preparing a meal and sharing it together. The question of gratitude then is a context sensitive measure of value.

Altogether, I’m suggesting that the question of gratitude in relation to technology functions as a lens that focuses our perception. When we consider all for which we are most thankful, we are considering those things which make life worth living. Most often these involve health, loving relationships, and meaningful experiences of beauty and joy.  It is these things which ought to structure our life and order our choices. Considering technologies in light of gratitude, then, is a way of disciplining our use of technology for the sake of those things which truly enhance the quality of our lives.

Take a look around you. Ask yourself if you are grateful for the devices and tools that gather around you. Ask yourself whether these devices and tools enhance and augment your relationship to those things for which you are most grateful. And then, in light of how you respond to those two questions, ask yourself if the amount of time, attention, and money you invest in your tools and devices is reasonably proportional to the gratitude they elicit or the manner in which they relate to that for which you are most grateful.

I’m not suggesting this is the only, or even the best, way to go about evaluating our technologies and their place in our lives. But I do think it is a useful way of approaching the issue and I know that it has helped me identify imbalances in need of correction. Ultimately, it is just a way of aligning our practice with our priorities, a simple thing that our technologies have an uncanny way of complicating.

So be grateful and extend that gratitude to technology when it is warranted, but don’t allow any technology to undermine your experience of those things for which you are most grateful.

McLuhan, Chesterton, and the Pursuit of Joy

The ability to attract the attention, sustain the interest, and even earn the admiration of readers from diverse and even antithetical intellectual and moral traditions is surely suggestive of an impressive mind and a generous personality.    That G. K. Chesterton can count the radical, critical theorist Slavoj Zizek and the traditionalist Catholic Marshall McLuhan among those who have engaged his work with penetrating insight tells us a great deal about Chesterton, who also happens to be the source of this blog’s tag line.

After posting a link to Nicholas Carr’s review of Douglas Coupland’s new biography of McLuhan, I decided to pull out my copy of an older, well regarded biography by W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding.  While rather aimlessly perusing through the biography I was struck by Chesterton’s significance for the development of McLuhan’s thought:

Nearly forty years later [from his time in Cambridge], McLuhan said: “I know every word of [Chesterton]: he’s responsible for bringing me into the church.  He writes by paradox — that makes him hard to read (or hard on the reader).”  Chesterton and St. Thomas Aquinas, he said, were his two biggest influences.  He loved Chesterton’s rhetorical flourishes, imbibed his playfulness, turned his impulse to try out new combinations of ideas into the hallmark of the McLuhan method.  (54)

No doubt many have said the same about McLuhan’s paradoxical and gnomic style as well as the relative (un)ease McLuhan presents for the reader.

The significance McLuhan gives to Aquinas parallels his estimation of Plato and Aristotle.  Speaking of an influential Cambridge professor, McLuhan wrote:

Lodge is a decided Platonist, and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion.  Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Christian doctrine. (53)

Aristotle, of course, is the philosopher whose thought Aquinas brought into synthesis with Christian doctrine, and among Chesterton’s expansive corpus is a short, insightful biography of Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.

Demonstrating early on his characteristically wide-ranging and, in Gordon’s words, “synthesizing impulses,” McLuhan links Platonism with Protestantism:

Plato was, of course, a Puritan in his artistic views, and his philosophy when fully developed as by the 15th century Augustinian monks (of whom Luther was one) leads definitely to the Calvinist position. (51)

And while Aristotle, Thomas, and Chesterton receive high marks from McLuhan, Protestants get a lashing:

Catholic culture produced Don Quixote and St. Francis and Rabelais . . . Everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about the conditions and strains of modern industrial society is not only Protestant in origin, but it is their boast (!) to have originated it.  (55)

These insights and formulations from McLuhan give us a sense that in his religious thought and cultural criticism he is after something we might simply call joy.  The link between his cultural criticism and religious thought is explicit and centered on Chesterton:

He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely.  He taught me the reasons for all that in me was blind anger and misery . . . . (56)

He goes on to write,

You see my ‘religion-hunting’ began with a rather priggish ‘culture-hunting.’ I simply couldn’t believe that men had to live in the mean, mechanical, joyless, rootless fashion that I saw in Winnipeg . . . . It was a long time before I finally perceived that the character of every society, its food, clothing, arts, and amusements are ultimately determined by its religion — It was longer still before I could believe that religion was as great and joyful as these things which it creates — or destroys.  (56)

His criticisms of Protestantism and its consequences also circle around the affective sensibilities he perceives it to engender.  In a letter McLuhan writes of “the dull dead daylight of Protestant rationalism which ruinously bathes every object from a beer parlour to a gasoline station . . . ” (56)

In all of this, the appeal of Chesterton who appears continuously mesmerized by the sheer gratuity and giftedness of existence becomes apparent.  Borrowing Chesterton’s own words and re-applying them to Chesterton himself, McLuhan noted that he “had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.” (59)  Likewise, Gordon is correct in reapplying McLuhan’s words regarding Chesterton to McLuhan himself,

There is no hue of meaning amidst the dizziest crags of thought that is safe from his swift, darting pursuit. (60)

And ultimately, it appears that it was the pursuit of joy.

“Gratitude Is Happiness Doubled By Wonder”

When I think of gratitude, I think of G. K. Chesterton. I can think of few others who appeared to be always animated by a deep and inexhaustible gratitude for life and all that it entailed. With that in mind, here are few lines from Chesterton on the theme of gratitude and thanks:

  • “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
  • “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
  • “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

And then I am also reminded of the closing line of a poem by Wendell Berry.  The poem is inspired by a poignant scene in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”:

I think of Gloucester, blind, led through the world
To the world’s edge by the hand of a stranger
Who is his faithful son. At the cliff’s verge
He flings away his life, as of no worth,
The true way lost, his eyes two bleeding wounds—
And finds his life again, and is led on
By the forsaken son who has become
His father, that the good may recognize
Each other, and at last go ripe to death.
We live the given life, and not the planned.

“We live the given life, and not the planned.”  That line etched itself into my mind the moment I first read it.  Simple and profound, an antidote to the disorders of our time.

It would make a great difference, would it not, if our posture toward life were such that we received it as a gift with gratitude and wonder;  if our hands were open to receive and to give in turn rather than clutched to take and to keep?

I tend to think it would make all the difference.

_______________________________________________________________

Also consider my 2011 Thanksgiving post: “Gratitude as a Measure of Technology”

The Risk of Not Knowing

Earlier this summer I stumbled upon the work of Roman Catholic priest and professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, James V. Schall. I have been making my way through two collections of his essays on learning, the earlier Another Sort of Learning and the more recent The Life of the Mind. Schall is concerned to bring us back to a kind of learning that leads to wisdom and well lived lives — a learning which is sometimes hindered rather than furthered by formal education.

The blessings of reading Schall arise from both his own insights and the deep and wide array of authors he puts in our way. One will not read Schall for long without coming across Aquinas, Plato, Chesterton, Belloc, Aristotle, and Augustine — and you can’t help but feel a deep gratitude for having been guided to these sources of wisdom. For what I’m sure will not be the last time in these pages, I’ll throw in your way some of what I’ve happily come across.

Here are some of Schall’s reflections on the distinctly human capacity for learning:

“Chesterton once said, in a memorable phrase of which I am inordinately fond, that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject, only uninterested people. Nothing is so unimportant that it is not worth knowing. Everything reveals something. Our minds cannot fully exhaust the reality contained in even the smallest existing thing.

The condition of our being human, then, is the risk of not knowing something worth knowing. The ‘whole universe may dwell in our minds,’ as Aquinas remarked …. What makes it all right to be a particular, finite human being, such as each of us is, is that, because of intelligence, the universe is also given back to each of us. Our knowing does not take anything away from what is known. Nor does our individual knowing take anything away from others knowing the same thing in the same universe.”