Crossing the wasteland


It was the look in this woman’s eyes. It was sheer, flat out joy, something you don’t normally see on television. Her name is Andrea Ghez, and she was talking about discovering the black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Professor Ghez is an astrophysicist and computer imaging expert at UCLA, and her role on the discovery team was to use computers to clean up the interference from Earth’s atmosphere, which was distorting the images of the Keck II telescope in Hawaii.

Andrea Ghez was filled with childlike enthusiasm, and why not? She and her team were the first humans to actually see the stars at the heart of the galaxy, plot their movements and actually prove the existence of the massive black hole that holds the Milky Way together.

You have to wonder why people do things like this. There’s no money in it. There’s no business case. They’re simply in it for the pleasure of inventing a new cosmology—which is a fancy way of saying they’re reinventing the universe just for fun. And it was written all over her face.

While I haven’t crossed the galaxy this week, I did travel to visit the stars. I flew to Los Angeles for a meeting. On the return flight this morning we crossed over the vast wasteland of the Mohave Desert. Looking down in the morning sun there wasn’t a patch of green in sight. Just rock and dry, brown dirt and the deep twisting fissures caused by once-in-a lifetime flash floods. It looked more like Mars than Earth. Then on over the parched Sierra Nevadas and through the snow-capped Rockies or whatever they’re called down there, and finally over the patchwork quilt farms of the US Great Plains.

It took four hours to fly to Toronto. Like LA, it’s a different kind of wasteland. Cars, glass and steel, and thousands of empty-faced people sprawling across painfully uncomfortable airport seats or marching through the endless airport corridors dragging heavy bags with clattering wheels. Above the fray hang the ubiquitous flat screens, some displaying departure times and gates, others the news.

To those sitting closest to the sets, the news was a wake-up call. The stock market was going through its second Black Monday in as many weeks. At one point the TSX was down over 1200 points and the Dow fell below 10,000 for the first time in five years. It figures, I thought. We’re heading into a financial wasteland, too.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading some more of Joseph Campbell’s stuff on mythology. In his book, Pathways to Bliss, he talks about the modern wasteland, and how we’ve traded off our ancient shaping mythologies in the wake of rational scientific thought. Our religions have lost their relevance, and we have nothing with which to replace them. We’re cast adrift in a world of endless consumption in pursuit of happiness.

He writes about Maslow’s hierarchy, which is the human impulse to move from survival issues to self-development. Campbell suggests, correctly I think, that there’s more to human culture than merely working on oneself. We crave deeper meaning.

Modern life is too easy, and we’re too soft. For the last five decades, we’ve been able to pretty much buy what we want, have what we want, give our kids what they want, and still have plenty of time left to distract ourselves with TV, computers, games, books, cars, hobbies, sports, vacations, food and drugs. We’ve built a wasteland of excess; we’re drowning in a sea of choices.

On a personal level, I think we’re bored stupid. I mean, how much shopping can one man or woman take? And when we connect the dots, we feel guilty. Just flipping through the uber-consumer inflight magazine, EnRoute, the reader is smothered with visions of opulent excess from around the world. We’re transported to chi-chi Las Vegas restaurants, where we’re told we can drop up to $185 for a designer steak from the likes of Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck, and even feel good about dropping a few hundred bucks a night on the tables. We get to preview the fabulous architectural feats in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We get the picture of a family visiting the tropical paradise of Costa Rica.

And just to add the right bit of environmental correctness, perhaps cynically, we’re told that even though Costa Rica is one of the most naturally complex places on the planet, we’d better be careful, we’ve lost more than a quarter of the world’s biodiversity in the last 35 years. That is, after we’re told about the writer’s son hurling a ground anole (a small lizard) into the water and watching it sink, and pulling the tail off a gecko.

When it comes to this kind of dulling of the senses, Joseph Campbell could look past the effects on individuals, and see the effects on whole societies. He writes about one of his heroes, Carl Jung, who not only coined the term “individuation,” that is, the process of transcending the mere physicality of life, but also invented the idea of the “collective unconscious.”

There’s a story Jung tells in one of his essays about traveling through Switzerland and on into Germany in the late 1930s. While he was gazing out the train window at the pastoral scene flashing by, he had a vision: in his mind’s eye he saw the landscape blackened and devastated. Less than two years later, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he remembered the vision, and attributed it to a kind of subconscious image that came to him from the unconscious minds of a great many people feeling the same kind of thing at the same moment in time. Ergo, the collective unconscious.

I think it’s possible that we’re at another one of those moments in time. We’re tired of the wretched excess without having to work too hard to get it. We’ve lost a sense of deeper meaning in our lives, and perhaps, as we’re seeing in this financial crash, we have a subconscious desire to reset the whole system as a way to actually feel something real again.

But, as Campbell teaches, there may be better ways to cross the wasteland. And you can see it in Andrea’s eyes.


Popular Posts