The below is from an email my friend Steve sent me. Sometimes Steve will go on too long about Ayn Rand, and sometimes he’ll be misguided about queerness though never malicious (being a straight guy, and old, he’s always forgiven), and he salts EVERYTHING, a lot, before tasting it. But then, too, Steve will write emails like the one below:
I’m sure I’ve shared with you how, in my early 20s, I would lay awake in my bed so paralyzed with fear of whatever demons were adrift in my dark room that I couldn’t reach for the lamp. I also share your feeling that the universe should give us some answers. I guess I think that it has. We may just not like them. I wrote this recently.
You have to be old to appreciate the uncanniness of things. When you are young, you live in the world as a fish lives in water. Walking down the driveway at night, I was preceded by Minkston, his tail in the air. On an ordinary planet circling an ordinary sun in an ordinary galaxy, two creatures from radically different species have bonded, and the tall one, whose habitat is language, delights in the small one who is governed mostly by instinct. That this is happening has to be pretty unlikely even in a universe as big as this one. That life emerged out of the chemical mix on this planet and took these forms and produced this interspecies camaraderie is as strange as strange can be. The universe’s producing my cat is extraordinary in itself. Just compare him to rocks, oceans, planets, stars, and galaxies – he is much more complex. And much more complex than ferns, trees, fish, and lizards. It took the universe 13.7 billion years to produce this amazing little creature in front of me. It took it almost that long to produce his species, then several more million years to produce my species. Then, in the last 12,000 years or so, the universe enabled my species to evolve culturally as well as biologically, to the point where we think about cats and even about the full trajectory of the 13.7 billion years that it took to produce them. Yes, it took the universe that long to produce thinking about the universe – to imbue one of its animate entities with a quality called curiosity and a technology called language. This entity has taken up the universe itself as a subject and invented machines that are actually able to see 13.7 billion years back in time. And because the universe centers everywhere simultaneously, in a cat’s awareness just as much as in the center of a star or a galaxy, and because the entire universe expanded out of a singularity that contained in embryo everything that now is, it follows that the possessor of the curiosity is viewing his own origin and the origin of his thought about origins – for nothing whatsoever in the universe today has been, subsequent to its beginning, added to it: everything in it today is a transformation of the energy and matter that was present at the origin. So the universe is not a large room into which things like galaxies, stars, planets, life, cats, and thoughts have been placed; the universe is a single process that, starting from a dense hot thimble of not-yet-hydrogen-atoms, has unfolded galaxies, stars, planets, life, cats, and thoughts. The universe has manifested itself successively as Milky Way, Sun, Earth, bacteria, plants, animals, cats, humans, Minkston, me, my thoughts about Minkston, and my thoughts about the universe. The universe has, through the invention and nourishment of me and my consciousness, looked at itself, sometimes considering only the way it centers itself in a cat, sometimes considering the entire process by which it has evolved for 13.7 billion years and eventuated in a cat and then eventuated in a thought about a cat and finally in a thought about thinking about the universe. None of this had to happen, it just did. It is uncanny.
But you have to be old. When we are young, the world is simultaneously numinous and ordinary. It is wondrous but at the same time everyday. Children do not have concepts of uncanniness and arbitrariness. Nothing that is can be imagined to be other than it is. Interspecies relating is as normal as crumbs.
The older I get, the more I find myself pondering the fact that I will die. This fact does not seem to present any impediment to my understanding, and I accept gratefully the blessing that I was born late enough to learn the universe story and lived long enough to experience its uncanniness. But it seems especially uncanny, or poignant, that my thoughts will pass out of existence, and even the memory of my thoughts, because it is the universe itself that is thinking about itself as I walk down the driveway trailing my cat. Won’t the universe miss this? There will be others after me, no doubt, who think about their cats and about the universe’s felicity in centering in their cats after so much Research & Development, but the thoughts will not be precisely mine and the quality of my awareness will not be duplicated.
But perhaps the strangest and uncanniest thing that we have learned about the universe is that this impermanency is its permanent mode. The radical contingency, not just of living things, but of all things in it, including itself, is its only stable property. We have known for millennia that all creatures die and we have been adjusting for some time to the knowledge that the sun will burn out and our entire solar system will expire. But the news that nothing in the universe is structure, and everything is process – the news that the basic feature of the universe is experiment and that everyain result is eventually thrown out – the news that every star, planet, cell, and molecule must ultimately undergo a transformation so total that it is properly called extinction, and that the universe itself is slated to be extinguished at last either in fire or in ice – for those of us who had naturally enough conceived it as that sturdy and everlasting barn into which the galaxies were intelligently placed, this news is the uncanniest of all.
(excerpted from an email sent to me by Stephen Kennamer, 26 February 2010)