Still Looking

What do we see when we stop to look? Among my daughter’s current favorite books are the Ivy + Ivy + Bean - Whats Big Idea?Bean series, which recount the fairly quotidian goofiness of two eight year old girls as they go about their business of being kids. There’s a lot that’s great about the stories, but there’s one in particular I really love. Ivy + Bean (along with the rest of their class) are charged with coming up with a solution for global warming for the school science fair. [SPOILER ALERT!] After several false starts, they hit upon an idea that is perhaps unscientific, but profound: the night of the science fair, they take all the grown-ups outside to lie down in a field and spend a few minutes just looking at the sky and being in nature. Too many grown-ups, they concluded, are afraid of nature and that’s why they aren’t doing anything about it. So they take them outside to look at the stars, smell the night air, listen to the bugs, and realize that nature isn’t out to get them. The grown-ups are impatient at first, but eventually they settle down and even start to get the idea, perhaps. We’ll see.

As I imagined those grown-ups looking into the night sky, I thought of the Hubble Space Telescope’s “Ultra Deep Field” image. Back in 2003, the director of the Hubble program decided to perform a very simple but brilliant experiment: he would point the telescope to a section of the sky that had no recorded objects in it, and keep it focused there for ten days. The image that emerged from this project is breathtaking: dozens upon dozens of galaxies floating in the vastness of space. Not stars: galaxies. Go look at a very high-resolution image of it. Take your time: I’ll wait.

Hubble Uktra Deep Field, 2004

I remember the first time I really looked at this image. It was in 2007, and I was helping to install a small exhibition of images from the Hubble as part of a larger group of shows at the Walters Art Museum about the history of maps. I had organized the exhibition with students from the Johns Hopkins University, and they had talked me out of adding all sorts of text and historical comparanda, and insisted that we just put a few Really Big prints of some images up. It was the right idea. I remember looking at the Ultra Deep Field for a long time, lingering over what felt like (but wasn’t, couldn’t be) every galaxy in the image. “We’re not alone – we can’t be,” I thought. Then I realized that, with considering the immensity of the distances in the image, we are in fact completely and totally alone.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard explores the concept of “intimate immensity,” the paradoxical tendency of encounters with immense things (forests, the sea, the infinite space of daydreams) to lead us into a more intimate understanding of ourselves. Bachelard notes that the experience of intimate immensity is best fostered through stillness: “as soon as we become motionless,” he writes, “we are elsewhere. We are dreaming in a world that is immense.” Ivy and Bean seem to have intuited this: that to get their parents to better understand their obligations to the planet (and their children), they need to get them to stop for a moment and glimpse the immensity. And this is true (though only in a way) for Hubble: the telescope needed to stare into the same emptiness (or apparent emptiness) of space for nearly 1 million seconds to capture everything in the image, though the fact that it is in constant orbit meant that this unblinking gaze was enabled only by constantly twisting and adjusting the telescope to keep it fixed on a single spot.

The recent development of “Slow Looking” and “Slow Knowing” assignments emphasizes duration and attention, but we shouldn’t neglect that stillness (or, the best approximation of stillness that humans can muster) is a necessary condition for those exercises. My students often express amazement that I expect them to “just sit there” looking at a work of art for an hour, and then later astonishment at how easy it is. It’s so easy to fall into a ready equivalence between “doing something” and physical activity–even if it’s just twitching our fingers across a screen–that sitting still feels like “doing nothing.” But stillness might actually be a very profound act.

The correlation between lucid thought and physical stillness runs broad and deep: stillness is a feature of the lives of spiritual figures across many cultures past and present. Ascetic monks in early medieval Egypt and Ireland were renowned for their feats of endurance, and recently some Buddhists insisted that a mummified monk was not in fact dead, but just in a very advanced state of meditation. It’s here I think where we can start to glimpse the connection between physical stillness and cosmic awareness: perhaps stilling our bodies is a way of remembering how much we share with the rest of the material world. So many of the things around us abide, seemingly inert, in a way that is difficult–impossible, really–for us to fathom. But as we settle ourselves into what feels like the stillness of a rock, or a blade of grass, or a glass of water, we start to think of ourselves less as exceptional beings in the universe and more as one of countless number of other things. It’s a necessary humiliation on the path to a proper perspective on our place in the world.

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