Philosophy

Artificial Skies

The Temple of the Attainment of Happiness, originally built in 1398 in Nara, Japan, now at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

I get weak in the knees whenever I stand beneath an artificial sky. A ceiling painted pale blue. Diffuse lighting. Perhaps an artist’s rendition of clouds. These things trigger a warm blush of dopamine, an uncoiling of the nerves. There is nostalgia here, a smudged memory of the safety I felt doing arts and crafts in a classroom while a storm beat against the windows: a child’s fantasy of living within a diorama, of inventing better worlds without any sense of time. And I catch a small thrill in the belly because there’s the sensation of a premonition realized, of standing in the future while my brain lights up with aerodynamic phrases like Spaceship Earth, Biosphere, and the tape-recorded skies of Neuromancer’s Freeside.

But there’s also dread. I remember the illuminated photographs of cherry blossoms in the drop ceiling of the hospital room where my father lay dying. This synthetic attempt at normalcy reminded me why clowns are so disturbing: their happiness without reason, the painted smile that must conceal a terrible expression underneath—else why the make-up? The cocoon of a climate-controlled simulation promises protection from the world’s unpredictability and violence, but sooner or later you begin to wonder what might be going wrong behind its walls. A representation implies the real thing must be lost, ruined, or otherwise unavailable. And there’s a connection here that I cannot quite articulate without sounding clumsy, some deep-boned fear that the screens we inhabit today are rapidly becoming an artificial replacement for something that can no longer be salvaged.

Philosophy

The Stellar Sphere

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky. I’d like to recover some kind of wonder in the digital age.