Monday, April 19, 2010

Our World, Our Imagination and the Gods

I picked up John Banville's new novel The Infinities, read the first paragraph and was instantly hooked. Narrated by none other than the ancient winged-helmeted trickster Hermes, the prose packs a poetic wallop that brought tears to my eyes. Here's how the novel opens:
Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy, more or less, except of course the condemned man, for whom first light will be the last, on earth.
This morning's Astronomy Picture of the Day (above) got me to thinking about terrestrial and celestial phenomena and the fantastic imagination of human culture. Is it any wonder that humans once looked upon such sights and created stories of angry and fearsome superbeings? Do we see here Zeus' or Odin's wrath? And, as we know from geological science (if not simple observation) following such volcanic activity is the formation of new land which, as many know, is what the word lava means. And so we have a piece of the puzzle of wrathful, titanic gods and their equally titanic abilities to destroy and, of course, to create.