Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Universe's Indifference

Early in Dickens' Great Expectations, the young narrator Pip is thinking about the escaped convict Magwich whom he has encountered earlier that day and who is now on the run somewhere out on the marshes on a cold winter's night:
And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful if would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude
Pip's epiphany -- that the universe ("the stars") is indifferent to man's fate -- has this brutally stark quality to it. The stars care little about any one individual's fate. What makes this little vignette so remarkable to me is that, at this point in the novel, Pip is still a little boy.

I have had a similar epiphany when looking out at the ocean. The vast expanse of water tends to naturally propel my thoughts away from the trivial and mundane and toward the more philosophical and profound. To the question "What was I put on this planet to do?" the Pacific responds with a resounding, "Don't care."  The waves will continue to pound the sand regardless of any action I take and long after I am gone.

Now the universe's response of overwhelming indifference can push one towards either despair -- what's the point? -- or towards a greater self-reliance -- it's on me to determine my destiny. In my case, I find myself frequently vacillating between the two poles. When I start by saying that, because the universe cares not one whit what I say or do and so it is on me to determine my own destiny, the slapping waves remind me that, when all is said and done, nothing I say or do will make much of a difference one way or the other.

These are age-old questions -- they have been around since Marcus Aurelius and probably long before he wrote -- but there is something about being down at the ocean that brings out the armchair philosopher in me and stimulates deep thoughts. For just as I realize that the universe indifferent to the fate of man or even of mankind, looking at the ocean makes me realize also how insignificant I am in the cosmos. As a grain of sand to me, so I am a grain of sand to the cosmos.

The quote from Great Expectations acquires an even more ironic flavor as the novel continues, because the story is really a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age narrative of a Victorian 'gentleman' who becomes that only by virtue of having a secret benefactor (the convict Magwich who, after having been transported to Australia, becomes incredibly wealthy and uses the attorney Jaggers to become Pip's 'benefactor'). As Pip grows into adulthood and decadent gentrification -- he's the first Yuppie in Anglo literature -- his essential aloneness and isolation become all the more evident. The stars gaze down on Pip with no help or pity. And only Joe, simple Joe, continues to love Pip even after his essential human vacuity has revealed itself.

When we look to the cosmos to validate our existence, we look in vain.

1 comment:

  1. I never feel 'small' or 'insignificant' when I am at the ocean or like "nothing I say or do will make much of a difference one way or the other" because I pick up the garbage that will ruin it, saving it for the future of the planet and I feel giant when I do that! Furthermore if you feel the cosmos "doesn't care" or anyone for that matter what you make of yourself that would make me work all the harder to do something great just to give the 'cosmos' or anyone else that "doesn't care" a thumb in the eye!