Volume 7, Issue 3: Pictura
I used to fear gravity, or rather its failure, and it may amuse you to think
of me hiding from the sky beneath ceilings, trees, even my bedsheets until I
became attached to the ground.
My sixth-grade teacher, explaining the Coriolis effect, was describing the earth's
rotation, the deflection of moving objects on its surface, the clockwise direction
of draining water and hurricanes in our hemisphere. He was hoping that we would
grasp some basic physics, but I made the jump to metaphysics too soon. As the
teacher explained that the motions we were discussing were all caused by our
rotation in space, I began to feel strange.
Suddenly I saw everything the wrong way; it was the feeling I'd had as a small
boy when I crept downstairs late one night and stood frighteningly disoriented
in a familiar room. I couldn't find the bathroom or the way back to my bed though
I knew everything that I saw, and I could only cry on my mystified father's lap.
Now, sitting in my classroom, the mystery was not the movement of dishwater and
ocean currents, but of the planet, with me on it. I felt myself flying along
at a tremendous rate and began to feel nauseated, overcome by the sensation of
the world rushing forever, and though I wanted with genuine panic to be still,
there was nowhere I could look to stop the feeling of motion. Outside, the waving
trees and the clouds sailing across the sky only made the sensation worse. Inside,
my desk, the floor, the walls were hurtling with me endlessly through space.
Vertigo wrenched my insides and in the middle of sixth period at Harrison Elementary
School, I got sick from planetary motion.
That night I couldn't sleep, feeling the stars whirling above my head and the
tossing of the branches outside my window as they fluttered in what I now knew
to be the wind of the earth's rotation. I gripped the edges of my bed to hold
myself down but felt myself getting lighter nonetheless and lifting from the
mattress. I screamed in terror until my father burst through the door, and couldn't
understand why I lay there sweating and crying. He gave me a drink of water which
amazingly didn't float out of its glass, and after he left the room I fell asleep
on the floor under my bed.
As I grew older, the feeling often returned. I'd think of the earth, this unutterably
insignificant ball, spinning eternally in the incomprehensibly vast cosmos, with
no end to the motion and no point of reference with which to orient myself. All
directions from the earth were down, and the infinite bottomlessness of space
wrenched my brain. At other moments, I thought about time, and felt its motion,
the irresistible passage of the seconds, like reflector posts rushing out of
the darkness ahead and past my speeding car, flinging themselves irretrievably
behind me into the infinite loss of a dwindling past. I would become physically
sick when I thought this way too long.
The first time I saw Harry at the university, he was wandering around his office
in a ratty brown sweater with Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" going at top
volume, shoving canned potato chips into his mouth with one hand, and with the
other waving a rolled-up map in time to the music or menacing, in tempo, some
lethargic blue-bottle in the sunny window frame. As I gaped in his open doorway,
I wondered what made him, in that mad moment of thundering Bach, the quietest
man I'd ever seen. What anchored him to the earth so solidly, when my ability
to stay on the ground was a sustained fluke, my goal in life to eventually be
shot up into the clouds by centrifugal force to float off into the void? The
more we got to know each other, the more I realized that I would never have deliberately
chosen him as a friend; but friendships don't happen that way, and we enjoyed
each other's company, and always I sensed a weight in him that I never had. Being
around Harry was like standing on the lee side of a building in a windstorm;
it was a kind of shelter, and perhaps that's why my dreams began.
At first, they were what I might have expected; I would be floating up, unable
to stop, until I could no longer see the upturned faces of the people below me,
tiny white dots fading under my feet as I rose into the blackness above, pale
spots growing dimmer, smaller, more indistinct, and finally invisible.
But then the dreams changed. I would be floating again, trying desperately to
pull myself down but then suddenly thump down harmlessly, spread-eagled on my
lawn, laughing with delight at the force sucking me down against the grass. Rarely,
but startlingly, I would have a momentary glimpse in my dream of the ground at
the bottom of the universe, as though the earth had drifted too low in the void
of space and come within viewing distance of the immense slab that existed underneath
the galaxies. Sometimes it appeared slanting at a weird tilt up the sky as though
I were on the bottom of the world as it slowly settled and approached that inconceivably
vast cosmic floor before rising away from it again, like a helium balloon losing
gas and then rising on an updraft before settling to the ground.
Harry never knew about my nightmares or how he stilled the vertigo I perpetually
struggled with. He strummed old Johnny Cash songs on his ugly guitar, ate junk
food with gusto, and wrote incredibly lyrical poetry when he was supposed to
be typing up his notes as secretary of the departmental committee. He lived his
apparently insignificant life and stayed glued to the ground. Gravity was committed
to him, whereas it felt so tenuous to me; my eventual fate would reveal the inductive
fallacy at the heart of science.
Then Harry lost his job. I worried more for my sanity than for his future: he
would get another job, but what if I came unstuck and soared away, screaming,
into the void? I helped him pack and we talked, as always, of mundane things,
he trying to locate his important papers and me trying to take on ballast before
That night I lay staring out at the wheeling stars, trying to pretend, with
the rest of mankind, that I was at rest, and not on a roaring ride through the
cosmos. The stars were holes in a blanket. No, I thought, and changed my metaphor:
they were diamonds in a lake. I changed it again: they were musical notes on
a dark sheet, waiting to be played. I grew sleepy, but the metaphor held and
took over, and the notes pulsated and swelled as I dreamt, and I began rising
from my bed. Faint, all but inaudible, music wafted from the black page as I
drifted through the ceiling and the branches of the trees and broke free of the
humming power lines, the last bonds that might have kept me near the earth. The
music grew clearer and stronger; I drifted higher and wiped the clouds from my
face, trying to get a glimpse of the earth below, vision the last restraining
bond, but the earth was gone and only clouds now swirled below my dangling feet.
Now the music was clear enough to distract my attention from my panic at the
receding earth, and I looked up intently at the stars. They were not stars, but
white pale spots growing larger, and features on the spots began to take on a
familiar distinctness that alarmed me. I remembered the spots in earlier dreams,
and they had been faces as they grew less distinct; now the spots I saw were
becoming more distinct and what then would they become? What, in fact, would
the stars turn out to be when they were perfectly clear? The music increased
in clarity and volume and I was forced to attend, and its beauty overcame me
as I rose ever higher. I thought, "If I'm rising 'up,' why are all places in the
universe 'down' from the earth?"
A glow above me caught my attention and I gaped. An immense crowd of faces whirled
above me laughing and singing, millions upon millions of faces. The music that
surrounded me was intense, visceral and cerebral at once, penetrating in its
Harry floated next to me in his ratty brown sweater, grinning, a can of potato
chips in one hand.
"Are you Africanus?" I asked.
"Are you Scipio?" he replied, stuffing potato chips into his mouth. He pointed
down to the earth, a speck in the distance, then up at the millions upon millions
of faces; he gestured vaguely in time to the music. "Why do the stars move?" he
asked. "Why do they move forever in the universe? Why does the moon fly endlessly
around the earth and the earth rotate?"
I opened my mouth, but he was not finished. "Why do the winds blow and currents
drift, and why do the clouds fly about the heavens?"
"I don't know," I said. "Why indeed do things move? Why can't they rest? Where is
permanence, an end to motion?"
Harry smiled, and everything began to fade away and I awoke in my bedroom, shivering.
I looked out into the night and the stars whirled away, always moving, restless
infinitybut something had changed; I was looking not out, but up at them.
The next day I helped Harry with his books, thinking of my dream. As we worked,
I peered into the box he had just filled and saw a small, worn, leatherbound
volume with curious letters on its spine. It was Dante's Comedy . Oddly enough,
the "Paradiso, " was the most well-thumbed section. I gave Harry a dollar for it.
At home that night I put Bach on the stereo and the Toccata and Fugue roared
through the room at Harry's favorite volume level, one I had grown accustomed
to. I picked up my Dante and began reading the opening cantos of the "Paradiso." The
Fugue surged and swelled and Bach carried me up through the circle of the Moon
and beyond into the wandering stars, canto after canto fueled by fugue and toccata,
toccata and fugue. I rode the crest of the A Minor fugue and the G Major lifted
me and the D Major flung me bodily. Resting on each planet I kept Bach whirling
ceaselessly on the turntable, planetary motion flinging music off into the cosmos.
Late at night, I passed Saturn and was flung out into the Empyrean and then the
Third Brandenburg Concerto poured from the speakers.
From the very opening notes, the sheer beauty of the harmonics, the symmetry
of the movements, the loveliness of the varying patterns, and the contrasting
unvarying tempo of the rejoicing strings all struck me with unmediated force
and at that moment I saw with Dante, as we rose to the great center, highest
yet innermost, the ineffable vision of the rose at the heart of the cosmos, the
singing of the saints in all their glory around it, the ceaseless joyful seeking
of the blessed in their dance below me as they turned, always turning to face
upward and know the bliss of the end of perfection, and their knowledge was new
at every revolution and thus no revolution could be the last, and each motion
was better than the last, and I knew with Dante the love that draws all below
It, draws it up into Love Himself by the turning of the perfection of the spheres
and by the beauty of the myriad voices that long for union with Beauty Himself,
where song and movement and perfection find their satisfaction at last.
The Concerto ceased and Bach ceased and the revolving ceased and Dante fell
silent and I put the book down; I looked out the window into the night and the
stars. The same stars I had always seen were there, but Harry and Dante and Bach
and a dream like Scipio's had changed the metaphor for me one last time. That
night there were no dreams and no music and no night terrors. I slept soundly
all night long, firmly and wonderfully glued to my mattress and the moving universe
was singing in that region just beyond the range of my senses, where Dante chanted
quietly and the Third Brandenburg surged in glory, and the morning stars sang
together for joy as the dawn approached.