Saturday, March 21, 2015

Wandering the Cosmoses

Today I went to Zurich's wonderful Museum Rietburg, focused on non-Western art, to their exhibition, 'The Cosmos - An Enduring Mystery'. http://www.rietberg.ch/en-gb/exhibitions/the-cosmos.aspx



Cosmic Man from Jain tradition

It was a beautiful and informative walk through the cosmological imagination of diverse cultures, exploring how we have envisaged our place within a meaningful order and how we have depicted it in story, image, artefact. You journey through the vast spaces of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain universes (and in the Hindu case, cycles of universes) or find yourself with the Haida (in the Pacific North West of the Americas) telling stories of a trickster raven whose antics bring forth key components of the world both necessary such as light or useful as in weaving.

The story 'ends' with the Copernican revolution and the birth of modern science and there is a film, hosted by a professor of theoretical physics, that compresses the story of the unfolding universe within 24 hours, enabling you to 'see' how short a period it is (two fractions of a fraction of a second) since we, humans, emerged to play the part of 'civilisation' and indeed fashioned the stories through which I had just walked!

What struck me was how the exhibition carried a narrative conflict. Each culture was honoured in the telling of its story (and some of those cultures are very much 'alive' - the Dogon of Mali or Hinduism) but there was an undoubted privileging of the 'culminating' story - the 'Western' scientific one. This is, after all, where we, the viewer, end up; and, on the curator's part perhaps the 'enduring mystery' is not a mystery but a problem, that if we do not have all the answers now, we will, in due course, if we follow the route of this progress...

Except, of course, when you listen carefully to the presenter of the film, when what is 'known' becomes ever more complicated by the not known, and possibly the unknowable, certainly by the standards of science. We do not know how the universe started, or why, much of what it consists in, dark matter and the new entrant dark energy, is necessary if our understanding of the universe is 'correct' but we have no idea what they might be, etc etc. To say this is not to devalue the enterprises after knowing, only to inject a humbling sense of what needs to be discovered, and indeed in the discovering possibly a radically re-envisioning of what we imagined.

And, of course, this 'privileged' account fails to wrestle with any real question of meaning. It has often been said that the sheer vastness of the universe and our apparent 'littleness' in comparison renders this question null and void - it was this reality that terrified Pascal for example. But I left with a dual feeling that this was a profound mistake and for two reasons. First because the human imagination, as the Hindu and Buddhist accounts demonstrated, is perfectly capable of fashioning meaning within vastness. Second because all of these accounts, including the privileged one, are only possible because they come to birth in the querying consciousness of humans.

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