Wednesday, February 19, 2014

`We Shall All Soon Learn'

Let’s be grateful for the internet when it brings us writers like Maureen Mullarkey, who writes thoughtfully and without pretentiousness about things that matter. In “Beauty and Accidents of Perception,” she reminds us, while contemplating the snow, how artistic appreciation is often a privilege dependent on the arts of science and engineering: 

“Watching it fall, I am reminded how much the beauty of snow— my perception of it—owes to central heating. Put another way, it is the saving fact of my lovely boiler, the electricity that keeps it going, and the indwelling charm of steam radiators that permits me to look out my double-paned window and take aesthetic pleasure in what Longfellow called the `poem of the air.’” 

Our world surrounds us with layers of things for which we owe gratitude, from icicles to wool socks. I read Mullarkey’s essay moments before interviewing two electrical engineering graduate students from India who have devised a way to monitor the heart rate and other vital signs of astronauts in space. The problem, posed by NASA, had to be solved not only non-invasively but without touching the subject. Their solution: use a webcam to read the changes in skin tone, imperceptible to unaided eyes, that accompany every heartbeat. To do this they devised complex and beautiful new algorithms. Mullarkey writes: “The arts of the engineer partake as fully in the creative intelligence as any other.” She dispenses with the soft-headed nature mystics: 

“There is just no arguing with cultists. The most you can do is wish on them a sustained, possibly curative, power outage in freezing weather.” 

Mullarkey goes on to recount the fates of two elderly neighbors who froze to death outside their homes: “The snow fell as indifferently on both doomed women as it does on the Alaskan cedars and Douglas firs outside my window. To anyone watching unawares, it looked lovely coming down. To the two women trapped under it—metabolic heat draining out of them— each crystal flake was a cinder from a frigid hell. Far from the warming light of the Good.” Mullarkey’s anti-romantic common sense is bracing, and her essay reminds me of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” (1895). His narrator is god-like. He sees all and, more importantly, accepts all. Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov sets off hurriedly with one of his peasants, Nikita, to negotiate the purchase of a forest from its owner before other prospective buyers arrive. The pair is lost in a blizzard and, after briefly abandoning Nikita, Vasili Andreevich experiences a moral awakening. He climbs atop Nikita in the snow and dies, but saves the life of the peasant. Tolstoy concludes the story (in the Maude translation): 

“Nikita lay in hospital for two months. They cut off three of his toes, but the others recovered so that he was still able to work and went on living for another twenty years, first as a farm-labourer, then in his old age as a watchman. He died at home as he had wished, only this year, under the icons with a lighted taper in his hands. Before he died he asked his wife's forgiveness and forgave her for the cooper. He also took leave of his son and grandchildren, and died sincerely glad that he was relieving his son and daughter-in-law of the burden of having to feed him, and that he was now really passing from this life of which he was weary into that other life which every year and every hour grew clearer and more desirable to him. Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn.” 

Mullarkey reminds us that the aesthetic, moral and scientific realms are not discrete, not demarcated like the departments of a university, but inextricably meshed, like our flesh, blood vessels and heart.

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