“It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity.”
We recently took a trip back to the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars in 1971, when Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury — whom we lost just a few short months ago — joined New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan in a remarkably prescient conversation about Mars and future of space exploration, later released as Mars and the Mind of Man (public library). Among the day’s many gems were three unpublished poems by Ray Bradbury, which he shared with the audience, alongside a poignant meditation on science vs. religion — a subject we have far from put to rest since:
In the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to the problem of science and theology. This problem has thrust itself into the center of a series of poems I have written. I have for some time now thought that the conflict between religion and science was a false one, based, more often than not, on semantics. For when all is said and done, we each share the mystery. We live with the miraculous and try to interpret it with our data correctors or our faith healers. In the end, survival is the name of the game.
One upon a time we created religions which promise us futures when we knew there were no possible ones. Death stared us in the face, forever and ever.
Now, suddenly, the Space Age gives us a chance to exist for a billion or two billion years, to go out an dbuild a heaven instead of promising one to ourselves, with archangelic hosts, saints waiting at Gates, and God pontifical on his Throne.
This second* poem of mine is titled ‘Old Ahab’s Friend and Friend to Noah Speaks His Piece.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the whale speaking to future men, telling them they must build a whale and live inside it and go out into space in it and travel through time to survive forever. Here is the conclusion of the poem:
I am the Ark of Lie. You be the same!
Build you a fiery whale all white.
Give it my name.
Ship with Leviathan for forty years
Until an isle in Space looms up to match your dreams,
And land you there triumphant with your flesh
Which works in yeasts, makes wild ferment,
Survives and feeds
On metal schemes.
Step forth and husband soil as yet untitled,
Blood it with your wives, sow it with seeds,
Crop-harvest it with sons and maiden daughters,
And all that was begat once long ago in Earth’s strange waters
The White Whale was the ancient Ark.
You be the New.
Forty days, forty years, forty-hundred years,
Give it no mind;
You see. The Universe is blind.
You touch. The Abyss does not feel.
You hear. The Void is dear.
Your wife is pomegranate. The stars are lifeless and bereft.
You smell the Wind of Being.
On windless worlds the nostrils of old Time are stuffed
With dust and worse than dust.
Settle it with your lust, shape it with your seeing,
Rain it with your sperming seed,
Water it with your passion,
Show it your need.
Soon or late,
Your mad example may imitate.
And gone and flown and landed there is White Whale craft,
Remember Moby here, this dream, this time which does suspire,
This kindling of your tiny apehood’s fire.
I kept you well. I languish and I die.
My bones will timber out fresh dreams,
My words will leap like fish in new trout streams
Gone up the hill of Universe to spawn.
Swim o’er to stars now, spawning man,
And couple rock, and break forth flocks of children on the plains
On nameless planets which will now have names;
Those names are ours to give or take.
We out of Nothing make a destiny,
With one name over all
Which is this Whale’s, all White.
I you begat.
Speak then of Moby Dick,
Tremendous Moby, friend of Noah.
Go Go now.
Ten trillion miles away,
Ten light-years off,
See from your whale-shaped craft;
That glorious planet!
Call it Ararat.
(The poetic picture of the phoenix-whale Bradbury paints is reminiscent of the beautiful Whale Fall cut-paper animated short for Radiolab.)
* Bradbury shared another poem, which remains his best-known, earlier in the discussion:
IF ONLY WE HAD TALLER BEEN
O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measure out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s great hand come down the other way
To measure Man and find him Good,
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that.
Short man. Large dream. I send my rockets forth
between my ears,
Hoping an inch of Will is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!
Lastly, in the “Afterthoughts” section of the book, in which the panelists revisit the subject a year after the Mars mission, Bradbury shares one final poem, touching once again on the subject of the mysterious:
THAT IS OUR EDEN’S SPRING, ONCE PROMISED
What I to apeman
And what then he to me?
I an apeman one day soon will seem to be
To those who, after us, look back from Mars
And they, in turn, mere beasts will seem
To those who reach the stars;
So apemen all, in cave, in frail tract-house,
On Moon, Red Planet, or some other place;
Yet similar dream, same heart, same soul,
Same blood, same face,
Rare beastmen all who move to save and place their pyres
From cavern mouth to world to interstellar fires.
We are the all, the universe, the one,
As such our fragile destiny is only now begun.
Our dreams then, are they grand or mad, depraved?
Do we say yes to Kazantzakis whose wild soul said:
God cries out to be saved?
Well then, we go to save Him, that seems sure,
With flesh and bone not strong, and heart not pure,
All maze and paradox our blood,
More lost than found,
We go to marry stranger flesh on some far burial ground
Where yet we will survive and, laughing, look on back
To where we started on a blind and frightful track
But made it through, and for no reason
Save it must be made, to rest us under trees
On planets in such galaxies as toss and lean
A most peculiar shade,
And sleep awhile, for some few million years,
To rise again, fresh washed in vernal rain
That is our Eden’s spring once promised,
Now repromised, to bring Lazarus
And our abiding legions forth,
Stoke new lamps with ancient funeral loam
To light cold abyss hearths for astronauts to hie them home
On highways vast and long and broad,
Thus saving what? Who’ll say salvation’s sum?
Why, thee and me, and they and them, and us and we…
He concludes with this exquisite meditation on mankind’s timeless quest for immortality. (Which leads one to wonder whether today’s singularity set is any different from history’s religious cults, grasping at promised lands underpinned by little more than the very human and very vulnerable fear of mortality, of ceasing to exist and refusing to believe in nonexistence.)
The universe is full of matter and force. Yet in all that force, amongst all the bulks and gravities, the rains of cosmic light, the bombardments of energy — how little spirit, how small the decimal points of intelligence.
Dumb, sometimes — yes. Awful, quite often. Dreadful apish brutes on occasion following occasion. That’s how we things that represent intelligence seem to ourselves, and quote often truly are.
And yet I would not see our candle blown out in the wind. It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity. I would not have that gift expire. Crossing the wilderness, centuries ago, men carried in covered cows’ horns the coals of the previous nights’ fires to start new fires on the nights ahead. Thus we carry ourselves in the universal wilderness and blow upon the coals and kindle new lives and move on yet once more.
Why, sweet Jesus, what’s the use of looking at Mars through a telescope, sitting on panels, writing books, if it isn’t to guarantee, not just the survival of mankind, but mankind surviving forever! Good God in heaven, we were born to live, and live in mystery, which crowds all about and would smother us if we let it.
Some of you will immediately say we go to pollute Mars. You are the people who see a partially filled glass as half empty.
I see the glass as half full.
I say we go to save Mars from itself.
And do ourselves favors, meanwhile.
Paradoxically stated: what is not polluted is elevated. I live inside the last word.
Hear Bradbury read in this short excerpt from the panel:
More than three decades later, Bradbury revisited the subject of space exploration in this rare 2003 audio interview.
Complement with Bradbury on doing what you love — some of the best life-advice you’ll ever receive.