I met Stephen Hawking at his perch at the Mt. Palomar observatory. It took me a few moments to get used to his computer-generated voice, but once I did, it was the only voice I could imagine being attached to that kind of cerebrum.
“I like to look at the stars,” he told me. “It puts our little mortal lives into high relief.”
“I would have thought they would shrink our little lives.”
“That, too. … It’s all a matter of perspective.”
“That’s what I’d like to talk to you about, sir—Mr. Hawking. … Perspective. …And about this oil spill in the Gulf. … You see … I was there. About a dozen years ago, I drove my wife and her parents from New Orleans to Tallahassee, and we took the longer route, along the coast. They’re from Japan, and it was sugoii this and subarashii that—“wonderful” and “stunning.” It’s called the Emerald Coast because the water is this intense blue-green. I’ve been in 30 countries, and I’ve not seen a body of water more beautiful, nor the white, fine sands around Destin and Mexico Beach—fine as salt, white to almost hurt the eyes … I haven’t seen a better perspective anywhere, and I feel like it’s a crime, it’s a bloody, stinking crime against Nature … like a sin …if we can still understand that word … and I’m wondering what we’ve done, what this whole damn corporatism has done to our world, what our consumptive-consumerist mania has done, and if, in your wisdom, you see some way we’re gonna get out of this, get beyond it, repair things, restore the balance.”
“Somewhere right now,” he said after a pause, “there are galaxies colliding. The probability of life forms like us, and much greater than us, far more intelligent and far more compassionate beings … the probability of such life forms existing in at least one of those galaxies is, one might say, astronomical. And everything has been changing for eons in those galaxies as they collide. And everything has been changing here, and will change here, for eons.”
“Well, that’s all well and good, sir. … I mean, I see your point—we should think about those other beings out there, and, and here, too. So, I’ve been against the Iraq War, and the Afghan War and all the damn wars of my lifetime now all these years, these decades, because I figured they, those people over there, those beings, were mostly like us, just caught up in things, and trying to get by, trying to make the most of it and the best of it. So what right did we have to go mucking things up over there? And that’s part of what’s bugging me now—who to get mad at. I mean, what to do? They screwed up my planet! They’ve been screwing it up and telling us how great they are and how much we need them. And, this is my home, for Christsake! Was it Cheney, was it Halliburton, was it the Brits, the Royal bloody arse family? It’s all so amorphous—this evil. Like a huge, bloody tarball. And Obama gets on T.V. and he says we’re gonna fight this thing. What is that? What thing? The whole, damn corporate system that puts guys like him or guys like Bush into office? Just chaning a suit of clothes—that’s all it is to them. … The whole election crapola. The sham democracy. And I’m wondering, How much of our oil goes to maintain our armed forces? Is he going to cut back on our “defense posture”? Cause if we weren’t all over the bloody world with our armies and our contractors, we’d save tons of oil, wouldn’t we? And, how much of the oil is going to fuel the economy so it rebounds, so we avoid the frumious bandersnatch of a double-dip recession? And, I’ve been wondering, when the “aliens” start coming up from Florida and the Gulf Coast, a year or two from now, when they see what the long-term health consequences of old people breathing oil, babies breathing oil, when these “environmental refugees” start coming up from the South and invading the North and the West, looking for work or a hand-out or a helping hand, what are we gonna do then? We gonna mine the states’ borders? Who we gonna blame? Are we gonna torch some SUVs? I’m telling you … this thing is going to change us. I want to punch someone. I want to hit something. I grew up in Florida and New York, went to school there, taught there, and it’s all been taken. All that beauty taken. Raped. Like an Afghan virgin. Raped and killed by our guys—like that Afghan girl! It’s been taken for Big Oil, and the Banks, and the Military-Industrial-Media Complex. All of that crapola. … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean. … I didn’t mean to rant. I. …”
“It’s all right,” he said, and it seemed that that computer-generated voice had the slightest tone of compassion in it. And it seemed that there was a small glint of light coming through the great telescope, and that it shone on his face. And his lanky frame was crumpled into the wheelchair with an odd grace and dignity. “This, too, will pass,” he said. “We are simply transitional beings playing our part. We’ve always been a species too clever by half, too proud by half. Laotze said he had three treasures: frugality, compassion and humility. How many have said that and meant it?”
“It’s just going to get a whole lot worse, isn’t it?” I continued. “There’s no leadership. We can’t expect any top-down leadership because they’re all in on it. They’re part and parcel of the rot.”
“There’s a song I remember from my childhood,” he said. My grandmother taught it to me. It’s something like this. …”
And he began to say it in that methodical voice, but somehow I thought I heard a melody behind it, something of the music of the spheres, something Charlie Chaplin had caught when he set out on the lonely road with the gamine in “Modern Times.” It seemed he was singing, and that he was a great bird–, a pelican, with oil on its wings, worn with time–that couldn’t fly, but could remember what it was to fly. He sang/said:
“Smile, though your heart is aching,
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow,
You’ll see the sun come shining through
For you. …
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness,
Although a tear
May be ever so near,
That’s the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what’s the use of crying,
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just. …”
He did smile that great, enigmatic, compassionate smile of his.
But there were tears in his eyes.
Gary Corseri has posted and published articles, fiction, poetry and dramas at Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, The New York Times, Village Voice and hundreds of other venues internationally. His books include the novels, A FINE EXCESS and HOLY GRAIL, HOLY GRAIL.