Poking Existentialism: The Sounds of Earth

The ethereal symphony of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ rings through the vast expanse of space. Cruising through deep space, aboard a cherry red Tesla Roadster is Starman. As the chorus kicks in, he leans back in his seat and takes in the magnificent view, spanning miles in front of him. He sees chunks of space debris floating in the void and swathes of colourful star clusters in the far distance. He’s hurtling at a speed of over 8000 miles per hour, further and further away from planet Earth. Peeking back from his window, he sees the pale blue rock and has good reason to believe that it is utterly insignificant. Who would want to have anything to do with its inhabitants?

Fill starman’s shoes for a second there. Suspended in the middle of this abyss, you are now looking forward. As far as your eyes can see, they see potential; potential way greater than your vision can comprehend. There’s no way that we are all alone in this universe. There must be other civilizations, scattered like a pinch of sand in a desert. They might be looking for us like we are for them. Or maybe their candles have gone out already—devoured by their own gnaws. You can’t help but wonder how much time humanity has left.

The Golden Record

Imagine a dozen images flashing by your eyes in the fraction of a second. Humans chewing, licking, and hunting. A mother nursing her newborn; a page out of a book by Isaac Newton; Olympic races, accompanied by greetings in around 55 languages; sounds of thunder, kissing, trains, pulsars, even compositions by Mozart, Chuck Berry and Bach. What you saw were all the various imprints of human eminence and depictions of culture that were consolidated into a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk called the Golden Record. This was mounted atop the wonder, Voyager 1 and 2 so as to be catapulted beyond our solar system. A committee consisting of scientists from NASA, presided by the famed cosmologist Carl Sagan decided the contents of this record and aptly titled it as ‘Sounds of Earth.’ This time capsule was meant for a time far into the future when maybe, just maybe, one of the Voyagers encounters a higher space-faring civilization to whom we can give our regards.

The Golden Record is probably the only lasting remnant of everything our planet has overcome in the past 4 billion years or so. It’s a post apocalyptic treasure. It is a symbol of how scared we are of being forgotten on the universe’s timeline. A desperate measure to establish our existence.

Humans have always been fragile creatures; scared of the unknown. The foundation of our space program was based on that fact. For us, the itch of not being able to come up with explanations is insatiable. A puzzling question is why were we made this way? The answer lies in the reason we continue to thrive on this planet; the reason you are reading this article, and the fact that you can read in the first place—the answer is simply—our curiosity. It has taken us to uncharted territories far away from our planet. We’ve grown and we’ve flourished for millenniums because of it; but at the same time, there is so much more than what meets the eye. Everyone remembers the phrase, ‘curiosity is the mother of invention,’ but no one seems to remember invention’s sister—the black sheep—misery.

We are capable of being incoherently and pathetically miserable. A boon that has helped us achieve incredible technological advancements has also painted our canvas grey with hopelessness and existentialism. From driving ourselves crazy to self-driving cars being a reality, every single human endeavour can be linked to our hunger for knowledge. We are in no way governed by this hunger though, we’ve discovered ways to cope with it, to cope with our wild brains. We are social animals, we confide in each other. We have developed a sense of togetherness that makes complete evolutionary sense. We have cleverly made the word ‘humane’ a synonym for benevolence, so as to never forget the demons we deal with. And that is where Spirituality comes in—something so layered, it makes us believe we have a greater purpose than our insignificant materialistic lives.

Come to think of it, we do so many things driven by these coping mechanisms—we hold onto things that keep us from moving forward, we radically defend our opinions, we hypocritically avoid the very morals we have created. There have been times when humanity has suffered grave wounds owing to these systems, and yet nothing has changed. We know that some ideas are not logically intact but we just can’t find it in ourselves to despise them. We find solace in strokes of the brush and strums of the guitar. From Van Gogh’s Starry Night to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, we love finding depth in pieces of art because that’s exactly what we are trying to do with our existence. In this beautiful way, every little abstract thing that we do can be explained. And in the end, aren’t explanations all we are looking for?

The Sounds of the Earth from the Golden Record also contains the track ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ by Blind Willie Johnson. His haunting hum and hefty plucks of the string accurately depict the artist’s life. Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t born blind; he was inflicted with an injury by his stepmother which took away his eyesight. He went on to become one of the most influential blues musicians of all time, but during the great depression, he had to face severe poverty. He had to live in a shack which burned down in the fall of forty-five. Two months later,  he passed away in his forties with nowhere to go. His success was tragic in the sense that it arrived long after his death. Towards the end, the song slowly fades away into silence leaving you with the thought that it might just survive more than us.

~ Chintan Gandhi and Shuba Murthy for MTTN                                                                                     ~  Artwork by Sravya Saraswatula

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