A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I admit that I find the question of life beyond Earth quite interesting, but still I’d prefer not to have it settled too quickly and definitively. For example, I’m cheered, not disappointed, by the virtually certain fact that there is no life on any other planet in our solar system. I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth. Furthermore I’m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs. Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddis flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal. At the turn of the century, fashion called for rotating tables at which you could summon up the spirit of Copernicus to tell you who’d stolen your garnet ring or the spirit of three-year-old Sabina, who’d authoritatively predict when and where to expect the next European war. It was taken for granted that every spirit must know everything and be good at everything[….]
[But] the belief in UFOs has its serious side: fear in the face of cosmic solitude. I don’t mean to make light of this, I’ll just try to ask a few questions. Would this solitude really be so awful? So unbearable? … Would we really be driven to darkest despair by the news that life doesn’t exist beyond Earth? Oh, I know, I know, no scientist will make such an announcement either today or tomorrow, since we have no data at this point and no way of obtaining data in the imaginable future. But let’s stop and think about such a revelation. Would that really be the worst of all possible news? Perhaps just the opposite — it would sober us, brace us, teach us mutual respect, point us toward a slightly more human way of life? Perhaps we wouldn’t talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos? Maybe a single, other life would finally gain the value it deserves, the value of a phenomenon, a revelation, a specimen unique to the entire universe? Every stage manager knows that the tiny figure of an actor against the backdrop of dark curtains on a vast and empty stage becomes monumental in every word and gesture… And after all, would the solitude we fear so much really be so solitary? Along with all the other people, plants, and animals?
From Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Claire Cavanagh and published in 1983 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In 1996, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2012 at the age of eighty-eight.