Lapham's Quarterly: Travel


The latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly, entitled "Travel," is another stellar compilation; one can easily see why the magazine was rated "Best New Publication" by Utne Reader. In addition to the magazine's contents, the redesigned LQ website now features an archive section, which I have been anxiously waiting.

From The Odyssey to Hannibal crossing the Alps, from Lewis & Clark to On the Road, LQ's "Travel" issue hits most of the expected highlights. I might have included something from Primo Levi's journey home from Auschwitz, Tocqueville's visit to America, or Robert Pirsig's Zen motorcycle ride, but--as usual--I'm glad to meet with the unexpected and unusual. After reading Tennyson's "Ulysses" (pp. 36-37), I exclaimed "I need more poetry!"

Come, my friends, 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

If money and time were unlimited, I would work my way through the entire "Pocket Poets" series from Everyman's Library, or at the least pick up the Norton Anthology of Poetry and relive my student days. Instead, perhaps it's finally time to crack open that copy of Harold Bloom's The Best Poems of the English Language that's been languishing on a shelf for far too long.

If I had edited this issue, my closing selection would have been from the longest journey humanity has yet undertaken. On today's date in 1990, when the Voyager spacecraft was 3.7 billion miles into its journey, it trained a camera back on Earth to put our planet in perspective one last time before it disappeared from view. The 0.12 of a pixel that represents our home planet can barely be distinguished in this image:


Sagan wrote about this photo in his book Pale Blue Dot (pp. 6-7):

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Although without rhyme or verse, that sentiment is rather poetic as well.


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