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I Am What I'll Never See
On children, cathedrals, and the quest for space
It was good to settle in to watch the attempted Starship launch (boo! scrubbed!) right after reading’s review of P.D. James’s Children of Men. The pseudonymous Mr. Psmith reflects on how the birth of his first child changed his relationship to time: “I was no longer a temporal provincial, past and future both had an immediate and urgent reality.”
Here’s the passage that really stuck out to me:
Chandler studied the phenomenon of teen suicide on an individual rather than a cultural or communal level, and argued that the key determinant of whether an individual would commit suicide was whether they were able to retain “the narrative thread of one’s personal persistence,” that is, whether they could view the self as a diachronic entity with continuous extension into the past and the future. In Chandler’s view, then, the reason cultural continuity matters has little to do with all the usual social conservative stuff about healthy communities. Instead it’s because communities can serve in a pinch as an alternative locus for the narrative continuity of the self.
It’s a little bit like how people thought of themselves in the earliest days of Greece and Rome, not as individuals, but as the temporarily above-ground part of a vast, superhuman entity: their family or their clan. A person situated in such a relation to a community, whether it’s a family or an Indian village or something quite different, can “borrow” some of its perdurance, can tell themselves that their story is one chapter of a great epic that unfolds itself forever. Chandler’s argument is that this exterior source of identity serves as a fallback at times when for whatever reason somebody can no longer imagine their individual self in the future.
I’m curious about the other ways people feel like they are part of something that preexists them, will persist beyond them, and to which they can contribute, but cannot control.
One of the frequent bedtime books in our house is A Stroll with Mr. Gaudi (or, as our three-year-old sometimes terms it, “the multicolored dragon book!”) When Mr. Gaudi visits the workshop for the Sagrada Familia, one of the assistant architects expresses sorrow that they won’t live to see the cathedral they are imagining. Gaudi replies:
Jujol, I know who I'm working for, and my client is in no hurry. How do you think the cathedrals of the past were built? The Sagrada Familia is a project that will span several generations, and each one will help to enrich its splendour. While it's true that we can only begin it and allow others to finish it, one day it will be completed and it will be a joy to see.
A cathedral is a testament to the Eternal, since it is meant to glorify God. And it’s a pledge of hope for the generations who will follow you, enjoy it, and maintain it.
But it’s certainly not only religion (or children) that gives us this sense of touching eternity, even if glancingly. Growing up as an atheist, I got this sense of continuity from science, where we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I spent a summer doing (very tedious) wet bench work, knowing that for my PI, not finding a significant result was a professional disaster, but that for science, every blind alley explored and documented was a gift to the whole enterprise. We could feel frustrated by just ruling things out, but we were relying on others to do the same to us.
This relies more on the sense of science as a shared slog rather than a team affiliation.
It sounds a lot more like parenting, where there is constant, quiet work day by day, most of which won’t be remembered as World Historical. It sounds like cathedral building, where for every rose window spangled in light, there are quiet stones setting off the blaze and supporting it. And it has some of the hope of a launch pad, still scarred from recent explosions, for a rocket company that estimated at 10% chance of success, but thought, if nothing else, someone had to chase down that alley and check if there was a door at the end.