When an astronaut first enters orbit, they often turn around and look back at the planet from whence they came, and something changes.
As declassified Soviet documents have since revealed, humanity’s inaugural trip around the Earth was a precarious one. The morning of April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was nervous. He had good reason to be. Gagarin was well aware of the fact that half of all Soviet launches up to that point had failed. A nurse reported him as pale, unsociable and quiet and was overall, unlike himself. Waiting for liftoff, sealed inside the Vostok 1, he asked the engineers to play some music over the radio.
At 9:18 a.m., Gagarin entered orbit above Siberia, 200 miles above Siberia. The 27-year-old cosmonaut — the son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer — was further from Earth than any human had ever been. He saw with his own eyes something no human had ever seen before. “The Earth is surrounded by a characteristic blue halo,” he recalled in a post-flight press conference. “This halo is particularly visible at the horizon. From a light-blue coloring, the sky blends into a beautiful deep blue, then dark blue, violet and finally complete black.”
67 minutes went by and the S5.4 retrorocket — the part of Gagarin’s capsule responsible for his return — activated. There was a problem: the engine shut off one second early. The leftover fuel threw Gagarin’s ship off balance, and he began to spin. The uncontrollable corps de ballet, as he described it, prevented his capsule from separating properly, and created the risk of burning up on reentry. Eventually, the modules separated, and Gagarin deployed his parachute, 100 miles above the Mediterranean.
The happenstance of Gagarin’s flight, the threads by which humanity’s first orbit into space avoided tragedy, the fragility of it all, Michael Collins — the Apollo 11 astronaut who stayed in the Columbia while Aldrin and Armstrong walked on the moon — found that fragility in space, as well. Only, for Collins, the fragility didn’t belong to the computers, engines or wires meant to get him and his crew mates back home to Earth. It was of the Earth itself.
“The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility,” he told the New York Times earlier this year. “And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” And while Collins was “the loneliest man in the whole lonely history of this lonely planet,” while alone floating 60 miles above the moon’s surface, when this feeling came to him, he would not be alone in feeling so. The phenomenon became known as the “Overview Effect,” the sense of euphoria, of bliss, of connectedness, of intense humanity experienced by astronauts upon looking back at our pale blue dot amidst the infinite, complete black of the universe around it.
The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges never saw Earth from space. He couldn’t have. By the time Gargarin had made his first orbit, Borges — who had lived a life of literature, of libraries, of the written word — was blind. I don’t think he would have cared for it, anyway. Well into his blindness, Borges would continue to write, to read and to inspire one college junior to wax poetic long after his death. “Blindness is a gift,” he wrote in an essay on the subject.
I imagine that had Borges entered orbit — and had he been able to see beyond the red and black haze of his inherited blindness — that, presented with the Earth, tiny and fragile against the universe, he would have turned around. And, turned around, back to the world, he would have expected to see something else, something bigger.
In his essay “Partial Magic in the Quixote,” Borges examines the novel, uncanny nature of the infinite series. He tells the story of chapter six of Cervantes’ Quixote, in which the character of the barber peruses Don Quixote’s library, only to find a copy of Cervantes’ Galatea. The barber notes that he is a friend of the author, and yet he does not think highly of him, exclaiming that “the book posses some inventiveness, proposes a few ideas and concludes nothing.” In the second half of the Quixote, the characters themselves reveal that they’ve read the first half of the novel (of which they are the protagonists). Borges continues with an excerpt from American philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce poses the case of a levelled-off section of dirt in England upon which a perfectly detailed map of the country is constructed; nothing is excluded. Thus, the map must contain “a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.”
“Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map,” that “Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote,” Borges asks. What is the uncanny feeling that arises from the notion that the letters you’re reading are looking back at you? Borges suggests that our discomfort is with the feeling that if a fictional character in a story can be a reader, then a spectator can be a fictional character, too, that “the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.”
Few authors have made me feel more in college than Borges. I learned to love his work last fall in a stuffy literature seminar in William Harkness Hall. I was terrified by his obtuse prose, his encyclopaedic references to classic literature (none of which I had read), and the seminar’s ratio of PhD’s to me.
But something kept me there. His work is weird — really, really weird. There are stories that take the form of encyclopedia entries, stories that are book reviews of books that don’t exist, stories that blend the Kabbalah with the detective novel, stories that imagine the world in the form of an infinitely expanding, hexagonal library in which all of the universe is written. In pushing the limits of literature, Borges tears at the edges of thought, of what we consider fiction at all. In those pages, pouring over infinite maps and Kaballistic detectives, I found myself in orbit. Sure, few authors have ever made me feel more in college than Borges, but few things have ever made me feel less at Yale than him — less at Yale, less in New Haven, less in Connecticut, less in the United States, less in my own body, less caught up in my own mind.
And thus, weightless amidst the pure joy of reading, of deciphering, of not understanding — perhaps never understanding, I found a childlike sense of wonder, the wonder of “What if?”
The wings that this place is supposed to provide are often heavy, paralyzingly so. But there is no gravity in space. There is no gravity in the map. There is no gravity in the absurd except for that which we allow ourselves to feel. Dive into the unknown, the illegible, the incomprehensible. After all, what if we are all written in some ancient book? What if Michael Collins — alone in the Columbia, drifting in the deep quiet of space — had looked past the fragile Earth and into the deep shadow of the universe?
He would have seen Borges himself, pen in hand, and a college junior half a century away, taking notes.
Eric Krebs | firstname.lastname@example.org .