As the world population reaches 7 billion living humans, most of us find ourselves reflecting on how intimately interconnected we suddenly feel and what exactly this transformation indicates. Yet despite this positive development of global community and its potential for empowerment, many people are speculating that what the connectivity is telling us is that our numbers are endangering our well-being, prosperity, and even our survival.
These days in the social turmoil of the urban jungle, beautiful, teaching experiences, ones that wear away our worries by inspiring positive personal reflection, are hard to come by, especially experiences that tell a story of humankind and modern physics; how atoms continuously join together, make substances and life, break-apart and re-combine to make a new material and new life, in a ceaseless flux and flow. Yet, surprisingly I've recently experienced two rare works of art that were created in tune with the cosmic cycle of space-time, matter and energy. They remind us of the importance of the way ideas and truths allow us to enact transformations, framing the purpose of our goals and emphasizing the transitory nature of human life.
Contemporary storytelling is seldom as brilliant as Harvard professor and literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt's magnificent new non-fiction work, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, in which he explores,"De Rerum Natura" (On the Nature of Things), written around 50 B.C., by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus and inspired by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Here for the first time, from the minds of the most important humanists of their day, the implications of the dynamic nature of the sub-atomic world are taken up as life's organizing methodology. Lucretius, like Epicurus, saw the experience of pleasure as a virtue. The Swerve is an adventure tale about a book hunter and Papal scribe, Poggio Bracciolini, who recovers ancient texts, and in doing so, puts their holdings back into the flow of human thought. Greenblatt recasts this pattern by way of his curiosity about how this rare text came back into circulation, and in doing so further preserves its ancient wisdom, as well as the history of its survival. Through his own adventure engaging with the life cycle of Lucretius' work, Greenblatt encourages us to throw off our fears and "embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world."
Another great doorway to view the hope of the human spirit is an immersive installation by Australian artist Lynette Wallworth. Duality of Light (2009) is a beautiful, powerful work that investigates and probes the full range of human emotions and mysteries of life. Very little is explained when the viewer enters the doorway to the installation, except to follow the white light and stand at the threshold. Within, the viewer activates an interplay of moving image and sound through which the cause of our worldly ills is revealed, as are the sorrow and suffering from misunderstandings of the self, and so of others.
The resonating message of both works is that the highest goals for the individual and for societal good are to know ourselves and cultivate the reduction of pain and enhancement of pleasure. As our numbers and connectivity increase, strengthening our empathies is critical: It has never been more important than now for people to gain insight into the suffering and plight of every human. As the arts and now neuroscience have shown us, we are hardwired to connect, and we must cultivate the parallel manifestation of this cosmic phenomena in our own biology to ensure our survival.
Lynette Wallworth: Duality of Light can be experienced, October 31 - November 13, noon-8:00, at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, Morgan Stanley Lobby, Alice Tully Hall, Broadway at 65th Street, New York, NY