As I write, demonstrators opposing the authoritarian government in Kiev are being killed in the streets, Aleppo is being bombed into the stone age by forces loyal to the Syrian dictatorship, China has said that the UN report on the torture chamber known as North Korea contains “unreasonable criticism,” and the Central African Republic is turning into another of the world’s hellholes. No wonder people are watching the Olympics: why not opt for mindless diversion? Even if the show is a day late (in the US, for example). Even if it is being staged by yet another autocrat. Keep the eyeballs on the screen, as you can’t do anything about the rest of it anyway.
Actually, I get that. And I think cultural critics, and particularly those fixated on visual media, have gotten way too much millage out of faulting people for wanting to chill at the end of the day. Frankly, a lot of culture is diversion first and foremost, and only then can it rise to something else. If you look at culture with an attitude that is too pragmatic or instrumental, you won’t be open to what it has to show or say. If you look too long at the moral and political disasters that demand one’s attention, you may become too reactive or too exhausted to respond as you should. We look away because we can’t stop looking, and perhaps after looking at something else we can circle back to respond to the pain of others with a better sense of perspective or empathy than before.
And so you might ask, what is that tiny block of ice doing there?
One answer is that it is being placed willfully in front of the images from Kiev, Aleppo, and other contemporary disasters, and placed there in order to block them out. Soon enough they’ll be back, waiting for me in the morning paper and online throughout the day. As well they should be: we live in on a single planet, alone in a desert called space, and so we need to watch out for one another. For a moment, though, it might help to contemplate a world of natural harmony and no human predation.
We think of fire and ice as opposites, as they are in ordinary experience, but this image reminds us that they both are part of a unified physical universe that will always be greater than our capacity for comprehension. The Siberian sun can melt the ice layered on Lake Baikal, but not before its light is reflected and refracted by the ice. The small block of ice seems majestic in its ability to stand up to the sun for awhile, and so it fittingly looms large and distinctly shaped while the great star appears small and hazy in the background. The ice is doubled by its reflection and seems more solid for that, while the sun appears less powerful because its light is reflecting off of every surface. The subtle irony of the scene reflects back on us as well: we know the ice is ephemeral, but the sun is as well. By valuing the ability of the ice to persist a while before its inevitable dissolution, we are looking at a reflection of our own mortality.
The Greek word “cosmos” means both universe and ornament. Macrocosm and microcosm, beauty and totality. The photograph above is but an ornament–a decoration and diversion–but like the ice, it reveals something much larger. Perhaps by reflecting on that, we can do something about the fires that are raging elsewhere.
Photograph by Edward Graham/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest