The Experience of the Sky

February 09, 2019

The strange thing about dreams isn’t that they’re strange. It’s that, as we experience them, they don’t feel strange.

There’s something of the same strangeness to ordinary experience. We manage to grow accustomed to all sorts of phenomena that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be remarkable.

The sky does shocking things all the time. Around half our field of visual perception undergoes constant change, often in ways that utterly remake the world—and we treat it as mere visual background, mere context for our more immediate surroundings. It is strange, experientially, that the sky goes dark every twenty-four hours, and that the sky going dark prompts the world to change in almost every way—to go quiet, to assume a secretive character, to welcome a new cast of animals.

(For that matter, it’s strange that, as it gets dark, we go to sleep: strange that we routinely undergo a fading out and in of our normal mode of consciousness, which we otherwise experience as the most necessary, axiomatic thing in the world. And, to return to dreams, it’s plainly strange that we dream at all: that, having somehow faded out of the world, we encounter instead a stream of fragments that mix memory, speculation, and the utterly random, and that assume inexplicable tones and moods. You turn out the lights and that’s what happens?)

The sky does other strange things. Even during the day, its routine changes deeply reorient the character of the world. The sun brings things buzzing to life, makes us upbeat and hopeful; the rain makes the outdoors unwelcoming and prompts us toward a general melancholy; the snow makes things new and pure. Sometimes a storm appears and the sky tries to kill us—that, too, we take in stride.

The borders between night and day are marked by beauty: every day the world gives us a sunrise and a sunset. It is strange that the passage of time is kept by the heavens taking on those colors, like a piece of transcendent abstract art a thousand miles wide. It seems unnecessary: why should the visual bookkeeping of the days be so thoroughly “gold-shot with looming wonder”?1

And there’s another strange thing about the sky: at night, we can look up and see outer space. It is profoundly strange that the naked eye is enough to bridge that gap, enough to show us stars so distant it’s taken years for the light to reach us. It should shock us to see, as obvious as anything, the total emptiness around us. It’s as if a camera were zoomed in on a warm, cozy scene—a parlor, a hot tub, a greenhouse—and, as it zoomed out, we realized that the island of warmth was surrounded by a vast, desolate graveyard, or a windswept and featureless ice sheet stretching beyond the edges of the continent. There’s something scandalous, something of the horror movie’s reveal, in looking up and seeing stars that way: nightly, we’re reminded that this is what the universe looks like.

All that by way of the sky, which we barely treat as a first-class member of lived experience.

Lots of other things reveal the same lurking wonder. We appreciate the beauty of flowers—isn’t it strange that they’re so beautiful? That unguided evolution should have produced a thing as gorgeous as that?2 It feels almost inexplicable that a vegetable organ should specialize so thoroughly in fulfilling an intricate purpose (attracting bees, doing the work of reproduction) and then—by accident—appear to us as a thing so aesthetically perfect. Plants transform soil and CO2 into tissue and oxygen; as a side effect, they emit beauty.

Music, too, should astonish us (and sometimes it does). It’s the most abstract kind of art: immaterial, pure form.3 Insofar as it is, it is mere vibrations in the air. And yet it conveys, immediately, moods and emotions that all of us recognize, or (even more remarkable) almost recognize but can’t quite pin down. Isn’t it strange that these abstract patterns so reliably convey the ineffable? Isn’t it strange that we use music—our finest vocabulary of the sublime—as distracting background noise in places like grocery stores and bars? How does it fail to stop us in our tracks, amazed?

Everywhere we look, we find these backlit cracks in ordinary experience, glowing with strangeness and beauty.

  1. The phrase is from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a book full of sunsets (though the passage isn’t actually about one).

  2. Tennyson: “Little flower—but if I could understand / What you are, root and all, and all in all, / I should know what God and man is.”

  3. “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” wrote Pater: it is the medium in which content and form are most closely joined.