On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

So Edmund Burke begins his examination of the natural sublime in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), often seen as one of the central works in outlining the concept of the sublime and its role in the cultural transition from the classicist to the romantic period. Arguably, it is written somewhat too early to fulfil that role; but in its descriptions of the central concepts of the natural sublime – the effects of fear, of vastness, of infinity, of darkness, of magnificence and of great light – it is beyond doubt a powerful foreshadowing of the central themes of romantic figurative art and of the notion of the thrill of the sublime, especially the sublime of nature, that has moved us ever since. The stereotypical depiction of this sensation is of course the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, and the like.

But I believe the contemporary world has a powerful place for the natural sublime, whatever may have been the progress of technology since those days. Indeed, one may argue that this process, together with the attendant secularization and disenchantment of the world, has in fact strengthened the desire for the experience of the natural sublime, by making it harder to find in the immediate effects of the everyday natural world, and by making that natural world a more threatened and remote thing for the city-dwellers that make up the majority of the population of the world today. Indeed, perhaps the ever increasing familiarity with the scope and interconnectedness of our own globe in the here and now, provided by the hitherto unimaginable progress of communication and computing technologies, airplanes and cargo ships, makes the modern natural sublime require an altogether greater tableau to effect that great thrill and terror that causes the suspension of the reasoning mind and the carrying away of the emotions that Burke describes.

Having been ill for a week with an annoying cold virus, I was unable to concentrate much on reading or work, and therefore found myself watching some of my old favourites of popular scientific enchantment in television – Carl Sagan’s famous series “Cosmos” (1980), concerning itself with astronomy, life, and the history of their scientific analysis, as well as the slightly earlier BBC production “The Ascent of Man” (1973). The latter was intended as a counterpart to Sir Kenneth Clark’s old-fashioned and pompous art history epic called “Civilization”, and it would focus on the history of technology in a broad sense. Jacob Bronowski, a mathematician who had become something of a major writer on the interaction between natural science and the humanities and their mutual process of creative influence, was picked to present the series, which has generally been considered a brilliant choice. There are strong parallels between “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”, making them worth dealing with in a single article.

Both “The Ascent of Man” and the later “Cosmos” were produced by the same person, Adrian Malone, and the influence of the former on the mode of presentation of the latter is clearly visible. Bronowski’s series perhaps pioneered the method of having the presenter discuss the subject of the episode not just by using the relevant objects, machinery, and so forth of the time and place discussed, but to also have him present it in a visually arresting way within a larger natural or urban landscape that in its conscious scale and tranquility provides a powerful backdrop for the passionate enthusiasm of the presenter for the subject. This is the first element of the natural sublime in the two series: the sublime of the subject-matter, in the scope of history and astronomy, are matched consciously by a choice of environment that is more than a mere museum or studio location, but actually stimulates the mind’s wanderings by opening up the spatial context. In “The Ascent of Man”, for example, Bronowski presents two parts of an episode on the theory of the chemical elements from within an enormous medieval salt mine in Poland – vast walls, shimmering darkness in the background, a few lamps revealing the shadows of great wooden structures to fortify the mine-shafts: matters which work on the imagination beyond the immediate confines of the researches of Mendeleyev.

Of course, each deals with related but different domains of subject-matter. Once the viewer has gotten used to his odd combination of Yiddish-Polish and Oxbridge accents, Bronowski takes him or her through a mainly historical narrative, focusing on a discrete and not closely connected series of conceptual breakthroughs in and through the technological application of scientific ideas, from arches on Gothic cathedrals to the theories of energy in the Industrial Revolution. Bronowski is a great enthusiastic narrator in this, but of a somewhat more traditional kind, lecturing and expounding in his genial way. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”, on the other hand, more directly engages the viewer with visual and graphic tricks, not least his ship of the imagination travelling through interstellar space – something my friends and I dubbed not unreasonably the ‘choomship’, given its experiential analogies with the effects of weed.

In Sagan’s narrative, the history of science plays a significant role, brilliantly and engagingly re-enacted in historical settings with accurate props and settings for the time of Kepler or Huygens; but the central stage is occupied by astronomy and evolutionary biology in their fundamental principles and laws, not to mention the vast scope of the immensely large and the immensely small. The sublime of these two quantities, from the four hundred billion suns of the Milky Way to the tiny mass of the nucleus inside an apple-pie, comes best to the fore in Sagan’s more interactive, visual approach. It conforms to Burke’s experience that “as the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise… we become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effect this extreme of littleness from the vast itself.” Bronowski gives us some of this, but his strength is in the human, the historical on the size and scale that humans have made and dealt with practically since the days of the Lascaux paintings, and this makes it a perfect complement to the Cosmic sublime.

It is precisely in their complementarity that one can easily compare some of the most unforgettable scenes of either series. My great passion for history will perhaps render the scenes in “Cosmos” in which Kepler stares out of the window of his monastic school in longing to know the geometric mind of God, or the depiction of the Dutch at the height of their power wearing the conical Calvinist hat and staring for the first time at the stars aided by astronomical magnification, just as they see by these means for the first time the ‘corpuscules’ Huygens observed in the water, all this not knowing how this portents the conquest of the very great and the very small as new worlds of human endeavour; yes, all these things I would probably render in greater outline relative to the whole than most viewers would (never mind the reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria!). For most viewers of “Cosmos”, the great visual presentation of the effects of relativity and the Doppler-shift, or the great radio telescopes awaiting that one moment that some sign from life elsewhere may be found, or perhaps the enervating experience of Sagan’s search through the ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ and his discovery that the chances of the survival of intelligent life on earth are slim indeed, may form the most enduring experiences of the series. With Bronowski too, the exploration of sexual behaviour, or the timeless confrontation between Galilei and the established Church, or the great power of mathematics and architecture to combine to form vastness and beauty, are among the most memorable moments and visualizations of the themes of the series.

But for all the natural glory depicted in these productions, and the journeys through interstellar space, genes and nuclei, whole periods of human history and the great works of mankind’s creation that they contain, I cannot help but feel that even in its sublime, the effect can only exist if finally anchored firmly in the human. Indeed, the very terror and thrill described by Burke requires a subject to experience it, and it seems precisely to be a strange emergent property of the “great, soaring, passionate intelligence” Sagan ascribes to mankind that we can experience it thus. That mankind can now experience this through its own realization of itself, of its own position, is the great triumph implicitly celebrated in “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”. Properly understood, they are reflections on our coming into self-knowledge, and thereby into the freedom of control and creativity this brings, a greater sublime than that of the terrors of the night – primus in orbe deos fecit timor, it has been said, but the real message of these series is precisely that this is merely the first step, and that we have made several steps since and will make many more.

Yet the fully human dimension of this, that when we fly to Mars or comprehend Newton’s great mathematical reading of nature that it is in the end us, as a collective humankind, that have done this and still do this, that is the true sublime of these works. More than all the awe of nature and history as such, it is the sublime of our perpetual existence at the brink of ignorance, at the brink of self-destruction, at the brink of political failure and eternal barbarism, that constitute the shadow-play that makes ‘science as a candle in the dark’ stand out so brightly. Indeed, the series themselves are stamped with the imprint of their time – Bronowski does not mention a single woman as protagonist in his narratives and seems to assume all sex is done in the missionary position, and Sagan follows some truly outdated historiography. But they can overcome this, and become as timeless as the progress of scientific ideas allow, precisely because they realize the human sublime in the process of elucidating the natural.

To me, the most remarkable and lasting elements of the series are those that deal with our achievement of this predicament: in “Cosmos”, Sagan’s ponderings on earth, with all its human strivings, floating “like a mote of dust in the morning sky”. But perhaps greater still is Bronowski in the end of the episode ‘Knowledge or Certainty’, when he visits the cursed site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where so many of his family and so countless many others were ruthlessly destroyed by a visitation of the worst properties of mankind’s consciousness, enabled and made unstoppable by our own technology and scientific works. At the end, when Bronowski implores the viewer to prefer the epistemic relativity of scientific knowledge to the certainties of authority, faith, and nation, to choose mankind’s creative powers over his destructive ones, he sticks his hand in the pool in which the ashes of millions are sunk into the mire. The episode ends, and no final music plays, nor is there any sound, throughout the credit roll: perhaps the most terrifying effect imaginable in modern television. Were such a thing even necessary, it would illustrate that for the human, too, “indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever… the ruling principle of the sublime.”

Finally, and to sum up this analysis, I must deal with the question of message. It is striking that both “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man” are explicitly subtitled personal: “A personal voyage”, “a personal view”. Both use our history and accomplishments, our increasing knowledge of ourselves and our potential, as a means to warning us against the dangers of excessive certainty and giving reign to our destructive capacities over our creative ones. What are we to make of this? It is easy for socialists to dismiss this as a sign of liberal truth-is-in-the-middle-ism, to equate the call for uncertainty with the ‘Open Society’, and to read into the Whiggish elements of the story a mere apologetics for scientistic Eurocentrism. Indeed, various thinkers of the past, such as Popper and Berlin, have explicitly tried to make such connections in defense of liberal political orders.

But I think that would be mistaken. There is a powerful and as yet largely unexamined connection between the possibility of epistemological pragmatism, of the relativism of truth, and the emancipatory aims of socialism. This rests not just in the usefulness of science and technology for liberating mankind through extensions of productivity and control over nature, as Marx and others have clearly outlined. More philosophically, understanding social progress not as a set of truth-achievements but as a collective epistemic process is something science as a social phenomenon, from the earliest days when even elitist natural philosophy conflicted with the claims of political and religious autocracy to the modern-day history of Bernal’s “science in society”, has in common with the socialist understanding of emancipation as a coming-to-awareness of human creative powers. This, too, is not a matter of achieving particular technology in and of itself, or even a particular number of hours of the working day, or a particular political power of a class, as the USSR and other revolutions showed. Although all of these are important, and although their basis in the historical materialist understanding is important, it is an intriguing fact that it is perfectly possible to reconcile such an understanding with an epistemic pragmatism that rejects the false certainties of naive realism and its truth-claims.

Traditionally Marxists have fought with the basest realists and positivists in the struggle against obscurantism and ‘for science’, but I think that despite the sometimes similarly conceived readings of history in “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”, their message can be read against such notions. For without epistemic certainty, dogmatism is robbed of its fuel, the Eternal Verities and Real Categories which have always in the end provided the ideological underpinning for conservative political programmes are removed, and the materialist understanding of history as collective humanity (or certain of its classes) overcoming the ever renewing contradictions engendered by its own failure to become completely free comes into its own: not as the one true reading of history, but as what a political-historical programme would look like if it were based on the recognition that the fallibility of any Truth means the infallibility of the process of freedom. While this is a mere sketch, and by no means the last word on the subject, I believe this is an idea which attempts to capture more seriously not the natural sublime of positive science, but the human sublime of historical humanity. That is to me the greatest insight of “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”.

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