A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (But it mentions stars exploding.)

In my last post I referred to the “spine-tingling” factor that happens when I contemplate the stars and universe.  As a reminder to all you regular readers out there (or should I say, “in there”, since most of you exist only in my head?  Still, thanks for reading either way) – I’m talking about how that light that we see, and call a “star,”  is the light from a massive body (that’s the star) that could have already exploded and died  – and yet that explosion won’t be seen (by the naked eye) for maybe millions of years.

Yeah, that’s right, I had to reiterate that fact, because I can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, strangely enough, when I think about this stuff, my mind often makes an association to something else that I find spine tingling – a quote from Macbeth! I say strangely, because it’s nothing to do with stars or the universe. It is the famous quote, which I have located this morning in a falling-apart copy of Macbeth (complete with scribbled notes all over it) and goes:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, v.5)

Did your spine tingle? Mine did. I can’t put my finger on why it is, but I have heard that this Shakespeare dude is quite a good writer, so I reckon he knew how to make a few words have an impact.

I suspect the reason why my brain connects this text from Macbeth with stars exploding and their light travelling for thousands or millions of years and still hitting our vision thousands of years later, is that idea that human existence is so brief, such a mere blip on the radar of what Macbeth describes as dark and dusty nothingness, or in my mind, is the fathomlessness of the universe.

Of course, the play is full of foreboding, and conveys a growing sense of dread and darkness, so all of that contributes to Macbeth’s famous speech, which comes close to the end of the story, feeling so potent and causing my spine to tingle.

I reckon that Samuel Beckett’s spine felt a little tingle when he read Macbeth, too. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon echo some of Macbeth’s ideas.  I think the spine-tingling I experience at these passages is partly due to recognition of Macbeth’s famous speech, as well as my reaction to the similarly dark content of what they are saying. Have a look back at what Macbeth says, and then check out the similarities:

Vladimir: All evening we have struggled, unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow. (p77)

Vladimir: In an instant, all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (p81)

Pozzo: Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!….One day,  is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?….They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. (p89)

I wonder if Beckett was having a little bit of a joke, too (given the nature of his absurdist play it seems likely) as Vladimir and Estragon could very well be the “idiots” that Macbeth speaks of, telling the tale that signifies nothing. The power of their statements is achieved very differently in Waiting for Godot. This play does not develop a growing sense of dread, rather I think that, for me, the power of these deep, existential statements is probably highlighted by the contrast in the way they are delivered: amidst conversation that, on the surface, appears to be pure rambling, by bumbling, pathetic characters that we feel sorry for.

So art can make my spine tingle too, just like the idea of stars exploding, and the universe in general, can do.

I guess that what makes for a spine-tingling feeling varies for everyone, but occasionally we all feel it for some reason or other, either by staring up at the stars, listening to a beautiful piece of music, or reading Macbeth!

Star exploding

An explosion 7.5 billion years ago – visible in 2008

Photo Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler, et al.

(Click here if you want to read about this exploding star. Apparently it exploded 7.5 billion years ago – well before Shakespeare was born, or even before Macbeth, whose story took place a mere 1000 years ago.  After travelling for all that time, the light from the explosion finally arrived close enough to earth to be seen by the naked eye in 2008.)

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