Our humble human-scale visible timeline starts at about 1/10 second, and goes all the way up to about 3 years into the future, when there then become too many variables for us to predict what will happen - I forget what that's called.
As far as distance, we can see something that's as small as 1/100 of a millimeter across, and as far as, with the naked eye, at least to V762, a star that's about 16,300 light years away.
But outside of that timeframe, or that visible range, we are blind and useless. Evolutionarily speaking, this doesn't matter because we are capable of surviving within the limits that we now live, or else we either would have become extinct or would have rejiggered the parameters so we could survive.
Einstein came up with his Theory of Relativitywhen he tried to picture what the earth would look like if he passed it in a spaceship travelling at the speed of light.
I'm also curious, like Einstein, and was wondering what a fly or a flower would look like if we could see down to 1/1,000,000 of a millimeter. Or perceive time as fast as a nano- or zepto-second.
Would it (and our whole world) become a slowly vibrating kaleidoscope blur of whirring waves and colors - fields of fuzzy white strivings and crimson strings and fricatives pantomiming something like beauty? Could we witness the UV enlightening the chlorophyll in an elegant ballet of photosynthesis and finally see the complicated simplicity of nature and the micro-truths right in front of us, before our very eyes, that we've been missing and will always miss as humans?
What about the lone neutrino that's left over from the big bang, lost in space for almost 14 billion years, that finally passes through our field of vision – existing only because we are now able to see it?
And I wonder how we would we see ourselves, and others, at that preposterous magnification and speed?
I was walking down Via Monti in Milan one day in 1987, minding my own business, when two women walked up to me and asked if they could buy me a coffee. I said, “Io?”
I was on my way to Stazione Centrale to catch a train to Paris, I’m not sure why, but I think it was to see Hardy, who I’ve mentioned in numerous posts before. In fact, when I started writing this last week, I couldn’t remember why I was in Milan, and I still can’t today, on this last edit.
I know I had just spent some time in Wurtzburg with Wertin, my compagnon de voyage through a lot of my life, and we had been as drunk as cripples for most of the visit, since one of his buddies, George, owned the Nachtwachter, the coolest bar in town. George still spun actual LPs and served the local beer in steins that reminded me of the huge glass insulators on top of telephone poles, and we’d drive around the next morning in his Mini-Moke dropping our female companions off at work, and on time – this was Germany after all.
We’d then go to the local café and have a “Schwartz Fruhstuck,” which was a cup of black coffee and a filterless cigarette. I called it the ‘een’ breakfast – caffeine and nicotine – what else did you need to jammer and jab your way through the rest of the day?
Anyway, I went to the caffé with the two women – Donata and Diana – and they bought me amacchiato and a fette biscottate and asked me what I was doing in Milan. Good question, I said. I don’t know, and I also wasn’t too sure how I had gotten to this point in my life without someone killing me, but there it is. They laughed because they thought I was joking. I told them I had just checked out of my hotel, the Julio Cesare if I remember correctly, and was literally heading out of town when they stopped me. What the hell were they up to, I wanted to know. They said I looked ‘perso,’ which I’ll translate for you: an unshaven scrimshanker with a silver Haliburton suitcase plunging around depraved and corrupt at four in the afternoon, frightening the natives.
They then told me they were heading up to Donata’s place in Bellagio for the weekend and did I want to come? I said sure. So we walked over to Corso Magenta where Donata lived and hopped into her Simca 1100 in sky blue and headed up to the lake, making a quick stop at my hotel to pick up the rest of my laundry, I mean luggage.
Donata was heavy on the horn and her gesticulations were some sort of ALL CAPS dance of arrogance and anger. And heaven forbid if she was in the left lane passing someone when a Ferrari-head was screaming along at about a buck three-eighty at least a half a mile behind but already flashing his lights and screaming at her “porca miseria!” to get the hell our of his way. When he zoomed by he looked like a quantum lunatic in a tomato-red rocket ship elongating the perceived elliptical Earth that was us in this hypothetical, at almost the speed of light. Or do objects compress at that velocita? I forget.
We pulled into the cobblestoned hill town and bought some bread, cheese, and a couple of bottles of local wine. We hopped back into the Simca and climbed up the roads behind the town, pulling in to the gatepost-bookended gravel drive to the villa just as Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill started playing on the radio. The sun was just about to disembark spectaculary on the dark, pirate night. The house was one of those massive khaki-colored rock jobs – impenetrable and patient – with siege-resistant window shutters, unshudderable, perhaps, and a vermillion terra cotta roof ablaze with the dusk.
I got out of the car and walked past a clutch of goats on the lawn and admired the stunning view of Lake Como, to the right, and to the left. Bellagio, is in the “Larian Triangle” of the slingshot-shaped lake, and Donata’s place was on just about the mountain’s pubis overlooking the town. I knew Virgil had spent time here, and Julius Caesar had brought a bunch of colonists to settle in this picturesque place. “How old is this house?” I asked. “1560,” she said. “Do you own it?” She looked at me and grinned. “No, but we’ve been renting it since the eighteenth century.”
She unlocked the front door and we brought the supplies inside. Everything was dim and smelled like the bosom of the earth. Donata threw open the drapes, and the last rays of the anthocyanin sun came into the room like a god. The decor was Italian Nana circa 1850. There was an Empire-style daybed in the middle of the room, with a heavy goose-down duvet like a foamy white avalanche smothering me as I fell face down, fast asleep.
When I woke up, I was disoriented, and it was pitch black, inside and out. I heard some tinkling in the kitchen and the muffled duh duh duh dum of Beethoven I think and went to check it out. The dog, Asta, who I forgot to mention, and named after The Thin Man movie, was sitting for some reason in the kitchen sink. Soprasadas were hanging from the ceiling. The tune was somehow, weirdly, Greensleeves, not the Fifth. Donata and Diana were on the tiny terrace just outside the kitchen door, drinking wine. “Buona sera,” I said. “Buona sera,” they said, in unison. “Dinner is served, mangiamo,” Donata said, and I sat down. Dinner? Where was dinner? All I saw was a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, and thou. I’m kidding – who said that? Keats” Shelley? Oh, yeah, Omar Khayyam, and I forgot the jug of wine part. But one was right there on the table.
Where I grew up, or at least in my house, dinner was protein, usually meat or fish, a side like mashed potatoes, and a vegetable – either green beans, or peas, or broccoli. And the meat, especially the pork, was overcooked shoe leather – my mother wasn’t taking any chance with trichinosis, no siree. And dessert, there was always a dessert: chocolate cake, apple pie and ice cream, pudding. You get the idea. So I’m intrigued and baffled when I see a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese and someone’s calling it dinner.
We ripped off hunks of that pagnotta and dipped them into olive oil, that was actually from olive trees on the property, and sprinkled expensive coarse sea salt on it liberally, and I don’t need to tell you that each bite brought me closer to the threshold of a type of ecstasy I had only heard about. I can’t remember whether the cheese was a pecorino romano or a provolone piccante, but it doesn’t matter. The wine was a local chianti in the classic squat bottle enclosed in a straw basket (called a fiasco), and even though I’m not a wine guy, it washed the pagnotta down like a dirty old sink. For dessert, we went into the neighbor’s garden and picked fresh figs, which were bursting almost obscenely: fecund, purplish, and plum. Plum figs. In Italian, the word for fig is also slang for, um, female fruit.
I’ve had very few epiphanies in my life, and a woman’s vagina is one of them. I’m kidding. But this transformative evening is near the top of the short list: simple, sensuous, and unexpectedly seductive. A rubbing of the eyes in wonder; phosphenes of twinkling lights and pin pricks of color, a parallax view of perception and imagination, the phenomenon of living life as a basic creative everyday art coming into sharp, beautiful focus. I felt warm. We don’t need to magnify or compress anything. Forget Einstein and his Godlike theories of relativity, impenetrable formulas, up-quarks and down-quarks, the time-warp wefting of space, fields of vision. I realized the universe is on your shoulder.
Notice everything, Virginia Woolf admonishes and urges us, as she famously did herself; here, now. In her essay Death of the Moth, watching a humble moth trapped by a pane of glass she philosophizes profoundly on such a minor mundanity: “One could not help watching him. One was indeed conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate. And his zest at enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic.”
For me, I found no pity and saw nothing beyond a pair of iliac crests framing the gates of an infinite, Italian stone-house heaven.