Cosmic Solitude: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on How the Prospect of Being Alone in the Universe Can Make Us Better Stewards of Our Humanity
By Maria Popova
In 1984, astronomer Jill Tarter founded SETI — an institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That year, Carl Sagan — a major supporter of the SETI project — began writing his novel Contact, which was published in 1985 and adapted into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster twelve years later. In the most beautiful scene in the movie, Foster’s character, inspired by Dr. Tarter, peers out her spaceship window as she approaches an extraordinary alien world and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”
Several months before the launch of SETI, it was indeed one of humanity’s greatest poets — Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — who addressed the abiding allure of extraterrestrial life by way of its mirror image: the possibility that we might be alone in the universe, what it reveals about our most elemental fears, and how it can ennoble the human spirit.
In a beautiful 1983 piece titled Cosmic Solitude later included in her Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (public library) — a collection of short sketches, reflections, and “loose associations” inspired by books Szymborska was reading at the time — she writes:
Life is picky and demands a mixture of highly specific conditions; we’ve found their fulfillment on our planet and nowhere else so far. Which doesn’t mean that among all the billions and billions of stars there’s no chance of a similar combination.
With her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry wit, Szymborska offers an uncommon take on the implications:
I admit that I find the question of life beyond Earth quite interesting, but still I’d prefer not to have it settled too quickly and definitively. For example, I’m cheered, not disappointed, by the virtually certain fact that there is no life on any other planet in our solar system. I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth. Furthermore I’m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs. Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddis flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal. At the turn of the century, fashion called for rotating tables at which you could summon up the spirit of Copernicus to tell you who’d stolen your garnet ring or the spirit of three-year-old Sabina, who’d authoritatively predict when and where to expect the next European war. It was taken for granted that every spirit must know everything and be good at everything.
Setting aside the satire of the supernatural, Szymborska turns to the deeper concern undergirding our longing for celestial companions — our terror of solitude, extended from its acute manifestation in the human realm into our cosmic environment. In a passage all the more poignant today, as we stand perched on the precipice of her “imaginable future,” she writes:
[But] the belief in UFOs has its serious side: fear in the face of cosmic solitude. I don’t mean to make light of this, I’ll just try to ask a few questions. Would this solitude really be so awful? So unbearable? … Would we really be driven to darkest despair by the news that life doesn’t exist beyond Earth? Oh, I know, I know, no scientist will make such an announcement either today or tomorrow, since we have no data at this point and no way of obtaining data in the imaginable future. But let’s stop and think about such a revelation. Would that really be the worst of all possible news? Perhaps just the opposite — it would sober us, brace us, teach us mutual respect, point us toward a slightly more human way of life? Perhaps we wouldn’t talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos? Maybe a single, other life would finally gain the value it deserves, the value of a phenomenon, a revelation, a specimen unique to the entire universe? Every stage manager knows that the tiny figure of an actor against the backdrop of dark curtains on a vast and empty stage becomes monumental in every word and gesture… And after all, would the solitude we fear so much really be so solitary? Along with all the other people, plants, and animals?
Complement this particular portion of Szymborska’s wholly wonderful Nonrequired Reading with Edward Abbey’s love letter to solitude and psychoanalyst Adam Philips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for a full life, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”
Published January 18, 2016