On Seeing the Stars Anew
It is hard to imagine that our sense of wonder and possibility hasn’t been neutered and obscured by the continued dimming of celestial bodies by artificial light. Where once nightfall punctuated the day, marking the end of our labors, leaving us in the company of the heavens, we are now left grasping in the dark for meaning and awe. Being able to view the stars’ deep beauty had been humanity’s birthright for time immemorial, a primordial equalizer, but has become a luxury that few today can experience to the extent that everyone historically could. Even as we inch ever closer to the stars, sending telescopes into orbit and probes into deep space, coming to know more about their origins and tracking their every movement, we have drifted away from recognizing how they move us, and how they have always moved us.
Some years ago, laying in the Sahara beside a fleeting paramour, I saw the stars for the first time as they used to be seen. The air was silent; my ears rang with every aspiration—inhaling hope, exhaling disappointment. The sun had long set and no light could be seen on our shared horizon, yet all of our surroundings were illuminated. The cold, barren desert fell into the background, every grain of sand reasserting its overwhelming presence. Trying to focus on any one constellation, the freckles and blemishes in the sky and on my companion, I recognized that the fullness, the encompassing whole of either, was unknowable.
Never before had the world felt so open and clear to behold, destiny so close at hand. Never since have I felt so minuscule and powerless, at the whims of the universe.
As far back as oral and written traditions date, humans have tried to conceptualize our relationship with the heavens: from using the stars to track planting seasons and navigate the seas to gleaning inspiration for classical physics and contemporary astrophysics, astrology and astronomy, mythology and science fiction. The recent spate of ego-driven billionaires vying for extraterrestrial colonies is hardly a new phenomenon; their drive to reach beyond man’s grasp manifests an aspect of human nature that ancient Greeks who had heard the stories of Icarus and Phaethon would find familiar. Poets and everyday sky watchers alike have projected onto the stars allegories for all our social relations, and, in turn, reflected that grand cosmic mythos back onto their earthly companions—from Homer’s shield of Achilles to Keats’s bright star to our modern-day pop stars—grasping for ways to understand how we fit into the vastness of the cosmos and to bring those stars closer to the human scale.
The conflict between yearning for what is beyond the self and yearning to understand and accept the self’s place in the universe is a dichotomy between desire and consideration—derived from Latin roots literally signifying “from the stars” and “with the stars,” respectively. Balancing these states of passion and reflection is a core challenge of personhood and is reflected in all engagements with the constellations—even academic astronomy.
Socrates, as portrayed by Plato in the Republic, enumerates that the best pedagogy would proceed from arithmetic to geometry, then astronomy, and finally music. When Socrates proposes astronomy, Glaucon, his interlocutor, praises the subject for its ability to develop better awareness of seasons, months, and years in order to more effectively farm, navigate, and command armies. Socrates chastises Glaucon for only seeing the utility of such study—that it trains desire—not the manner in which it inspires love of beauty and a sense of awe—its training of consideration. Glaucon comes to agree that “astronomy compels the soul to see what’s above and leads it there away from the things here.”
As Socrates’s proposal for education was adapted in the medieval quadrivium, music and astronomy were swapped. Study was envisioned as a progression from learning about quantity, with arithmetic; to quantity in space, with geometry; quantity in time, with music; and quantity in time and space, with astronomy. Herein the stars are the culmination of the sciences. The quadrivium was also understood as a progression from simple to complex beauty, with the heavens regarded as the zenith of nature from which lessons could be drawn and applied to the arts of music and literature. We still balance the usefulness of astronomy—for farming, as climatologists further refine agricultural schedules, for navigation, as GPS systems become more precise, and for commanding armies, as the Space Force grows—against the beauty and awe instilled by stargazing.
While the onlooking heavens might seem a strange reference point for the triumphs and sorrows of our human lives, the periodic changes in the sky signal shifts in the weather, the length of days, and many other things both easily noticed and difficult to observe that affect our needs for food and shelter and transform our habits and dispositions. The lunar and solar cycles mark calendars that guide our lives’ labors and festivities; they also turn ever closer to each person’s final days. Our lived experience has no bearing on any celestial body’s journey; and yet the seasons’ impact on our lives, much like the stars themselves, has been increasingly obscured.
Historically, the changing of the stars with the seasons has been highlighted by numerous cultures in traditions that affect everyday motions. The Diné, as the Navajo are called in their own language, see the stars as jewels sewn into a celestial blanket by the First Man and First Woman in order to share their knowledge of, among other things, when planting seasons begin. Likewise, the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar traditionally emphasized Ember Days—periods of fasting and prayer that coincide with the changing season—and harvest festivals, tying spiritual and social life to the stars’ movements.
More broadly, celestial patterns influence the cycle of holidays: it is no coincidence that pagan festivals and Christian holidays overlap in timing and traditions, such as the winter solstice and Roman Saturnalia aligning with Christmas, and the celebration of Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, with Easter. This shows a common recognition that the stars signal changes in daily life. Popular histories falter when they make the easy claim that new names have simply been slapped onto old festivals; they ignore a different, star-based understanding of human time. Centering holidays around the change of seasons, signified by changing constellations, presents people as a constituent of nature, as stewards of an environment that they must live harmoniously with.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to view humanity’s relation to stars, and therefore to the natural world; the Ancient Greek understanding is in distinct opposition to this, depicting man as a master or conqueror of nature. For Hesiod and Homer, and later the Latin Ovid, the stars represented gods, demigods, and mortals. They were both projections of human personality and models of what people ought to be—anthropomorphic comforts and deifying morality plays. Right after farming, in Glaucon’s mind, the utility of astronomy is in sailing and soldiering, entailing a desire to seek luxuries and glories beyond one’s environs. Rather than a mythology of stewardship, this was one of conquest and profit. Looking at the stars, the ancient Greeks saw not so much a gift of knowledge, but tools for glory and trophies to be won.
Laying under the stars in the Sahara, my thoughts raced between passions and dreams, successes and failures, the prospects of the future and the inadequacy of all my actions leading to the present. Despite the Pleiades not being visible in the sky that spring night, my mind brought forth the words of a poem by Sappho:
The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
Midnight comes—and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.
Like Sappho, I find myself drawn to Messier 45, also known as the Seven Sisters, Dilyéhé, al-Thurayya, Subaru, the Pleiades. Understanding the Pleiades in both their science and symbolism builds a microcosm of the universe and humanity’s role in it.
Throughout ages and across cultures, this constellation has announced the change of agricultural seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere, the stars are visible during the onset of fall and into the early spring, making their final appearance a signal to begin planting. But their significance is larger than that. Alongside the ongoings of their celestial sorority, the Seven Sisters have been witness to drama human and divine. They have been an object of desire—both chaste and perverse—and consideration—both scientific and personal—for millennia. A source of knowledge and wise consolation, dynamic and unmoving, silently observant and brilliantly conversant, the Pleiades are both a map and self-portrait for the stargazer.
The common name for the cluster of seven stars comes from seven sisters from Greek mythology, but the source of the sisters’ collective name is unclear. One theory suggests that they were named for their mother, Pleione—known as the patroness of sailing—or perhaps she was so named in light of them, being the one who—literally, as her name translates from the Greek—“increased in number” her star-daughters. But there’s another, more puzzling etymology, one that embodies the duality of constellations: their name could be a derivation from the word plein, meaning sailing, or from peleiades, meaning flock of doves.
While the different understandings of the Pleiades’ name reflect variations in their mythology, their placement in the sky follows from a tale of lust that coincides with and transcends their use in sailing or agriculture. The human huntsman Orion, killed for seeking greater game amid Artemis’s divine pastures, had previously won the favor of Zeus and was immortalized as the constellation. In one account of Orion’s story, he oversteps his mortal role, threatening to undo the works of the gods by slaying every beast on Earth. In another, he relentlessly pursues Pleione’s daughters, who, to escape, were transformed first into doves, and later stars. In the sky, Orion was placed a safe distance away from the sisters but still he continues his endless chase. As much as humans yearn to conquer the stars, the ancient narratives present the constellations of Orion and the Pleiades as the result of the human libido dominandi—that lust for domination.
This further plays out in the romances of each sister. For example, the dimmest star of the seven, and the youngest sister, is Merope, whose brilliance was reduced on account of her marriage to the mortal Sisyphus. Sisyphus was renowned in his time as a king who pioneered navigation and sea trade, but was immortalized for his attempt to cheat death and his resultant punishment by Hades: to forever push a boulder up an insurmountable hill. His offense was so great that even Merope was punished for it, a testament to the viciousness of insulted gods. Maia, the most dazzling of the sisters, whom Zeus impregnated through his usual deceit, would give birth to Hermes, the messenger god overseeing seafaring, trade, and trickery. Though she was renowned for her motherhood—the Romans later equated her name with the Latin word for greater and designated the month of May in her honor—her maternal example came at the cost of being the object of Zeus’s lust.
As much as Socrates praised astronomy, he was unceasing in his criticism of the poetic mythology imposed on the constellations. While Homer and Hesiod saw nightly reminders of the heights of human virtue and excellence in the stars, Plato describes it as a lowering of the heavens when gods act on the same capricious desires as humans: chasing their passions in debauched conquest, seeking dominion but inconsiderate of their relations or responsibilities. The Greek epics tell tales of stars made as trophies in the image of humans, celebrating their accomplishments; the newly immortal become instructive tools for profit in trade or battle, instruments of early sciences poised for broadly material gain—humans elevated to celestial glory and the stars in turn reduced to human scale.
As a counterpoint to those Greek passions, the Book of Job is an invective against perverse desire, portraying Job’s careful consideration of God and creation and coming to a balanced acceptance of his own insignificance amid the heavens alongside—somewhat paradoxically—the cosmic importance of his individual will and action in light of God’s example. This story presents the stars as distant images of God’s glory; they are not sources of material gain but of enrichment of another sort: an increase in wonder and awe.
Much like the stars, the mythos of Job seems adaptable to any time or place, observable from any locale or perspective. Its composition date is believed to be somewhere within a roughly three-hundred-year period. It was likely written in Israel but uses strange diction that may be intended to sound foreign. Its dramatic date is entirely uncertain—perhaps Job lived in the time of Moses or David, or before or after either of them. The land of Uz, where the story takes place, may be a real, though rarely attested, locale, but no less a scholar than Maimonides was convinced that Job did not exist and that the story is a parable with no concrete setting—Job’s Uz is a place and era without space or time. The story’s cycle of fortune, suffering, acceptance, and redemption has no particular temporality but is perennial as the stars and their seasons.
Job, unlike many of the characters of Greek myth, does not have great heroic virtue. Instead, he seems to be a simple, albeit successful, man: a father of ten overseeing a large herd and household, devoutly sacrificing and giving honor to God. Satan challenges God, arguing that Job’s piety is merely a result of his great fortune, so God permits Satan to curse Job and take away all that he has. With his children killed, herds slain, body stricken with boils, and all pleasures taken away from him, Job continues to worship and defends his praise of God to his wife. Finally, after seven days in the company of three friends, Job comes to curse the day he was born, enraged at his misfortune. Job no longer recognizes God’s presence in his life: “Should he come near me, I do not see him; should he pass by, I am not aware of him.” Each companion argues that these angry complaints are sinful, that Job deserves his treatment for bearing his suffering so poorly. As the work progresses, Job increasingly distances his life’s fortunes from God’s intercession, though he acknowledges God’s general presence in the world as the one who “made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south; He does things great and unsearchable, things marvelous and innumerable.” But Job views his past fortune as the fruit of his own labors and his present misfortunes as unjust, not corresponding to what he deserves for his pieties.
Job seems to reflect new insight from his arguments with his friends. He depicts God’s guidance as like a star illuminating his path. Acknowledging that he lived like a king among his troops while luxury and ease abounded amid his piety, Job says that “[God] kept his lamp shining above my head, and by his light I walked through darkness.” A new interlocutor, Elijah, emerges and launches a final criticism of Job for considering God to be unjust, for viewing piety as a source of profit and personal advantage. Elijah frames God as all-knowing and says that, although God elicits light from above the clouds and shaped the heavens to enlighten the darkness of earthly lives, humans cannot find him: “none can see him, however wise their hearts.”
But, from the midst of a sudden storm, God confronts Job, asking unsettling questions:
Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance?
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Have you tied cords to the Pleiades, or loosened the bonds of Orion?
Can you bring forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or guide the Bear with her children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens; can you put into effect their plan on the earth?
The Book of Job’s poetry can be overwhelming in a manner analogous to the stars it describes. Each constellation Job mentions, and that God reminds him of in this excerpt, contains seven principal stars; throughout the scriptures of Abrahamic faiths, the number seven signifies perfection and greatness. The Book of Job subverts the Greek associations of conquest and lust with Orion and the Pleiades, reframing the constellations not as trophies but as inspiring testaments to pure, divine perfection. While God’s first question regarding the creation of the world is impressed with details of various stars and natural objects, the manner in which they are mentioned belies something else: tying the cords to the Pleiades and loosening the bonds of Orion, bringing forth the Mazzaroth—literally “the constellations”—and guiding the Bear—Ursa Major—indicate God’s, and the stars,’ continued, dynamic involvement in the world. This entanglement goes beyond Job’s initial recognition of God’s act of creation. Observing the heavens, Job’s desire for comfort, ease, and luxury transforms into consideration of nature’s interplay and his own relationship to it; he does not know the ordinances of the heavens nor can he effect their plan on Earth, but he can sit in sublime awe, understanding himself as a small piece of an unfathomable whole.
Still, God redoubles, challenging Job to use his human powers to adorn himself in grandeur and majesty, clothe himself in glory and splendor—this challenge, again, being intentionally impossible for him. But it allows Job to reconsider his earlier complaints and see the vanity of believing that his fortunes were his own doing, the earned result of his pious actions. As opposed to the Greeks, Job finds that glory and majesty are not the products of will, action, and pious exercise, nor are they even humanly attainable—the greatest of men could never rival the stars’ brilliance, should never be given the vulgar glory of being immortalized among them. Job’s final remarks to God reflect a different sort of knowledge than most of the Greek authors aspired to. He concludes: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you.” Despite Elijah’s rejection of the possibility, Job comes to know God through God’s creation—by observing the constellations. Rather than sources of scientific knowledge and epic glory, the stars become sources of awe. Job finds that his piety must not be rooted in personal profit and self-aggrandizement, but in appreciation for that which makes glory—and the Pleiades—possible.
Walt Whitman finds a similar sort of clarity—albeit from a very different, pantheistic direction—across three poems in the “Sea-Drift” section of Leaves of Grass. This triptych represents one of the most beautiful and mysterious literary representations of the Pleiades. It considers celestial immortality as the poems shift their focus from the stars to man, the intra- and interrelations of men and creatures, and back from men to the stars. The first poem, “On the Beach at Night,” sets forth a child and father watching the nighttime autumn sky from a sandy shore as a storm approaches:
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.
As clouds cover the sky, the child weeps for their disappearance, and her father comforts her. The clouds, he insists, “shall not long be victorious, / They shall not long possess the sky, They devour the stars only in apparition”; the stars will be seen again on another night. “They are immortal . . . / the great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure.”
Following this charming assurance, Whitman changes tack and the poem ends on an odd note as the speaker admits of providing a “problem and indirection” when he asks: “Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter? / Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?” This chastisement pushes the young one to move from her appreciation of the stars to mourn less spectacular, earthly deaths. Also, though, “Something there is more immortal even than the stars” that set and are reborn every day. Indeed, the twinkles in the sky are a sort of glance into the distant past as light ventures across the universe—it is likely that some of the stars are already dead before we even catch a glimpse of them. Mysteriously, Whitman concludes: something will “endure longer than even Jupiter / . . . / Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.” The child, then, could be comforted knowing that there is something eternal beyond what she can see in the sky.
And yet, that “problem and indirection”: though there may be something immortal in the universe—even if that’s just the universe itself—maybe there is, in fact, a reason to mourn the stars. Perhaps nothing is truly immortal. Where the Book of Job shows that the stars’ brilliance exceeds any individual’s, Whitman reminds the reader that even this brilliance is limited. It might appear comforting to expect to see the stars the next evening, but comfort may be fleeting in actuality.
While the third poem in this sequence is a clear bookend, the bridging poem, “The World Below the Brine,” maintains a different focus, beautifully detailing the plants and animals beneath the sea, moving between macro- and microscopic views. Briskly, Whitman writes of the “sluggish existence there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,” and the “passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes.” Whitman frames the world below the brine as like that above the surface, and, zooming out further, like “that of beings who walk other spheres.” In a Greek-like turn, Whitman envisions the stars as animated by the same passions and conflicts that animate humans and the other creatures on Earth; even a walrus is as splendid as a galaxy, a supernova as sluggish as a turtle.
In the final poem, “On the Beach at Night Alone,” the narrator comes to recognize the musical key “of the universes and of the future” beneath the shining stars, “as the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song.” “A vast similitude interlocks all,” Whitman writes of the spheres, suns, moons, planets, distances, time, forms, souls, living creatures, elements, “all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe, / all lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future.”
The essential aspect for Whitman, as for Job, to the universe’s mysteries is the recognition of the ties that bind all things together: in Whitman’s view everything is essentially alike and thus bound; Job presents the divine bonding as the similitude. While a child weeps for the loss of the stars on a stormy night, she comes to consider a relationship previously taken for granted or unrecognized. Throughout these poems, Whitman contrasts barbarism with civilization, war and passion, with the recognition of other beings like us. Brutishness is both what is shared and what inhibits the recognition of similitude. Perhaps loss is necessary for the recovery of wonder, as the weeping of a child awakens her desire for and consideration of what is gone.
Stargazing forces such entanglement with loss and mortality. The Pleiades are an instrument of this recognition in what may be Arabic literature’s greatest ode, “The Mu’allaqah of Imru’ al-Qays.” Composed in the sixth century, it is apocryphally said to have been hung within the Kaaba in Mecca prior to the time of the Prophet Muhammad—who is reported to have described al-Qays as the most damned of pre-Islamic poets. Set in the Arabian desert, al-Qays, a grown nobleman reflecting on his youthful lust for the hunt of both women and beasts, grapples with the coming and going of time, love, solitude, and life, remembering most especially his forbidden romance with his cousin Fatima.
The poem opens with the haunting command: “Stop, my friends, let us weep of my beloved’s memory and her home . . . whose trace has not been obliterated by the north and south winds drawing together” (translations my own). Yet, that trace is all that remains of her in the barren stretch of desert. “And my friends, stopping their camels, say ‘Do not perish of grief, be graceful’ / but truly my cure is the flowing tear, amid this vanishing vestige, is there a place to cry?” The closing mirrors the first two verses, with the image of an oncoming storm tearing down trees and castles, pouring scum onto the sands, and drowning wild beasts as if it were a stately leader asserting his rule over rebellious peasants, a merchant of fine textiles laying down his cloths, a gardener preparing onions for the spring. The storm brings about new, hopeful possibilities in the desert: “As though the little birds of the valley of Jiwaa awakened in the morning, and burst forth in song after a morning draught of old, pure, spiced wine.”
The poem traces the narrator’s growth, from a young man gallivanting ab0ut and harassing women, into an older man carefully reconsidering his past, appreciative for what he had and lost. The speaker recalls stealing the clothes of bathing women, killing his camel to impress women with generous servings of camel meat for dinner—and thus requiring that he complete their journey riding behind a woman in her saddle—and his insistent desire for his cousin Fatima, despite her inviolable oath to not permit his passions’ fulfillment. The prince is consonant with Homeric virtues, gallant and eager to use his noble rank in order to pressure women into bed, much like Zeus. Throughout, al-Qays plays with images of barrenness and fertility, from the desolate soil moistened by tears to adulterous relations with recent mothers, the implied infertility of Fatima, the virility of the narrator’s horse and surrounding sheep, and the concluding image of watered bulbs. Further euphemisms run throughout, but most striking applies to the narrator himself: he begins with a soul made barren by his indulgent desire and becomes fertile amid the traces of his beloved through considering his relation to the world and time, birthing the poem’s narrative.
For the young man, the moments of inflection occur beneath stars, under the Pleiades’ gaze. Thinking of Fatima and ways to persuade her to renounce her vow of chastity, the narrator recounts his history of sexual prowess and determines to sneak into Fatima’s tent in the night. He describes seeing the Pleiades wrapping the sky like a glistening, bejeweled girdle before he proceeded into Fatima’s tent, finding her in a nightgown:
Then she said to me, “I swear by God, you have no excuse for what you are doing, and I cannot expect that your erring habits will ever be removed from your nature.”
Fatima relents and the two go out into the desert, consummating their relationship with the desecration of Fatima’s vow. The narrator considers in medias res that, while old men come to find consolation in advancing beyond their youthful escapades, he never wants the love he feels at that moment to end. Yearning for timelessness, the narrator inveighs against the night for letting the dawn encroach and bringing with it the pain of separation.
O wonder for thee, a night, of whom the stars, as if it were, are tied firm with very strongly twisted cords to the Mount Yazbul.
As though the Pleiades are secured firm at their position by means of ropes of hemp to solid stones of a rock.
Here, the Pleiades are set firmly in the sky, unmoving. If, in a moment, they ever came into being or will ever disappear, one would never know. Yet, despite the desire for their night to persist, the romance is necessarily fleeting: Midnight comes—and goes. Yet the stars’ presence seems assured, despite their vanishing every morning; it is hard to truly love what is expected and dependable. But the poem shows that no moment can be expected to return or be depended upon. The pain of separation and the possibility of loss are prerequisites for truly wondrous appreciation.
Sisyphus’s punishment for attempting to cheat death was meant to be instructive, not only by way of his own suffering but also in the reduction of his wife’s stellar brilliance; though he maintains a perverse glory, Orion’s placement in the night sky was intended as a punishment for his arrogant pursuits; Job’s recognition that his early fortune was neither a birthright nor guaranteed by his pious and productive efforts was necessary for him to truly understand the heavens’ grandeur; and Whitman finds wonder in the fleeting, familiar, and yet unknowable beauty of the night sky. Al-Qays’s narrator, never to see his beloved again, recognizes that, absent an immaterial sort of wealth, “Our lot is meager sustenance . . . Each of us when he acquires a thing, it soon escapes him.” When the narrator departs Fatima’s abode, it is early and he sees the birds beginning to stir in their nests; his beloved’s memory will persist in their new ode. A new consideration of humanity’s role in the cosmos has already been conceived by the painful attainment of desire. Beneath the Pleiades, Al-Qays’s narrator sows the possibility of reaping fresh, heartfelt fruit in the spring by watering the dry earth with his stormful tears.
Contemplating the stars yields new insights from every observer; the awe of heavenly bodies cannot be explained or summed up with one tidy perspective. Though the quest to dominate the stars isn’t new, the lust for extraterrestrial lands and new realms of dominion encroaches on the territory that for millennia has belonged to stargazers alone. This may diminish the possibility of truly coming to know the stars and their beauty—their power to inspire the dreams of arts, letters, and humanity. Each new city block and satellite, intended for our ease and comfort, illuminates the night sky and blots out the heavens, leaving us blind to joyous wonder. Turning the night skies into exclusively a source of profit and glory risks reducing the ineffable constellations to mere vulgarity. Without a broader understanding of or deepened appreciation for the constellations, the cords that bind the Pleiades in our imagination might be severed.
As Socrates coached Glaucon, the useful sciences and virtues are important, but not more than the heightened study of what is beautiful and the virtues of the soul. The stars can be a source of utility and gain, but must be the inspiration for the mind’s drift and soul’s enrichment. While the stars are—in some ways—less mysterious today than they were for Plato, this inspiration still occasionally grasps hold of people. In a very Whitmanesque manner, we see time after time that astronauts, who are at the very forefront of the useful and glory-bound dimensions of astronomy, return from space with a deepened concern for and appreciation of earthly human affairs, subsequently devoting themselves to humanitarian, diplomatic, and pedagogical endeavors. It is challenging, but the virtuous balancing of desire and consideration is possible.
Midnight comes and goes—the hours truly fly; but we need not be solitary within the world, among literature, or beneath the constellations. In this vein, Nietzsche opens Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “You great star! What would your happiness be if you had not those for whom you shine?” The desire for greatness—Hellenic or modern, literary or scientific, and every manner otherwise—ought to be considered reciprocal and as a brilliance to illuminate others. The Pleiades and their neighbors appear both as a map for our lives and a portrait of our lives; they light the skies for us, and we elucidate their stories.
My encounter with the stars that spring in the Sahara sustained me through the summer as I prepared to seed curiosity, wonder, and learning in my falltime return to studies. Back home, I looked up to the nighttime sky and, despite the trees and hills and deer and nature abounding, all I could see was an orange glow from the nearby city’s lights; there was no sight of the Pleiades to signal the season’s onset.
In the desert, darkness and emptiness of self and surroundings are impressed by the celestial light, engulfed in the drama of Orion chasing after the Pleiades’ seven sisters, Aquarius seeking Zeus’s favor, and the shame of Cassiopeia barely holding on to her spinning throne. For a moment, the stars are company—friends, enemies, objects of the self—but then the sun rises and their memory is all that remains. The fortune of another nightfall’s performance does not promise continuity, as neither character nor audience are unchanged: even Polaris, the trusted North Star, drifts. Amid this reality, we should not allow the ties between the stars and our understanding of ourselves to be cut.