Sunday, October 20, 2019

Passing Our Time in a Meaningless Universe 

 I was a very early reader, quickly graduating from Golden Books and Dr. Seuss to fables and mythologies, then to mature literature like the Iliad and the Odyssey, and on to Superman comics and the works of various Masters of Science Fiction. When I was about twelve years old I discovered a volume of poetry titled “Aniara” in the Woodstock Library. Written in 1956 by Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson, it was a work of 103 cantos telling the tale of a great, eponymously-named space liner ferrying passengers from a ruined and dying Earth to a refuge on Mars. The vessel is knocked off course and doomed to drift over the eons toward the distant constellation Lyra, and those aboard it are left to live out their remaining years beyond contact with home or hope of arrival at that far destination.

Martinson had written Aniara in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 by Soviet forces. On the space ship the passengers are initially comforted by blissful memories projected by an intelligent machine called Mima, but that device itself finally succumbs to despair, and the people turn to drugs and orgies, develop new religions and sensory-engaging media in order to fill their lives rendered so meaningless by the eternal Void. It was a tome discussing existential concepts at the limits of my young mind, and it has haunted me for fifty-four years.

"Aniara" was performed as an opera in Stockholm in 1959, and in 2018, the Swedish studio Magnet Releasing produced a cinematic version which was released at the Toronto International Film Festival. I bought the DVD this year. It was certainly no hit movie, and many will consider it dull and boring in a Swedish minimalist style; but I found it engaging and true to the tremulous spirit of the original writing. It follows the lives of various crew members and the passengers as they struggle to keep despair at bay, with abrupt transitions between the years as the journey drifts through the gulf of space. Many succumb to ennui and suicide, some bear offspring, then regret bringing innocents into an ultimately doomed existence. They all stare out at the uncaring universe beyond the fragile hull, wondering, is there any Ultimate Meaning, or is it just a pointless exercise? The film, to my surprise, takes one brief step beyond the conclusion of the somber poem, but the irony of the finale faithfully echoes the existential voyage of the lost ship Aniara. It is not a film for those struggling with their own depression. It is a film for intellectuals and for contemplation and is anything but comforting. You will find no answers in its viewing, but the questions it asks are the eternal ones we ask ourselves as we stand alone and stare out into the stars.


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