Last week’s news included the strange story of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who was embarking on a space walk outside the International Space Station when he sensed that his head, ensconced in its helmet, was wet. In fact, water had somehow begun collecting inside the helmet, putting Parmitano at risk of choking on one of the untethered globules that liquids form in space. With the assistance of a fellow astronaut, he was then spirited back to the interior of the station unharmed, though shaken up. Shortly thereafter, Parmitano gave a TV interview from the Space Station; when a reporter inquired as to how he was doing, he responded as follows: “miserable, but OK.”
Photos of astronauts in outer space, their faces peering out from behind curved glass and their massive limbs floating away from their bodies, have a weird resonance with the opening lines of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” As Parmigianino did it, the right hand / bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / and swerving easily away….
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a mega-work of ekphrasis, takes as its subject a painting by the pioneering 16th-century painter Parmigianino. The speaker is at once captivated by the painter’s technique and catapulted, by a wandering mind, away from the mirror and into the competing bustle of the wider world. Of cosmopolitan life, Ashbery writes, Our landscape / is alive with filiations, shuttlings … It wants / to siphon off the life of the studio.
For Ashbery, art must struggle to keep its foothold in a world increasingly sped-up and focused only on a harried, day-to-day subsistence. In this way, it is not so unlike the cosmic endeavors of Luca Parmitano and his crew. What I most love about space exploration, its boundlessness and enormous machinery, is also what I feel uncertain about most loving in a time of incessant budget crunch and attendant crises here on Earth. Can we justify staying in space? What does it mean that popular support for state space travel is only declining, as a program once symbolic of human potential has come to represent, to many, only waste?
NASA’s chief scientist, defending space exploration last year, ran down the list of earthbound medical and communications advances that were sparked by discoveries in orbit. I often hear space exploration promoted this way, as a type of large-scale, species-wide introspection and revelation. As with making and preserving art, we go to space to find ourselves reflected and refracted by alternate worlds, and to learn something about our kind in the process. Ashbery writes, Francesco, your hand is big enough / to wreck the sphere, and I see Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in the Ron Howard film, standing in his backyard here on Earth, closing one eye and extending his thumb to blot out the moon:
Later, floating in space, Hanks’s Lovell watches the Earth from the window of the shuttle, and this time it is his home he attempts to make vanish. Sometimes what we learn, after trading in vast ideas, is the simple lesson of our smallness. It is a hard and indispensable awareness that leaves me feeling, as after spending time with a truly piercing painting, mostly miserable, but OK.