Roger Rosenblatt Considers Things That Are Invisible

November 5, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: “Things invisible to see;” that’s a line from a poem by John Dunn suggesting the paradoxical, near impossible act of seeing objects that cannot be seen, yet are there, nonetheless. Actually, it happens a lot. Infrared and ultraviolet light are present but invisible, radio waves the same. Now, only a little while ago, scientists have told us there’s a star we cannot see.

Not just any old star but a lollapalooza of a star–the brightest star ever discovered smack in the middle of the Milky Way. So hidden is this star by dust clouds that it cannot be made out. And the so-called photograph took of it is of infrared radiation. Yet, it is there all right, exceptional as daylight, up there with the rest of them and huge, burning with the brilliance of 10 million suns, as big as the entire space within the orbit of the Earth. “If thou beest born to strange sights,” wrote Dunn, “things invisible to see,” the implication being that one would have to show an amazing mystical capacity to do that.

All the astronomers needed to see the Pistol Star, as it was named, was computers. But even without high-tech machines the feet of seeing invisible things is not that great. We do it all the time. All stars are in a sense invisible because we see them as they once burned millions of years into the past. The past is visible, though we cannot see it. You live in it every hour of the day, plain as the invisible nose on your face. In a way the most intriguing things in life are both omnipresent and invisible. Romantic love, for instance–one sees manifestations of romantic love–hugs, kisses, blushes, flowers, candy, dancing in the dark, but these are like the photo of the Pistol Star, symbolic evidence exposed by an emotional infrared detector. “Where is love?” goes the song. There it is, as large as the Earth in orbit and completely obscure.

And time, that’s vast and invisible too. We can see clocks and sun dials but not time–and genius–and the imagination–and truth. Where’s truth? And nature–a tree here, a bug there, but where is nature itself? And the soul. (music playing in background) A great deal of human energy–all of religion is concerned with the soul, which is believed to be so big that it comprises the only valuable part of our being. Seeing is believing but not seeing is also believing, which lends the idea of invisibility as special–to use an astronomer’s term–aura. Ralph Ellison named his hero “invisible man” because, in fact, he could be seen clearly but white people chose not to acknowledge his humanity.

It is possible that there are certain objects in the universe we choose not see and so evolved physical limitations to cooperate with desire. Would you really want to see God, if that were possible? Who would wish to lay eyes on death? And then, of course, there is that astonishing stellar entity, bigger than anything around, ourselves. Here you have been all the time, bright as a star in a galaxy over your head and thoroughly invisible. Are you there? Freud said that it helped for people to see themselves as all others, sharing the same weaknesses and fears. Perhaps. But equally perhaps people do not wish to see themselves and so look and see and do not see. (music in background) Thanks to astronomy we may now gaze up toward the Milky Way at a point of darkness that’s huge and blazing and invisible–just like us stars.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.