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from the June 2006 issue

The Enigma of Ursa Major

Poetry peers over the shoulders of science.

--Antonio Machado

The astronomer of that kingdom had been honored with the difficult charge of figuring out the meaning of Ursa Major. The king, who had been humiliated by his failed military campaigns against neighboring lands, was determined to claim a scientific victory which would restore the injured pride of his countrymen. His troops had been indisputably trounced, and his knights had been shamed, but what glorious revenge awaited them in the realm of knowledge, the unraveling of the mystery of that most arcane of constellations! Where the wise men of neighboring provinces had failed, their all-knowing astronomer would sound the trumpets of cognition, so much more powerful than the sword or the crossbow.

The astronomer had been promised immortal glory if he could complete this assignment. If he failed, he was promised certain death and anonymity forevermore. Lacking even a shred of talent for motivating his minions, as most despots are, this was the king's best effort to incite his favorite scientist's investigative fervor. The astronomer had been granted a year, at the end of which he would be expected to make a formal report to the council of wise men on his heavenly inquiry. Until then, the honor of the kingdom would hang on his spectacles, and on a cluster of fickle stars.

An entire life spent scrutinizing the firmament out of pure love, and now this piddling king thought he could motivate him with a futile promise of immortality. Immortality, to him, when the only thing he had ever desired was to dissolve forever into the blue infinity of the skies! It was like promising a river that it would never reach the sea! But what was he going to do? Tyrants assume that the whole world suffers from the same thirst for power that consumes their lives, incapable of comprehending the man who declares himself indifferent to earthly glory.

That very night the astronomer examined the heavens from his observatory. Something worried him. His books of ancient wisdom, his instruments of measurement, and the steely probe of his intellect could without a doubt furnish a variety of theories on the distance, configuration, age and origin of the stars that made up Ursa Major. But the meaning, the very essence of that silent assembly of stars was something that his methodologies seemed incapable of apprehending. Tragically aware of the limits of his science, the astronomer decided to consult the Court Poet. Perhaps that illustrious bard, who kept company with mystery and the lofty art of interpretation, would be able to see clearly that which the poor astronomer could hardly even begin to imagine.

"I am no oracle, but rather a keeper of mysteries," the poet responded. "It's no good to ask for my help. I conceal things, not decipher them. I'm the priest who guards the gates of the unknown."

"What more do you want from me?" begged the astronomer. "Here I am, laying the tools of my science down before you, and humbling myself by acknowledging the superiority of your intuition as a poet. Help me solve the enigma of Ursa Major, because the kingdom's honor depends upon it. If only I had been blessed like you with the gift of a poet's perspicacity!"

"Nonsense! Anyone who spends a lifetime observing the skies is a poet, whether they know it or not."

The old astronomer had already moved off quite a way when he heard the poet's voice call out of sympathy for his apparent despair.

"Let me consult my faithful muses, and within a month I'll have the answer you desire."

Meanwhile the astronomer continued to be captivated by the heavens, a clumsy poet whose odes did not rhyme, a suitor whose beloved refused time and again to share her secret. Set in the canvas of night, the stars winked at him in cruel coquetry.

A few days before the end of the stipulated month, the astronomer once again knocked upon the Poet's door. The poem was complete! No sooner had the man started to recite his composition in his pompous voice than the astronomer's hopes turned to bitter disappointment. The rhapsody in question seemed imbued with the same eternity as outer space: an eternity of alliterations, of descriptions, of metaphors . . . an eternity of tedium.

"You are, without a doubt, a skilled versifier," the astronomer responded, "but never, not for one moment have you shown yourself to be a poet. Your verbs are not vehicles for superior thoughts, your words cannot express hidden truths, and there is nothing in your learned phraseologies that even approaches authenticity. Not once have you succeeded in producing words that belong together to create a reflection of the mysterious, extant harmony that rules our universe. Grace has not blessed a single one of your lines because your technique has driven her away. The fanfare of your rhetoric has made it impossible to capture the voice of night. Your verses are no better than my crude instruments, which at least have the virtue of telling the truth and won't support the ugly vice of narcissism."

The astronomer retreated in silence, certain that his disquisition would not leave a mark on the fatuous poet, whose cosmic arrogance would protect him from such opprobrium since the criticism would vaporize as soon as it came into contact with the atmosphere of his vanity.

His next step was to consult the High Priest of the kingdom. Of all the wise men in that country there was none so eminent or humble. He went immediately to him, certain that truth, pure and holy, lived upon his lips.

"Ursa Major?" inquired the venerable priest. "Of course I know its meaning! You'll see, my son, the constellations are nothing more than the fetid miasmas of human sins, which, when distilled, ascend to the heavens and condense into luminous points of light so that there, suspended in the heart of night, they may always remind mankind of the iniquities of his weak nature . . . "

"I kiss your hands, Holy Father," the astronomer thanked him, and left with a heavy heart. There was no doubt that the priest was a logical man, an attribute that the vast majority of wise men cannot claim, but how deeply his perception of the world was tainted by the age-old struggle between good and evil! What a paucity of love manifested itself in the truth he pursued: naked, simple, supreme . . . !

Once again confined to the isolation of his observatory, the astronomer redoubled his efforts night after night. He was struck by a terrible fear. Could it be that the fundamental obstacle in his quest was not the remoteness of Ursa Major, but rather the very nature of the mystery he was trying to solve? The stars could be right before him, within arm's reach, but their essence would be none the less enigmatic. Perhaps if he dedicated himself to loving them, prostrating himself before their beauty, they would reveal their secret once and for all. Maybe the stars were there to be admired, not explained; his very curiosity was profanity, a brutal and violent invasion in which the scientist's furious scrutiny battered the walls of silence time and time again. Better to adore them than to analyze them: that was what stars were meant for. In the end, perhaps the poet had been right in establishing himself as the official guardian of mystery. But how unfortunate his tendency to love himself far more than the objects of his art!

The astronomer desperately needed to consult the kingdom's Astrologist, confidant and amanuensis of the stars. No one but he knew how to interpret them, no one else could boast of understanding the cryptic messages of their nocturnal choreography better. It was sheer insanity not to have called on him in the first place, but there were still six months left before the year specified by the king expired, and the astrologer's revelations might still help elucidate the dilemma.

"The vault of heaven is an open book for those who know how to read it," pontificated the astrologer. "It is the book of books, in which the destinies of mankind are inscribed. My entire life has been nothing more than a labor of decodification, an astral exegesis whose only purpose is to help men understand the cosmic forces that govern their lives. The stars exist to be read. But mankind is blind to their tidings."

If the responses of the poet and the high priest had been completely inept, the astrologer's appeared to be sheer impertinence.

"I see, the stars are there for us to help ourselves!" the astronomer responded irritably. "A mere instrument, a registry of births and deaths, celestial playing cards in the hands of soothsayers, a crystal ball which encapsulates the entire universe . . . !"

In truth he had never in his life encountered such egotism, such arrogance and myopia disguised as wisdom and erudition. He had asked about the essence of a thing, and the ass had answered by explaining its use. What in the name of God could be divined from sunsets, rainbows, the northern lights? The stars at the exclusive, personal service of mankind? It was like trying to use the tail of a comet to light your cigarette!

The only person left to consult, in the hopes that his daily commerce in ideas might endow him with a certain authority on the constellations, was the Philosopher. After so much sophism, the astronomer no longer harbored the illusion that he might hear the words that would finally unlock the doors to this mystery, but his quest would not be complete without consulting that great thinker, without a doubt one of the sharpest minds in the kingdom.

"I'm afraid I'm not the man you need," said the philosopher with a pomposity that was vaguely reminiscent of the poet's. "It's not Ursa Major that interests me so much as the mechanisms by which the spirit of man is capable of understanding it. As vast as outer space may be, the abyss of the human soul is far more unfathomable and dizzying. It's the infinity within, and not that without, that fascinates me. The universe is immense, but it's man's consciousness that makes it real by registering it, recognizing it, and studying it. Without the eye of humanity, each star in the firmament would be extinguished like a candle blown out in the middle of the night. The abyss we perceive is simply an emanation of our inner abyss, and that is where we should be searching for the keys to the universe."

This answer managed to combine the narcissism of the poet, the myopia of the priest, and the arrogance of the astrologer. Why did men have to view things through the prism of rationality, assuming that the world is ruled by the same principles that inform and govern his own intellect? It's like the prisoner who, confined from birth, believes that the bars in his only window on the world are part of the world itself. To impose the limits of our consciousness on the mystery and chaos of reality! To fish the oceans of irrationality with the flimsy nets of reason!

"I believe your pride has deluded you," the astronomer asserted. "Men christen stars with ancient, affected names, forgetting that the stars have absolutely no need for such ostentatious appellations, whether they are feminine or masculine, scientific or mythological. In this way we believe we can appropriate them for ourselves. Open your eyes, my all-too-human friend. We men need the stars but they, on the contrary, would be perfectly well-off without us."

The astronomer returns to his office. With his head bowed among the piles of papers that inundate his desk he ruminates, or dreams, once in a while he even cries. The opaline splendor of the night sky slips through the window that is wide open to the inscrutable firmament. For the first time in his life he turns his back on the stars, on taciturn Astarte, on cold, grim infinity. He knows he is ruined. A full year has passed, and like docile beasts the stars have returned to the same positions they were in on the day he received this accursed assignment. Tomorrow he was going to have to appear before all the dignitaries of the kingdom and offer a stammering apology when they were expecting the most spectacular astronomical discovery of modern times. The king's fury, the public lynching, the criticism and ignominy that would follow were the least of his worries in that moment of disillusion and surrender. It was the futility of the quest for knowledge that seemed to him most atrocious. To fail to solve a mystery, forever shipwrecked on the voyage to enlightenment, whether it was two paces or a billion light years away--it would have been better to spend life drinking and frolicking like a faun.

The astronomer took pencil and paper and began to outline the preface of his report, this report that would never be, that could not be, that no one had right to require of him:

"Men believe it is mathematics, or our theories, or our primitive reasoning that makes the stars move in their orbits with the constancy we have come to expect of them. But the time has come for us to realize that the stars don't take the least notice of our absurd numerologies. It is supremely ironic that the human desire to endow reality with rational structures is rooted in a fundamentally irrational impulse. We refuse to accept that human reason may just be one solitary point of light in an abyss of irrationality because we don't want to feel orphaned, lost in chaos and swallowed by the absurd. When we declare that the world can be rationally explained, we can feel one with the universe, tiny pieces of a grand master plan ruled by a Logos in which we are happy participants. As with all dogma, this is a soothing notion. Anything rather than the distressing solitude which makes man feel like an island lost in an ocean of gloom. The result of which is such vertigo, such anxiety that we begin to feel we are no more than a genetic mutation, a virus of rationality struggling in a universe that is deaf, dumb and blind. Our belief in the rational nature of the cosmos fills us with the same kind of beatitude newborn babes exhibit, because they are unaware of their separateness and believe that the world surrounding them is part of them, the world is simply a projection, an outgrowth of their own little bodies. The nostalgia of that feeling pursues us for the rest of our lives: it is the grief of the drop of water yearning for the ocean from whence it came."

And while he was thinking all this, the astronomer had to laugh at the realization that to rave against philosophy he had to actually employ it: what a merciless malady thought was!

"I have consulted with four eminences grises," he continued to write, "and not one of them exhibited an attitude of astonishment, or wonder at the metaphysical, or the genuine humility without which scientific inquiry is sterile. The man who does not begin his investigations by marveling at the object of his exegesis has started off on the wrong foot. First reverence is necessary, then curiosity, and knowledge proceeds from these. A scientific inquiry has achieved its mission when knowledge begets love, which is the corollary to all cognitive processes. The dawning of understanding can be nothing other than man's spontaneous capacity of appreciation for the mysteries of the world. One's soul should always remain childlike, abandoned to the awe without which the world is dead.

"Grandpa . . . Grandpa . . . Are you all right?"

Upon raising his head, the astronomer saw before him a fairy-like creature with ringlets and skin luminous as the moon. It was his granddaughter, who had come for her good-night kiss, staring up at him with damp eyes and a little, flowerlike pout. She must have thought he was dead, slumped on his desk and half-buried in paper. The old wise man smiled sadly, just enough to calm the girl, who was observing him now with more curiosity than concern. She often came into his observatory just to play with his instruments. And he let her entertain herself without any objection because, after all, weren't they just very large toys? Hadn't he, too, spent countless hours playing hopscotch with the stars? Or was it that the stars were playing hide-and-seek with him?

"Do you know what the stars are?" asked the astronomer asked glumly as he stroked her golden curls. Without batting an eyelash at the magnitude of the question, she went straight to the window and proceeded to study the sky as naturally as could be. She leaned out the window and her eyes filled with the twinkling of stars and the silvery iridescence of the Milky Way.

"I've got it, Grandpa!" she exclaimed with joy. "The stars are the sun's wedding gift to the moon!"

The astronomer found space in his heart to smile, and it was like a drop of honey into the bitterness that was consuming him. He gave his granddaughter her nightly kiss and immersed himself once again among the papers on his desk.

The trumpets of the kingdom announced the new day, joining a chorus of bells and the chattering of birds. Cold dawn found the astronomer at his desk, where fatigue had overcome him the night before. Morning and the jubilant rebirth of the world: the cruelest of ironies for the condemned man awaking on the day of his death. The astronomer tears himself from his dreams and hurries to prepare himself for his execution. A few hours later he stands before the gates of the palace. Brass fanfare announces his arrival: the entire court is eagerly expecting his appearance. The council of wise men as well as dignitaries from neighboring kingdoms—whom the king has made sure to invite—await his entrance with sibylline expressions. The king cannot hide his excitement as soon as the Astronomer sets foot in the hall, and he shares a smug little smile with his counselors. This decipherer of stars is worth more to him than a hundred thousand warriors, five hundred archers, and a flotilla of two-hundred ships. His proud expression displays a blind confidence in the abilities of the court astronomer: it's the look of a man who has not stopped to consider the possibility that his hopes may be dashed.

The astronomer is standing in the center of the royal assembly hall, his hands, his heart and his head completely empty. The crowd hushes when they see he does not have the jumble of papers they expect. Could it be possible that he has memorized the contents of his transcendental report? Does he really have something worth teaching us, this rumpled and decrepit old man? Why does he vacillate so, why does he raise his hand to his damp, wrinkled forehead, why do his trembling hands hurry to shield his blushing face, every time he tries to lift his gaze from the floor? A deafening murmur runs through the room, like a swarming of bees. Some of the courtiers, alarmed by his uncertain air, watch him nervously and look to the king for reassurance, in whose confident face they find it.

The astronomer steps towards his sovereign, and after paying homage on one knee he prepares to speak. The king's advisors sharpen their hearing and take up their papyrus, ready to transcribe each word. Not an eye blinks, not a breath can be heard, nor the beat of a single heart . . . The astronomer opens his mouth . . . but words fail him. He falters, he coughs, and he brings his hand to his forehead again, as if trying to wave off a bad dream. The air is so thick with expectation you could slice it. He tries again to address the crowd . . . and his voice gets caught in his throat. The king turns pale. His brow furrows and his hands twitch on his scepter. His throne is purple, and now his face is, too. The astronomer gathers all his dignity and resolves to speak. But hold on! If his disgrace is inevitable, he might as well do this with a little humor, a little wit, with something so crazy that it will incite a riot in hall! Even derision would be preferable to that dead silence, pouring into his soul like melted lead. He breathes deeply, pauses and proclaims serenely:

"Ursa Major is the sun's wedding gift to the moon . . . "

Silence. A solitary cough. The crowd's stupor becomes a roaring whisper, crowned by the unmistakable smile of the king. A smile that grows from pianissimo to fortissimo to a thunderous laugh, setting off guffaws throughout the court. The astronomer lowers his head, but then he realizes that this laughter does not carry a single note of mocking. It is the sound of a crowd in awe, breaking into deafening and victorious rounds of applause. The poor old man looks round the room, eyes wider than they have ever been, he smiles disconcertedly, he wobbles, he is reeling . . . and it dawns on him that poetry—true poetry, which poets create every once in a blue moon—has by chance given him the key to the very heart of reality.

The astronomer died immortalized by fame, borne in a nobleman's coffin with a laurel wreath atop his head. A park, two theaters, three avenues and four plazas were baptized with his name, and his words were chiseled into marble above the gates to the city so that every visitor to that land would know about the very wisest of men who had brought such glory to his people. The king ruled until the ripe old age of one hundred and four, and his reign was the most prosperous and flourishing period in memory. And as far as Ursa Major is concerned, there are still those who would like to rename the constellation "The Wedding Gift."

Houston, October 1997

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