When we don’t know any better—which is more often than not—the unknown can seem endlessly foreboding. The depths of the ocean, the outer reaches of space, the camouflaging density of a thick forest. These are all concepts that seem to only be capable of either fueling or paralyzing people.
Neptune, the next planet one would encounter en route to the sun, has a peculiar tie to the idea of everything we cannot know. To the far corners of our imaginations, and to death, which is the ultimate unknown.
Neptune also bears some striking similarities to the cosmic body from the last letter, Pluto. Like Percival Lowell and his Planet X theory, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard seized upon alterations to orbital gravity—Uranus’, in this case—to theorize that there was another planet lurking beyond the veil of our limited celestial vision. Sadly, like Lowell, Bouvard would not live to see the discovery for which his work would help pave the proverbial way.
Neptune was discovered officially by Johann Galle, using coordinates calculated by Urbain Le Verrier, in 1846; though some scientists posit that Galileo was aware of its existence as far back as 1612. Galileo wasn’t the only stargazer who had likely seen Neptune before, but evidence suggests previous pioneers mistook the planet for a fixed star. However, upon Galle’s discovery, Neptune was recognized as a formidable planet. While it’s an astronomical hair smaller than Earth, it’s significantly more massive. Its atmosphere is inhospitable to tender human lungs and fragile human life, but its striking blue appearance conferred upon it an early tie to our most elemental material: water.
The short but fascinating saga of Neptune’s naming would prove a very telling portrayal of the many-faceted motivational gambit that lies in allowing people to do anything.
Galle thoughtfully called for it to be named Janus, after the dual-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings. One wonders if he meant it to symbolize the now clear end of our solar system or the beginning of what lay ahead beyond our stars. Perhaps both.
Le Verrier attempted to have the planet named for himself, but faced a decisive rebuffing from the scientific community outside of France. Thanks at least in part to German-Russian astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve, eventually and finally the name Neptune, after the Greek God of the Sea was settled upon.
In Holst’s suite, Neptune is actually the final movement. Meant as something of a mirror image to “Mars, The Bringer of War”, “Neptune, The Mystic” closes the proceedings. It’s curious and uncertain. Minor key passages and multiple layers of arrangement give it a foreboding yet alluring tone. It makes one feel like they’re exploring an alien cave or diving deep beyond the reach of the rays of the sun above the surface. In contrast to Mars’ relentlessly tense build-up, which conjures images of tragedy and menace, Neptune’s treatment is thrilling, but somewhat subdued. It never reaches a massive, world-toppling crescendo like its sister song, but rather ends in what may be the first instance of an intentional fade out in music.
It tells us that there may be more beyond what we’ve just heard, that there’s a shapeless mass, an incalculable power past the boundaries of what our senses can parse. It ends with a tenuously soaring choral passage that was no doubt an influence on György Ligeti’s “Requiem”, which provided the soundtrack for the most disquieting portions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; perhaps popular culture’s greatest expedition into, and celebration of, the known universe’s most infinite abysses.
I think the fadeout in Holst’s movement is a significant idea, and there’s a larger usefulness in its malleability. The lack of a finite resolution coupled with its theme imposes an ultimatum that’s reflected in trying to make sense of the inescapable strangeness of the real world: passivity versus intent.
People experience incidents of cosmic strangeness every day. Pedestrian things like déjà vu or cases of synchronicity. The other day, I was in a bookstore, idly browsing while listening to a song on my headphones and a book happened to catch my eye. I picked it up to read the jacket text and found that the book and the song were both referencing the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. A few days later, I woke up thinking about someone who’d been on my mind quite a bit. I walked into a shop near my office later to buy a Diet Coke, and there, front row center, emblazoned in red—thanks to Coca Cola’s bizarre ad initiative where every bottle has someone’s name on it—was, of course, a bottle with their name on it.
Are these just coincidences? Probably. After all, there’s no measurable means to prove otherwise.
It’s worth considering, though, that maybe the seemingly silly, hippy-corrupted territory of main street mysticism could be worth an exploratory embrace. Is it not more fun to think that there’s some invisible force at work, propelling each of the universe’s tiny turns of fate? Perhaps attempting to imbue random, unconnected events with a deeper sense of meaning is an infantile way of combating what’s most likely unbound chaos, but maybe it’s not. Maybe, it’s a means of manufacturing intent.
From the more D&D-tinged robes of chaos magicians to the most ardently linewalking Bible thumpers, there are billions of people that at the very least claim to subscribe to the idea that the fabric of reality can be bent by their sheer belief. It goes without saying that extreme ends of any belief system can be delusional and dangerous, but it’s difficult to argue with the allure of a universe motivated by something besides cold math. After all, the hypothetical majority of our universe is made of invisible, innumerable, intangible, inconclusively identified dark matter, so stranger things have happened. Probably…
One of my favorite songs a tune called “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. It’s the prescriptively somber opener to “The Boatman’s Call”, a spartan repository of piano balladry motivated by a series of significant breakups. In it, Cave the ruminating balladeer opines the hazards in a crumbling relationship, but also embraces the power of the unknown and the hope inherent in human intent.
At first blush, this desperate opening stanza makes it out to be a very sad song, and it is, but not without a reprieve. As it grows, an optimism grows within it. A benevolent intent. He claims not to believe in a higher power—or at least one that would steer a life so drastically as to alter matters of the heart—but he claims to believe in love and in some kind of fate. To find a God in love and some unseen force that will bring something akin to solace to them.
Readings may vary, but what this song has always said to me is that in difficult, inhospitable times, amorphous, easily derided notions like love and hope crystallize into weaponized optimism; mankind’s best line of defense in the ceaseless war against cynicism and chaos. And if there’s that kind of power in them, we might do well to try and weave them throughout our everyday lives., to look for magic and strangeness and to see where they lead us, no matter how improbably or silly or pretentious.
Maybe, we’re all just floating around a dying star, carrying out meaningless lives, subject to ultimate, uncaring galactic chaos and the cynics and nihilists are right. Maybe all of existence is just one whirling hot tub of mundane atoms randomly smashing into one another and there’s no fantastical veil beyond which we cannot see. On paper, the odds seem stacked against any other outcome, and I certainly can’t pretend to cite any proof that the matters at hand are otherwise impelled or constructed. Chances are I’ve just watched too many movies, read too many comic books, and put too much stock in daydreaming, but a world without some kind of strange, unruly, unclassifiable magic tearing through it sounds pretty damned boring to me.