METAMERICANA: Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR Offers Us a New Theory of Everything

METAMERICANA: Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR Offers Us a New Theory of Everything

nullScientists have recently claimed that a possible
“theory of everything,” an escape from our dreary four-dimensional reality, resides
in “M-theory,” an eleven-dimensional unification of all extant superstring
equations. As crazy as a mathematical maxim that resides in the eleventh
dimension may sound, M-theory is endorsed by renowned genius Stephen Hawking
and others of his ilk as a sort of universal codebreaker—what the alchemists of
old would have called the Philosopher’s Stone, and what religious people in all
periods have loosely thought of as God. If we presently feel bounded by our
limited understanding of the universe, M-theory would obliterate that sense of

Simultaneously, poets have striven for a similar
escape, only through words. However, they have not kept pace with their
opposite numbers in the sciences. This is in part because they’ve come to
believe themselves mathematicians’ competitors. For the last forty years, the
most innovative Western poetry has been so layered and nuanced that it has
written itself out of all sociocultural coherence. Not only is it no longer a
counterweight to the intricacies of science, it no longer speaks to the great mass
of persons now living. The belief that innovative poetries must be every bit as
theorized and conceptually indecipherable as M-theory is to most of us has
guaranteed poetry a marginalized place in our collective consciousness, if that.

Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar, which addresses both science and poetry in
implicit and explicit ways, offers us a possible “theory of everything”—one
in which the simple beauties of art are conjoined with the complex mathematics
of science in a middle space between the two, with that middle space
corresponding to the pathway from our collective reality so many of us have
been seeking for so long.

That scientists have always looked to the stars
(literally) and higher dimensions (figuratively) for the key to unlocking all
we can’t access is no surprise; the notion that poets have been engaged in the
same task from the very beginning of art is perhaps a more controversial
submission. Don’t the best poets find timeless ways to drill down on individual
words and phrases and ideas, rather than creating and testing out entirely new
realities through new forms of speech? A cynic might say so, but French critic
and theoretician Jacques Derrida said differently: he imagined that speech and
the written word could transcend spacetime. Derrida suggested that language can
outlive both its author and its intended recipient, providing
a pathway to unanchoring language from its moorings in time and space. The
much-vaunted “death of the author” Derrida’s (and French theorist Roland
Barthes’) work eventually heralded in Western literature was intended as a
freeing of language, not its imprisonment. So those who study and perform the
capacities and incapacities of language have always, in their own way, been
reaching for the stars—even if the way they’ve gone about it of late is to
surround their work with such a volume of theory and abstraction that it looks
and sounds to most like quantum physics.

“Love is the only thing we can observe that transcends
space and time,” says astronaut Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) to Cooper
(Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar, and as cornball as that sentiment
sounds out of context, it happens to be true. Though “love” is a term that
should by all rights require the presence of two entities—an author and an
intended recipient who are both necessary if interchangeable—in fact love often
survives the separation of entities by space and time. We continue to love
those who’ve left us, whether they’ve left us figuratively (by emotional
detachment), geographically (by distance in space), or literally and finally
(by dint of death). So maybe Interstellar is on to something. The film’s
suggestion that just as quantum physics now resides in the fifth and higher
dimensions, so too must the simple emotions both art and life invoke in us, is
less a play on our heartstrings than an actionable suggestion for living.
Perhaps art and science were intended to take dramatically different paths
toward the same conclusion, not so much because each can independently come up
with a satisfactory answer to the problem of everything but because the two
jointly just might. If many of this decade’s newest forms of innovative art
find ways to juxtapose polar opposites like sincerity and irony or cynicism and
optimism, perhaps they ought to add to those generatively contending forces art
and science. Perhaps art must be as different from science as it can possibly
be—while maintaining a common purpose—in order for it to fulfill its implicit
promise to the species.

For much of its lengthy run-time, Interstellar
is a slow and quiet movie, but once it picks up it amps up its melodrama. The
film’s elegantly simple visuals are finally matched by equally simple
sentiments that run the risk of mawkishness. Yet somehow the film always stays
on the right side of that line. Perhaps that’s because watching four astronauts
seek habitable planets in order to save the species—a species, in the
near-future world of Interstellar, starving from food shortages and
choking on unpredictable dustclouds—is not, actually, something we can detach
ourselves from sufficiently to smother it with our cynicism and irony. So the
film’s final solution to the problem of getting astronauts decades out into
space and then having them send helpful messages back to Earth—the idea that
love is to art what gravity is to science, i.e. transdimensional—seems less
like treacly wisdom and more like something today’s creative avant-garde would
do well to consider.

In the realm of the scientific, increasing degrees
of complexity are welcome so long as they’re intellectually solvent; in the
realm of art, perhaps increasing degrees of simplicity should be welcome as
long as they’re spiritually mimetic—that is, as long as they trace human
experience as faithfully as the tenets of physics do. The late great David
Foster Wallace once predicted that the next authentic literary avant-garde
wouldn’t need tenured boosters in the academy to sell it, or pedigreed authors
to write it, or a sufficiently jaded populace to read it, as in fact it would
endorse just the sort of “single-entendre principles” that already guide our
lives (however imperfectly). Though the means of their operation is frequently
hidden from us, our guiding stars as civic and creative beings are still basic
principles like courage, integrity, charity, empathy, grace, kindness, and
inquisitiveness. These are not ideas we need to shroud in the coded language of
theory to enact; in fact, as important as these ideas are to the contemporary
arts—every bit as important as unfathomably intricate equations are to quantum
physics—they require no steeping in elevated language to remain fully

The final thirty minutes of Interstellar are as
strange a cinematic experience as you’ll ever have, so strange an experience
that their logic at times seems beyond the grasp of anyone but a Hawking or the
equivalent. But in fact the emotional and creative logic of Interstellar
is every bit as simple as its science is complex. This doesn’t mean that its
emotional and creative logic is less advanced than its science; instead, it
merely reminds us that the boundaries we need to push in art are not
necessarily those of science, even as the two are collaborators (not
competitors) in the development of a theory of everything. Just as the new
science looks absolutely nothing like the old science, however much it builds
on the discoveries of mathematicians long dead, our new art will look (and
read) absolutely nothing like our old art, however much it couldn’t have been
produced without the countless generations of poets and other artists who
preceded it and who reached for transcendence and fell short. Show me a theory
of the avant-garde in art as easily spoken and easy to understand as M-theory
is beyond my grasp and I’ll show you a step forward in time our leading lights
in the arts have yet to take.

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.

4 thoughts on “METAMERICANA: Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR Offers Us a New Theory of Everything”

  1. Seth, the last thirty minutes of ‘Interstellar’ are subject to the gravitational pull of wish fulfilment and the necessity of the ‘satisfying ending’ required by films of this budget.


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