rebel-without-a-cause-james-deanJames Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, 1955

The planetarium at the Griffith is a key tonal device in Rebel Without a Cause: the show watched by the James Dean’s iconic Jim Stark and his classmates details human insignificance in the face of the universe, colouring the violence that follows: a human embodiment of Blaise Pascal’s ‘infinite dark spaces’. The use of the stars to illuminate our absolute smallness in a universe of ever-expanding vastness is nothing new, and is often referred to as the catalyst for crises of faith in the Age of Reason, although it veers on patronising fallacy to assume that faith is that simple. John Donne’s ‘The First Anniversary’, ostensibly written about the death of his patron Sir Robert Drury’s niece, makes explicit reference to the new scientific ideas that caused a paradigm shift in Western religious thought, using them as metaphor for a life become unmoored. The poem’s conclusion, beginning ‘And new philosophy calls all in doubt’ culminates with a bleak examination of the disorder this new doubt engenders:

When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his anatomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply and all relation.

Knowledge of our absolute smallness can cause the human mind to unspool like wound thread, an emotional violence more than equal to the physical savagery of Rebel Without A Cause. In Thomas Hardy’s 1882 Two on a Tower, a peculiar, dreamy novel now eclipsed by his more famous works, the miserable, married Lady Constantine falls in love with the astronomer Swithin St. Cleeve. In his 1895 Preface to the book, Hardy declared his intention was to ‘set the emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe’, but perhaps a more accurate assessment of the work is an exploration of the way the knowledge of this ‘stupendous’ universe can stunt the emotional development of those too familiar with it.

Griffith ObservatoryThe Griffith Observatory

Constantine says to St. Cleeve that ‘I think astronomy is a bad study for you. It makes you feel human insignificance too plainly’, and throughout the novel his coldness is related to his concern with the heavens: ‘there was a certain scientific practicability even in his love-making’, and ‘within his temples felt thoughts not of woman’s looks, but of stellar aspects and the configuration of constellations’. The two lovers are never united, scuppered as they are by events beyond their control, something that appears to fulfil the astronomer’s constant reiteration of the futility of our littleness:

‘“There is a size at which dignity begins,” he exclaimed;
“further on there is a size at which grandeur begins;further on there is a size at which solemnity begins;further on, a size at which awfulness begins; further on, a size at which ghastliness begins. That size faintly approaches the size of the stellar universe”.’

Yet we persist in our affiliation of the night sky with romance, in our attempts to assign to it some kind of emotional significance. Woody Allen makes use of planetaria in both the 1979 Manhattan and in 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight, with both scenes featuring lovers, or those who are about to be. Stargazing has become a bad rom-com cliché (A Walk to Remember, anyone?) but this trope feels like a secular evolution of the agency held by the stars over human life, from from the Zodiac to the Rota Fortunae.

In Manhattan, Isaac and Mary walk across what appears, for a moment, to be the surface of the moon, perhaps a kind of post-Apollo 11 homage to the moon scene in the 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life. It isn’t enough to just look at the moon, it must, somehow, be made an active participant in these cinematic matters of the heart. St. Cleeve may gloomily pronounce in Two on a Tower that ‘”whatever the stars were made for, they were not made to please our eyes. It is just the same in everything; nothing is made for man”’, but we persist in striving to try and make it seem so, both by inventing mechanisms to extend our interstellar reach and by employing them in our own narrative constructions of meaning: whether this is hubris or courage, however, remains unclear.

Standing on the observation deck of the Griffith, 1,134 feet above sea level, you are, if anything, more aware of the man-made nature of Los Angeles than anywhere else in the city, simply because you can see it all before you. Yet from this distance, the sprawling concrete jungle feels less hollow, acquires more soul. From this distance, there is something touching about it. Next to the expanse of desert, next to the magnitude of the skies, like the lone extension of a telescope into a moon-filled night, it feels like courage.