Our solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago. If the sun were hollow, it would take a million moons to fill it up. The sun is average in temperature: 10,000 F. The energy of nuclear reactions at its core takes 30,000 years to reach the surface. Mercury’s temperature varies between 800 by day and -300 at night. One day lasts 1400 hours; it spins slow and orbits fast. Venus is the hottest planet at 900 F. Venus’ day is longer than its year, 225 earth days. Mars has no intrinsic magnetic field. It has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, the Latin words fear and panic. Saturn’s rings are thousands of braided, differently colored rings of gas. It takes 29 earth years to revolve around the sun. The main rings of Saturn span 165,000 miles, but the bands are on average only 150 feet thick. Saturn is seven hundred times Earth’s size, but so light that if one could drop it in a pool, it would float. Saturn spins so fast that its day last less than eleven earth hours. The planet is still molten, mostly gas, but the force of the planet’s mass turned hydrogen into liquid metal that creates a great magnetism. So its wide atmosphere is wracked by updrafts and storms. Winds blast at supersonic speeds, thousands of miles an hour. Saturn has thirty-five named moons. Its moon, Iapetus, is half black, half white—one side of its icy surface may have been bombarded. The largest moon, Titan, more massive than Mercury, is like the surface of crème brulée, a thin burned cover on molten stone. Rain may fall every century or so. Jupiter is so large (a failed star) that it’s shrinking and that produces great heat; its core is hotter than the sun’s surface. Jupiter’s surface is covered with clouds hundreds of miles thick. Jupiter’s spot is two to three earths across; it’s a storm that has changed pattern but has never been known to move. Under the clouds, Jupiter is covered with volcanoes; it is entirely resurfaced every few years. It has at least sixteen moons; one, Io, is unique among moons for having volcanoes, too. Uranus is on its side and half is in a 42-year night. Neptune has the fastest winds, up to 700 mph. Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, orbits in the opposite direction of the other large moons in our solar system. It orbits the sun every 60,000 days or 164.7 years. Astronomers argue about whether Pluto is a planet or a sad piece of flotsam; it has not cleared an orbit for itself; its moon, Charon, is the biggest moon proportionally, jerks Pluto around. Its orbit is the only one on a different plane from the others, and it’s elliptical. Pluto is closer to the sun than Neptune 20 of every 250 earth years (it takes 250 earth years for Pluto to orbit the sun, at a speed of 10,000 mph.) It has hardly enough mass to keep an atmosphere. Ceres, the largest asteroid, is about the size of Texas, six hundred miles across. There are at least 64 moons in our solar system. Our moon always shows us the same face. Earth speeds eight times faster than a bullet. The earth is smoother than a billiard ball.
Beside the vase of flowers lies a much-read copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de vivre. Van Gogh clearly knows that the novel’s title has an ironic edge. The heroine’s life is a long tale of woe. But after all her trials, when her maid commits suicide, the heroine doesn’t understand how anyone could voluntarily renounce life. If one looks closely at the oleanders, Van Gogh’s emblem of love—or at any of his subjects—one finds tortured ebullience. The leaves are twisting like a crown of thorns and the boughs seem about to break under the weight of their heavy blooms. Van Gogh paints the difficulty of beauty and the beauty of difficulty. Even when he tries to be pessimistic, as in the “The Night Café,” he can’t manage the horror and despair of Munch, for instance. Van Gogh wrote of the café painting, “I have tried to show that the café is a place where a man can ruin himself, become mad, commit a crime . . . I have tried to express the terrible human passion . . ..” But the lights billow gold against the vivid red walls, the billiard table that dominates the room like a coffin is a lively green, and on it lie a few balls yet to be sunk into the holes. And when Van Gogh is most optimistic, there is still a tinge of sadness. Though covered with blossoms, the limbs of his trees are permanently twisted. The oleanders that offer themselves so wholly still have an element of lonely isolation and a sense of the their own impending fall.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 51 The Ellesmere Self-Portrait National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. In 1657, the year Rembrandt painted this self-portrait, he had gone bankrupt and his possessions, including his art collection, were auctioned. The canvas has been trimmed on the top and right sides, as if reality were closing in—or to make the painting less important-looking? In the picture, Rembrandt stands stripped of all ornament; even the light seems more miserly than usual. But if Vermeer is the master of light, Rembrandt is the shadow master. What little light falls from above manages to illuminate all his blemishes and wrinkles. Still, the face strikes me as painfully beautiful. The lack of adornment helps one see that flesh is exquisitely complex. His skin seems at once enduring and delicate, rough and vulnerable. He seems to look out at us with hope and fear. His face marks time like an open watch, but more eloquently—on the human face, traces of the past are not erased. Rembrandt’s brush dipped in black fate still illuminates love and pride behind shy modesty. The canvases hanging around this painting seem petty, busy and silly in comparison. Rembrandt seems to look out from a deep, dark box, as if gazing through a vat of inky water. He feels miraculously present yet sadly trapped in the past. I sense in Rembrandt as in Van Gogh a wonder at the strangeness of having a face. At fifty, Rembrandt still seems surprised at being seen—and at what he sees in his mirror and canvases. How there is flesh from which come words. How our faces see and are meant to be seen, carved by millennia of scrutiny and desire so that they may give and receive.