Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. With this, Wilde reminds us that however low we feel, whatever the darkness, we can always aspire to something better. As the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” Looking up to the stars in awe from a dark place can offer us all hope of better things, while also reminding us of our place in the universe and how, whatever our borders, our beliefs or our nationality, we share the same sky.
Throughout the river of history and across our immense landscape of cultures, the stars, with their rhythmic periodicity, have had a captivating affect on human lives. They have played many roles in myths relating to divine communication into human affairs, while the patterns of stars have also been awarded multiple human or animal forms and significance. There is also considerable evidence of collaboration across early Greek, Indian and Chinese societies of scientific study whose theoretical lines of enquiry can be seen flowering in the astrological work of Galileo to the scientists of today.
Stars and flags
Many people still worship ‘the stars’, although these are more often connected to sport or celebrity. However, stars also regularly appear on many of the world’s flags where we have given them structure and geometry, possibly in an attempt to create order in our contemporary view of where we belong among the stars? Maybe we need the help of Sheldon Cooper, the star of the TV programme, The Big Bang Theory, to present an edition of his ‘Fun with Flags’ broadcasts to explain why stars appear on so many flags?
From America’s Stars and Stripes and the National Flag of the People’s Republic of China to Ghana’s single black star, a symbol representing the emancipation of Africa and unity against colonialism, the star remains a significant symbol, which people will still argue over and sometimes fight and die for. A flag can be a symbol of hope and belonging but also tyranny. After the swastika and the horrors of WW2, when the EU flag was designed in 1955, the stars were said to symbolise the peoples of Europe in a form of a circle, a sign of union. Their number is invariably twelve, the figure twelve being the symbol of perfection and entirety. Recently, the UK has broken away and one fear is this will damage the peace and unity of purpose, which the EU flag was designed to symbolise. It is also noticeable just how many flags the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and multiple dictators have used as backdrops when delivering speeches. One of Trump’s rioting supporters who smashed into the Senate was carrying a Confederate flag. A symbol of racial repression rather that independence. Tellingly, in 1775, Samuel Johnson wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
…and in music
Yet the star can also play a significant poetic, musical role. David Bowie’s last album was called Black Star. John Lennon, in his song, Instant Karma, was imploring us that ‘we all shine on. Like the moon and the stars and the sun’. Meanwhile Joni Mitchell, in Woodstock, maybe the song of her generation, claimed, ‘We are stardust, we are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon’.
The poet Nikita Gill expressed similar ideas that we are physically part of the universe as we are made of it,
We have calcium in our bones, iron in our veins,
carbon in our souls, and nitrogen in our brains.
93 percent stardust, with souls made of flames,
we are all just stars that have people names.
The notable American scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan agreed with the science, stating, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
It seems that whatever our relationship with the stars, whether scientific, philosophical or spiritual it is important to remember that however low we feel, by looking up from the gutter to the stars, we can always find light in the darkness. As Leonard Cohen sang, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ This view, that even in the worst moments, there are fragments of humanity and kindness is further developed in Chinua Achebe’s brilliant but seemingly bleak poem, Vultures, which suggests that even in the darkest dark, there is light.
However, whatever our view of the stars, it is perhaps worth remembering what Alan Moore wrote in his graphic novel, Watchman: “All we ever see of stars are their old photographs!”