Friday, February 28, 2014

Hamlet, Skull in Hand

I’m not entirely sure why this occupied my mind this morning, but it did, so I thought I’d type it up.

My dad’s favorite episode ever of Star Trek: the Next Generation was one in which Picard findshimself stranded on a planet with an alien he can’t communicate.  It’s not that they don’t share a common language; as is the case in most episodes of Star Trek, everyone and everything speaks the Queen’s English (or Starfleet’s English).  

No, the problem is that while the alien’s individual words might be decipherable, the underlying meaning of them is not.  The reason is that the alien speaks in nothing but literary analogies alluding to myths from his own culture.  Without having a grounding in the culture of the alien, Picard can make no sense of koan-like sayings, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.”

Eventually, Data and the trusty Enterprise computer figure out where this alien comes from and provide Picard with a Wikipedia-esque understanding of the characters and situations the alien makes reference to, and this allows communication to take place.  Picard even creates his own version of this language, using phrases from his own culture's repository of literary allusions, such as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.”  Not only does this newfound common language of analogy allow Picard and his companion to defeat a monstrous beast that attacks them, but to forge a bond between themselves and their cultures. 

It was no accident that this episode caught my dad’s fancy.  He believed passionately in the importance of cultural literacy, particularly when it came to literature.  Engaging with literature was not just about building “critical reading skills” to allow students to become more careful creators/consumers of instruction manuals, sales forecasts, or marketing materials.  For him, knowing the stories one’s culture told about itself—created itself out of—was important because it connected you to the social world and your place in it.  Stories inhabit—or perhaps create—a point of tangency between the individual and the social, one that is essential in negotiating the apparent tensions between those two fields of existence. Like Kenneth Burke, Dad believed literature provided us with “equipment for living.”

To him, the Star Trek episode was great because it demonstrated this in stark, vivid form.  It was itself an analogy used to describe a deeper truth.

Another example was his love of the John Sayles film, Matewan.  My sister and I still chuckle over memories of Dad telling friends about this film and the way it revealed the importance of cultural literacy.  What made it funny is that to make the point, Dad ended up essentially narrating the entire story of the film, and this narration would often take nearly as long as it would to just sit down and watch the movie.  Scenes had to be described, and then their thematic relevance and connection to what came before and after analyzed.

But of course, that was the point: context matters.  

The culminating scene of the movie—the one Dad felt nailed the importance of cultural literacy—was one in which a young preacher gives a sermon focusing on a story from the Old Testament.  He wants to send his congregation a message about some devious goings-on by the bad guys in the movie.  The trouble is, the bad guys themselves are in the church.  So what does the preacher do?  He tells a story from the Old Testament—one that has obvious parallels to the situation he wants to talk about, but can’t in front of the villains.  But he changes the story dramatically in order to tell his congregation in effect: “What you think is going on is just like the story in the Bible, but what’s really going on is like this version that I’m telling you, and we need to do something about it.”

The genius is that the congregation, all devout believers, know all the stories from the Bible.  When the preacher deviates from the standard narrative, they immediately understand that something odd is going on, and quickly realize what the preacher is communicating.  Even better, the villains (clearly not terribly spiritual people) don’t have  frickin’ clue about much of anything in the Bible.  The preacher is just telling some dusty old story that doesn’t mean anything.  The message is communicated, but the baddies are none the wiser.

[Trust me, that was not nearly as entertaining or as informative as Dad’s two-hour “summary,” but you get the point.]

And the reason it’s communicated is that everyone in the congregation speaks the same language—not just English, but a language of story and analogy.  The baddies, being narratively illiterate, don’t get it.

It’s not that one should know stories because you might be stranded on a distant planet with an alien or that you’d need to communicate something secretly-yet-publically to save your town from evil doers.  It’s that these stories dramatize the importance of knowing our own stories, an importance that might be less dramatic but no less real than it has in Star Trek or Matewan.

I’ve thought about that a lot of late, as I have dealt in more detail with my university’s general education program and thinking through how to best convince students that even though they may be a nursing or business major, that reading Shakespeare or Plato might be important to them.
I’ve also thought about it as I find myself becoming more like my dad as I grow older, and I find myself wishing I could talk about these things with him.

I suppose in a way my growing sense of becoming more “Tom-like” as I age is again a demonstration of the importance of context.  Try as I might, I cannot ever simply be a freestanding human being.  I am a product—both biologically and socially—of my parents.  Should I be surprised that I find myself using their phrases, there ways of relating to others, there ways of thinking and being?

More largely, perhaps we are all like the words spoken to Picard by the alien: we have a physical manifestation—we exist, in the strict sense; but we don’t have meaning without context.  Words can be written, typed, said, etc., but they are nothing but meaningless squiggles or sound waves apart from context.  Yes, we exist as individuals, but our meaning—even to this metaphoric creation that exists inside our mind that we call “I”—comes from our connection with others, both those here now and those who have gone before and told their stories—stories that make us up and that we retell and with which we make our reality. 

And when we die, the voice falls silent, but the story continues.

Hamlet, skull in hand.  


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