Saturday, 9 March 2013

At the precipice

Yesterday I watched two different version of the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The 1951 version was concerned with the advent of atomic weapons and the rule of law; the 2008 version with the destruction of the environment and humanity's right to exist.

"At the precipice" is taken from the dialogue between Klaatu and Professor Barnhardt:

Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don't make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threated with destruction that you became what you are now.
Klaatu: Yes.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that's where we are. You say we're on the brink of destruction and you're right. But it's only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don't take it from us, we are close to an answer. (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008)

I'm currently reading and thinking about Umberto Eco's literary criticism (Inventing the Enemy, 2012) where he's talking about the notion of (Romantic) "excess" in one of the essays, Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess, where he brings up the point that Victor Hugo's excess (in a sense of Klaatu's role in the 1951 movie):

Hugo presents himself here as the authorized interpreter of divine will, and seeks to justify each story he tells from the point of view of God. (Inventing the Enemy, p.112)

The first words that Klaatu speaks to the 1951 version of the Professor is whether he has faith, to which the Professor responds:

It isn't faith that makes good science, Mr. Klaatu, it's curiosity. Sit down, please. There are several thousand questions I'd like to ask you.(The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951)

As the movie dialogue above indicates (2008), Klaatu has taken a more nuanced role of an advocate (in the sense of the jurisprudence) than a judge. In a way, the notion of Jakob von Uexküll's umwelt has insinuated itself into the dialogue between Klaatu and the Professor; a semiosis has occurred:

The Umwelt theory states that the mind and the world are inseparable, because it is the mind that interprets the world for the organism. Consequently, the Umwelten of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism. When two Umwelten interact, this creates a semiosphere.

Earlier in the Eco essay on Victor Hugo, he writes a succinct image of the guillotine that I think captures the notion of the oxymoron (in a sense of this unvoiced shift in perspective of Klaatu) that Romantic excess affects so well: Ninety-three the guillotine, even though it will kill the Revolution's purest hero, passes from the side of death to that of life and, in any event, stands as a symbol for the future against the darkest symbols of the past...

What is a ferocious, death-giving monster that promises a better life? An oxymoron...The oxymoron is "a rhetorical microcosm that affirms the substantially antithetical nature of the world"...(p.111)

I've been currently going through a dark time myself: self-doubt, frustration and dismay in seeing the maw between values I espouse and my innermost feelings (if I be brutally honest with myself). I've also been contemplating the Pauline distinction between the Law and the promise of divine grace (the "spirit" of the Law, as I understand it to be). As a hopeless intellectual these questions of self-doubt have been phrased in the language of semiotics while at the same time I've been seeking out comfort for my soul in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. It takes strength beyond my means to not try and panic, I can tell you.

This "interaction" between my umwelt and the world-as-it-is, this semiosis, is the source of my spiritual and existential crisis. This semiosis has sensitized me greatly to the "substantially antithetical nature of the world" and I can only whimper in fear because I realize the real world has often no neat tying of 'loose ends", no resolution other than what we decide to take away with us from our experiences.

I can see and contemplate the great wondrous beauty of the universe through my understandings of the principles of physics; I can see and contemplate the beauty in the abstract structures of the human language; in classical music; in fictional and non-fictional literary works; in art...I have felt and perceived the beauty of the world. But I am painfully aware that this is my umwelt and no one else's. It is the dark side and ignorance (in myself and others) that terrifies me.



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