The Bowie in Us All

Today, like millions of people, I am having a hard time coming to terms with the death of David Bowie. I learned of his death after midnight last night and, all day, I have been having brief flashes of insight into what he means to me. In the short clip below from the movie Velvet Goldmine, Christian Bale’s character, Arthur, gets his first exposure to Brian Slade, a Bowie-esque glam rocker. Arthur reacts with an almost ecstatic moment of self awareness. “That is me! That’s me!” he cries or, at least, he seems to. The heartbreaking truth is that he only really cries out inside his own mind. Still, that internal shout launched him onto the path of becoming himself.

David Bowie awakened a kind of self-awareness in me, too. It is one of my earliest and most profound memories. As a child too young to buy her own records, I used to wander off into music stores, head straight for the “B” album bin and just stare at the covers of Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and Hunky Dory. David Bowie looked part angel, part alien. I think that, without being able to speak it, I must have felt part alien myself. I would have loved Bowie’s music even if I had never seen his face but, when I saw his face, I also saw deeply inside myself for the first time that I can remember.

Years later, I had a similar experience with the alien and alienated Mr. Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy who wrote the memoir “I Am Not Spock” followed by a second account titled “I Am Spock.” Nimoy portrayed a character but, in doing so, drew on his deepest self. So did Bowie. Don’t we all?

It is perfectly healthy to assume different personae. (Confuse someone with their Facebook profile at your own peril.) It is also imperative that we infuse each persona we adopt with our truest being, as weird, wonderful, wild and colorful as it almost certainly is. Probably, none of us ever feels as if we belong. Possibly, we do not. If we even have an ultimate home, our day-to-day state of consciousness is not it. In fact, there is something inside each of us that can be alarming to the creature we imagine ourselves to be in that state. That essential something is an alien, a Starman, a rock star, a Goblin King, sometimes even a strung-out, amoral mess masquerading as a Thin White Duke. It is our Self and our Shadow. It is dangerous. It is exquisitely beautiful. We must be who we are. Look! That’s me!

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Imagination Failure Averted, Sir

Watched: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 23, “I, Borg”

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Synopsis: The title of this beloved episode is presumably a play on Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and, perhaps it is not even necessary to say, it was the inspiration for the title of this blog. The Enterprise crew discovers a Borg crash site with a single survivor, a young male drone who needs assistance from Dr. Crusher if he is to go on surviving. Crusher, the doctor who, in Season 1, revived a group of long-dead Twentieth-century humans without so much as consulting her captain, persuades Picard to bring the drone on board for repairs.

Back on board, Picard shuts down Troi’s somewhat graphic attempt to provoke an admission that he is still traumatized by his abduction by the Borg then quickly comes up with a plan to program the rescued drone as a weapon to destroy the entire Collective. Crusher is predictably the first to object to the plan but, one by one, key characters begin to see the immorality of using the drone, who at first refers to himself as Third of Five, to commit an act of genocide.

Third of Five seems to ask for a name and is christened “Hugh” by Geordie who appears to have a knack for befriending artificial and partially artificial lifeforms (by my count, there was an android, a hologram and now a drone). To cope with his sudden alienation from the collective, Hugh bonds most closely with Geordie but he also learns from every individual he encounters. From Crusher, he learns that he is lonely; from Guinan, that resistance is not futile and from Picard he learns what it is to resist.

Picard then hits upon the idea that reintroducing Hugh into the Collective with his newly found individuality intact “might be the most pernicious program of all.” First, however, Hugh has to choose to give up his selfhood. He wants to stay on the Enterprise with his friend Geordie but he does not hesitate to insist upon returning to the Borg cube from whence he came. Hugh has learned the most paradoxical lesson of individuation, that we are sometimes most ourselves when we choose to give ourselves up for others.

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Reflection: If the body of this episode is built around an examination of selfhood, conscience and self-sacrifice, its heart is an examination of fear.  With his plan to wipe them out, Picard reacts to the Collective the way we all react when we are terrified—he tries to make the scary thing disappear. There are only two real-world ways to make something disappear—run from it until you can’t see it any more or destroy it.

Picard can hardly be blamed for the fact that it did not occur to him to have a conversation with Hugh. The Borg had not exactly shown themselves to possess El-Aurian listening skills and their statements were unfailingly predictable.  After shooting down the moral concerns of his officers and his trusted friend, however, Picard reluctantly admits that he had also not wanted to engage this particular Borg because he did not want anything to get in the way of his plan to ensure the Federation’s safety from its most inexorable enemy.

As individuals, the citizens of the Federation may not “[blow] the lid off the visual acuity percentiles” the way Hugh did but they possess many kinds of intelligence that the Borg lack. They possess emotional intelligence, aesthetic intelligence and imagination. Every time I have, not just wanted to, but felt I had no choice but to do harm, I have suffered a failure of imagination. Imagination, the ability to produce mental images of things outside our direct experience, is not just what allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, it is what makes it possible for us to reason beyond fear. No solution to any problem has ever been found that did not first present itself in the imagination.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge distinguished between the workings of what he called Fancy and the Imagination. When we are employing Fancy, we are merely recapitulating what we know, even if we re-arrange the elements.  Every time you watch the same old sitcom with different characters or hear people laugh at a joke based on a simple stereotype, you are witnessing Fancy at work. The Imagination, on the other hand, can do more than recapitulate and manipulate elements; it unifies them, producing something that is more than the sum of its parts. Coleridge called this capacity esemplastic.

An esemplastic unity is born when two polarities—in this episode, the polarities are the desire to survive at all costs and the desire to do the right thing—come together to produce an offspring that contains each polarity but that expresses more than can be realized through simple addition. Guinan warns Picard that, if he does not speak with Hugh at least once, if he does not at least imaginatively allow for the possibility that Hugh has become something Picard had not thought possible, he might find it difficult to live with his decision to carry out his genocidal war plan. In his conversation with Hugh, Picard does not let go of his desire for the preservation of his civilization. Instead, he sees that seeking survival through an immoral act, no matter how justified it seems, would destroy the Federation just as surely as the Borg would if they saw the opportunity.

Coleridge did not believe that his principle of unity from polarities describes only the human imagination; he regarded it as the fundamental principle of Nature. It is the process that gives us the world and all that is in it, including each of us and our sense of right and wrong. Lay theologian C.S. Lewis likened our moral sense or Reason to the ancient Vedic principle of Rta. According to Lewis, “that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, almost participation in the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.”

Had Picard refused to see, or even attempt to see, Hugh for what he had become, it would have appeared that he was making the most natural choice possible but, in fact, he would have been true to only the smallest, most obtuse part of his nature. When he chose instead to open a tiny chink in his imagination, he opened himself to that which makes us most what we are—creatures of infinite possibility. As we eventually saw in the season 6 cliffhanger episode, “Descent,” this decision led to complications and suffering and was, thus, not a clean victory. It was a victory, nonetheless. Sometimes, we have to throw ourselves into the flow of Rta by doing what we know is right, knowing also that it is the only way to retain the most precious part of ourselves.

The Nerd Life is the Good Life!

The Grey Havens Group

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Once, I was interviewed about The Grey Havens Group and quoted as saying, “Tolkien fans really love stuff.” That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say. What I wanted was to echo the sentiments of YA novelist and Nerdfighter, John Green, who said, “Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love stuff!”

The nerd life is the good life. It is a life of midnight movie premieres because who would want to wait one second longer than they must to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey or Star Trek Into Darkness? It is a life of Doctor Who theme parties and carefully curated Star Wars toy collections. It is a life of fearless passion and shameless glee. It is a thoughtful life, full of mysterious depths. Nerds are not afraid to allow the works of human imagination to function as a “mirour de l’Omme,” looking unflinchingly at how…

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The Professor and the Doctor: The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who as Mythology

The Grey Havens Group

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When I think of England, sometimes, I can’t help imagining dematerializing police boxes, hobbits in the Shire and busy owls obligingly burdened with letters and packages to be delivered at the Ministry of Magic. Others might picture Sherlock Holmes engaged in combat with Professor Moriarty or a single man in possession of a good fortune who is also in want of a wife. Both C.S. Lewis and his dear friend Charles Williams wrote of a real place that they called “Logres,” a higher, truer kingdom that existed within England, more England than England, itself. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, when the Doctor saves London every Christmas, he is in fact defending Logres but neither will I dismiss the reality of the England that lives in the imagination.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to Naomi Mitchison that, when he set out to write The…

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A Geek’s Guide to Falling in Love

The Grey Havens Group

When I was doing the legwork, passing out flyer after flyer to attract members to my town’s new Tolkien discussion society, I was surprised at how many of those willing to post a flyer followed up by suggesting that I read George R.R. Martin’s multi-volume series A Song of Ice and Fire. If I love Tolkien, they must have reasoned, I must love very long stories, especially those that contain medieval and fantastic elements. A Song of Ice and Fire must have seemed like my perfect match. I did not embrace the suggestion as enthusiastically as expected but, then again, it took me years to commit to reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It seemed a bit too risky. Reading a massive series, chock-full of descriptive passages, wandering perhaps becoming lost, heading somewhere but no one knows where, it can feel a lot like falling…

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The Joy of Toys

When he was little, I bought my nephew a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Han Solo encased in carbonite. It was twice as tall as he was but he carried it around with him everywhere he could until it fell apart. It stood next to him at the breakfast table, its arms reaching out, mouth frozen mid-gasp. It watched him kick a ball around the yard. He hauled it up the stairs at naptime and back down again when it was time for dinner. Later in life, he wanted coins from The Shire Mint, a genuine One Ring replica, a sonic screwdriver and absolutely anything in TARDIS blue. I want all those things, too, and, even at my age, I wouldn’t say “no” to a life-sized Han Solo even if he were a little two-dimensional.

Why are Science Fiction and Fantasy fans such collectors? I think it is because we like to remember. We like to remember the experience of wonder. In his Letters to Lucilius, Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote of often feeling “stupefied” when contemplating both wisdom and the world then of having the experience of suddenly seeing the world “as if for the first time.” This process of stupefaction, of a dulling of our perceptions, has been given many names. Physicist Henri Bortoft called it “automatization,” the development of a rigid way of encountering our environment, of seeing what we expect to see. Philosopher Pierre Hadot called it the “humanization” of the world or transforming it “into an ensemble of things useful for life.” Author J.R.R. Tolkien referred to this process as “appropriation,” of coming to see everything around us as either a tool or an obstacle, a source of pleasure or displeasure but seen always in terms of ourselves and never as it is in its own being. The reversing of this process can be referred to alternately as “deautomatization,” “dehumanization” or, as Tolkien poetically put it, “Recovery.”

Recovery is “a regaining of a clear view.” It means “seeing things as they are (or were) meant to be seen—as things apart from ourselves.” Even when my nephew was a Star Wars fan barely entering his elementary school years, the calcification of his senses and judgment had probably already set in but he had the wisdom to fall in love with a movie. Star Wars contains many objects and concepts that are familiar to us. Wookiees, Tauntauns and Ewoks are each merely animals, each with different orders of ability in relating to humans. We have all at least heard of seedy bars in seedy ports. What does it really matter if the port in question happens to be an entryway into space rather than into the sea? We all know about the longing for adventure, the finding of true friends and the resolution of painful family conflict. The problem is that we have become used to these things and we believe that, because we are used to them, we know them. The truth is that we don’t know anything very profound even about ourselves. Apart from our needs, wants and prejudices, we actually know very little but, when we see all these ordinary things in an extraordinary context, we see them as if for the first time and we begin to know at last.

Mainstream science has something in common with appropriation. It looks for events that can be replicated, regarding these as the most verifiable and, therefore, somehow the most real. It strips away the newness and looks for what can be expected each and every time we encounter a phenomenon. When we add a sense of beauty or a sense of wonder, however, the repetitive nature of events quickly reveals itself to be an illusion. Tolkien wrote:

Spring is not less beautiful because we have seen or heard of like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the emobidment, the first ever seen and recognized, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.

What Tolkien calls Fantasy, a genre to which I believe Star Wars belongs, has to its advantage that experience of “arresting strangeness.” We all know what a lamp post looks like but encountering an iron lamp post in the middle of an ancient, snowy wood might cause us to look at the lamp post again and ask whether or not it has worth as a thing-in-itself. We have all known human and animal companions but contemplating the relationship between Han Solo and his Wookiee first mate might cause us to reconsider the distinction between the two.

My nephew, when he saw Star Wars for the first time years after I first saw it in the cinema, got to see everything he already knew as something strange and wonderful (as if seeing it for the first time). Because there also will never will be (prequels included) another Star Wars, he also saw it as something infinitely precious and unrepeatable (as if seeing it for the last time). I believed that he carried around his cardboard cut-out the way a devotee carries around a religious symbol, as a reminder of something beyond this world but, nevertheless, something that surrounds it and penetrates it and in which it has its being. He carried it around as a reminder of wonder.

Hello, world!

In mythic or fantasy literature (what J.R.R. Tolkien called The Fairy-Story), it is a common theme that people see only what they expect to see. In Tolkien’s short tale “Smith of Wooten Major,” the villagers see only the baker’s apprentice, never the Fairy King who consented to work as an apprentice among them. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the residents of London Above know nothing of the existence of London Below because they have never been shown it on a map. Muggles do not notice wizards. Jedi Knights use simple mind tricks to derail imperial stormtroopers. Spaceships hover between the tops of the trees where no one bothers to direct their eyes. The children of the forest shelter among the roots and stones where no mortal has ever stumbled. All of us, whether we know it or not (and most of us never do), participate in the ordering of our world. We participate in the coming-into-being of a world that makes some kind of sense to us. Without us, there would be no world, at least not as we know it. If we did not see at least some of what we expect to see, what kind of world would we raise our heads in each morning? Would we have a head to raise?

Try to imagine a new color or to picture a world without time. Think of a song so harmonious it cannot be sung or a noise so dissonant it can never be heard. What does chaos look like? Is it possible for something to appear so wondrous strange that you would be unable to see it at all? The truth is that order is not what we see, it is how we see. True chaos—not just confusion, not just a mess—would be impossible to see because it is through the application of order that we are able to see at all, with our minds at least as much as with our eyes and other organs of perception.

Our senses respond ceaselessly to stimuli. We are always taking in vast amounts of sensory data that we perceive as qualities—taste, texture, shape, color, scent, heat, etc.—but perceiving qualities is not the same as experiencing a phenomenon (an object or a process). We must have a way of organizing all this data if we are to get phenomena out of it and a world out of all the phenomena. Some thinkers such as Henri Boroft, a physicist and intepretrer of the scientific theories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, refer to our means of arranging the data as “the organizing idea.” Another way of describing it is as “the Word.” The Word is what we use to read the world, making sense of the qualities just as we make sense of the letters on the page. A string of consonants does not give us meaning but a properly arranged string of consonants and vowels when perceived by the light of our understanding gives us something far more than the letters that appear on the page. Because we are part of Nature, the organizing idea or the Word is part of Nature as well and so is the understanding with which we grasp the Word. It is the light in which our minds and the phenomena meet. A tree exists as a “tree,” the phenomenon that we know as “tree,” only in human consciousness. A consciousness that organized the data in a different way, through the application of another Word, would experience a different phenomenon. Thanks to the Word, the world is without us and it is within us.