Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Courage, Language and Daoist Literature

I've recently watched two movies for "old souls":  Logan, and, Arrival.

For those of you who haven't watched the films, here's a brief synopsis---spoilers follow, if you care about such things.


A cosplayer representing the Wolverine,
photo c/o the Wiki Commons
Logan is set in the Marvel X-Men universe, and the Logan of the title is Logan Howlett:  the Wolverine. The twist is that this is a dystopian version of that universe, one in which private corporations have released a genetically engineered virus into the environment to stop any new "mutants" from occurring naturally. This allows them to use their stockpile of samples from the existing mutants to create their own altered human beings to use for experiments to create "super soldiers".

At the same time, Charles Xavier ("Professor X") has developed a debilitating form of brain disease that manifests itself in occasional seizures that affect the people around him because of his psychic abilities.  In the past one of these seizures killed off most of the remaining mutants.  This leaves only Wolverine and Caliban---who have to keep him doped-up on heavy meds to prevent future seizures---to take care of him in an isolated, abandoned metal recycling facility in Mexico.  Logan supports this crappy lifestyle by working as a limo driver for bored, rich teens in the USA.

For those of you who have never read Marvel comics (I suppose some of you still exist), the Wolverine has the ability to heal almost instantly from any wound. He is also very, very strong. The ability to heal has kept him from aging, which means that he is at least a couple of hundred years old. Through most of that time, he was used by the government in one way or another. During both world wars, for example, the Canadian government used him as a soldier. When the American government learned of his abilities, they performed experiments on him to learn how to control him, and replaced his bones (and claws) with a special super-metal called "adamantium" (which only exists in fiction.) This made him into a weapon that is impervious to almost anything. It was Charles, "Doctor X", who saved him from this life.

Unfortunately, the adamantium is also poisonous. And at the time of this movie, it is finally over-whelming Logan's innate healing ability. It is making him an old man, and, it is killing him. Logan is in constant pain, which he tries to deal with by almost constant drinking. He also limps.  And coughs, almost constantly.

A plot and drama ensued, but that's really not what I'm interested in.


I said that this is a movie for "old souls".  What I meant was that I can really identify with Logan. I am in significant pain at times, which I do self-medicate with by alcohol. I also limp. And I also cough, a lot.

One other thing that matters in the movie is the relationship between Logan and Professor X. Charles Xavier (played the incomparable Patrick Stewart), is a paraplegic and confined to a wheel chair. Underneath the gruff, macho exterior it is very obvious that The Wolverine loves this man very deeply. He works at a job he loathes to provide for him. And no matter what happens in the movie, the first thing he does is look out for Xavier's needs. When Xavier is eventually murdered by one of the super-soldiers (who looks just like a young version of Logan), he collapses emotionally. At this point, he ends up being taken care of my a young girl who was also created to be a super soldier, but who managed to escape due to help by nurses at the research facility.

The old macho guy who's always had to fight turned into a nurse maid for a beloved father figure. And who also ends up being nurtured by a young girl. Like I said, a story for old souls.

Eventually, Logan dies. And in the process the girl he's the genetic father of, and who he's saved, is crying at his side---calling him "daddy". His last words are "so this is what it feels like".  When I heard the words I knew that on one level the script was referring to dying. But my immediate response was to think that this is what it feels like to be vulnerable, to care about others to the point of  making yourself vulnerable to extreme, horrible emotional pain, and, to accept that others can feel the same way about you.

As I said, a movie for old souls.


For those of you who haven't seen Arrival, it deals with a linguistics professor who's been asked to help the government learn how to communicate with an alien species that has just arrived on the planet (called the "Heptapods"---for their seven tentacles.) Unlike most science fiction shows that gloss over the difficulty of learning the language of a totally different intelligent species, this movie bears down on that issue and comes up with an innovative answer.

Basically, the movie is based on two premises.

The first one is that learning a language involves changing the way our brains are "wired". To understand this idea, consider the fact that English only really has one word for "love", where as Greek has a great many ("eros", "agape", "philia", "storge", etc.) What this means is that when an ancient Greek philosopher was talking about "love", he could do it a lot more accurately than a modern English speaker. To understand the point, consider this sentence that an obnoxious child might make to another: "If you love pancakes so much, why don't you marry them!"  This wouldn't make any sense at all to Plato, because he wouldn't use the same word for "liking a lot in the sense of enjoying the taste" and "wanting to spend the rest of your life living with because of a deep interpersonal bond".

The argument is that the complexity and precision of your vocabulary has an impact on how we see the world around us. A better example beyond the word "love" comes from the history of chemistry. At one time people tried to explain the nature of material objects by referring to the four states of matter:  solid, liquid, gas, and, fire. This really doesn't work very well to explain a broad range of events, so we now accept that the atomic theory works much better and most folks would probably have a hard time trying to figure out how you could use the states system to understand much of anything.

The second idea that the movie is based upon is that it is possible to create a totally non-sequential language. Western languages like English are based on the sounds that our spoken language makes. We start out sounding out the letters that make up the words, and then connect a certain sequence with specific words. But some other written langues don't work like that. Chinese, for example, is not "sounded out" from letters. Instead individual characters represent specific ideas. It is true that some characters are composed of different simpler characters and added together, but these too are representative of ideas instead of sounds. Having said that, however, Chinese characters are written sequentially one after another.

But Arrival posits that the aliens don't have a sequential sentence structure, but a holistic one.
A heptapod "sentence"
taken under "fair use" copyright rules from the Internet
As you can see, the writing looks like a coffee ring stain. But the different "splotches" aren't random, but convey a specific meaning. The issue that the movie hinges on is that there is no beginning or end to a circle, so the only way to really understand it is to just grasp the meaning all at once.

This is an important issue, because it talks about the limits of ordinary human consciousness. As this was explained to me when I was at university, Professor Amstutz (my old teacher) explained that studies have shown that there appears to be a limit to how much a person can grasp holistically. He explained this using an example from English common law. A pub used to have a cup with a bunch of wooden matches in it that people could use to light their pipes or cigars. They added a sign that said "take some home with you, if you like". An individual---what we would now call a "street person"---took advantage of this to take a lot of matches that he then used to sell for a half-penny a piece on the street to people who wanted to light a pipe or cigar, but didn't have any matches on them at the time. The pub owner called a bobby to stop this person from doing this, but the individual in question told the magistrate that the sign said he could do it.

The judge did some research in the literature and found out that when people look at a random pile of objects, on average, the most a person can count at a glance (ie:  without having to consciously mentally separate into different groupings and add together) are seven. So the judge ruled that under English Common Law "some" (as in "take some home with you") means seven or less.

This is important to the movie Arrival because it suggests that this isn't an intrinsic property of the human brain, but instead the result of how our language has "wired" it. In other words, the judge identified an issue of "software" instead of "hardware". If our brains simply have to work sequentially for more than seven items, then we will never be able to learn the heptapod language. But if this is instead an artifact of our language, it might be possible to learn the language---but in doing so it might radically change the way we perceive the world around us.

The people who made the movie didn't stop at the circle sentences. Towards the end, the heroine says that she understands their language and asks them to tell her more. So they present her with what I can only surmise is their equivalent of a book. (Actually, this image is only the same sentence repeated over an over again---but assume that the coffee rings are all different and you get the notion.)
Heptapod Book,
Fair Use Copyright, blah, blah, blah.

The important thing to understand is that the sentences aren't in any order---they are thrown all over and the reader has to understand them all holistically---just like the sentences.


The movie is filled with flashbacks, but ones that aren't identified or labeled. At some point, the linguist (Louise) had a child, who died of an incurable illness. She also had a husband that she dearly loved, but left her. At first, I assumed that she had had all of this heart-break before the arrival of the aliens. But as the movie progresses and she learns the language, you begin to realize that this is the future. The man she falls in love with and marries is her colleague working with the aliens, and, the child is their soon-to-be conceived daughter. Learning the alien language has rewired her brain to the point where she no longer experiences her life sequentially, but rather as a holistic unity. (Presumably she started having dreams and memories before she met the aliens because the process reveals that causality works backwards in time as well as forward---how about that for an alien concept?)

This would be a really, really scary prospect for most people. Would you marry someone and have a child with them if you really knew in your guts---from direct experience---that both would end in extreme heart-break? Louise believes that she has the choice of not choosing to marry and conceive, but she does anyway because she doesn't want to lose the experience of having a man and child that she loves dearly. And you also see in the flashbacks that knowing how it will all end means that she never misses an opportunity to be as "real" and "there" as she possibly can for these two people. She really does savour every sweet drop from the cup of life---even though she knows that at the end there will be nothing but bitter dregs.


How does any of this fit into Daoism?

What is it we do when we read books of wisdom and meditate? We are trying to deepen and expand our theoretical understanding of the world around us. We are fighting against the illusions that bind us to the here and now. We start out in life like the Wolverine---believing that we can live forever and if we get hurt, healing will come fast. But learning from others teaches us that this isn't the case, we do get old and die. Not only this, but the people we love die too. And that hurts, a lot.

Daoism offers to help people with this problem through many different mechanisms.

For one thing, it offers us stories that help us understand the most practical, best way to navigate life. Consider the story from both Zhuangzi and Liezi where Confucius meets an elderly man who has learned to swim across raging cataracts by only swimming a few strokes when the river is pushing him where he wants to go and not fighting when it pulls him away. This is how one survives in a chaotic, violent world according to Daoist wisdom.

It also helps us by offering us practices like "holding onto the One" that teach us to not get too caught up in the moment-by-moment activity around us. Instead, we learn to remind ourselves that we need to always try to understand the Dao (or "One") and how it is operating both in the processes that govern our mental activity and the world around us. If we are able to do this, for example, sometimes we are able to remember that the other person we are dealing with may be being grumpy towards us not because they hate us, but rather because they may be sick, be worried about a loved one, etc. We might also remember that giving that person a smile, or asking a personal question that shows you care, etc, may totally transform their interaction towards you into something more useful and pleasant.

It also helps us by reminding us to remember "the big picture" when we feel especially sad, angry, or, perplexed. When Zhangzi's wife dies, for example, he is very sad. But when he realizes that she herself has ceased to feel any pain at all, and has instead merely returned to the undifferentiated Dao that she emerged from when she was born, he can realize that he is really sad for himself because he knows he will miss her. And at that point, he realizes that he can choose to dwell on missing her, or, simply move on in life and find something or someone else to love. Much pain is caused by delusion, and the cure for delusion is a better understanding of how things really are.


In a very real sense, studying Daoism is like when Louise starts having those memories of her child. I am not the old man swimming in the cataract or Zhuangzi banging on a pot and singing after the death of his wife. But those events are the memories of men who have died long, long, ago in a distant land. And by integrating their insights and experiences into my life, I am just like Louise having memories of the death of a child she hasn't had yet. I know that I too will find myself beset by awful, painful problems---just like swimming the cataract. And I too will find myself deeply hurt by the pain or even death of a loved one.

We aren't heptapods who experience our personal lives holistically. But we are eusocial animals who live our lives mediated by culture. And culture does exist holistically, and we can experience it as such. Zhuangzi and Confucius are long dead---and yet they are still alive every time we wrestle with the ideas that they have passed onto us through their writings and the traditions that they founded.

I got thinking about this because I was worried about whether my wife was entering into a psychotic episode. She is going through a stressful time right now as she has decided to sell her house and apply to be an immigrant to Canada. But in the interim, she is in St. Louis and I am living and working a thousand miles away. There is almost nothing I can do to make her life better right other than offer some words of encouragement. And when she enters into an episode, she simply disappears off my radar. She has no support network (she does live in the USA, of course), so all I can do is accept that she's "gone away" for a month or two, and just wait for her to come back.

At times like this all I can do is remember how much I love her and remember that I wouldn't trade the good times in exchange for not having the bad. I also try to remember that, like Zhuangzi and his wife, we are all part of a larger process and that ultimately we come from and end up in the same place. I also try to hold onto the One and do what helps me cope with my feelings of helplessness and sadness. Writing this blog is one of those things. 


I put out my begging bowl and ask for support from people not just because I want money. I'm also trying to remind people that nothing comes for free in life, and we need to support others when they do something of value for the community. Many of us don't have enough money to be able to shoot off a few bucks to people writing obscure blogs on the Internet---no matter how much they enjoy them. I get that. But I also understand that lots of people who do have money would rather spend it on things like trips overseas, video games, eating out, etc.

For them I'd offer this piece of my life history. I used to do a lot of free lance writing for newspapers. There came a time when papers just got cheaper and cheaper towards people like me. That was because they knew that we see writing as a vocation and more than anything else just want to see our ideas in print. The result was no one wanted to pay me anything for what I wrote.

I accepted this as something that was happening and couldn't be avoided. Then I realized that reporters---with families to support and mortgages to pay---were being replaced by the free copy that people like me were giving the papers. And at the same time, purveyors of "junk bonds" were looting the newspapers that I was getting published in. The money was there, but I was just helping guys like Ken Thomson and Conrad Black get rich. At that point I stopped writing for the paper press.

Since then, I've been blogging. But you know what? The same problem exists on the Internet. People have gotten used to paying nothing for content, and writers everywhere are expected to work for nothing at all. As a result, the content being provided is being twisted into "click bait" and "dumbed down" so writers can pump out quantity instead of quality. This is because that's what the advertisers want. The only mechanism I can think of to push back against this problem is through getting people to pay for what they like to read through "tip jars" and Patreon subscriptions. That's why I always put these ads in my blog posts---it's so I don't go back to the bad old days of taking the food out of the mouths of people with families and mortgages.

In effect, I'm trying to help people realize that if you want to have a better Internet---free from fake news, alt-right propaganda, and other crap---you are going to have to get used to paying for it. If you refuse to pay for anything that isn't behind a paywall, you are "doing your bit" to ensure that the Internet becomes a plaything for wealthy corporations and not a meeting place for intellectuals and artists.

So, the question becomes "what do you want?"


JovertonCan said...

Great post, Bill. I really enjoyed it.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks. Any feedback is appreciated---especially positive!