The Human Condition:

Bits of Paper and Celluloid – April 1, 2012

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I love stories. And my definition of “story” is pretty broad: parables, anecdotes, short fiction, books and bits of books, movies with their bits of action and dialogue, even the occasional scene from television. Although I’m a fan of rational thought, it’s a truism that people remember a story or fable far more readily, with all its complex emotional weight, than they can recall a syllogism. All the best religions base their teachings on stories rather than reasoned analysis.

Sometimes I think my entire world view—my philosophy and my reaction to the world—is actually pieced together from bits of paper and celluloid: the fragments of books and movies that have resonated with me. This, of course, is specious. I’m not a hermit crab blindly sticking any old bit of dialogue on my shell for decoration. Before there can be selection, there must be criteria. So I’m finding bits of story that already fit my established—but perhaps not yet fully articulated—world view. I think most people are like that.1 They find in popular culture the attitudes, quips, and canny summations that reflect what they already believe but didn’t actually have the words to say until they saw it in a book or up on the screen.

I’ve already covered some of this ground in my blog about The Dune Ethos. The Frank Herbert series describes a world filled with danger, where people have to be very smart and cunning to stay alive, where human skills and potential trump any form of technology, where loyalty—at least among the Atreides—is the strongest bond, and where all personal power has limits. This is a world I admire. I wouldn’t always want to live in it, especially considering the part about constant danger, but it’s refreshing to immerse yourself in a book full of such thoughts.

This is especially true for most of us who live in a world that is far tamer and yet more complex. In everyday life, our enemies—far from being simply undeclared—are sometimes not even fully aware of their own enmity. They pursue their goals and don’t even recognize that they may have offended or damaged anyone else.2 In everyday life, technology is so massively powerful that humans cannot even begin to compete.3 In everyday life, loyalty is an iffy commodity, masked by a ready smile and cloaked by private reservations-within-reservations. In everyday life, people with personal power over us are backed up by law and tradition, lawyers and the general uncaring of society as a whole, and exhibit none of the vulnerabilities built into the story of the God-Emperor Leto II.

But today I’m not celebrating the entire complex background of one book or another. Rather, I’m celebrating the bits that stick in the mind long after the entire thread of the book or movie may have faded from memory.

When confronted with situations of anger, hurt feelings, mess, and muddle, I think of The Godfather, when Vito Corleone—and I forget the exact scene or context of the remark—looks around at the chaos caused by volatile and uncontrolled human emotions, senseless vendettas, retribution, and aggressive, egotistical behavior that comes to a bad end. “That’s a waste,” he says. The Zen masters or the Dalai Lama, always economical in their use of strong emotion, would agree. Chaos may be emotionally satisfying to the chaos causers, but on the whole and for the bystanders, it’s a waste.

I’ve also been guided in life by the Godfather’s observation: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” In the Sicilian world view, women and children live and act in the sphere of the family, the home, the place made safe by men. Women have their own duties, to bear children, care for them in health, nurse them in sickness, and nurture personal relationships. Children have the leisure of childhood to grow and develop and make mistakes while learning to be adults. Men have the duty to make a secure place where these necessary activities can proceed without intrusion from the harsh outside world.

In our twenty-first century view, where women can participate fully in that outside world if they choose, the quote should probably be: “Children can afford to be careless, but not adults.” Women are fortunate in that they now have the choice to be breadwinners or homebodies, or try to be both. That’s a choice that has never seriously been given to men. My only request is that women who move in that larger sphere not be careless, and that they learn and become adept with all the weapons required to respond to its dangers.

In military matters—and in conflicts in general—I have always treasured this rule of engagement passed along in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” That indicates the sort of clear-eyed observation of the situation and willingness to delay retaliation for at least one round of exchange before beating of the war drums.

Fleming had a fund of pithy observations about the world. For example, “Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big—bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.” As a tall person myself, I learned early to move carefully and not to impose my size and strength on those around me. Failure to think of others in this way has always led to hurt feelings, hostility, and sometimes enemy action. And besides, other people seem to break so easily. This is a rule that short people seldom learn.

In my college days, with my first experience of dealing with roommates, and then in the early days of marriage, I often recalled the play, the movie, and finally the television series The Odd Couple. It’s an insightful piece of work. I have found that in every pairing of two people, whether as casual roommates or as lovers and spouses, one is always “Oscar” to the other’s “Felix.” In every pairing, one party is always going to be messier and less organized, more relaxed and congenial, more hang-loose and carefree than the other. The other party is always going to be more orderly, more precise, more socially stiff, and less accommodating than the other. This is a matter of degrees rather than absolutes. Of two bachelors, who might generally fall into the category “bears with furniture,” one is always going to be more bothered by the mess of pizza boxes and beer cans than the other. In that case, the one who complains first also gets to clean up.

As a source of perspective on political developments, I’m a fan of the second Sigourney Weaver epic, Aliens. Good setups and good lines of dialogue abound in that movie. One of my favorites is during Ellen Ripley’s grilling over the loss of the Nostromo and cargo, when she asks, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” It speaks to the frustration we all feel when the reactions of a roomful of people do not make sense in terms of what we know about objective reality. Another favorite line is her summation on dealing with the hive of aliens: “Nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”—because that sentiment is just so bad ass.4

On the question of knowing when to give up and let go, I think of two favorite movies. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch becomes entangled in a confrontation between Sundance and some poker players. Butch tries to reason through the options, but everyone’s heart is set on a fight. He finally gives up and says, “I can’t help you, Sundance.” Sometimes you simply have to acknowledge that people will do what they want.

And then, in The Duellists, Armand D’Hubert is faced with yet another challenge from Feraud, his perpetual antagonist. D’Hubert sighs, “I’m not fanatical enough to persist in this.” In every endeavor, I’ve found, there comes a time when perseverance turns over into perversity and it’s time to reconsider priorities. Fanaticism—“a quarrel pursued for its own sake,” as the Tarot-reading wise woman in the movie phrases it—is simply not healthy.

I’ve also found much to like in the human byplay of the Joss Whedon series Firefly and its culmination in the movie Serenity. In the context of confrontation, Captain Malcolm Reynolds replies to a line of dialogue about killing people in their sleep: “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” This quote, on a poster of the captain with a sidearm, has attracted much negative attention on the internet lately. To me, it is simply a pledge of his intentions to play fair.

I think one of the reasons some people are alarmed by the quote and the poster is that Reynolds is not pledging to “play nice.” For some people in this society, the only acceptable resolution to any conflict is negotiated reconciliation and, when differences prove to be irreconcilable, a retreat into passive resistance. Maybe it works at the U.N. But the big world out there beyond polite society is really a dangerous place. Many unfriendly people are prone to attack before you are ready. Violence may ensue, and a sensible person is prepared to counter it.5

The world view of Serenity’s captain is consistently rough and ready, but also fair. I think that would adequately sum up the other heroes I mention here. They are confident of their ability to maneuver in a dangerous world. They are not afraid of risks. They take risks and suffer the consequences if their gambles fail. They are honest with themselves and others. They blame themselves when necessary, and they never complain. They are adults, and not careless.

That’s not such a bad way to live.

1. In this I’m reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” where the Enterprise crew encounters a civilization whose language is made up entirely of fragments from myth and story. So the concept of sulking with anger and hurt feelings might be spoken as “Achilles in his tent,” and the moment when a popular misconception is revealed as “Odysseus with the axheads.”

2. Such offhand carelessness is pretty much the basis for all incidents of road rage. For balance, consider the adage about not attributing to malice what can be explained by stupidity—or casual uncaring.

3. Consider the power of something like the social interaction made possible by the telephone and, now, the internet and its social media. Voices and conversations carrying rumor, innuendo, lies, and deceit travel invisibly down the wire or seep through the social ether like water through limestone. A reputation that was solid this morning can be in tatters by lunchtime, and you’ve never heard a word of it. That’s a far cry from past history, where if someone told a lie about you, it traveled in sound waves across the agora or through whispers in the marketplace, where you could possibly hear it and hope to answer. This new communications technology races beyond the power of any human brain cells to cope with or maintain the reflexes to combat.

4. And, yes, I can be distracted by displays of pure attitude.

5. Humans were not the first killers in the prehistoric world, we just became the best at it.