Archive for February, 2017
The title of this post isn’t meant to ask where you are in a spatial location, but in terms of time. Where are you—where are we all, for that matter—in the life of this universe? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. We all live on a rather attractive blue, white, green and brown planet circling a rather ordinary yellow-white star in a rather ordinary galaxy somewhere in the middle of billions of other galaxies which together constitute what we affectionately refer to as the “universe.” This universe arose from a massive expansion of all matter and energy some thirteen billion years ago, and is rapidly expanding and expanding, apparently to go on forever, driven apart by wild forces within itself. It will go on for time immemorial, never to return to its original state. That’s, at least, the current thinking.
Here we are, sophisticated, sentient human beings, watching this all unfold, trying to make sense of it. I’ve wondered, ever since I heard of the “big bang” hypothesis, which is the current favorite explanation of how we got here, if there isn’t an alternative explanation, that the universe will eventually run out of steam and collapse back onto itself in a sort of “big crunch,” or “big splat,” from which it would rebound into another expansion and another universe, and so on, ad infinitum. That seems to me to be a more logical way for the universe to run than just one “bang” which blows up like a balloon and dissipates out in the nether regions, never to be seen again. The “single bang” theory doesn’t explain what came before the expansion, nor what will come after it. But that may be the way it really is. Dark energy seems to be pushing the galaxies apart faster than dark matter can keep them together.
Philosophically, this is mind boggling. We are the only species on this planet that really understands, to any degree whatsoever, the goings-on out there in space. We’ve been watching the skies for thousands of years. We’ve sent satellites into orbit to observe it. We’ve sent men to the moon. Do you think that cat or dog or goldfish or parakeet in your house cares much about the big bang? Do the deer and the wolves in the forest understand that the little red dot in the sky is a cold, solid planet rather than a blazingly hot star? Or even what a star is in the first place? No, just us. Yet we humans make up such a miniscule percentage of the universe, it’s difficult to estimate how many zeros I’d have to put down to the right of a decimal point to give that percentage. We humans are what I might call “universe sentient.” We know where we are, though we can’t travel very far in it. We’ve seen the stars, the Milky Way, and some of the other galaxies that make up our universe. We have a lot to learn, granted. But we are capable of learning it. We have the mathematical skills and computer skills to master the intricacies of the universe. No dog or cat, or even chimpanzee, has that. Most likely, other civilizations exist in our galaxy with similar skills, perhaps even more advanced. (Maybe they can tell us if dark matter and dark energy really exist.) But philosophically we are alone, and, I suspect, will remain alone for the foreseeable future.
A few days ago I watched the movie “The Caine Mutiny,” for about the fourth or fifth time. A great movie, and a solid member of my Favorite Movies list. (You can see the list on this blog site.) But as I watched the movie, a couple of strange and odd things gnawed at me. I can remember thinking about this during some of those times I watched the movie before, so I decided to explore these questions in a little detail.
As a movie (released in 1954), it’s one of the all-time greats of World War II naval movies. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize-(1952)-winning novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The Executive Officer of the USS Caine (played by Van Johnson) is moved to relieve his captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, during a storm at sea. The executive officer is court-martialed (of course), but is acquitted. Much of the evidence against Cmdr. Queeq is based on the idea that Queeg is “mentally unstable,” to use the words of his most senior crew. And throughout the first several months that the Caine is commanded by Queeg, they document in detail several incidents they feel establish Queeg’s mental illness. They say these incidents show he’s “paranoid,” even they don’t really know the meaning of the term. During the court-martial, testimony reveals that three Navy psychiatrists have examined Queeg and declare him to be free of mental illness, and the conspirators get called on their “armchair psychiatry”. How could they make such a diagnosis? They’re not medical doctors. But my viewing of the movie has consistently led me to wonder if Queeg isn’t really just scared. That’s what it looked like it during the storm, when Van Johnson took over command of the ship. The terror in Bogart’s eyes, and the fact that Johnson had to pry the captain’s arm from around some object on the bridge of the ship, perhaps the compass housing, as well as the fact that Queeg issues all sorts of unrealistic orders, orders that could conceivably sink the ship in the storm—all these point more to cowardice than paranoia. At least, that’s the way Bogart played the character, and Bogart is a fine actor. I don’t know if it was Bogart’s decision to play Queeg that way, or the director’s, Edward Dmytryk. This is where the first difficulty comes in.
During the trial, the defense attorney, played by Jose Ferrer, states quite explicitly that a Captain in the US Navy could never be guilty of cowardice on duty, because he has to rise through the ranks to command his own ship, and anyone who ever exhibited any evidence of fear or timidity would be cut long before he reached command rank. Yet that’s the way the captain was played, and it brought a question to my mind just exactly what the movie was trying to say.
The second difficulty I had with the movie was that the “real” reason the Executive Officer took over command of the ship had to do more with the manner in which the captain was handling it, not his paranoia. All of that didn’t seem to matter at the time, though. The ship was in imminent danger of capsizing, and only Van Johnson’s orders kept the ship upright and brought it safely into port, especially after it had sustained major damage. I got the strong feeling from the movie that this was the “real” reason for the mutiny, not the Captain’s mental illness, but it never came up in the trial. That seems rather odd.
As a somewhat introverted person and aspiring novelist, I have a tendency to sit in front of a computer and watch the world go by electronically. (Isn’t it amazing what electrons can do for us?) Like many introverted people, I spend a lot of time alone. Not lonely, mind you, but alone—there’s a big difference. And from what I understand, many other writers are also introverted to one degree or another, and like to work alone. That’s what you might call the “default” mode of writing. That is, the single writer sitting alone in his/her apartment/house/office toiling away at the desk with whatever writing tools suit him/her best. Computer, pen and ink, pencil, and paper—they’ve all been used in the past. But now the internet has been added to that writing situation and it begs the question: how has that changed writing?
The internet allows an introverted person to interact with the world around him without having to be involved in it. More than just a window onto the street in front of his/her house, the internet brings the world to the writer. I wonder how writers such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson would have liked the internet. Charles Dickens, not noted for being particularly introverted, wrote about the poorest of the poor in England in the 1800’s, and was familiar with the times because he experienced them first-hand. He was out in it. But would he have used the internet (assuming in the manner of a science-fiction novel that it was available back then) to enhance his experience? In comparison, Emily Dickinson might just be the most introverted writer of all times. She rarely left her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and became a recluse early in her life. Yet she was a brilliant poet, and we still read her writings today. What would she have thought of the internet? Could she have used it to enhance her poetry? It certainly would have brought her more than the view from the window of her home. I wonder if there are any other writers as introverted as her.
In any event, I don’t feel as bound to the house as Ms. Dickinson, nor do I get out as much as Mr. Dickens is reported to have. Yet I do get out, and enjoy the experience. Many introverts refuse to interact with more than a few friends, but I enjoy the outdoors, though I don’t interact with people as well as, say, an extrovert. The internet is a way to get research done, keep up with the news, find out what friends are doing, keep in contact with family, market books, set up readings, look for bookstores and other markets, advertise one’s wares, and, generally, stay connected with society. All of that is very important for the sophisticated writer, and all of that can be done at home. But getting out is still very important because you can experience things you can’t get on the internet. Riding the train on the internet isn’t the same as riding it in person. I speak from experience. Still, you won’t find me hobnobbing with the rich at a high society ball. I’m not into that.