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September 12, 2003

Lord Jim

Ok, this is backwards-order post day. I am still thinking about issues raised by Matthew Frost in comments to the Sacrifice post. Joseph Conrad is a favourite of the Flea. His inspiration to ethnographic writing through the work of fellow Polish Anglophile Branislaw Malinowski makes him a tangential father of anthropology. There are plenty of archaeologists who get irate when Indiana Jones is mentioned. I suppose I can see why they would. Indie hardly had the attention span to keep hold of his hat let alone conduct a dig. But those movies were at least half the reason I enrolled in my undergraduate anthropology degree. I wanted to travel and meet peculiar people who would find me just as peculiar. Above all, I wanted adventure.

I still do. A great moment in my life was a job offer for research consulting work with one of the very few manufacturers of nuclear submarines in the world. All I could think was: I get to be Jack Ryan! I got to have that feeling of participating in something important for two years and I would not trade it for anything. My grandfather fought the war on the North Atlantic. He served on HMS Hood before she was lost. It is an impossible heroism for me to imagine. My contribution to the British navy and the safety of the world was inconsequential in comparison. But I got to do something. I kept telling people how I expected any day to be called out to a British SSN where my crucial anthropological skills would help save the day. I got quite a few blank looks from people who not only failed to get the reference but who did understood its emotional, spiritual importance even when I explained it to them. Morons.

One appeal of fiction, particularly heroic fiction, is in imagining ourselves to have a moment where we could somehow express the truth of who we are. Much of the fiction I read and watch in film or on tv is sf and fantasy so that is the home of many of my metaphors for this stuff. Ever since my mother read The Hobbit to me as a little boy I have divided my friends into two groups: the ones I would want with me on a journey through Mirkwood and the ones I would not. It was a good rule of thumb for a six year-old. It remains a good one for me now.

So much of day to day life is full of compromise and frustration. It can be difficult to hold on to the moments of clarity where we know who we are and know what to do. Even so, the small temptations of the world and the Faustian bargains of career advancement can be turned into a source of inspiration. Grasp the nettles of the present. Let them remind me of the greater truth and that boundless love. It was easier when I was younger. Those hormone-driven thought processes produced a world of titanic emotion and fervant sincerity which had not been tempered by practicality or the idea other people might have a worthwhile point of view. But this does not mean every opinion is intellectually, let alone morally, equivalent or that we should be indiscriminate in the company we keep. There is a moment in Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune where a resurrected warrior finds his ancient virtues out of place with the degenerate relics of the latter day Fremen. He is repulsed by the world Leto II has created and says that in the days of Leto I the Fremen would only spend time in the presence of people they would care to die with. The reply, "I think you are the only such man I have ever met."

The choice is a fact of life for anyone who was paying attention on the eleventh of September. Every day since then the light has been brighter and the friendships have been clearer. People who are awake know there is a job to be done. A world worth fighting for. The recent blackout was a peculiar blessing for many people. Toronto's "alternative" newspaper mocked the men in suits who took to the streets to direct traffic as attention-seeking would-be heroes. In that moment my contempt for the idiotarians turned into pity. Could it be they are so terrified of their own cowardice they have refused the simple possibility they too could be heroes?

What a cramped, small life it must be. I am not a betting man but if I was I would wager a month's salary many of you reading this will know the exact feeling in what I am about to say. Every time I have boarded an airplane since that day... God help me... I have almost wished there were some hijackers on board so I would have the chance to help take some of those bastards down with me. That would be worth it all. What a day that would be.

Do not ever let them tell you the adventures and the heroic stories are a nonsense or a waste of time. People who fail to be moved by stories of heroism are people who are not paying attention. There is only one starship captain who gives James T. Kirk a run for his money. I think of Captain John J. Sheridan facing down an orbital defense platform threatening the eastern seaboard of North America. He can try to save those countless millions but only by the sacrifice of his ship and crew.

"Ramming speed," he says.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 12, 2003 10:42 AM


Excellend post. I'm a voracious reader of SF and Tom Clancy, and you hit the nail on the head. I'm linking to this from Pinwheels.

Posted by: Pinwheels at September 15, 2003 02:39 AM