Friday, May 15, 2009

The future past

I must admit that I watched it. Hollywood as it may be, I can't deny that in the emotional state I am in these days it is perhaps not a bad idea to be forced to look back at the person I have been some 27 years ago. I was no scientist then, only dreaming of becoming one, while right now I am trying to figure out if there's anything left to dream of in it.

The child is grown,
the dream is gone
and I have become comfortably numb.

(Pink Floyd "The Wall" - "Comfortably numb")

One does not need a deep psychological insight to understand why Star Trek appeals to teenagers, nor why the character of half-human science officer Spock appeals especially to kids who are passionate about science and who are, at the same time, struggling with difficult emotional states. There is no shortage of troublesome teenagers, back then as now: the violent emotions, brawls and fist fights, the antisocial behavior, the complete refusal to recognize any form of authority. Been there, done that. Fewer among them combine all this with a passion for science, even though science is at heart a refusal of authority and of social conventions. Science can also become a most powerful source of self-fulfilling and stabilizing effects, capable of overcoming the unbalance of emotions that accompanies all those other impulses. It is not a surprise that, for such people as I used to be, the inner struggle of the Spock character for the control of emotion via the discipline of science would inevitably resonate.

The "Spock technique" worked for me ever since I first got the idea, just about 27 years ago, at the time of my first exposure to the now more than 40 year old first Star Trek series. It is remarkably simple and effective: one tames the emotional storms of anger and despair by channeling their full strength into a different direction, into the focused attention and inquisitive curiosity that is required in the apprenticeship of the hard sciences. It worked rather well ever since, but the path of science is a steep climb and at every step up the mountain performing the same task and obtaining the same effect becomes more laborious. That's why the story character feels to right, because under the continuous struggle to maintain control, not to slip, especially in the presence of his fellow travelers of the galaxy, there is a growing tension that every so often explodes violently, as in this movie plot and in all those other similar episodes in the old series that the new movie keeps referring to.

Now I've got that feeling once again.
I can't explain, you would not understand:
this is not how I am.
I have become comfortably numb.

While it is easy to charm and inspire a young person, the grownup self becomes too cynically aware of the tricks behind the scenes, too critical and detached, too demanding of high quality and depth to satisfy the same desire for wonder. There is no more cheap thrill to be had with a few special effects and a bit of rhetoric that sounds vaguely like scientific jargon. This is another reason why achieving the same miracle of alchemical transformation, which transmutes powerful emotions into the crystal clarity of scientific thought, becomes more and more difficult with time. There are no more easy catalysts available to ignite the reaction and the philosopher's stone has become far too philosophical and much heavier a stone to carry over the years.

I hear you're feeling down.
Well I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again.

The plot of the new movie is just as weak as any old Star Trek episode was: alternate histories, time travel, black holes, arch-villains armed with scimitars, the whole paraphernalia of pulp sci-fi. Nonetheless it does manage to give those same old characters a new coat of paint that makes them palatable for the sensitivity of 2009 that is by now ill at ease with the inevitable portrait of American society of the late 1960s which transpires from the original series. Transported in modern day sensitivity, the characters acquire a darker side: no longer the "future perfect" the original series had been trying to portray, while at the same time slipping every so often into all the unspoken prejudices of the time. The new version indulges on the less than perfect human (and semi-human) nature: all of the characters now looking all the more rebels and misfits, just as I liked to imagine, with the Spock character more than ever caught between worlds, out of place in all of them, unable to master his emotions, ill equipped to handle his own capacity for love. There is little room for psychology in an action plot, but Spock's struggle for maintaining control after witnessing the destruction of his own world does still resonate. I rarely indulge in Hollywood pastimes, but hitchhiking such an easy ride back into the tunnel of time was an irresistible call. No improbable black holes and strange forms of matter needed, no high-tech effects, just the tenuous flow of memory.

The movie itself ends with an encounter between a later and a former self; barring the paradoxes of time travel, the story is also a self-referential look at the dream of the past in the light of the disillusionment of a future of changed histories and widespread destruction, where the only purpose left becomes that of reconstructing the reality of a memory, reproducing within the new reality the same initial conditions of the original story. That's what I am visiting my own former self for, indeed, reconstructing a broken dream. I have been returning to that old dream theater and that long buried part of myself every time my life takes a turn where the balance becomes precarious and the ascent becomes steeper and slippery.

Can you stand up?
I do believe it's working, good.
That'll keep you going through the show
Come on it's time to go.

If one needs the discipline of science as an antidote to the darkness and as a resolution of a continuing inner struggle, then it is inevitable to look into the vast landscape of research for some strong emotional catalysts that will make it possible to stir that inner turbulence and redraw its course towards a creative outcome preventing the descent into a grim and self-destructive one. One needs a driving force of sufficient magnitude to power the slow and difficult ascent out of the darkness and into the light. Keep going through the show is most of the time already a struggle in itself, getting through each day, doing what needs to be done, coming out on top every night with some tangible progress in one's hands, something to cling on to as a proof that there is forward motion still, and that the climb, slow and painful as in may be, is still ongoing. The need for a motivation that is sufficiently powerful at the emotional level is the weak link in the iron chain securing the way to successful and rewarding scientific achievements, because it makes all the delicate and difficult construction that one slowly builds around it step by step into a very vulnerable structure, and changing course in the middle of a climb is both difficult and unwise. Yet, there is no other way: the force that tames the inner tide has to be of equal magnitude.

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.

So I am searching once more, looking back in time, inspecting the dark line of the horizon for traces of another source of light. It's a difficult time to be marooned into this limbo, into this dense fog. It's time "to explore strange new worlds" looking for a new direction once again, "to boldly go where no one has gone before".

Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?