Saturday, April 09, 2005

Irrational Man

So I’m reading Umberto Eco’s soon to be released novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which is about an Italian man who, in his late ‘50’s, suddenly loses his personal memory, and spend the novel trying to reconstruct it from the comic books and magazines left in his childhood home. And 2/3rds of the way through it, I’m thinking how badly the novel has fallen, a victim of its genetic heritage (like all things human made, seemingly). From it’s late 18th century beginnings to now, novels have always been about individuals more than about nations (Clarissa; Pamela). Romanticism gave them their purpose, and arguably the best of the 19th century were about the education of the individual within the society, whether in England (David Copperfield) or France (A Sentimental Education), or even Russia (Anna Karenina comes to mind first; undoubtedly a better choice could be made). Eco is continuing that vein, of course, except the society is shattered now, and all attention is on the individual. We don’t think of people finding their place in the world; at best, we think of them not finding their place (a perversion of the Romantic purpose, but such perversion is the inevitable result of exhausting the original principles). Where Dickens or Flaubert gave us a picture of national life in the life of an individual, Eco, like most modern novelists, gives us a picture of individual life in the life of an individual: a limited canvas, indeed, and not entirely his fault. To say he is not the novelist Dickens or Flaubert is, is not to say he’s no novelist at all.

But all of that rumination led me, higgledy-piggledy, to an episode of the “new” Battlestar Galactica I saw last night. Happened to see, in truth, since I’ve never followed the series (I remember Lorne Green too well, I suspect), and I only saw the last few minutes, so I don’t know the context precisely. But it struck me, thinking about the primacy of individuals in our literature, when I realized there was no “Dirty Harry” in this situation, that what happened occurred precisely because of a “chain of command,” not in spite of it.

Let me explain:

The situation is this: a passenger ship, presumably carrying 13,000 people (though there is some question of that) is heading toward the rest of the fleet, answering no calls, not slowing down, and revealing signs of nuclear weapons aboard. A huge floating bomb, in other words, and the only choice for the majority, is to destroy the ship and possibly kill a minority. The decision to fire must be made, but it must be made by the President, on advice from the Commander (Lorne Green never had problems like this!), and then the pilots must decide to open fire. They do, the day is saved; but all are haggard from the responsibility. The commander tells his son the pilot it was his responsibility for giving the command; but the son says, ruefully, “I pulled the trigger.”

The individual within society, acting on behalf of the society, for the “greater good” of the society; but all painfully aware of the cost to both the society and their own humanity. A weak reed on which to rest so much weight, I know, but a telling picture nonetheless. Telling, too, in that there is a clear chain of command here, a clear sense of responsibility, and no one shirking from that responsibility.

Which leads me to realize there are other ways of seeing these relationships: of what individuals owe society, and society owes individuals, and what each can expect from the other. The "Lone Ranger" image is still enticing; witness the popularity of Sin City now, a work I would argue stems directly from the parody of Romanticism we now are participating in (and that this is a peculiarly American theme is no accident). Which, in turn, stems from a misunderstanding of the responsibilities of existentialism (we are all existentialists now; but most of us take that as license, not burden). But there are alternatives afoot, even if they simply reaffirm the conservative notion that all our problems ultimately rely on military solutions.

Well, you've got to start somewhere, right?

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