Ruminations on E.T.

Yes, I know you’ve seen it, but it’s probably been a while. It was the same for me when I’d watched it a few weeks ago. It had been a while.

Original poster found on Wikipedia

You remember it: E.T. gets stranded on earth, is found by a ten-year-old kid, Elliott, who befriends him. For a while, Elliott is the only one who knows about and can see E.T. And while he tries to tell others about E.T., they disbelieve him and are angry with him for making up worthless stories. Eventually, however, his siblings and some other kids start seeing E.T., too. The adults, on the other hand, have a hard time seeing him, either because the kids are trying to hide him from the adults or because the adults are so preoccupied that they don’t see the signs that he is there. Sometimes, the adults don’t even see E.T. when he is right in front of them, like the scene when Elliott’s mother opens Elliott’s closet and sees E.T., but mistakes him for a toy since E.T. has frozen in place. Indeed, the boys even say at one point that adults can’t see E.T. E.T., however, wants nothing more than to go home.

Eventually, E.T. becomes ill. It’s not exactly clear what makes him ill. Sure, he may have caught a cold by staying up all night trying to contact his alien family. Or maybe the Earth food had a negative effect on his immune system. He may also have become physically sick because he was mentally homesick. But this last time I watched it, I wondered about something else. Could it be that E.T. symbolizes an idea and, when that idea gets tampered with, dies? Could we say here that, in Wordsworth’s words, “Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:– / We murder to dissect”?

Eventually, E.T. is discovered by adults, and they start trying to help him, to cure him, of his sickness. But could it be that we’re not seeing everything here? Could they also be doing tests on him and otherwise messing around with this new creature that they had never before seen and never would see again? For who can withstand the curious inclination to discover and behold something that no other earthling had ever seen before?

Perhaps it’s a long stretch. But whatever happens, E.T.’s body can’t handle it, either the sickness, the tests, or both. Perhaps in their trying to help E.T., the doctors actually hurt him. At least, that’s what Elliott believes and even screams at one point.

Are there some things that die when they get tampered with? I’m suddenly reminded of two things.

C. S. Lewis, in his first-published Narnia book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, dedicates the book to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield with the following statement:

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather, 
C. S. Lewis

What does Lewis mean when he says that “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again”? Do we get to a point in our lives where we begin to take for granted some of the best things? Best things? What am I saying? J.R.R. Tolkien has written that fairy tales, or fantasy, is “not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent” (“On Fairy Stories,” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays 139). That may sound like quite a surprising statement from an Oxford don and Cambridge professor, a world-renowned philologist and scholar of Anglo Saxon. Why would he say such a thing?

Does this mean that all fairy tales are worth while? Certainly not. For while some stories shouldn’t be read at all because they aren’t worth our time, “If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.” (“On Fairy Stories” 137).

Yes, E.T. comes back to life when Elliott says through tears that he loves E.T. But after that, both E.T. and Elliott are on the run. The kids are the ones that save E.T. from capture the second time, and the kids are the ones that take him back to the forest where his ship comes to rescue him. The adults, except for Elliott’s mother, don’t see him up close after that.

The Rent Collector and Zizek

I recently finished a book called The Rent Collector. It’s about a woman, Sang Ly, who lives in a garbage dump in Cambodia. She and her husband collect bottles and metal they find so they can sell them in order to make enough money to eat dinner. They also have a baby boy who is perpetually sick thanks to the neverending trash, stench, and lack of nourishment. Their house is 3 tin walls with a tarp for a roof, and they sleep on cardboard. The dump is constantly on fire because methane builds up under the trash and spontaneously ignites, so they have to be careful where they walk. And if that isn’t bad enough, there’s a drunk old woman who goes around collecting “rent” from the inhabitants of the dump. As if the people who live in Stung Meanchy (the dump) aren’t poor enough.

Well, Sang Ly makes a deal with someone who can read, and the book is about her learning to read even though she lives in constant poverty. It’s worth reading.

It’s interesting because I look around me and see all of the things that I think I really need to live that I may not be absolutely essential–things like my computer, phone, food, shower, running water, carpeted floor, matress, to sleep on, and the internet. I’ve been living in this way for so long that I don’t often think about what life might be like without these things. And yet, life isn’t like that for everybody on earth. Some people work all day just to make enough money to eat dinner. And then they go to work the next day just to do it all over again. There’s not much time for entertainment. Just survival.

And yet, we’re constantly told otherwise. We’re told to consume, to spend money, and, in short, to Enjoy! On that note of enjoyment, well, we certainly do live in a society saturated with entertainment (to what degree is or is not this a result of capitalism, an ideology of which money is a, if not the, god-term?). While entertainment is necessary and good to some degree, when it becomes a primary focus of an individual or a society, it can be dangerous. I’ve never read it, but perhaps Neil Postman was on to something when he titled one of his books Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Distinguishing Nature from Custom: On Journeys and Adventures–Perhaps Especially the Unexpected Kind

Life is good, but do you ever get that feeling that it’s sometimes not as good as it could be? To be honest, I get it all the time. It’s like there’s something missing, but in order to obtain that missing thing I have to do something I’ve never done before. And it’s not exactly easy to get outside of a comfort zone.

Well, now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been in theaters for almost two months, I think it would be useful (and interesting) to consider those feelings discussed above and some of their possible solutions as they appear in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.


The Original 1937 Cover. Doesn’t it look adventurous?

But why? Well, even though Bilbo’s adventure certainly is an unexpected journey as the movie’s subtitle suggests, the story is a lot more than that. It is not just a physical journey from Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain and back again, but more importantly, The Hobbit is also a symbolic journey during which Bilbo becomes something better than he once was. The story describes Bilbo’s change from a somewhat typical hobbit to an extraordinary one, from a being that was once content with who he was to one that, when he left his comfortable home to go on an epic quest, ended up helping those who needed help and was actually true to a part of himself that he wasn’t sure existed, a part of himself that he found only when he left his comfort zone.

Let’s talk about Bilbo’s comfort zone, which was comfortable in several ways. At the beginning of The Hobbit, we’re told that hobbits live in comfort and relaxation. Hobbit-holes, the places where Hobbits live, are by definition comfortable:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (3)

Bilbo’s own hobbit-hole is perhaps even more so, by hobbit standards. Besides being one of the biggest and best hobbit-holes that included a garden, Bilbo’s has things like “a perfectly round door like a porthole . . . a very comfortable tunnel without smoke . . . polished chairs, . . .” etc. (3). It was a nice home, and for a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins had the life.

But, like the rest of us, to some degree Bilbo can be defined by the places in which he spends his time, and more especially so by those places in which he spends the majority of his time. Since Bilbo’s hobbit-hole is described as comfortable, perfect, and polished, we can also assume that his life was similar: it was certainly comfortable, was about as polished as it could get, and it was, in a word, perfect–as far as typical hobbits go, of course. Bilbo’s neighbors expected him to do certain things, to say certain words, and to be a certain kind of hobbit, and Bilbo accurately and consistently fulfilled those expectations. He was a “very respectable” hobbit because the Bagginses “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected” (3).

This is the version I read when I was younger.
It almost looks like Bilbo lives in a sort of Eden-before-
the-Fall, or maybe even a pre-mortal-life-before-his-
venture-into-mortality.

That is, until along came Gandalf to tell Bilbo, “I am looking for someone to share an adventure I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone” (6).

At the word difficult, it’s no wonder that Bilbo gives what we might call a typical hobbit-response: “I should think so–in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” (6, emphasis added). I have italicized the word uncomfortable to make obvious what seems to be an inconsistent relationship between the life of a hobbit and the having, going on, and perhaps even the very existence of adventures. Real hobbits like Bilbo don’t go on adventures or quests. They only do what is expected of them, and Bilbo would have none of Gandalf’s talk. Or so he thought.

After Bilbo hopped inside to get away from Gandalf’s talk of adventures, he shut his perfectly round door, leaving Gandalf outside. In response, Gandalf lowers the tip of his staff to the door and leaves his mark on it, a mark that we’re told “made quite a dent on the beautiful door” (11). We’re obviously getting some foreshadowing here–Gandalf’s act of leaving his mark on a “perfect” door does create a dent, but the door is still functional. The door has something that it did not have before. It has the mark of someone older and wiser than the actual owner, and the mark of someone who knew the owner better than the owner knew himself (7). Bilbo’s perfect life is about to get a dent in it. But that dent is coming from someone who knows best.

Bilbo does acknowledge that Gandalf knows at least as much about Bilbo as Bilbo knows about himself: when the dwarves see the mark the next day and enter Bilbo’s house for tea while Gandalf returns, steps inside, and tells the dwarves where Bilbo’s food is located, Bilbo says that Gandalf “Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!” (12). The location (Bilbo’s hobbit-hole at Bag End) and the character (Bilbo himself) can be interchangeable to some degree, and when we talk about one, we are also to some degree talking about the other.

Alright. So, all the dwarves are sitting around in Bilbo’s house and Gandalf is there, too. And at first, Bilbo doesn’t want anyone there. He doesn’t even want to think about adventures or anything of the kind. He just wants to have dinner by himself. But something happens to Bilbo that wakes up a part of himself that he didn’t even know existed. Something makes him want to go on this adventure and leave his comfortable home.

It looks a bit like the first edition’s cover.

Suddenly, after dinner is finished, the dwarves pull out instruments. Clarinets, flutes, viols, a drum, and a harp–“It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin [the leader of the dwarf company] struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill” (14), the author tells us. Then the dwarves sing. They sing about their past and their ancestors. They sing about adventure, their once-powerful race, and its fall from greatness. They sing of the current, sorrowful state of their people. And they sing of their desire to restore that which was lost.

Note that music, poetry and stories do something to Bilbo. They influence him, and the songs that were sung in his hobbit-hole that evening gave Bilbo a “love of beautiful things” (16), and a desire to act, a desire to change: “Then something . . . woke up inside of [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick” (16).

You’ll notice that I omitted a word in the previous sentence with an ellipsis (. . .). That word is Tookish: the sentence actually reads, ” Then something Tookish woke up inside of him.” The Tooks were some of Bilbo’s ancestors who went on many adventures, and hence, as their descendant, Bilbo had a part of them in him. We could almost say that to some degree Bilbo had an innate desire for adventure. There’s evidence for this innate desire when Bilbo, as soon as he recognizes Gandalf for the first time, says,

Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves–or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter–I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time. (7)

This statement gives us evidence that, to some degree, Bilbo wasn’t completely true to himself. He was living a life in which he was content, but there was, however, something inside of him that desired adventure, something that he had stifled and choked until it had fallen asleep, and something that had woken up when Bilbo was moved by the song of the dwarves. And when that something woke up inside of him, Bilbo began to distinguish who he thought he was with who he really was. He began to realize that there was a part of himself that was hungry and needed nourishment. Was he merely a hobbit that would just sit around and be comfortable? No, that was only part of it. His adventurous, Tookish part desired more. It desired to do something in the world.

Of course, this desire of Bilbo’s doesn’t always stay with him. It keeps coming and going, and it does so because he hasn’t been nurturing it. For so long, Bilbo had kept the desire for adventure underground, and it will take him some practice to finally keep that desire constantly. Even good desires come and go. They do so because they haven’t yet been cultivated, and it will take a long time for Bilbo to become comfortable with the adventurous and Tookish part of himself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the hobbit-hole, the dwarves aren’t yet convinced. They don’t know who this guy is or how he will be useful for their adventure. They’re worried that he’ll just take up space, make things inconvenient, and eat all the food. They’re reluctant to let him come along with them, at least until Gandalf makes this profound statement: “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you . . . There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself” (19).

That seems to satisfy the dwarves for now, but Bilbo is still a bit hesitant to leave his comfort zone on a quest that no one even thinks about describing as safe. Even having a desire to leave doesn’t exactly make it any easier, for it’s hard for all of us to leave the known and step into the unknown. At this point, the movie adds an insightful line: Bilbo naturally asks Gandalf, “Can you guarantee that I’ll return?”

And Gandalf responds, “No. And you won’t be the same if you do.”

No, Bilbo certainly isn’t the same when he returns. But since I realize that some people haven’t read the book, perhaps I’ll save what I have to say about the story’s ending until the third movie comes out. Let me at least say the obvious, that Bilbo ends up better than he was when he left. And it is always interesting to me to note that, before he left, he thought that he didn’t need a adventure. After all, adventures are just “Nasty, uncomfortable things” that “Make you late for dinner!” and for a hobbit, dinner is everything (it’s an ultimate term)–and no rational hobbit would ever want to be late for dinner, let alone go without it, as Bilbo often does during his quest with the dwarves. But when Bilbo gained a love for more beautiful things, his vision and perspective were expanded, and he was motivated to forget about things like being late for dinner.

I’m reminded of a statement by Samuel Johnson (he was a famous writer in England about 300 years ago), that might just summarize this post and the transformation that Bilbo goes through. In the following quote, Johnson is talking about writing, but we can apply the same principle to Bilbo Baggins’ symbolic journey, as well as to human beings and human interactions in general:

It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established. (The Rambler 152)

I think this is what happens to Bilbo during his unexpected journey. He comes to realize that the comfortable customs around him, while nice, weren’t always the best, and there was something more to who he was than what he had become.

I found this image on http://ldsw.webs.com/.

Identity, Amnesia, and Some Brief Thoughts on The Bourne Identity

Have you ever had amnesia? I have, and I don’t recommend it.

I woke up one night, my head pounding with pain that I don’t have words to describe, and couldn’t understand why I had such a bad headache. All I seemed to understand was that it was the worst headache I ever had. Why did my head hurt? And what time was it? The clock said 4:41, but was it the morning or in the evening? It had to be in the evening because it was still dark outside, but why didn’t I know? Then, feeling an itching sensation around my right wrist I noticed one of those plastic emergency wristband around it, and I had no idea why it was there. That in turn motivated me to try to remember what I did the day before, but doing that only made my head hurt worse. What day was yesterday, anyway? I didn’t know. I didn’t know what day of the week it was. I got up and looked at my calendar, but I couldn’t figure out what day it was. I knew what month it was, but when I tried to remember what year it was, I didn’t know. I looked at the back of the calendar to remind myself.

I recognized that I was at home in my own room, but I had no idea how I got there or why I was there. It was kind of scary, to say the least. And I’ve already mentioned how bad my head hurt. It was one of those hurts that you only understand if you’ve had a headache so bad that you don’t know how your skull is staying intact. And no, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I was reminded about what it was like to not remember anything when I first saw The Bourne Identity. You remember it. Jason Bourne, the protagonist, wakes up on a shipping boat at the beginning, and he has no idea who he is, where he is, or why he is there. Those questions permeate the entire series: as Jason searches for who he is, where he has come from, and what his purpose is in life, viewers are motivated to ask themselves the same questions. Who are we? Why am I here?

Jason gets his first clue from his body. You’ll remember that the fisherman that removed the bullets from his back also removed a device from his hip that projected a bank number and the location of a bank on the wall. The things that were in his body gave him clues as to who he was and where he should go to find out more about himself. Who he was is written in his body. And his previous actions affected his body. The body is a clue–its condition, its skills, and its fitness hint at who he is and has been.

At the bank, Jason opens a deposit safe box and finds money, a handgun, and a passport. Actually, he finds multiple passports. The first one he sees is for Jason Bourne, so he assumes that name. But as he puts this one aside, he notices that it is just one of many. There are many passports in the case, all with his picture on them, but all with a different name, birth date, and country of origin.

But all of these identities, while somewhat various, are all joined together in a single persona–him. He is the composite of the various identities, his different selves.

I say different, but they really aren’t so different. Depending on our perspective, we could say that he is a person with many different identities, or we could say that those many different identities can all be reduced to something in common–him.