LC0aT4 Samples of my other writing: history & mystery

When I reach maturity and know the meaning of
   Work and laughter and the joy of requited love,
To achieve a synthesis, lasting and sublime,
   Shall be made the challenge of my remaining time.

in “Songs of Youth,” of that vintage

1998, in Paris

Ah, when you’re young
And the words to your tongue
Come like birds to Saint Frances,
With darting and dances,
   “Wait,” you say , “Wait,
    There’s still time, it’s not late.”

And the next day you’re old,
And the words are all cold
As the birds of October
Sing over, sing over
   “Late,” they sing, “Late,”
    And “Wait,” you say, Wait.”

Archibald MacLeish

After my playing the role of JB, in his play of the same name, I had the privilege of meeting MacLeish on his visit to campus (1961). In a recitation and running commentary on his poetry, he said that this poem, one of his most popular, was written when he was too young to have personal experience of aging and that, in fact, it elegantly misrepresented the feelings of aging, as he could then testify.

Another anecdote: on a cross country train trip with a friend of mine[1], Chuck Jones, the director of many of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons, asked him to sit in his lap. Now Chuck was over eighty then and appeared very frail. My friend was a little concerned and Chuck said, “Come on, sit on my lap, I feel like I’m still a kid, but I’ve got something horribly wrong with me….”

A few nights ago, in a small café around the corner from L’Eglise Americain, I urged some young friends to take seriously science fiction, both stories and films, as the literature of ideas in our time. Bladerunner[2], Ridley Scotts’ early masterpiece, was an example accessible in Le Grand Pavois at the time. Better than any other artistic work I know, it raises for consideration the question of what it means to be human and what is the essence of the human condition. I set the context and quoted the ultimate lines of Rutger Hauer, as Roy, the leader of the genetically engineered super-beings who were pre-programmed to die with a very short life span. “I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion and sea beings glitter in the darkness of the Tannhauser Gate.” He concludes in a crisp statement with the simplicity of a haiku:

All these memories, lost in time,
Like tears in the rain.
It’s time to die.

Can one have much sympathy for a “robot” ? In the film, Roy earns that sympathy, dramatically — a claim I can not establish with a few words here. And I can sympathize with that luminous young woman who said her “heart was most captured by JR, the human genetic engineer, who, suffering from Methusalah’s disease,” appeared much older than his calendar age of 25. “Of course I sympathize with him, too,” I joked, “I’ve only had fourteen birthdays, and look what’s happened to me”[3]. Roy’s grief and anger are a complaint against his creator for making him so marvelous and yet so mortal. Is not this my complaint and yours as well ? Through the experience of living we learn and create values, in a world which has no values otherwise. We die, and what then of our values, like memories lost in time? Must things “lost in time” be like tears in the rain ? Can they not be instead, like a smile among friends — not perhaps enough to light the world, but maybe enough to warm a heart ?

Occasionally, some visions and values do light up the world, whether those of a Martin Luther King, or a Ghandi, or more anciently a Jesus or Hillel, or a Buddha or Confucius. What most people have in opposition to age and death is the chance to share a little sympathy, friendship, the stories of life, and what we have learned. Without the sense of transience that mortality brings, would we have so much reason and need to look to one another?

Roy, the super-human who complained to his human maker of mortality and even killed him, spared the life of Deckerd, the Bladerunner who was hunting him down. Roy tried to share his feeling about aging and death, rather than revenging Deckerd’s murder of his friends. This scene is where Roy became “human” to my sympathies, because sharing of values is the basis of fraternity more than is the physical grounds of our being. It is possible to imagine, then, that until we conquer the second law of thermodynamics, until deterioration and death are defeated, they will remain with us as the motive for friendship and brotherhood.

Here, then at last, is an answer — even if it is long known and has been oft repeated — to Camus’ question:

“The only concrete question today of interest to me is how
one can be a Saint in a world in which there is no God.”

Reach out to one another in friendship. Sharing your experience and values with those capable of appreciating them is the only remedy for mortality. Such a “godless humanism,” rising from a recognition of what is common and inescapable in our mortal condition — even if someday it becomes open to creatures we will make with our hands rather than with our loins — will provide ultimately the grounds for our dealing with other intelligences we may hope to encounter, should the civilizations of this planet survive and reach out to others in the galaxy and universe we have just begun to become aware of.

Paris, February 1998

[1]. This friend was, in fact, Marvin Minsky, a founder of AI and advisor to Arthur Clarke on “2001,” who also had a long-standing interaction with the animation artists of Walt Disney studios.
[2]. A “Bladerunner” is a hunter, in the story, of super-human’s created by genertic engineering and banished from the planet. This story is about Deckerd, a Bladerunner, who must track and kill 6 “Nexus-6” creatures who have invaded earth. Wrinkles in the story include his coming to love one Nexus-6 female, not on his hit-list, and the question argued among afficionadoes of whether or not Deckerd is himself human. The film, a long time favorite, directed by Ridley Scott, is based on the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Phillip K. Dick.
[3]. A small surprise: this is true, since I was born on February 29th.

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