The Ordinary Hero (Fathers Day 2017)

Today is June 17th, Saturday June 17th, and tomorrow is Sunday June 18th, Fathers Day 2017. I feel guilty because I did not launch on Friday and missed the poker game that Dad had with his friends.

I regret that I failed him yet again. This saddens me, but the sleep issues continue to elude my control.  I slept through the window of time for the poker game, and awoke when it was over, no chance to attend.

As I was attempting to fall asleep again, a series of images and words came to me. They were about Star Wars, George Lucas, Lucas’ mentor Joseph Campbell, and Campbell’s mentor Carl Jung who was briefly referenced in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. What came to me was a critical examination of the “first” Star Wars movie, Chapter 4 “A New Hope” made when Mark Hamill was a young Luke Skywalker, and a different “Prequel” from Rogue One.

What came to me was an idea for the “Journey of the Ordinary Hero,” and to focus on Skywalker’s adoptive parents, and their trials and tribulations as they try to make their family farm work and raise a young boy who might need protection from dark and sinister forces. “Crazy Old Ben” might make an appearance or two, but this probably should be done in passing. And the point here is an important one: many people are “heros” that live what might be considered an ordinary life from the vantage point of an outsider.

These are not people who wield light sabers or travel on space ships, but they are people who do the things necessary to set the stage for the hero who will emerge, someone who comes after them but who cannot quite become who they need to be without the foundation provided by the quiet and seemingly ordinary selfless parents who devote their lives to being the most honorable citizens that they can be.

I do not know if Lucas wrote character sketches for these adoptive parents of Skywalker or not. The look suspiciously similar to Jonathon and Martha Kent, Kal-El’s adoptive parents and early mentors before Kal-El comes to know his true heritage from Jor-El at some point after the Fortress of Solitude is built.

The fact is that many of us, not all but many of us, are precisely one of these variants if heroes. Maybe we are Owen Lars or Beru Whitesun Lars and we live humble lives as moisture farmers in the desert. Maybe we are Jonathon or Martha Kent. And maybe, just maybe, we are Luke or Kal-El and have not yet quite realized our potential.

I know that my father was, and is, a bit of both Luke and Kal-El. And in many ways Dad is both Owen Lars and Jonathon Kent.

Now he is an old man, and I am not certain how many years he has left. I am in his shadow, and I likely will never match him in his many accomplishments. The best I can hope for is to accomplish a few things of my own, at least some likely quite different from his.

I think Lucas, or perhaps someone else, should write a different prequel to Chapter 4, A New Hope. This prequel is about The Ordinary Hero, about Owen Lars and Beru Whitesun Lars and their lives and concerns and toils. It leads to the day that they will die at the hands of Storm Troopers looking for the missing droid. Written correctly, told correctly, it illustrates a powerful story that is quite different from the standard light sabers and space ships Star Wars stories.

Maybe it would never be made into a movie, I do not know. But I think maybe it could. But, even if it were not, it is a story that needs to be told.  We need to know how Owen and Beru Whitesun Lars became the people we briefly meet.  It is they who are Luke’s first mentors, not Obi Wan.

Je est un autre

Are you familiar with the phrase “Je est un autre”? In English, it translates to “I is another,” and in French it is equally incorrect from a grammatical point of view. French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote it when he was sixteen years of age in the mid 1800’s. His poetry became famous, arguably increasingly famous after his death, but he permanently abandoned poetry by age twenty and left France to pursue a (rather successful) career as a merchant and arms dealer in Africa.

What did the phrase mean? And, why did he abandon poetry, given his gift?

Rimbaud and Yahoo Answers

His poetry, and particularly this enigma “Je est un autre,” has been the subject of a growing body of speculation and commentary. I found this handful of answers on “Yahoo Answers.”

I disagree with the selection of “best answer” (which reeks of psychobabble), and think the better answer is the more succint “I was another… He felt like someone else…” Dissociation makes more sense than “a journey of imagination and an aesthetic evolution of its ingredients” (which sounds like pure, unadultered bullshit). Even “He s referring to himself as the devil. Remember Verlaine dubbed Rimbaud ‘the accursed poet.’” is better. That answer goes on to say “He goes on to say ‘tough luck to the wood that wants to be a violin.’ He s talking about nature and potential, and considering himself damned.” (Many sources translate this to “tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin.”  That’s an entirely different meaning, that leads to a rather similar conclusion, still painting the gift as a curse.)   This seems closer to the truth, but probably still misses the mark.  But the point is a good one: writing poetry but being unable to make a living can make one permanently abandon the gift in favor of the boring but more lucrative life of a merchant.

Rimbaud and the New York Times

Rimbaud’s work is a challenging topic, and Richard Hell’s New York Times piece on Rimbaud does well to note those challenges before wading into the mists where others have wandered. We note these important points:

  1. “One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully.”
  2. “Numerous writers have sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of him.”
  3. “…the anecdotes of his contemporaries showing him as a drunken, filthy, amoral homosexualteenager who becomes a reserved, hard-working, responsible and respectable (if misanthropic and disgust-ridden) adult merchant and explorer.”
  4. “…his scornful and unhesitating permanent abandonment of poetry at the age of 20.”

(I am taking so much from the New York Times piece that it borders on copyright infringement, but do keep in mind that I am doing so for the permitted purpose of critique and review. I quote this initial passage out of order as I have broken it down for a purpose which should become clear momentarily.)

Rimbaud and Bateson’s Levels of Learning

One theme that recurs in my life is this article on (Gregory) Bateson’s three levels of learning. I strongly suspect that a better answer than the Yahoo Answers is that Rimbaud touched upon Bateson’s “Level III” of learning as described by Paul Tosey. Among other things, Tosey said this about Level III:

At LIII Bateson and Bateson’s (1998) conception of the sacred becomes important. They argued that some levels of patterning are so profoundly ecological that they should not be analysed cognitively; to do so would make them vulnerable to conscious thought.

Said differently, Rimbaud was having a transcendent experience (as hinted at by what I think was the best Yahoo answer: “I was another… He felt like someone else… ”) And, if it is true that (1) Rimbaud touched upon Bateson’s LIII (a “sacred” experience (or at least massively powerful “brainstorm”) which can be perceived as psychosis by others) and (2) that Bateson’s ideas about LIII are indeed correct, then Hell is profoundly correct when he states “One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully.” (Paradox, or “many opposed ideas,” is a central aspect of Bateson’s LIII.)

Then, again, maybe it is “psychosis” or at least “dissociation.” 🙂

Rimbaud, Bandwidth, and Binding Constraints

From a different, but not inconsistent, viewpoint, Rimbaud may have been attempting to identify what some refer to as a “bandwidth problem,” more specifically Shannon’s Law’. Stated differently, Rimbaud’s ideas and thinking and experiences overloaded the capacity of even his elegant poetry to convey what he was seeking to transmit to us.

Whether or not Rimbaud’s experience, or more likely a series of experiences during this early period of his life, were “sacred” is open to speculation. But SOMEthing happened that led to his poetry and this mysterious sentence that has inspired so much commentary. If not a “sacred” experience, then a brainstorm (could it be both?) touched Rimbaud, and he realized that the totality of his experience simply could not be reduced to words.

He had a “bandwidth problem,” and more specifically the words he could write along with his ability to transform experience into those words represented a “binding constraint.” In case you clicked that link and did not follow that explanation, let me give it a try: for any given situation, any “problem” you are trying to solve, if you are “optimal” and cannot do any better, then some particular factor or aspect of the situation must change to obtain an improvement.  Most of the time, one particular single factor is the “bottleneck” that must be changed to bring about an improvement in the situation.  In the language of mathematical optimization, this bottleneck is called the “binding constraint.”

Rimbaud and Phenomenology

The experiences we have can never be fully reduced to words. Arguably we, and Rimbaud, are in the domain of phenomenology.) Since the domain of phenomenology was developed from the early 20th century forward, and Rimbaud lived in the mid 1800’s when he penned the famous line, Rimbaud simply could not have availed himself of the literature of phenomenology.

One source describes phenomenology thus “Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning….” This sounds suspiciously close to what someone might struggle with when attempting to examine his own thoughts, eventually drawing the conclusion that “I is another.”

In addition to the phenomenologists, an important early group of psychologists (in the late 1800’s, after Rimbaud) called the structuralists also struggled with this profound problem. The problem was so messy that a new group called the “functionalists” emerged in psychology and laid the foundation for behaviorism, the primary driver of most psychological research for at least a century.

A profound disconnect exists here: Rimbaud did not have the benefit of knowing what the phenomenologists and structuralists learned. Maybe if he did, then we would not have the benefit of his poetry. But, he didn’t, so we do.

If Rimbaud had read the writings of the phenomenologists, then he might have never have gifted this mysterious sentence to us which has been fodder for so much commentary, especially by those Hell describes as having “sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of” Rimbaud and his famous sentence.

What Else?

We have more to say about this, as it touches us on many levels. But, for now, we will stop here. In the future, we want to write about where all of this fits in our life, and why. Part of it addresses why we may abandon, or at least reduce, our efforts at writing and blogging on WordPress to, at least metaphorically, follow in the footsteps of young Rimbaud who, at age 20, abandoned his poetry and (as Hell points out) “contrary to legend, Rimbaud ultimately did quite well as a merchant and weapons salesman, accumulating a small fortune.” (Does this last sentence seem ungrammatical? Is it a disconnect in my writing? Let’s pick that up next time.)

Sigh. Maybe I really do need to get a “day job.”  Or, said differently, “tough luck to the wood that becomes a violin.”