In the film Arrival nonlinear time is understood through the structure of a language, specifically that which humans come to learn from the advanced beings who have paid a visit to our primitive time-bound planet. Theirs is ideogrammatic in form and concept, with fractal squiggles of ink delivering constellations of meaning. Inspired, I come out of the theatre wondering how English, for example, might be reprogrammed to convey the same sense of nonlinear time. Arrival uses the language of film: with cuts mid-scene, flashbacks and flashforwards, interposed with chronology. In life this understanding can be approached by synchronicity: in which forces converge to prove the apprehension of interconnectivity.
For example, as I sat through the largely actionless first half of the film, I was preoccupied with my own thoughts and feelings about relationship, a seeming distraction… until later, the film turns on a developing relationship between the two communications experts, the scientist and the linguist. A particular synchronicity appeared in the reference to the “non-zero-sum game,” one night after I had written in a blog post of the competing debates over climate change in just such terms. Was I prescient when writing those words the night before? Or I am merely aspiring to attach meaning to this random coincidence of which any person could find a similar recognition in any of the hundreds of dialogue snippets in the film? This is another ability of language: to use a particular instance to represent a universal condition.
If language can be a tool of cosmic understanding, as was attempted in the Vedas, can it also be used today as a weapon of peace, by which to blast open or subvert our conditioned minds to grasp the interconnection of all beings, the harmony of desires and common ground of multiple truths? Can this universe, this earth, this medium and this transmission of writer to reader stand for all possible universes, planets, media and conversations, embodying that feature essential to any successful communication, the transfer of understanding? Such learning might be the ultimate survival tool, which in fact, as Jared Diamond argues in The Third Chimpanzee, drove our very brain development in a period when the resulting cooperation proved essential to the species.
In further resonance with this key history of language, Diamond comes full circle to the present crossroads of history, quoted in an article (“Stay Alert, America: The Worst Is Yet to Come”) by John Whitehead, which I just read and shared prior to writing this article.
We’ve been stuck in this political Groundhog’s Day for so long that minor deviations appear to be major developments while obscuring the fact that we’re stuck on repeat, unable to see the forest for the trees.
This is what is referred to as creeping normality, or a death by a thousand cuts.
It’s a concept invoked by Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Jared Diamond to describe how major changes, if implemented slowly in small stages over time, can be accepted as normal without the shock and resistance that might greet a sudden upheaval.
Diamond’s concerns are environmental in nature, but they are no less relevant to our understanding of how a once-free nation could willingly bind itself with the chains of dictatorship.
Writing about Easter Island’s now-vanished civilization and the societal decline and environmental degradation that contributed to it, Diamond explains, “In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism… Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?”
His answer: “I suspect that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Much like America’s own colonists, Easter Island’s early colonists discovered a new world—“a pristine paradise”—teeming with life. Almost 2000 years after its first settlers arrived, Easter Island was reduced to a barren graveyard by a populace so focused on their immediate needs that they failed to preserve paradise for future generations.
This last conclusion dovetails with another film, which I saw last night, Before the Flood, which shows where we are now and we’re we’re headed if we don’t change our ways of living and our way of thinking—toward the eco-dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.
Indeed, my only hope as a wielder of language is that the skillful use of this tool will make possible wider and deeper understanding of what is possible, beyond the limits of our conventional bounded reality, personal and collective; a felt appreciation of the sacred beauty of nature’s creation, and of the possibility and necessity of living in harmony with it, and our fellow creatures, in body and spirit.