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March 10th, 2007 - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
March 10th, 2007
Sat, Mar. 10th, 2007 11:01 am

There's a scene in Happy Days. Richie Cunningham has to take a test, but someone has given him the answers in advance. He decides to come clean to his father. "Dad, I have something to tell you. I have all the answers." Howard, his father, isn't too concerned. "That's okay, son, at your age I thought I had all the answers too."

Howard, here, is failing to take on board the new information his son is trying to give him because he's too busy projecting himself -- affectionately enough, but also patronizingly and narcissistically -- into the situation. He's insisting on mapping his own experiences, his own former delusions, onto his son. He wants to help Richie overcome old mistakes that Howard made thirty years before. It's classic parent stuff. They never understand.

Tellingly enough, the Howard-mistake Howard mistakenly projects onto Richie is the delusion of omniscience: having all the answers. And although his answer seems to suggest he's over it, Howard still clearly thinks he has all the answers. About his son and what he's going through, anyway. Howard is still talking as if he's up on the high hill, that spot from which other people's errors can be seen, if only because they're your own. Sitting up on that high hill, Howard sees Richie as a little carbon copy of himself, thirty years down the line. "Oh look, here he comes, struggling up the same hillside path I came up, dealing with the same delusions and pitfalls. Thinking he's already sitting at the top, when in fact it's only me who's sitting at the top. He'll find out soon enough, I guess. And then wish he'd listened to his father."

Anyone with parents knows how infuriating this kind of assumption is. It's all the more infuriating when we look in the mirror and see fresher-faced versions of our parents looking back. In other words, when we suspect that there might be some truth in it. But the main thing that makes it wrong is context. In the twenty or thirty years that separate two generations, a lot has changed. Lessons learned in Howard's slumped 1930s are probably not particularly applicable to life in Richie's affluent 1950s. Imagine the Waltons trying to tell the Jetsons how to live.

Projecting yourself too much onto something inherently different from you -- even if it's only different because the context has changed -- is a bit like anthropomorphism; projecting human attributes onto animals. Contemporary Western culture is incredibly anthropomorphic. I was in the Post Office queue yesterday, examining Easter cards featuring rabbits. While all the cards based on photographs were forced to show the rabbit's eyes on either side of its head, looking out sideways, ever-vigilant for predators, the cards which used drawings of rabbits "corrected" this, putting the eyes on the front of the face, as they would be if rabbits were a predator species like humans, not a prey species. As a result, the rabbits looked like long-eared bears. Presumably this alteration was to make rabbits more like us, and therefore more loveable. But why must we only love things on the condition that we can project our own features onto them? The "modern Stone Age family" in The Flintstones is funny because of all the anachronism, all the projection of ourselves onto a different time. But would you want an Anthropology Museum, or a foreign policy, based on the idea that Stone Age people are just like us?

The problem is, that's exactly what we have. Every day we read the opinion that radical Islam is reproducing Medieval Europe, or that Japanese women are just about to go through a stage Western women went through in the 1960s. We invade Iraq thinking that they'll thank us for giving them the political apparatus we already have. Thinking that if it works for us, it'll work for them. We are perhaps the most narcissistic culture that has ever existed. We really think we're sitting on top of the hill, the pinnacle and culimation of all history and all progress. The fact that we have to kill so many people to help them see how they're just like us, really, doesn't seem to convince us that this view might be mistaken.

To say that an animal is like a human, or one culture is like another culture at a different phase in its history, is a metaphor, nothing more. It cannot be the case, non-metaphorically. Even when different calendars co-exist -- and they do; for the West this is 2007 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, for the Japanese it's Heisei 19, for Muslims it's Hijrah year 1428 -- we're all living in the same moment. And we're all living with each other, changing each other's context, redefining each other. Today's postmodernism has been influenced by Islamism, as Islamism has been influenced by postmodernism. Even if the Islamic 1428 resembled the Christian 1428 in every way, the fact that we were around would change the situation utterly. Context changes everything. Imagine a 1428 in which Christendom lived alongside a postmodern culture with TV stations, pop stars and the internet. It would be an utterly different 1428, one which defined itself (probably negatively) against the postmodern culture next door.

Think, too, of how insulting it is to say "They're living our 1428. They're just like we were." What would we think of a Japanese writer who said the West had just about reached Japan's Meiji 18? He'd be dismissed as an incredibly arrogant nationalist.

Borges has two short stories which have a lot to tell us here. One is about a poet who's writing an epic poem describing everything in the world using an Aleph in his basement -- a wondrous little model which makes the whole universe simultaneously visible in a space just a few centimeters across. The West really seems to think it's the Aleph, the model, the place from which everything can be seen, and in which everything is contained. We really act as if we're up on the hilltop, and have the answers. The trouble is that in our Aleph, everything looks suspiciously like us. The rabbits in there all have eyes on the front of their heads. Maybe we haven't kept it clean. Maybe it's a mirror.

The other story is Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote, in which a 20th century man attempts to rewrite Cervantes' 16th century novel from memory. Borges makes clear that even if Menard had succeeded (and of course he can't, just like the famous monkeys with their typewriters and their infinite bits of paper containing close-but-no-cigar versions of "Hamlet"), he would still have been an utterly original writer, doing something Cervantes wouldn't have dreamed of: reproducing Cervantes word-for-word.