Make It Snow (So)

I sit in a dark room, trapped indoors by a hot mug of tea and a disgusting wet snow falling outside. As I sit in my chair, my face is lit up only by the glow of my laptop screen, which is brighter than usual as it is currently depicting the famous reflective head of Patrick Stewart. Even through some tinny laptop speakers, his deep voice still commands authority as it speaks out, “Make it so.”

I have a few days off from work due to Christmas, and I found out that the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation is available on Netflix. I was pretty shocked by how having a few days off of work immediately destroyed my usual Normal Person habits. Though I had a lot of ambitious plans to get cool stuff done during this mini-break from work, I have scaled those back and I am now mainly trying to avoid a repeat of my awful video game filled Thursday, and I guess watching Star Trek seems like a slightly more positive activity to me.

Even though Star Trek can be rather campy at times and has its fair share of ridiculous moments that would make a black and white cartoon of Jackie Chan throw his hands up in disbelief, I still believe that it is a very special kind of show. I think this is made most clear by comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, a similarly named and yet diametrically opposed franchise.

On a very basic level, both franchises concern themselves with the act of zipping around on spaceships, visiting far-off worlds, and interacting with various aliens that contain sweating Angelenos hoping for a shot at stardom beneath their silicone skins. But their stories work through different methods.

As a child, while I understood that Star Wars took place in a galaxy far far away, I didn’t really understand why we are explicitly told that the story took place a long time ago, even though all the spaceships and blasters and lightsabers and stuff clearly point to the future. As I understand it now, all the Space Age stuff in Star Wars is not actually an integral part of the story, but is really more of a marketing ploy to get people to show up to the theaters in greater numbers and also obtain licensing fees from the sale of Star Wars action figures and SkyMall products. The story could just as effectively been in some sort of Bronze Age setting, for example. All of the advanced technology in Star Wars just results in a gritty world not too different from our own, rather than a utopia as you might expect, and many of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe lead lives that are in essence defined by age-old concerns that are relevant today. They strive to make money, they worry about their safety, and they waste their time on self-destructive activities, so it seems like the technological differences between our world and the Star Wars universe doesn’t really affect the message of Star Wars in a fundamental way. The major difference between our world and that of Star Wars is the existence of the Force, which is a sort of quasi-spiritual power that runs through the story’s examination of Good vs. Evil (as well as the Evil that is ever present within Good, and vice versa). So in a lot of ways Star Wars seems more mythological than realistic.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is set in our own universe, but hundreds of years in the future. It is a world in which technological advances mean that human life no longer has to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. “The Dismal Science,” which is the study of scarcity, is rendered obsolete by the abundance that is made possible by “Science Science.” So I feel that the setting of Star Trek is much more integral to the plot than is the case for Star Wars. Star Trek is more an examination of what becomes possible in an utopian future where every person’s material needs are fulfilled, which is not to say that there aren’t challenges in the Star Trek universe, but they tend to be more philosophical and psychological in nature.

I think that Star Trek has a rather unique storytelling structure. What I mean is, I feel like every movie/TV/book plot ever goes like this: ordinary, unimpressive main character goes about their quotidian life, until some opportunity/person/force gives them the chance to become a part of something more distinguished, and by persevering against setbacks and challenges the main character finally becomes a super cool person who can accomplish awesome things. This, of course, is basically how the Luke Skywalker storyline unfolds.

However, Star Trek distinguishes itself in that the main characters are already awesome people at the beginning of the story. Everyone serving on the Enterprise is one of the best at what they do (or otherwise they wouldn’t be serving on the biggest, baddest ship in the Federation). There isn’t a whiff of incompetence anywhere on the ship. So the story focuses not on the process of an ordinary person becoming great, but rather on already great people at the height of their powers deftly navigating themselves through tricky situations.

Of course, the aim of the generic, Normal Peter Parker to Awesome Spiderman story format is meant to make us sympathise with the story more by allowing us to self-insert, and allowing us to imagine that maybe we too could leave our generally boring and unremarkable lives to become awesome, distinguished, and famous. But actually, I believe that the Star Trek story format works in a similar way too, and this is another way in which Star Trek can be said to be utopian; when we self-insert into the Star Trek storyline, we don’t have to imagine our current selves struggling through the process of becoming amazing, but instead we can imagine a version of ourselves that is already amazing, and has already “made it.” But what, exactly, do we do after we have “made it”? The answer to that question is very tough, as it is ultimately a question of human values. And those are the sorts of big questions that are confronted in a utopia where each person’s material needs are covered, and each one of us has found our life’s purpose, and has become the exact person that we have always believed we could be.

This Hegelian Life

I’m a big fan of the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. There’s a great scene from the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder plays through the entire piece, coupled with a psychedelic animation sequence. I’ve liked this piece ever since watching this movie. (As a side note, I like imagining the scrunched up noses that the studio executives made upon hearing that there would be a 5 minute classical music interlude in this children’s movie that they were paying for. Hopefully there are still filmmakers out there who are willing to take a chance on weird artistic choices like that.)

Later in life, I started taking piano lessons, which gave me an opportunity to learn to play this piece. I found that my piano teacher had a very close relationship with this piece of music as well. When I told her that I wanted to learn the second movement from the Pathétique, she immediately took my sheet music from me and proceeded to mark it up with her pen. The markings did not seem to have much to do with playing the piano. At the beginning of the piece, I saw that she had written “BIRTH,” and at the end, “DEATH.”

“This piece is like the passage of life,” my piano teacher told me. Her interpretation: the first notes are played with the image of a baby passing into consciousness, opening its eyes, and taking its first steps. Later in life, the safety of childhood is left behind, and the tone becomes dark and tumultuous as life’s various challenges are confronted. In old age, those challenges are relegated to the past, and a sort of resignation and contentment sets in instead. And then life comes to a close, ending with a tone that is strongly reminiscent of how it began. Experiencing the Pathétique in this way is very moving for me. As the piece comes to an end with the beginning motif, you really get the feeling that the music is in sync with some sort of natural order, a cycle that has been repeated a countless number of times, and will continue on long after you play the final notes of the piece and take your foot off the sustain pedal.

In this idea of life as the Sonata Pathétique, life is defined by a sort of template, or a form, which probably involves generic accomplishments such as getting married, having kids, etc. So I guess in this worldview, a life is judged as being “good” according to the degree that it adheres to the structure imposed by this template. This idea is tied to a related idea of what a “good” society is; a society can be called good to the extent that its structure resembles that of some sort of ideal form.

This view of life seems to me to be ancient, although maybe it’s not. While this view of life is still important in our culture, I feel that its influence has waned in favor of a more modern ideal of the “good life” — which is to say that, it seems like the idea of what a life should look like has shifted in tandem with how our idea of what a society should look like has shifted. I think that the modern idea of society originates with Hegel’s idea that history is directional. Just as a disclaimer, I could see myself being completely wrong about this and the following statements, but whatever.

The directionality of history contains the idea that society as it exists is imperfect, but it is constantly improving. The ideal society doesn’t exist as a template, but rather as an abstract ideal, which is defined as a comparative — as something that is “better” than what we have today. I think this idea of progress is basically at the foundation of what we consider to be a “good” society. The clearest, but by no means only expression of this in our society is the idea that there will always be economic growth. Under this idea, a society is good if it is wealthy. It is assumed that a society will experience economic growth, pushing it closer to its goal of wealth. This is an assumption underpinning a shocking proportion of decisions that our society makes. Interestingly, though I don’t quite understand this concept, apparently money originates not at the point when it comes off the government printing press, but at the point when banks make loans for interest, so in essence, the very concept of money necessitates growth.

In any case, translated onto a personal level, this Hegelian worldview means that a life path is not good insofar as it fits into some pre-defined template. Instead, a good life is directional, and is constantly improving, moving towards some definition of “success.” What this means: education as a series of levels to be cleared, each level increasing your access to success. A job, and then a different, better job. Another skill you can check off on your LinkedIn profile. Income increasing every year, home value increasing every year, stock investments growing in value, 401(k) growing in value. Each stage of your life measured in terms of how much you have improved on what the previous generation had.

The benefit of this Hegelian lifestyle would seem to be that it gives everyone the freedom to pursue goodness, even those people who would otherwise be excluded from a more traditional, pre-determined sort of life ideal, which can often be discriminatory and exclusive. The downside seems to be that, due to the lack of clear destination, people can use the pursuit of success as an excuse to indefinitely put off achieving anything like contentment. If the whole goal of life is improvement, this obviously conflicts with the idea that many people quietly carry in the back of their minds that “when I have X and Y, and I’m finished with Z, I will finally be content.” There is no clear concept of what “enough” means in this worldview.

Of course this is all assuming that this sort of constant improvement is even achievable in practice. Often it seems like people who have met all of their needs still suffer anguish solely due to the fact that their life paths do not really fulfill this ideal of improvement. How realistic is it really to live up to the pressure of always improving upon your parents’ achievements, and improving upon your own achievements each year? It also seems like we are hitting up against hard limits to growth that are imposed by the size of the planet that we live on. So we are facing both ecological and psychological constraints to this idea of constant growth.

Obviously there are a lot of interesting opinions on what an alternative to the growth mindset could look like for society at large. But on an individual level, it is really hard to know what the alternative to the pursuit of growth and improvement could be. A lot of us recognize that the constant improvement mindset is bankrupt, but we either can’t or won’t return to a more ancient ideal of a templated life, and without those guiding ideals life seems to be aimless and directionless in a way that is very anxiety inducing. And taking advantage of this vacuum of philosophy is an endless stream of self-help gurus, lifestyle bloggers, political agitators, garbage content streams…

I guess the only thing we can conclude is that figuring things out can be pretty hard. So let’s cut ourselves and others a little bit of slack, and try to stay warm over the Holidays, and rejoice, because why not?