Friday, January 25, 2013

Distinguishing Nature from Custom: On Journeys and Adventures--Perhaps Especially the Unexpected Kind

Life is good, but do you ever get that feeling that it's sometimes not as good as it could be? To be honest, I get it all the time. It's like there's something missing, but in order to obtain that missing thing I have to do something I've never done before. And it's not exactly easy to get outside of a comfort zone.

Well, now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been in theaters for almost two months, I think it would be useful (and interesting) to consider those feelings discussed above and some of their possible solutions as they appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The Original 1937 Cover. Doesn't it look adventurous?
But why? Well, even though Bilbo's adventure certainly is an unexpected journey as the movie's subtitle suggests, the story is a lot more than that. It is not just a physical journey from Bilbo's hobbit-hole in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain and back again, but more importantly, The Hobbit is also a symbolic journey during which Bilbo becomes something better than he once was. The story describes Bilbo's change from a somewhat typical hobbit to an extraordinary one, from a being that was once content with who he was to one that, when he left his comfortable home to go on an epic quest, ended up helping those who needed help and was actually true to a part of himself that he wasn't sure existed, a part of himself that he found only when he left his comfort zone.

Let's talk about Bilbo's comfort zone, which was comfortable in several ways. At the beginning of The Hobbit, we're told that hobbits live in comfort and relaxation. Hobbit-holes, the places where Hobbits live, are by definition comfortable:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (3)
Bilbo's own hobbit-hole is perhaps even more so, by hobbit standards. Besides being one of the biggest and best hobbit-holes that included a garden, Bilbo's has things like "a perfectly round door like a porthole . . . a very comfortable tunnel without smoke . . . polished chairs, . . ." etc. (3). It was a nice home, and for a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins had the life.

But, like the rest of us, to some degree Bilbo can be defined by the places in which he spends his time, and more especially so by those places in which he spends the majority of his time. Since Bilbo's hobbit-hole is described as comfortable, perfect, and polished, we can also assume that his life was similar: it was certainly comfortable, was about as polished as it could get, and it was, in a word, perfect--as far as typical hobbits go, of course. Bilbo's neighbors expected him to do certain things, to say certain words, and to be a certain kind of hobbit, and Bilbo accurately and consistently fulfilled those expectations. He was a "very respectable" hobbit because the Bagginses "never had any adventures or did anything unexpected" (3).

This is the version I read when I was younger.
It almost looks like Bilbo lives in a sort of Eden-before-
the-Fall, or maybe even a pre-mortal-life-before-his-
That is, until along came Gandalf to tell Bilbo, "I am looking for someone to share an adventure I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone" (6).

At the word difficult, it's no wonder that Bilbo gives what we might call a typical hobbit-response: "I should think so--in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" (6, emphasis added). I have italicized the word uncomfortable to make obvious what seems to be an inconsistent relationship between the life of a hobbit and the having, going on, and perhaps even the very existence of adventures. Real hobbits like Bilbo don't go on adventures or quests. They only do what is expected of them, and Bilbo would have none of Gandalf's talk. Or so he thought.

After Bilbo hopped inside to get away from Gandalf's talk of adventures, he shut his perfectly round door, leaving Gandalf outside. In response, Gandalf lowers the tip of his staff to the door and leaves his mark on it, a mark that we're told "made quite a dent on the beautiful door" (11). We're obviously getting some foreshadowing here--Gandalf's act of leaving his mark on a "perfect" door does create a dent, but the door is still functional. The door has something that it did not have before. It has the mark of someone older and wiser than the actual owner, and the mark of someone who knew the owner better than the owner knew himself (7). Bilbo's perfect life is about to get a dent in it. But that dent is coming from someone who knows best.

Bilbo does acknowledge that Gandalf knows at least as much about Bilbo as Bilbo knows about himself: when the dwarves see the mark the next day and enter Bilbo's house for tea while Gandalf returns, steps inside, and tells the dwarves where Bilbo's food is located, Bilbo says that Gandalf "Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!" (12). The location (Bilbo's hobbit-hole at Bag End) and the character (Bilbo himself) can be interchangeable to some degree, and when we talk about one, we are also to some degree talking about the other.

Alright. So, all the dwarves are sitting around in Bilbo's house and Gandalf is there, too. And at first, Bilbo doesn't want anyone there. He doesn't even want to think about adventures or anything of the kind. He just wants to have dinner by himself. But something happens to Bilbo that wakes up a part of himself that he didn't even know existed. Something makes him want to go on this adventure and leave his comfortable home.

It looks a bit like the first edition's cover.
Suddenly, after dinner is finished, the dwarves pull out instruments. Clarinets, flutes, viols, a drum, and a harp--"It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin [the leader of the dwarf company] struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill" (14), the author tells us. Then the dwarves sing. They sing about their past and their ancestors. They sing about adventure, their once-powerful race, and its fall from greatness. They sing of the current, sorrowful state of their people. And they sing of their desire to restore that which was lost.

Note that music, poetry and stories do something to Bilbo. They influence him, and the songs that were sung in his hobbit-hole that evening gave Bilbo a "love of beautiful things" (16), and a desire to act, a desire to change: "Then something . . . woke up inside of [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick" (16).

You'll notice that I omitted a word in the previous sentence with an ellipsis (. . .). That word is Tookish: the sentence actually reads, " Then something Tookish woke up inside of him." The Tooks were some of Bilbo's ancestors who went on many adventures, and hence, as their descendant, Bilbo had a part of them in him. We could almost say that to some degree Bilbo had an innate desire for adventure. There's evidence for this innate desire when Bilbo, as soon as he recognizes Gandalf for the first time, says,
Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves--or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter--I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time. (7)
This statement gives us evidence that, to some degree, Bilbo wasn't completely true to himself. He was living a life in which he was content, but there was, however, something inside of him that desired adventure, something that he had stifled and choked until it had fallen asleep, and something that had woken up when Bilbo was moved by the song of the dwarves. And when that something woke up inside of him, Bilbo began to distinguish who he thought he was with who he really was. He began to realize that there was a part of himself that was hungry and needed nourishment. Was he merely a hobbit that would just sit around and be comfortable? No, that was only part of it. His adventurous, Tookish part desired more. It desired to do something in the world.

Of course, this desire of Bilbo's doesn't always stay with him. It keeps coming and going, and it does so because he hasn't been nurturing it. For so long, Bilbo had kept the desire for adventure underground, and it will take him some practice to finally keep that desire constantly. Even good desires come and go. They do so because they haven't yet been cultivated, and it will take a long time for Bilbo to become comfortable with the adventurous and Tookish part of himself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back in the hobbit-hole, the dwarves aren't yet convinced. They don't know who this guy is or how he will be useful for their adventure. They're worried that he'll just take up space, make things inconvenient, and eat all the food. They're reluctant to let him come along with them, at least until Gandalf makes this profound statement: "I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you . . . There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself" (19).

That seems to satisfy the dwarves for now, but Bilbo is still a bit hesitant to leave his comfort zone on a quest that no one even thinks about describing as safe. Even having a desire to leave doesn't exactly make it any easier, for it's hard for all of us to leave the known and step into the unknown. At this point, the movie adds an insightful line: Bilbo naturally asks Gandalf, "Can you guarantee that I'll return?"

And Gandalf responds, "No. And you won't be the same if you do."

No, Bilbo certainly isn't the same when he returns. But since I realize that some people haven't read the book, perhaps I'll save what I have to say about the story's ending until the third movie comes out. Let me at least say the obvious, that Bilbo ends up better than he was when he left. And it is always interesting to me to note that, before he left, he thought that he didn't need a adventure. After all, adventures are just "Nasty, uncomfortable things" that "Make you late for dinner!" and for a hobbit, dinner is everything (it's an ultimate term)--and no rational hobbit would ever want to be late for dinner, let alone go without it, as Bilbo often does during his quest with the dwarves. But when Bilbo gained a love for more beautiful things, his vision and perspective were expanded, and he was motivated to forget about things like being late for dinner.

I'm reminded of a statement by Samuel Johnson (he was a famous writer in England about 300 years ago), that might just summarize this post and the transformation that Bilbo goes through. In the following quote, Johnson is talking about writing, but we can apply the same principle to Bilbo Baggins' symbolic journey, as well as to human beings and human interactions in general:
It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right from that which is right only because it is established. (The Rambler 152)
I think this is what happens to Bilbo during his unexpected journey. He comes to realize that the comfortable customs around him, while nice, weren't always the best, and there was something more to who he was than what he had become.

I found this image on

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Identity, Amnesia, and Some Brief Thoughts on The Bourne Identity

Have you ever had amnesia? I have, and I don't recommend it.

I woke up one night, my head pounding with pain that I don't have words to describe, and couldn't understand why I had such a bad headache. All I seemed to understand was that it was the worst headache I ever had. Why did my head hurt? And what time was it? The clock said 4:41, but was it the morning or in the evening? It had to be in the evening because it was still dark outside, but why didn't I know? Then, feeling an itching sensation around my right wrist I noticed one of those plastic emergency wristband around it, and I had no idea why it was there. That in turn motivated me to try to remember what I did the day before, but doing that only made my head hurt worse. What day was yesterday, anyway? I didn't know. I didn't know what day of the week it was. I got up and looked at my calendar, but I couldn't figure out what day it was. I knew what month it was, but when I tried to remember what year it was, I didn't know. I looked at the back of the calendar to remind myself.

I recognized that I was at home in my own room, but I had no idea how I got there or why I was there. It was kind of scary, to say the least. And I've already mentioned how bad my head hurt. It was one of those hurts that you only understand if you've had a headache so bad that you don't know how your skull is staying intact. And no, I wouldn't recommend it.

I was reminded about what it was like to not remember anything when I first saw The Bourne Identity. You remember it. Jason Bourne, the protagonist, wakes up on a shipping boat at the beginning, and he has no idea who he is, where he is, or why he is there. Those questions permeate the entire series: as Jason searches for who he is, where he has come from, and what his purpose is in life, viewers are motivated to ask themselves the same questions. Who are we? Why am I here?

Jason gets his first clue from his body. You'll remember that the fisherman that removed the bullets from his back also removed a device from his hip that projected a bank number and the location of a bank on the wall. The things that were in his body gave him clues as to who he was and where he should go to find out more about himself. Who he was is written in his body. And his previous actions affected his body. The body is a clue--its condition, its skills, and its fitness hint at who he is and has been.

At the bank, Jason opens a deposit safe box and finds money, a handgun, and a passport. Actually, he finds multiple passports. The first one he sees is for Jason Bourne, so he assumes that name. But as he puts this one aside, he notices that it is just one of many. There are many passports in the case, all with his picture on them, but all with a different name, birth date, and country of origin.

But all of these identities, while somewhat various, are all joined together in a single persona--him. He is the composite of the various identities, his different selves.

I say different, but they really aren't so different. Depending on our perspective, we could say that he is a person with many different identities, or we could say that those many different identities can all be reduced to something in common--him.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Numbers, Motives, and Rainbows: Let's Try to Relate these Three Seemingly Unrelated Things, Shall We?

The original name of this post was "Lying with Numbers," but for some reason that didn't sound cool (or long?) enough. Anyway, while I was typing this post, the lines to Kermit's Rainbow Connection kept playing through my mind. Here's a link to the original from 1979.

Actually, that link might not work. And even if it does, it's 3-and-a-half minutes long. So here are the lyrics:

"Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we've been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they're wrong, wait and see.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

"Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it's done so far.
What's so amazing that keeps us star gazing
and what do we think we might see?
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

"All of us under its spell. We know that it's probably magic.

"Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.
I've heard it too many times to ignore it.
It's something that I'm supposed to be.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me."

But I didn't begin this post to talk explicitly (thought on retrospect, if we wanted to, I suppose we could still say that the ideas are implicit--but let's not go there right now) about rainbows. Sure, some have chosen to believe that "Rainbows are . . . only illusions, and . . . have nothing to hide." But I want to write about something else that "Somebody thought of . . . / and someone [else] believed."

One of the things we've been told, often enough that we sometimes believe it, is the idea that "The numbers don't lie," or, it's near equivalent, that "Numbers speak for themselves," as if numbers were things that necessarily were honest all the time. Almost as if they were, well, pagan gods or something. But really? Gods? Numbers?

This is sort of what Plato believed. No, Plato didn't think that numbers were the same thing as gods, but he does say in his Republic that numbers and mathematics at least lead us towards Truth, with a capital T, because numbers are abstract concepts, and we can't see, hear, taste, or touch what the true "essence" of a number is. But I'm not here to either refute or support Plato. Whether or not numbers really do lead us towards Truth because they are purely symbolic and do not refer to anything that is specifically "here" is beyond the scope of this post (cf. Plotinus. Or not.). Whether or not Plato was right, numbers as we now have them certainly do not speak for themselves. Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it.

No. They're not gods, either. But god-terms, on the other hand? Yes, absolutely. It's hard to say no to something that seems infallible.

But numbers, whatever they are, are used by human beings, and we know that human beings have motives, desires, passions, emotions, and attitudes. Human beings think and feel. Human beings are not computers, machines, or dictionaries, and when we see numbers, we would do well to remember that, as long as we're mortal, there is always a person behind those numbers. Numbers do not speak (cf. Hoffman). Human beings speak, and human beings use numbers when they speak because numbers have a strong persuasive value behind them.

We see this a lot in advertising. We're given numbers so that we'll be persuaded to choose product A over product B.

Let's look at an example, Gmail's homepage. Here's what it looks like:

This isn't anything new; you've seen this before. But check out the left side of the screen:

There it is. The "Lots of space" thing is really interesting to me. But my picture doesn't do it justice. Not only does it have a number that tells me how much space I get if I have a Gmail account, but on the actual website that number constantly counts up (while the picture says "Over 10329.002272 megabytes (and counting) of free storage," when I look at the website right now it says 10329.007630--it's counted up since I've taken that picture).

Of course, one might say that the number is just telling us things as they are--Google is simply just telling possible users how much free storage they get if they have a Gmail account, and that's just the way things are. But if we look a bit deeper, we can see a motive behind behind the numbers--as long as there are mortals, there will always be a motive behind the numbers. Google wants people to use their services, so they put a number on their homepage as an attempt to persuade users. Google is certainly using numbers as a means of persuasion. Numbers are a powerful persuasive tool because they're hard to disagree with.

Of course, it's not just the number that is being used, but the fact that the number is constantly increasing. Sure, the number is probably accurate--why would Google want to lie to us? But by using a number that is constantly increasing, it's as if Google wants to argue that by using their services, we'll be using a service that is constantly improving, never stale, stagnant, or static. Dynamic. Since more is better, the service is always getting better all the time. By themselves, the numbers don't (or wouldn't) say this, but the human beings behind the numbers are using the numbers to say it.

I have nothing against Google, by the way. I'm using Blogger (which is owned by Google), and I also use Gmail. I just think their homepage is interesting.

I want to repeat what I said earlier, that numbers do not speak for themselves because there are human beings behind the use of numbers. Of course, if we could gather all the data in the universe then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves. (After typing that sentence, I suddenly think it may have been more "correct" to write it in passive voice: "Of course, if all the data in the universe could be gathered, then perhaps numbers really would speak for themselves.") But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway. Unless we could become immortal. I believe there's a way, but now I'm hinting on something that I didn't intend to write about, so we'll save that one for another day.

[Originally, I wanted to end this post on, "But then, the infinite result would likely be impossible for our mortal minds to grasp, anyway," but I felt that it seemed a bit pessimistic, so I added the last two sentences. I don't believe that humanity is doomed, nor do I think that death is the end. And I don't know why I'm telling you that at the end of this post.]

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Risk: A Once-a-year Tradition

My friend Kyle has an annual (for me it's annual, for him it's semi-annual) New Year's Day Axis and Allies game.

Image couresy of
Basically, Axis and Allies, a strategy board game based on World War II (hence the name), is a game that is notorious for taking forever to play. In the version we played, Kyle was Germany, I was Japan, and we fought against the United States, U.K., and Soviet Union. We started the game at about 10 or 10:15 and finished at about 4:00. Yeah. It took forever.

Not only that, but believe it or not, we didn't actually finish the game. We got tired of it. And it helped that Kyle and I had already captured 9 out of the 10 required capital cities, had completely obliterated the Soviets (I had half of Russia, he had the other half), and had a considerable economic advantage, thanks to the countries we had taken control of. By the end of the game, I found myself just glad that the game was over. Good thing it's only once a year.

But as I climbed into my car and turned the ignition, I couldn't help but think, "Why do I play this game?" Sure, it was kind of fun, especially for me as Japan to take over Canada and invade Alaska and capture Los Angeles. It makes me wonder about the state of the world and consider the degree to which things could be different from what they now are. What would have happened? Thinking about the game this way, it was kind of interesting. But it was also a huge time commitment. "Why do I play this game, if even for once a year?"

I don't have an answer to that question just yet, and I probably won't find the answer before I finish typing this post. But I do wonder if, during this conflict that ended approximately 70 years ago, either side asked themselves some of the following similar questions: Why are we doing this? What are we really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Strange as it is to play a game that takes several hours to play, after the first few hours, the game doesn't really feel like a game anymore. It becomes a form of work. It's no longer fun to think, to plan, to strategize. It's not easy to keep going, and I can't help but think that this feeling of fatigue is a microcosm of what was actually felt when the war dragged on for weeks, months, years.

Why do I do the things I do? What am I really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...