Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Love of Limits

I realize I sound like a terrible Star Trek nerd sometimes, but I'm really not. These days I find most of the episodes pretty hokey. However, the show had a big influence on me in my formative years, so it preserves a kind of mythic power over my imagination.

I'm on a day off work today, and doing some housework. I have Star Trek: Voyager on the television. (I've discovered the joys of recorded TV.) It's the episode where Neelix starts an in-house television show on the ship.
This is one of the things I always loved about Star Trek (mostly The Next Generation): the various extracurricular activities the ship's crew get involved in. Poetry readings. concerts, dramatic performances, and so on. I've often written about the episode where Data, the android who wishes to become more human, recites a dull and interminable poem about his cat Spot, and later has a discussion about it with his friend Geordi, who explains to him that poetry has to be about emotion as much as accomplishment. As far as I know, there's no scene similar to that in any other television show.

Star Trek is famously all boldly going where no man has gone before, and set in a future where many of the restrictions that limit us today have been overcome; characters can be dematerialised in one place and rematerialised in another. "Replicators" can make any food, drink, or most anything else you want, in a moment.

The funny thing is, though, that it's the limits of the crew's situation that leads to a lot of the show's appeal, at least to me. The crew puts on concerts, dramas and poetry readings-- and gets an audience for them-- because they are thrown together on a starship, light years away from anyone else (most of the time). The ship has a life of its own, like a village community in Jane Austen.

The love of limits is, I think, one of the areas where I feel most sharply at odds with modern society. We live in a world where breaking down boundaries seems to be accepted as a good in itself, without exception. Have you ever noticed how often the word "beyond" is used in advertisements, book titles and other 'inspirational' contexts?

Obviously it's good to overcome many boundaries-- mental or physical disabilities, for instance.

However, surely some boundaries are life-enhancing. Marital fidelity is one example. It's hard to think of another example that would be relatively uncontroversial-- that's how deeply 'beyondism' permeates our society.

(Hours later, two other examples occur to me; childhood innocence, and personal privacy.)
There are two quotations I particularly like on this subject. The first-- surprise, surprise!-- is from Chesterton:

All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary-line that brings one thing sharply against another. All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window. 

The other is from C.S. Lewis:

The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.

(It's often occurred to me that Lewis, that fastidious logician, must have realised how cheap his use of the reductio ab absurdum was here. But it makes the point.)

This was the central theme of the snow globe poem I posted here recently. Snow globes have fascinated me for many years,  and when something fascinates us in such a way it's usually because they have some symbolic significance we don't even fathom at first.

A snow globe has many symbolic significances for me, but the most potent symbolism concerns the glass that surrounds it. This makes the snowglobe a thing, a scene frozen in time, a world of its own. It's a limit that creates a world.

I think the same applies to family, nation, gender, and indeed everything that makes something what it is and not something else. I don't only apply this to social forms, but also to artistic forms like poetry, stories, and movies. The frame creates the world. 


  1. Considering boundaries in connection to disabilities this got me wander away a bit and thinking, whether health in itself (in this world) actually would be always the better thing to strife for? It might sound a bit odd, but what came to mind was - among other things - the picture of S:t John Paul II in his last years. An illness might be a good in itself also... at the very least of benefit to others, or even more as a sign of something else perhaps. This might be too far-fetched but maybe this craze for breaking borders and putting down fences is a worse illness than other illnesses proper.
    (Cheap or no I like the quote from Lewis best. It´s not dull humour after all. He could be "apostle of common sense" too!)

    1. Yes, I've often thought what a pity it would be if mild illnesses like the cold were cured. You hear various statistics bandied about, how many millions or billions they lose the economy, and you think...in this counter-factual world, will anyone do anything but work and consume??

    2. That´s the logic of a distorted global economy´s weird creed of greed...

    3. Even less mild illnesses can do much good too!

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    5. Yes, but let's not tempt fate...

  2. I would not argue for choosing more suffering than what´s given. Only that health and illness normally never has to be dealt with in absolute terms. In any case we had better fight against sin before illness. Obviously both, but still one before the other.