Babel Babble

by tjmHolden

21 May 2007


Well, I’m back (which is actually Eminem’s line, not Freddy’s). I wonder if you’ve wondered about what happened and where I’ve been . . .

Pregnant pause and bruised feelings later, I move to explain.

I had this idea, you might recall, of helping you along with hints to let you know where I’d been. As if anyone cared. But it was something to do with my brain, to keep it peripatetic, a way to spend some time – or so I thought. What I found, though – aside from being much too busy to sit and spin tales sufficient to connect the dots—was that it was hard to locate enough clues that wouldn’t immediately give it away; places being specific enough as to tag their essence. When it comes to locale, there are few generic ontologies – every city, every country, has its own cultural fingerprint. There are dialects, license plates, weather patterns, indigenous foliage; even MacDonalds has its regional cuisines.

At the same time, curves can be thrown. The image above, of Freddie, from Elm Street fame, was actually snapped on a street in Sendai, Japan. Imagine that. And, in fact, though I had intended that Freddie shot to serve as my last ironic clue in the hide-and-seek game of where I was (as Freddie’s place of origin was basically where my peripatetic feet had planted my bod), it was something more than irony that the sign of the “there” I visited was encountered in the “here” where I generally roost. More than irony, though; there is something in that statue about confluence, about unity; in short, about our modern condition.

”Global connectedness” being the intellectual shorthand. The conclusion: that this is not a hermetic place, this world we share. Elements of one culture can, and often do, exist in others.


Last night I saw Babel. Caution: I am about to spoil the plot, but . . . it has been in release – what? – over a year, so what is there left to spoil? I’m like—probably the last person on the face of this round rock who can speak Japanese, Spanish or English to have seen it. The fact that I saw it in Japan (which tends to be slow on the new release circuit) only accounts for a portion of the delay. In fact, I had also resisted seeing it for pecuniary reasons; a year on, though, it was now cheaper by about half (so less excuses in that regard). And to be most honest, I think that the bulk of my reticence had to do with where I am in life: something about trying to avoid 25-car pile-ups. I appear to be in one of those stages of Kundera-ness, where seeking lightness prevails over the grand march, where whistling a happy tune is preferable to pounding out the heaviest passages in the most baroque of life’s scores.

Still, despite the current personal preferences for thrift and against deep emotional work, to Babel I trooped. Ultimately, perhaps, for better communication; greater understanding; enhanced familial nesting. You see, my daughter mentioned that she’d seen the film in her high school lit class. I am not quite sure by what criterion the movie qualifies as literature, but there you go: contemporary American secondary education. Possibly a teacher without a lesson plan for that day trying to fill time, but you never know. It could have connected with the books the kids had been reading—The Grapes of Wrath being the latest. In the end, though, I wasn’t sure what my daughter and her contemporaries were making of a nine year-old goat herd masturbating in the mountains, or a 17 year-old deaf girl walking around pantiless, flashing her crotch to young men in game centers.

More than what my teen was thinking, though, what I found myself wondering was what the teacher thought s/he was thinking: prodding my tender child to ponder in-the-margin stuff like that. Was this all really necessary? Is this all truly for the advancement of American intellectual prowess?

Well, I suppose I’m just showing my age. Babbling about Babel. After all, clothing restrictions, emotional needs, physical urges—these were likely all I thought about when I was seventeen. Of course, that was so long ago, at this point I can’t possibly remember for sure. And for her part, my daughter insisted I was way off course; she claimed that I’d missed the whole point. The sexuality was not just off-topic, its prensence in the movie was really pointing us toward something else entirely.

Which is what teenagers always say. Or else . . . perhaps, once again, there I am proving what a simple primate brain I am in possession of.

Well, I did imagine (and might, could allow) that the fact that kids in suburban Pasadena, California, USA might share similarities to kids in a remote mountain village in Morocco or in bustling Tokyo, Japan, might have been one of the aims here. So, too, the shock of recognition – not unlike that of the 6 year-old boy in the film who witnesses for the first time the head of a chicken ripped off its shoulders—of the aberrant, random seamlessness of the great dance we are unwittingly party to. That shock comes in our incomprehensible appreciation of how a rifle a visiting hunter from Japan gives as a gift to a guide in Morocco, can end up in the hands of a child from a nearby peasant family and lead to the shooting of an American tourist. An appreciation that takes form as incontrovertible evidence that there are few, if any, degrees of separation—almost no lines of demarcation—between all of us anymore. In Babel‘s simple, but jagged plotline, we learn all we need to know about the world’s interconnectedness. But there is more, of course. There is also the randomness of life – the bus that happens to traverse that particular winding mountain pass on that day and pass through the rifle sight of a particularly impulsive boy at that very moment. But more: the fact that sudden infant death syndrome has conspired to place the victim-to-be in that country, on that bus, at that very moment, in the first place—at her husband’s behest—in an effort to engineer a reconnection between partners pushed farther and farther away from one another because of life’s everyday tragedies. So, too, the fact that their being together in that place to work on their relationship has left their children in the care of a Mexican maid – an illegal – who wishes to attend the wedding of her son below the border, if only for one afternoon and evening. To consequential, but unforeseeable, effect.

Babel, then, isn’t only about macro synergy, about the global unity; it is about the accidental collusion between individual impulse and random arrangement of humans and the objects and activities those humans have ensconced in localized spaces. A maid, responsible for the care of two children, cannot abstain from witnessing her son’s wedding. No matter to what lengths she has to go—at what risk personal and professional—she is subject to her own inner physics, to psychological and (ultimately) social forces that are too strong to resist. So she makes the only logical decision she can—the best decision she deems possible under the prevailing conditions: she takes the children south of the border. Getting to and through the wedding works despite (for the audience) a steadily-accreting sense of doom. The foreboding takes concrete form upon the attempted return: the confluence of a slightly inebriated nephew, a border guard with an attitude, and the lack of parental permission papers – elements sufficient to conspire to conjure the alteration of two or more life courses.

The Japanese vignette is merely a variation on that theme: save with a (presumably) positive denouement. The clash of impulse and random arrangement of human elements ends in emotional (and likely physical) disaster averted; at the very least calamity postponed. In its place we experience parental-child reconciliation. This, not for the lack of a child’s effort to the contrary; her impulses impelling her to harm herself at any and all cost. The luck of this particular draw—the blessing of this confluence—is that the cop she comes on to as a means of securing the validation she needs, sees her effort for what it is: a plea for help. Coincidentally (or not), the cop is only there as the culmination of a global effort to track down the gun that shot the tourist over in Morocco. But that global chain of events has begot unanticipated local effects: the encounter with the girl has led to an exchange of words and kindnesses and sensitive understandings sufficient to spur her to slow down, to change course, and—unexpectantly—to reconcile with her father.

How the global plays out in the local can never fully be predicted. Nor, when it does produce outcomes, can it always clearly be understood. That is because so much is a coming together of things that do not naturally (or at least necessarily) belong joined. The cop and the deaf school girl, the American children and the Mexican maid’s nephew, their mother—the white tourist—and the Moroccan kid with the Japanese hunter’s gun. So, too, the Freddie statuary in Sendai—now coming to you wherever you are, perusing this blog. That statue is a product of another time, another medium, another economic moment, another consciousness, from an alternative space. Still, it is now a remnant of localities whose people move to their own impulses, encounter it in accord with the discrete dynamics of their particular place. How they use it – the sense they make of it and the acts that it may prompt – can not fully be known. For it is not only about the now, but the then to come. Like the hunter’s gun given to the Moroccan guide, these objects, these gifts from spaces and times beyond, have a tendency to shift: from one context to another, depending on the whims and contingencies of some future, unspied, unimagined, as yet indeterminate moment.

Which is what makes the living all the more interesting. Or confounding. Or unbearable. Depending . . .

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