Tag Archives: Transcendence

Transcendence: Iroh’s Tale

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


One of the great things about going to a large university like Ohio State is that you get a lot of visits from cool guest speakers. About a decade ago, I got to hear a talk by James Earl Jones. A lot of the audience (myself included) came because we were Star Wars fans, and he was very polite, but it was clear that he was way past the whole Darth Vader thing. He said that his main interest now was “simple stories, simply told.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase today.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has so many moments of transcendence, it’s hard to pick just one. But it occurred to me this morning that most of those moments require a good knowledge of Avatar‘s complex plot to be fully appreciated.

Not so, however, with the Tale of Iroh, a self-contained four-minute story within the episode “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” season two. It contains no spoilers, it has nothing to do with the larger plot, and it’s only got one main character: the old man named Iroh.

I apologize for the quality of the clip below, which is cropped and shown mirror-image by the video uploader. It was the best I could find, and it’s good enough to get the story across. The video should start at 3:13, which is where the Tale of Iroh begins.

If you can’t see the embedded video, here’s a direct link.

Note: the video is cropped and mirrored to prevent YouTube from discovering that it is, technically, a copyright violation, just as my showing it here is, technically, a copyright violation. However, since I’m giving the show free advertising, not hurting their sales, not profiting myself, and not claiming credit, I don’t have any ethical qualms about showing it. I’m not sure how long this particular link will remain functional, though.

Anyway – I don’t have a lot of commentary. The story speaks for itself, I think. The dialogue is clunky in places – dialogue was never Avatar‘s strong suit – but I think it’s quite lovely regardless (and even better if you’re familiar with Iroh’s character).

Simple stories, simply told. I think this may be the kind of thing Mr. Jones was talking about.

Transcendence: Lucy’s Stars

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


My favorite comic strip of all time is a Peanuts I discovered in one of my grandma’s old books. I found it years ago, and it’s stuck in my brain very distinctly ever since. But despite all my searching, I could never find it again.

Recently, I became determined to track it down. I fired up my browser, went to the Peanuts archive, and simply began clicking through the comics, in order, one at a time. The brute force method.

Finally, I found it: November 30, 1958. Here it is. Click to enlarge.

Peanuts created by Charles Schulz. Official archive at Peanuts.com.

Peanuts created by Charles M. Schulz. Official archive at Peanuts.com.

Poor Lucy. She’s so sure that life is about winning – about what she has. She can’t defeat Linus, because he’s out of the game. Linus has decided that life is about what he is.

The comic reminds me of a scene from Tolkien’s Return of the King that’s stuck in my brain for years. Sam and Frodo have made their way into Mordor, enduring pain and horror, with a long and doubtful road still ahead. All around, the darkness of Sauron’s kingdom seems overwhelming. And then:

…peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

Sauron, like Lucy, is obsessed with power and possession. Not for the sake of the things themselves – he has long since lost any capacity to appreciate the beauty of what he takes – but so that no one else can have them. Only, the world is vaster than he knows. He cannot take the stars.

Carl Sagan expresses much the same idea when he writes about the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, which depicts Earth as a single pixel:

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Is it any wonder that the Buddha achieved enlightenment upon seeing the Morning Star? (Which, technically, is a planet, but work with me here.)

Linus was born around 1950, so he’d be sixty-five by now. I wonder what’s on his mind these days.

Transcendence: System Failure

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


Father and daughter. Image source

Father and daughter. Image source

Star Trek: The Next Generation was my favorite show in the world when I was a kid. These days, honestly, it’s not even in my top five. A host of awful and mediocre episodes (especially in the early and late seasons), a near-total lack of continuity, an oddly sterile view of the future, an over-reliance on technobabble: these flaws, which hid in my child self’s blind spot, are painfully apparent to me as an adult.

Yet TNG will always hold a hallowed place in my heart, and not just because I loved it as a child. Because when TNG is bad, it can be really, really bad; but when it’s good, it can be really, really good. It deserves its reputation as one of the greatest sci fi shows ever made.

That reputation rests, in large part, on episodes like “The Offspring” (3.16).

Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, builds another android – similar to himself, more advanced, less experienced – a daughter named Lal. Most of the episode is about Data learning to be a father, and Lal learning to be human (ish). The whole story is beautiful, and I had to resist the strong temptation to re-watch it all the way through as I was writing this post.

But the fame of “The Offspring” as an emotional wrecking ball comes from its final scenes, when Lal unexpectedly experiences her first emotion, and her positronic brain spirals into a cascading system failure. Data works beside Admiral Haftel (a one-off character) in the lab, trying to save her.

Finally, Haftel emerges and tells Data’s friends the result of their efforts. Throughout the episode, Haftel has been a pompous, seemingly heartless antagonist, trying to wrest Lal from Data’s care so that Starfleet can study her. It isn’t until his final lines that you realize he has a heart after all.

I wasn’t able to find a good video clip of his lines, so audio will have to suffice.

Transcript:

She won’t survive much longer. There was nothing anyone could have done. We’d…repolarize one pathway, and another would collapse. And then another. His hands…were moving faster than I could see, trying to stay ahead of each breakdown. He refused to give up. He was remarkable. It just…wasn’t meant to be.

Out of context, the lines may seem melodramatic. I’m not sure; I’ve never heard them out of context. As for me, I’m not going to lie, I cried just now as I watched the scene to record the audio.

It’s the part about the hands that gets me.

Data, of course, can’t feel emotion. Many people take that to mean that Data can’t love; in fact, the episode itself says precisely that. I disagree. Love has an emotional component, of course. But love is not, itself, primarily an emotion. It is a state of being, a connection, a way of relating. It is even, at times, a decision. It is the cord that binds parent to child, husband to wife, sister to brother, heedless of joy or anger or boredom or grief. It is deeper than feeling and infinitely stronger.

This is the love that Data has for his daughter, which she feels and he cannot. Like all profound forces, it lies hidden most of the time, behind the android’s polite mannerisms and bland exterior. It isn’t until something happens – something like the death of his daughter – that the mask falls away, and we glimpse the full magnitude of Data’s superhuman skill and power. His love manifests in ways that no human could hope to match. His hands move faster than the eye can see.

In typical TNG fashion, Lal is barely mentioned again after this episode. The fans, however, remember.

Transcendence: The Tornado

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


This is my favorite TV commercial of all time:

A great storm has descended on the Great Plains. A girl stands in front of her house, staring forward, awestruck, oblivious to her father’s shouts. Fighting the wind, he rushes out, picks her up, and takes her to safety. Even as she is carried away, she can’t stop staring. She has seen a tornado, descended from on high, screaming across their quiet land like a black serpent of heaven.

Very often – almost always, I think – moments of transcendence are moments of unveiling. Everything in life is veiled, masked in drab exterior, sometimes for secrecy but usually just by default, because it’s normal for things (and people) to hide their true character. We glimpse inside only in brief flashes of revelation, and our minds clutch these precious insights like diamonds.

Nature is that way. Most of the time it’s calm, even dull, and we may think of nature as just another creature we’ve domesticated. And then one day the veil slips, and we catch just a glimmer of the beast underneath, something big as a planet, feeding on oceans, breathing winds the size of countries, still rolling in the same great cycles it has followed for numberless aeons.

Years ago, I read a forum post about this commercial. Somebody said it was ridiculous, that the girl was an idiot for standing outside in such obvious danger. The comment is interesting for two reasons.

First, it demonstrates the wildly divergent opinions that different people can have about the same work of art. For me, this video is so beautiful that I struggle to find words to express it. For him (or her), it’s garbage. Many things are sacred, but no one thing is sacred to everyone.

Second, it’s a valid point: standing outside watching a tornado is, from a certain viewpoint, stupid. That’s one of the side effects of beauty, of enchantment. It distorts logic, elevates the heart, confuses the mind. It makes you do stupid things. The “smart” thing is to stay indoors, increase your chance of survival, never look directly at a storm.

Except then you have to ask – what, exactly, are you surviving for?

If you have thoughts about the commercial, or wish to share a transcendent moment of your own, leave a comment!

Transcendence

Now that “The Witch and the Dragon” is online in its entirety, it’s time for a new Monday feature. So let’s talk.

Sometimes, when you’re reading a story, you come across a part that gleams in golden ink across the page. It isn’t merely insightful, or moving, or clever, or funny, or brilliant. At the risk of sounding dramatic: it leaps from the book and pierces your soul. You laugh, or shiver, or cry, or merely sit, transfixed. You remember this fragment long after you’ve forgotten the plot and the author and even the title. “This is it,” you say. “This is why we make art.”

I’ve been savoring and revisiting these little fragments for as long as I can remember. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a term for them, so I’m calling them moments of transcendence.

These moments can come from anywhere: books (fiction and non), poems, TV shows, movies, paintings, music, even video games. They appear in sources as lofty as Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Tao Te Ching, as humble as newspaper comic strips, as dry as textbooks, as sophisticated as Keats, as mainstream as car insurance commercials (yes, really).

You can find them in works you love, works you despise, works that are completely mediocre aside from that one shining moment. They can be as short as a few words, or (very rarely) as long as an entire TV episode.

Art can be good, even great, without such moments. By his own admission, Isaac Asimov consciously avoided them, so as to make his failures less spectacular; nevertheless, he achieved his share of both. Lord Dunsany, on the other hand, seemed to be trying for transcendence in every paragraph, which (for me) started off enchanting but very quickly grew tiresome. Tolkien, I feel, achieved a nice balance – but then, I’m awfully biased.

Each Monday, I’m going to feature a moment of transcendence. I’ll give you the background, the context, and the fragment itself, and then I’ll try to convey some sense of why it affects me as it does.

Moments of transcendence are, of course, utterly subjective. One reader’s awe is another’s cheesiness; what makes one viewer cry will make another yawn. I certainly don’t expect you to feel the same way about these bits and pieces as I do. But as I share them – and I hope you’ll share yours, too! – maybe we’ll get a better understanding of how to make great art.

Or, failing that, we’ll watch some sweet YouTube clips.

We start next Monday!