Sunday, March 1, 2015

Amok Time – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Watches a Star Trek episode and remembers Leonard Nimoy

I first learned of Star Trek when I was in about third grade and it was must see TV, at least for those who were allowed to stay up late enough to see it.  As I was not, but as I had the coolest desk chair, one that had tacks that held the “leather” (I think it was probably a vinyl imitation) to the arms and this was, apparently, somehow like the control chair on the USS Enterprise, we would gather at my house where, despite having the chair, I didn’t get to be Kirk and sit in it because I hadn’t seen the show and didn’t, therefore, know how to play the role.  Instead I was one of the characters at the periphery of the room being ordered around by the commander.

Yesterday Leondard Nimoy died at age 83 years of age.  When I was older and could watch Star Trek in reruns, Nimoy’s character, Spock, was the emotional center of the show.  His half-human half-Vulcan character was the most authentic in the program.  Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, channeled anger.  He was always ready to stride headlong into whatever trouble lay ahead.  Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, played by DeForest Kelley, just seemed to be a sap.  He was long on emotion – long on “caring” (I suppose he was in a caring profession), but short on common sense.  He seemed always to be paralyzed by fear.  The other characters also seemed each to have their role – or emotion – to play.  But Spock – human alloyed with Vulcan, a purely logical species – was forever torn between his preferred role, that of being logical, and his duplicitously human, feeling self.

I think that the internal conflict between thinking and feeling, and Nimoy’s sensitive portrayal of it, was what made him a more three dimensional character – a more truly human character than the others.  Tonight we watched an episode of Star Trek for the first time in a very long time.  The episode, perhaps chosen because of Nimoy’s death, highlights Spock’s character, putting him in the uncharacteristic position of being the most emotive of the crew because of a mysterious condition that leads him to need to mate or die.  The intensity of this desire causes him to run amok – to throw food against walls and to engage in insubordination, overriding the captain’s order – behavior that is clearly out of character for him.  Long story short, the Enterprise, following first Spock’s orders against Kirk’s wishes, then Kirk’s wishes against Starfleet Command's orders,  makes its way to Vulcan where Spock can engage in rutting behavior with the woman to whom he was betrothed when but a boy.

Well, things have changed since Spock's childhood, and his beloved has taken up with another Vulcan and she, quite logically, Spock realizes when he comes to his senses, wants to have Spock’s lands and monies but not to be saddled with a partner who is never there and whom she doesn’t know.  So she utilizes the ancient tradition of the Vulcans to choose a champion.  She had intended to choose her paramour, but as Kirk and Bones are to witness the fight, she decides to choose Kirk instead. He can’t take Spock’s belongings even if he wins – and if he dies she doesn’t lose her paramour.  Again, from Spock’s perspective, this is a supremely logical strategy.   Spock, in his maddened state, fights Kirk to the death, apparently killing him, which releases him from the rut.  Returning to the ship, he discovers that Bones, of all people, has come up with a subterfuge – he injected Kirk not with oxygen to even the playing field as he claimed to have done, but with a neurotoxin that imitates death, but from which he can be revived once safely back on the ship.  And Kirk, despite my memory of him as driven primarily by rage, is quite affable and even courtly in his interactions with the Vulcan priestess.  Perhaps Spock’s loss of rationality requires a compensatory growth of reason on the part of the others (or maybe my memory of the limits of the other’s roles is exaggerated).

From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is intriguing to see, in this hyper-rational society, the portrayal both of an intermittent hormonally driven  and quite shameful drive to reproduce – as if Spock’s characterization of his Vulcan heritage as exclusively rational must be an exaggeration for any biological species – and this is further acknowledged in the religious ritual that cloaks the mating rite – one that is, in the words of the priestess, handed down from the earliest days of the civilization.  This ritual, complete with a jade gong and other religious trappings, emphasizes that the irrational – the assumption of a governing principle beyond the scope of reason that apparently must be incorporated into even the most rational society – just as pi – and other irrational numbers – emerge from the most rational mathematical systems.  There is mess in the most orderly corners of the universe.

Last week, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, there was a feature article about Airbnb – a web based company that facilitates people renting their homes – or space in them – to travelers at a fraction of the cost of a hotel.  We stayed in Airbnbs on our family trip through Canada and on the pilgrimage that I took with the reluctantson to Chicago, both chronicled earlier in blogs.  On both trips, we mostly stayed in the homes of people who were involved in a relationship with someone else, but had not yet moved in together, or so it seemed to us.  In Montreal, though, we stayed in an apartment that was managed by an entrepreneur who realized that it was more profitable to rent his properties by the day than by the month.  The focus in the article was on Airbnb’s efforts to penetrate Japan, a country with a looming Olympics that could be a bonanza for the company and those who would stand to profit from having foreigners stay in their homes, but the Japanese are reluctance to play.

Airbnb and the article rely on the work of a Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, to describe the relevant dimensions that seem to distinguish between countries like the US and Australia, where Airbnb has taken off and Japan, where it has not.  Hofstede, when working for IBM, developed a series of metrics to determine what distinguishes different cultures – whether in the home, the workplace or a political entity like a town, state or country.  The relevant dimensions include collectivism vs. individualism, restraint vs. indulgence, acceptance vs. rejection of hierarchical structures, and embracing vs. avoiding uncertainty.  The US and Australia are, as a whole individualistic and indulgent, while Japan is collectivist and restrained, but the article proposes that the differentiating factors for openness to Airbnb appears to be the dimension of avoiding uncertainty, which the Japanese do, apparently, with a passion.

I think, actually, that the different personality dimensions are not as independent as they might seem.  I think that the characteristics of being restrained and avoiding uncertainty go along with the acceptance of hierarchical structures in what we would clinically call the obsessive personality style, a style that is related to an introverted style and also to a style that has been termed the highly sensitive style – and each of these related styles of engaging with the world are styles that many, many in our US culture endorse, even though the US culture as a whole celebrates and differentially reinforces the opposite traits.  Spock and his hyperrationality become the poster child for these individuals – people who are more comfortable thinking than feeling – people who tend to want a world that is neat and orderly, not one that is messy – people who answer to authority - and people who tend to stay within a very small comfort zone – not being interested in traveling outside of it, and many of these people are also afraid of experiencing uncertainty.
Traveling and meeting new people is inherently filled with uncertainty.  Will they be friendly or not?  How do I connect respectfully with people whose culture is so different from mine?  Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay home?  And isn't it ironic that people with these “stay at home” traits are also likely to be quite intellectually curious about the world?  I have an Uncle and Aunt who are both curious and concerned.  They have traveled to over a hundred countries, and most of the time they have carried their own food to maintain their safety.  Spock, who epitomizes the stay at home type, is the second officer on the USS Enterprise whose five year mission is to “Boldly go where no man has gone before.”  He demonstrates the value of this style that is undervalued in our society, while simultaneously encouraging those of us with this style to embrace something that is scary but, with him as a model, somehow more manageable.          

In the Amok episode, Spock, after acknowledging the logic of his betrothed’s betrayal, notes, with his usual measured tone that “You may find that having is not as desirable as wanting.  It is not logical, but you may find it to be true.”  Over and over again, Spock, the quintessential rationalist, finds that the logical is not always true.  He models equanimity in the face of irrational quandaries and therefore most closely models the heart of the mission of Star Trek and the hopeful children of the “Greatest Generation”; a generation who would both question their parents, but also embody their hopes as they tried to remake the world to fit their vision of it.  Leonard Nimoy, in his portrayal of Spock, clarified that there could be a rational center to that ideal – and that, when the limits of reason were reached, we could still bravely move forward, even if that is into someone else’s living room, or inviting them into our own.

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