Like Tears in Rain.
It’s the last day for blog entries, second to last day of class, and I figured it was about time to rescind my first polemic blog entry about literature being unable to define humanity.
The human condition–that curious mix of mortality and desire–has been one of the most prevalent (albeit sometimes buried) themes brought up in the reading for this course. In my first blog I made the statement that a genetics-based approach defining humanity was really the only way that humanity could be defined–after all, what are humans but large, moving clumps of replicating genetic code? But I think that literature can at least give us a shorthand way of making snap-judgments about an organism’s humanity (or lack thereof).
First of all, to be human, an organism must be aware of the idea of its own demise. As Michael Persinger puts it, “anticipation of our own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe.” Second, it must be capable of having a desire that transcends its own instinct to replicate. (This is why Crake is such an intriguing character–in expressing his desire to destroy the human race and create a new one, he demonstrates his own humanity.) I believe that this is why martyrs have such a powerful emotional impact, while those who achieve their dreams without severe personal sacrifice do not.
The “gom jabbar” of Dune is a device designed to test for human-ness. It is a little box that, when you stick your hand in, inflicts extreme pain. Pulling your hand out while the gom jabbar is active will expose your skin to a very poisonous needle. Thus, the subject must either endure the pain or die. (The gom jabbar is similar in many ways to the research paper for this class that is due in a few short hours.) On a literal level, the gom jabbar does not make sense as a test of human-ness–but it does on a metaphorical level.
The gom jabbar represents life, I think. And the decision to keep your hand inside–that’s humanity.