Certum est, quia impossibile

May 2012

The formula for “action thrillers,” James Bond movies hardly least of all, includes the hero rushing from one calamitous situation to the next, trusting to his gadgets, quick-thinking, cool-headedness and luck to bring him through alive, and not seriously injured and indeed triumphant (with shapely young woman as reward). I was recently reminded of this fact of modern life when my son led me to see Men in Black 3, which offers many good examples of the phenomena, though without the shapely girl at the end. (Presumably the target audience was boys of whatever age but still in latency.) At one point the hero, played by the popular, handsome actor Will Smith, has to jump off the Empire State Building in order to save the world. Just before he jumps he is handed a gadget by a pudgy electronics-store employee, and in about ten seconds the employee explains to him how to use it. With time is running out if planet Earth is going to survive, the explanation is hurried, not very clear and sprinkled with the suffix “ish.” That is, the employee is not entirely sure of the instructions.  My son, who has seen the movie twice, recalls the employee saying things like, “That seems right . . . ish.”  In the face of this, and with a view of Fifth Avenue 102 stories down, Smith (agent “J”) is understandably nonplussed. On the basis of such sketchy, uncertain information, which involves being able to move his thumb in a certain way when he is in full acceleration, only two feet from splattering on the sidewalk, he is not only supposed to save the world, but also to keep from killing himself in the attempt. Of course he wouldn’t be a hero if he were as afraid of death as we mere mortals are, and he also has the benefit of a good deal of positive experience, of having gotten out of similar scrapes with the help of similar gadgets. But still . . . Off of a gargoyle he jumps, and since this is hardly the end of the movie, his survival means that he finds himself risking his life several more times, only to be saved by some combination of gadgets, cleverness, helpful strangers and extraordinary good luck.

If we imagine that our view of life is channeled by our culture, our products and myths included, surely this dynamic, which most of us have observed over and over again in movies, on TV shows and in “fantasy fiction,” must be doing its channeling work. It does not seem to me that this needs to be a long essay, or even more than a few paragraphs. We can observe that one thing that heroes (= successful people? attractive men?) do not do is stop and reflect. There is a scene in Men in Black 3 where J and his partner (agent “K”), are not sure what to do next, and so they go to a diner to have some pie. On purpose they talk about anything but the matter at hand; this with the idea that in this way the essential clue will come to them.  Intuition is everything, logic and deliberation worthless. We can also observe — as indeed K at another moment remarks — that if one bowls ahead and acts with sufficient confidence, things will work out in the end. The key is the confidence and sang-froid.

It is also notable that the 2012 version of this time-worn plot includes the ideas that

(a) the Earth is going to be wiped out by technology in the hands of a bad person (an alien, brutal and sadistic as only an alien could be), and
(b) can only be saved by heroes (Americans, buddies) with technology.

It seems easy for both mature adults and boys my son’s age to realize that jumping off the Empire State Building on the basis of sketchy information is not always a good idea. What seems harder is to realize that the solution to technology may not be more technology.

Of course we all know that only in the movies will one always have the right combination of gadgets, buddies, quick-thinking, cool-headedness and luck to come out on top. And we have learned that women, whatever their shapes, are also real people and have long done a lot of the thinking and keeping cool, and increasingly are the ones with the gadgets and on top. And yet, or therefore, our adventure stories keep returning to some version of the old plot, as if we couldn’t imagine being successful or heroic in any other way. If gadgets, pie and masculine intuition don’t work, . . .

I am reminded of Butch and Sundance, cornered by the forces of law and order, jumping off a cliff. In a non-fantasy world, or from a rational perspective, the chance of surviving such a jump would be awful close to zero, but the alternatives for our heroes are life in prison, being gunned down or jumping, and they have not lost faith in what we might call their lucky star. (Or is it the luck of getting to act a part, and lead roles at that?)

“Certum est, quia impossibile,” the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote several millennia ago. It is certain, because impossible. He was speaking of a yet greater, more resonant escape, involving Jesus’s rolling away of the stone.

Have we now made it from the top of the Empire State Building to the belief we are living by, and notwithstanding the alien languages (Greek and Latin) in which it was first framed? Certum est, quia impossibile.

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