by Steve DeLong
Each time he speaks those immortal words on the bridge of the Federation starship Enterprise (or from the speaker of your television), Captain Jean-Luc Picard sets in motion some bold strategy or desperate gamble. And like his crew, we attend in faith that his resolve will carry the stardate, or at least whatever remains of that episode's hour. Everything works out, of course, not only because the scriptwriters make it possible, but also because both the character of Picard and the consummate acting skill of Patrick Stewart make it plausible. Even when no one - writer, actor, viewer -- really understands what an isolinear chip is or how Q travels through the Continuum (whatever that is), the story plunges ahead and we go with it.
At one level this is nothing new. We are happy to be tricked, fooled, deceived as part of being entertained. We have invited it for millenia through the attention and homage we give to fiction and illusion: storytelling and plays, magic and mime, movies and novels, photography and painting, games and re-enactments, and now virtual reality and bungee jumping. Can a home version of the holodeck be far behind? (If you doubt the primacy of entertainment in all this, ask yourself how many of your fellow viewers could probably be persuaded that the holodeck is really a holideck, that the concatenation is not with "hologram" but with "holiday.")
For me, the idea of "making it so" evokes a deeper level, a fundamental appeal to something spiritual rather than something that is merely amusing. Five centuries before the Klingon empire joined the Federation, William Blake used Picard's very words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when he asked the Prophet Isaiah:
"Does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?"
No one would doubt that Captain Picard is capable of "firm perswasion." It is the essence of his persona and style. So from a managerial perspective, he utters a command as an act of will. Recall any of the innumerable exchanges with Lieutenant Geordi La Forge along these lines:
Picard: Picard to La Forge, how long will it take to restore power to the shields?
Obviously this could be an acquired skill, picked up at Starfleet Academy or from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Sentients. We are unhindered by facts, however, so I prefer to imagine that Picard is a disciple of something like Zen and the Art of Interstellar Immanence. And further that his philosophy is rooted 25 centuries earlier in the wisdom of >Chuang-tzu:
What is acceptable we call acceptable; what is unacceptable we call unacceptable. A road is made by people walking on it; things are so because they are called so. What makes them so? Making them so makes them so.
And two centuries before that, Lao-tzu made the same point more succinctly in the Tao Te Ching: "Naming is the origin of all particular things."
We are so accustomed to this generative power of language that most of us give it little thought. But among other things, it can give us security, as Toni Morrison noted in her 1993 Nobel Lecture: "Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names." Annie Dillard illustrated this beautifully when she confessed in An American Childhood that at age five she resisted going to bed "because something came into my room. This was a private matter between me and it. If I spoke of it, it would kill me." A page later, the unnamed "it" turns out to be streetlight reflected from the windshields of cars passing her bedroom window. The memory and sensation of the fear are still vivid and palpable in words written 37 years later, long after the power of language allowed the child to reason away the fear itself.
Picard and the crew of the Enterprise experience such fear in their encounters with the Borg, hybrid biological-mechanical creatures with a wholly-shared consciousness, no individual identities, and formidable technological power. Their message is simple: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Picard is captured, assimilated into the collective, and pressed into service as the interface to the Federation. Although the face looks familiar despite some cybernetic implants, his separate identity is gone. So the Borg (and of course the scriptwriters) give Picard a new name, Locutus, which reflects his function. Oddly, he is the only member of the collective who has a name until, in "I, Borg," long after Picard's rescue and recovery, the crew encounters an isolated Borg, whom they see as alone, afraid, and hungry. This Borg in turn cannot understand the crew's individuation, their lack of a collective. To the crew, differentiation is unquestionable; to the Borg, unimaginable. Although communication itself seems futile, the eventual resolution is that this single Borg, who has previously been addressed as "you," takes on a sound-alike name, Hugh. More importantly, he has a growing sense of identity. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine the pebble-in-the-pond effect of returning Hugh to the Borg collective, free to speak his newly-found mind. (Their ultimate defeat is just as well. Had they won, they would have had to be renamed the Victor Borg.)
The name changes accompanying Picard's assimilation and Hugh's individuation have parallels in the initiation rites that some human societies use to mark puberty, which Joseph Campbell described as
a death and resurrection ritual in which your name is changed. You die to the name you had and are resurrected with a new identity. . . . The experience of boys being initiated in Australia and New Guinea is of death. Their eyes are covered, and they hear the bullroarer coming, and they are told that the dragon is coming to consume them. When it is right over their heads and they're about to be eaten, their eyes are uncovered, and now initiated, they see that it's Uncle Charlie with the bullroarer.
Recognizing Uncle Charlie neutralizes a lot of fear. Even in a society without Borg or bullroarer, we think it is important to know names as well as the things they represent. When an unknown element is added, however, then in "Transfigurations" we have Picard saying to the humanoid Zalkonian, who is undergoing painful transformation to a "higher," alien life form, "Who are you? What are you?"
But names and definitions also erect boundaries, so Picard the Zen devotee will surely oppose them within the limits of the discipline of Starfleet and the non-interference in other societies that is dictated by the Federation's Prime Directive. There are two ways in which boundaries can be broken down here. Rainer Maria Rilke described one of them in explaining that he rarely used any name for God:
The comprehensible slips away, is transformed; instead of possession one learns relationship, and there arises a namelessness that must begin once more in our relations with God if we are to be complete and without evasion. The experience of feeling him recedes behind an infinite delight in everything that can be felt; all attributes are taken away from God, who is no longer sayable, and fall back into creation, into love and death.
Natalie Goldberg's alternative in Writing Down the Bones is to embrace names as a tool of awareness:
When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind; it connects us to the earth. If I walk down the street and see "dogwood," "forsythia," I feel more friendly toward the environment. I am noticing what is around me and can name it. It makes me more awake. . . . Continue to hone your awareness: to the name, to the month, to the day, and finally to the moment.
And to distill and encapsulate almost everything written about and by Zen: in the fullness and eternity of the present moment, all boundaries fall away.
I would like to suggest that, when we see Jean-Luc Picard at his most intimate and unguarded, he draws on both of these perspectives. He does not abandon names, but he does possess full awareness of relationship and love and death and the moment. In an episode entitled "The Inner Light," the Enterprise encounters a probe launched by a since-vanished civilization which knew it could not escape the explosion of the star that its home planet encircled. These beings made a symbolic bid for immortality by sending the probe to deliver a programmed, interactive message to any recipient who might cross its path, and, in the course of a good story line, Picard becomes that recipient.
During a few tens of minutes on the bridge of the Enterprise while he appears comatose to the crew, Picard lives out via the probe's interaction with his mind several tens of years on the planet, first resisting his situation, then acquiescing to what appears to be so real. All the while maintaining the bearing of leadership of a Starfleet officer and his own memories and values, he accepts a place in the society, embraces an old friend, loves a wife, fathers two children, sees his friend and wife die as they all age, and plays with his grandchildren. But the most telling scene is one in the midst of these decades in which he lovingly advises his now-mature daughter, in unmistakable language, to give up the life of exploration and research that she has learned from him and to live in the moment with the young man she loves:
Picard: Seize the time, Meribor, live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.
In a twist reminiscient of the time-travel paradoxes that so enrich science fiction, the story reaches its conclusion: an aged Picard watches this doomed civilization launch a rocket carrying a probe to deliver a programmed, interactive message to any recipient who might cross its path. With astonishment he realizes,
Oh, it's me, isn't it? I'm the someone. I'm the one it finds! That's what this launching is, a probe that finds me in the future.
And his wife, Eline, appearing as she did when they first met, affirms
Yes, my love. . . . The rest of us have been gone a thousand years. If you remember what we were and how we lived, then we'll have found life again. . . . Now we live in you. Tell them of us, my darling.
Picard returns to consciousness on the bridge, surrounded by his crew of fellow explorers and researchers. And he returns to duty, leading the Enterprise on its continuing mission, but now with decades of awareness of relationship and love and death and the moment to blend with the decades of experience in Starfleet. Who is to say: Which life better reflects the true Picard? Which memories are more satisfying to him? Which voyage through time and the stars is more worthy of the unnamed name?
Copyright © 1995-1996 by Stephen E. DeLong, who shamelessly but gratefully took four of the images from Andrew Tong's Web site at Cal Tech. The passages by Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu, and Rainer Maria Rilke are all from Stephen Mitchell's masterful translations.