Teletubbian Existentialism

Day 104: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I understand you’re moving into a house. That’s a major decision—like the time I decided to start brushing my hair before shaving instead of the other way around. We’re all making big changes.

Does your new house have space for the famous library you’re going to build us?

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You’ll get why this picture is here in a minute…

Speaking of books, in an old Italian book from the seventies I remember seeing the phrase fare quattro chiacchiere show up. It means “to make four small talks.” These kinds of expressions are common in Italian. In Italy, you never make just one of anything. You can also “make two steps,” to take a walk, or “make two tosses,” to play catch. These days it’s always two, not four. No one has time anymore to make four whole small talks.

I’ve also started watching a television program called the Teletubbies. For those unfamiliar, the Teletubbies is a high quality show produced in a serialized format for the purposes of both entertainment and learning. Aesthetically, I find it to have a lot in common with the music of Claude Debussy. Nothing ever happens, but somehow you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. For example, there will be a moment of great suspense as one waits for Tinky-Winky’s reaction to Po, who is just getting ready to pull an orange lever that makes a loud sound. Hardly occurrences, these kinds of thespian situations are typical of the series, giving it its defining charm.

The character Po is, in my view, a mischievous little devil. She’s small and innocent on the outside, but like most of us, she’s actually very troubled within. In fact, I would argue that Po’s socio-psychological issues and paradoxical comportment constitute one of the central premises of the series—which is ultimately a study in character and identity rather than development and plot.

I’m teaching my Latin students about the locus amoenus, “pleasant place,” in the Aeneid I.157 ff. That’s the part of the poem where Virgil literally wastes fifteen lines on an idyllic description of the Carthaginian coast. Nothing happens. It’s completely unnecessary, as if Virgil wanted to throw a big wrench in the face of classical aesthetic principles. Oddly I feel one almost gains more insight into the meaning of the text from those fifteen lines alone than from the whole rest of the poem…

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…told you it would make sense.

Hiking in the alps, I met an elderly man who lives on the mountain in a former monastery. He invited me into his idyllic home, introduced me to his family, and made something like eight small talks that really weren’t that small. He said he used to work as a train conductor in the city, but he’d helped voluntarily to move debris with a horse and wagon, back when they were digging a tunnel through the mountain. Though completely unnecessary, the anecdote provided some insight into what kind of person this Mountain Man actually is.

Zak, sometimes I’m afraid the purpose of most of life and poetry is only to defer the Existential Question. The present is only the necessary consequent of the past and the antecedent of the future. It’s nothing in itself. Aristotle says that each event in a play ought to follow by causal necessity from the thing before it and ought to necessitate everything that comes after it. There’s no room for waxing lyrical about pleasant landscapes.

But the Teletubbies are an affirmation of life. They believe in running around the ever-sunny Elysium of Teletubbyland without any particular goal. Teletubbyland is a symbol deeply embedded in the human consciousness. It’s that place, flowing with milk and honey, where one day human nature, no longer a slave to necessity, will reveal itself for what it actually is. It’ll be like Mountain Man—acting simply out of his nature and not out of compulsion.

I’m not sure how much truth there really is to radical Teletubbianism. Is it really necessary to do away with antecedent and consequent all together in order to arrive at the innate nature or purpose of a thing? We’ll see how long I can stay interested… In the meantime, I expect to see an idyllic and pointless library when I get back to the States.

’Till next time,

Tim

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