Monday, January 26, 2009

I am Scientist

by Hanno

I am doing some work preparing for a talk I will give in February up at Gettysburg College on the ethics of vampire slaying. There are. however, some peripheral issues that arise in the book "I am Legend," not to be confused with the Hollywood trash by the same name.

In the book, Robert Neville is not a scientist originally, but a normal factory worker who finds himself in LA (Compton), all alone with undead vampires trying to kill him for his blood at night. In the beginning, he spends his days slaughtering vampires the old fashioned way, with a stake through the heart. During the day, they are easy picking, dispatching 47 in just one morning. He does discover that some of the vampires are not quite dead yet. They breathe, for example, but are in a coma like state that all vampires endure for daylight hours. But there are also undead vampires, that do not breathe at all. Some of the live vampires behave oddly, as if they are dazed and confused, hardly rational beings at all, but the undead vampires show high levels of rational behavior. Neville's best friend, for example, turned into an undead vampire, and taunts him each night, calling his name, inviting him to join the forces of the night. Female vampires undress to lure the accidental celibate out his house for a sexual romp, one sure never to be consummated as he would be eaten well before the fun would start. Well, his fun, at any rate.

He has nothing to live for. No hope, no one else, no thing else. He drinks heavily, and tries to avoid thinking. He manages to survive for a year. Then something happens, and he starts to wonder just why vampires do not like garlic. Is it the smell? Is garlic toxic for vampires? This question becomes a series of others. And from here, Neville becomes a scientist. Answering the question "Why?" gives his life meaning. Now Aristotle said long ago that humans have a desire to understand. This desire is at the heart of the philosophical project, and science is an outgrowth, both historically and philosophically, of that desire. Few think of science as a source of existential wisdom, and one may wonder how realistic that may be. Can the desire to understand give us, by itself, give life meaning? Or would most of us (all of us) choose something darker as an alternative?

Neville then simply goes to the library, and reads about biology. He becomes through his studies a biologist. Is this a 50's view of science? Was it true then? Now? He finds a lab, and a working microscope, trains himself to make slides, and prepares himself to do real work: find the truth about vampires. I think this makes far more sense in 1950 than it does today. Biology as a field of study, like all the sciences, has advanced so far, that only highly specialized and trained people can actively do research. I think this is why the movies make the sole survivor already a master scientist. The idea of someone just becoming a biologist in this day and age is apparently more far fetched than the idea that a disease can cause the dead to rise back up and live off the flesh of the living.

Next: the ethics of experimentation on vampires

3 comments:

ce said...

Can the desire to understand give us, by itself, give life meaning?

Of course it can. Almost anything (there may be exceptions, though I can't think of one offhand) can give life meaning. All that is required is that you value something in and of itself. You could value gardening, and gardening would give your life meaning.

Are you asking "solely"? That "all" the meaning of one's life, all the value can come from some singular thing? Possibly. But I think people of that sort are very rare. That seems like a form of obsession, and is likely rather unhealthy psycho-emotionally. But perhaps for Neville, that's a far better alternative.

The idea of someone just becoming a biologist in this day and age is apparently more far fetched than the idea that a disease can cause the dead to rise back up and live off the flesh of the living.

I find this incredibly bizarre, but it probably has a lot to do with the medium and the mentality of the folk. We expect vampires, werewolves, etc., in the movies. We don't expect some random person to become a stupendous scientist.

This probably touches on ressentiment to some degree as well. There are people who are simply brilliant, and could do all sorts of extraordinary things. But they make us feel inferior. We want some sort of wish fulfillment from the movie as well, and since I can't put myself in the place of someone that exceptional, I don't get that from the work. Then in defense of my unhappiness and displeasure, I say, "That can't happen", regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

"It's unrealistic", then, can become accusatory. This is regardless of the fact that the entire work is a work of fiction, and that the very premise is unrealistic.

Hanno said...

The character gets his sole meaning of life from his studies. The last hope for something else was the dog, and it dies after a week. That is when he gives up on hope.

juliaaaaaaa said...

What ethical values are shown in the movie?