The limits of my language
mean the limits
of my world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
Does time only flow in a continuum? Does a sentence have to contain a verb? The answer to the first question hasn’t been definitively answered. The answer to the second one is definitely no. Both play a role in the science fiction movie Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
For once, the U.S. government doesn’t bomb first and ask questions later. When aliens arrive, they send the linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to solve the mystery of their language so that peaceful communication can take place. This is where my little geeky language heart starts to beat faster. Concepts such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the correlation between language and worldview), logograms (symbols standing for words and not a single sound), and palindromes (words reading the same backwards and forwards) are used. The movie does an excellent job explaining these concepts so that non-linguists understand and linguists don’t get bored.
Recently, I read a highly acclaimed novel written by Lisa Genova, a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Her first book, Still Alice (2009), chronicles the descent into Alzheimer’s of Dr. Alice Howland, the eminent William James Professor of Psychology at Harvard. Reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Lisa Genova pens a touching, highly accurate, and gripping account of the effects of dementia on the body, mind, and spirit.
Several years after a catastrophic event has destroyed all of America’s – and maybe the whole world’s – flora and fauna, a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are on a desperate journey through this barren, cold, and gray new world. They are led by a vague shimmer of hope that there might still be a better place somewhere. “We have to keep carrying the fire,” the father tries to motivate his young son, who has seen real plants and animals only in his ragged picture book. Here and there, the morbid silent solitude is disturbed by something far worse – bands of surviving humans, just as much on the verge of starvation as father and son and, to make things worse, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
The 1990s rang in an – if not the – era of memoir writing. Since then, memoir publications have surged and with them their readership as well as the sound of cash registers ringing up sale after sale. One reason for their popularity can be traced back to the postmodern questioning of the very foundation upon which non-fiction was based: the concept of an infallible truth. This development, combined with the rise of social media and the willingness of people to share their intimate details with everyone, has provided fertile ground for many people of all backgrounds. Yes, academics as well as average people with little or no professional training as writers do try their hand at this ever-growing subgenre of creative non-fiction. And who can blame them? Why not write something for yourself, your family and friends as well as posterity, especially if history or mainstream society has ignored, silenced, or misrepresented you? And while there are a lot of trashy, gossipy, or unfaithful memoirs, the public as well as critics and scholars are starting to agree that memoir – if done with true honesty, voice, and a dose of creativity – can be just as powerful and masterful as the best fiction writing. So, to the autobiography I would say: “Move over bacon, there is something meatier!” And its name is memoir.
Ever since I saw her as Sookie St. James in Gilmore Girls (2000–2007), I’ve been a fan of the actress Melissa McCarthy. She was one of the few fat women on TV whose fatness was not a topic of conversation within the series’ universe or a motif to narrate the character’s storyline. (If you are surprised by my uninhibited use of the word “fat,” I suggest you google Fat Studies.) She was a chef, a wife, a mother, an important member of the Stars Hollow community, and ultimately, a best friend to protagonist Lorelei Gilmore. Although the “fat-sidekick” cliché clouded my love for the series, I accepted it as the price to pay for such an unconventional representation of fat femininity on television. Read more »