Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Some of Us Did Not Die: Reflections on the Lord of the Rings trilogy

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Yangyang Cheng writes in SupChina:

Staying up overnight, when one manages to and does so by choice, is a magnificently empowering experience. You watch the world fall asleep. You are there when it wakes up. The hours between midnight and first light feel like stolen time, laws of physics and biology defied.

On the last night of 2020, I decide to rewatch The Lord of the Rings.

I first encountered the enchanted kingdoms of J. R. R. Tolkien as a young child in China, when one day, my mother brought home a hardcover collection titled World Children’s Literature. “World” meant western. I devoured the pages in the following weeks, forming imaginary bonds with Pippi Longstocking and Karlsson-on-the-Roof. My favorite stories in the series were the two wordiest, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This was the late 1990s. No one in my family or at school had heard of Frodo or the Dark Lord. I wrote about the ring and its corrupting power for composition homework, and felt both morally and culturally superior.

A few years after, billboards for the movie adaptation would spring up across the city. Aragorn flashed his sword next to newly opened shopping malls and glistening office buildings. Every bookstore stacked Tolkien’s volumes by its entrance. Signs on the windows read: “The first complete Chinese translation.” I knew what I had was an abridged version, but by middle school, all leisure reading had given way to coursework.

When I found a disc set for the trilogy at a street vendor with dubious licensing, my mother made an exception. If the subtitles were turned off, she figured, the dialogues in English could count as language learning. I watched them twice before she decided I was having too much fun. Those steaming summer afternoons appear as vividly as yesterday: the ceiling fan buzzing, the battle for Middle Earth raging in the living room. My mother still lives in the same apartment. She tells me about changes in the city: “You won’t recognize it when you come back.”

At university, a dormmate had a poster of Aragorn glued next to her pillow. Many a night, long past mandatory lights-out at 11:30 p.m., we lay in our bunk beds and debated the attractiveness of the characters. Ranking Aragorn above Legolas was a marker of maturity. I wonder whose face adorns those walls now, who are the latest stars girls giggle about before they sleep.

I came to the U.S. for graduate school in 2009. A boy in my program looked like a dark-haired kin to Merry and Pippin, a fact I wasted no time in pointing out. His name was Sam.

“Are you calling me short, Yangyang?” Sam looked up and asked, feigning indignation. Then, tilting his head back and squinting his eyes, he pronounced with absolute pride, “Samwise the brave.” His thick, curly locks bounced with each syllable.

Sam and I worked on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful circular accelerator. “One ring to rule them all” was almost a cliche. Before exams and thesis defenses, we avoided references to Gandalf. “You shall not pass” was too unnerving an utterance.

The last time I saw Sam was in the summer of 2019, at a dark matter conference. We had graduated years before and moved to different institutions. We were still working on the LHC. He still looked like a hobbit.

On the last work day of 2019, a colleague asked if we had any New Year’s resolutions. “To survive,” I said. Everyone laughed; only I was not joking. I knew 2020 would be difficult, with the election, rising tensions between my birth country and my adopted home, and the tenuous relationships I have with both governments. I did not know then that a mysterious pneumonia had appeared in Wuhan. In a few short weeks, survival would become painstakingly literal.

I sit at my desk and stare at my screen, a spot I’ve barely left for over nine months. In China it’s already morning on New Year’s Day. I consider calling my mother, but decide to put it off till the date has shifted for me. I dim the lights and press play. Galadriel’s voice emerges from the darkness: “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.”

I know the plot well, so there’s no anxiety of anticipation. I suspend judgment and sink into the universe of Tolkien’s creation, richly rendered by Peter Jackson and his crew. It’s a world of tradition, where every creature has its place. The hierarchies and moral codes of Middle Earth mirror our own, but unlike the reality we inhabit, in fantasy friends are loyal, people are brave, the once and future king is wise and good. The gorgeously-realized cinematic universe grants its viewers absolution. The length magnifies the indulgence.

An alliance of elves and men are fighting against Saruman’s army when the clock strikes twelve. I hit pause and look out the window. Fireworks are blooming on the horizon. I take a deep breath and return to the film. I obsessively check the number of hours remaining. I’m not ready to depart Middle Earth. If only time could stand still.

As Frodo and his friends sail toward the Undying Lands, I too have completed a passage. I feel no elation but heaviness, a nostalgia akin to grief. After the holidays I will be starting a new job, leaving the LHC after 11 years, switching from studying the laws of nature to examining the rules of men. It’s a decision I had made before COVID-19 threw everything into disarray, but the pandemic has helped clarify my choice and injected it with urgency.

The inkiness is fading in the east. My Twitter feed is a sea of jubilation. Humans are such needy creatures: We invent symbols, calendars and rituals, as scaffolding for our wishes, but another cycle around the sun does not erase our sins.

On the sixth day in the new year, white supremacists attack the U.S. Capitol.

I watch videos and live streams on social media. Angry mobs scale walls outside the building. They clash with security. They break in. They roam the halls uninhibited. They carry flags of a government that lost the civil war and banners for a president who lost reelection. They are here to contest the defeat.

After what seems like an eternity, uniformed soldiers arrive in combat gear. Plumes of tear gas rise from the balconies. Flash bombs light up the dome. For a moment it looks like the Capitol is in flames. A war is taking place against a pale edifice like it’s the end of times. The scene bears eerie resemblance to a movie I’ve just seen.

Fifty-five years ago, another leader on another continent, worried about losing power, incited his supporters to turn against their government. “Bombard the headquarters!” declared Mao. People familiar with Chinese history are quick to draw comparisons between the Capitol Hill riot and the Cultural Revolution. The parallels are superficial, but the impulse is natural. We all approach new information through the lens of what we know. We notice similarities and trace patterns. We use the past as a map to navigate the present.

During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, many on Chinese social media posted photos of toppled Confederate statues with the caption that a “cultural revolution” was taking place in the U.S. My mother forwarded me some of these messages and asked why “Black people are so quick to anger.” What she saw invoked memories of her youth, when historical artifacts were destroyed by political fanaticism. Unaware of the social context, she recognized the imagery and assumed the rest.

Spectacle captivates, but it’s never the whole story. Two sides can be equally engaged in battle and share no moral equivalence. What fascinates me is how easily people identify symbols of authority and take their side. My mother didn’t know what the Confederacy was about, but between monuments of stone and a passionate crowd, the crowd must be the trouble. Order, however unjust, was preferable to chaos.

Politicians and pundits spare no adjectives in denouncing the violence at Capitol Hill, which, in this case, is fair but insufficient. Violence is the spectacle; by itself it says very little about the justness of the cause while concealing underlying structures of power. The rioters are referred to as criminals, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists, which may all be legally correct, but these labels imply the righteousness of state authority and miss the most important point, that the rioters are white supremacists.

In a country founded on stolen land and built with slave labor, white supremacy has always worked with the state, often as the state, and occasionally against the state; only in the last instance does the establishment punish the rogue actors to preserve its power. From slave patrols to modern-day police, violent organs of the state have functioned to uphold structural racism and suppress its challengers. John Brown was tried, convicted, and hanged for treason. The men of the Sioux Uprising were tried, convicted, and hanged for rebellion against the U.S. government. Klansmen lynched with impunity. Martin Luther King jr. was “the most dangerous Negro,” according to the FBI.

Turmoil triggers fear. Bloodshed shocks the conscience. By promising safety and stability, the state justifies its monopoly on violence and expands its arsenal. In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol Hill riot, over a dozen anti-protest bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. As reported by The Intercept, “most of the bills have their roots in responses to last summer’s protests against police brutality.” One of them, put forth in Minnesota, seeks to restrict Indigenous-led activism against oil and gas pipelines.

“Some of us did NOT die.” Speaking at a lecture shortly after 9/11, the poet June Jordan posed these questions:

“And what shall we do, we who did not die?

“Is there an honorable non-violent means towards mourning and remembering who and what we loved?

“Is there an honorable means to pursue and capture the perpetrators of that atrocity without ourselves becoming terrorists?

“I don’t know the answer to that.”

That afternoon, when the Capitol was under siege, I was trying to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

2 February 2021 at 5:46 pm

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