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One of my guilty pleasures is the History Channel series Ancient Aliens. It features a series of dubious-looking, confident-sounding, and very entertaining characters presenting intriguing evidence that the ancient Mayans, Egyptians, and Sumerians were visited and influenced by extraterrestrials.
The evidence includes Mayan rock carvings which depict men wearing helmets, thousand-year-old models of flying craft which are aerodynamically accurate, and the Egyptian pyramids, which were engineered to a scale and level of precision we could barely achieve today. Of course (for legal purposes) I don’t believe a word of it. But I watch Ancient Aliens religiously, so when Ridley Scott’s new movie, Prometheus, which takes Ancient Aliens as its starting point, opened, I was all over it.
It begins with a giant, ivory-skinned humanoid man ingesting a compound which disintegrates his body, and seeds the prehistoric earth with his DNA. Several thousand (million?) years later, two archaeologists discover prehistoric rock drawings on several continents, depicting a particular constellation in deep space, drawn thousands of years apart. The anthropologists approach a corporation, which funds their expedition to the constellation, to a moon with an atmosphere similar to our own. They land, and pow! Aliens. (Though it’s not the aliens’ home world—more an off-planet lab.)
The aliens and their planet do not disappoint—fearsome creatures came bursting out of stomachs, abetted by wicked techno- logy, amidst breathtaking images of futuristic architecture. But what fascinates me about Prometheus is its central theme: the pop-cultural articulation of the deep questions sentient humans ask themselves: why are we here, and where do we come from?
The movie’s protagonist is (one of the archaeologists) Elizabeth (superbly played by Noomi Rapace from the Dragon Tattoo movie), who explicitly asks these questions, against the backdrop of her father’s death and her hope for his resurrection, symbolised by his crucifix, which she wears. Unfortunately, Elizabeth gets answers she doesn’t expect or want.
Once it’s established our DNA is identical to theirs, an ivory-skinned giant (the master, or the evil coloniser, if you will), realising their presence, promptly beats the crap out of the humans, and treats them like long-abandoned genetic experiments, or humanoid rodents. Which, apparently, is what we are to them.
Elizabeth won’t accept these answers. She persists, asking why we were discarded. Don’t the ivory-skinned giants like us? Aren’t we special? The crushing answer to these questions is no. If there is a god, we don’t matter to him/her/it. And unfortunately, this echoes far outside of pop fiction.
These questions have traditionally fallen to religion, which (the Semitic religions anyway) provides an easy answer—it evades the questions with promises of post-mortem fantasias of mansions in paradise, and graps of comely virgins that await us after jihad. (Hindus don’t believe in heaven—for them it’s an endless round of reincarnations with rewards in the next for vir-tues in this one. So it’s kind of the same thing. I guess.)
But if we’ve devoted considerable time to constructing elaborate justifications for our exist- ence through religion, that’s changing. In the last century or so, answers to questions of purpose, meaning, and destiny have more and more fallen away from religion, and to art and secular theologies, like consumer capitalism: we were made by the democratic, western god to own, consume, and be free.
If you think about it, the very existence of the nation state (which is only a couple hundred years old), and particularly the post-colonial state, and ideas of nationalism (a specific destiny which must be realised through strife) embodies the growing reality of humanity’s reciprocal abandonment of/by god.
The ideas of a nation’s (or ethnic group’s) destiny and purpose provide answers, or at least distractions from the answers. And prima facie, the sophistication of the mythologies which explain, or examine, who we are and why we’re here, are significantly connected with the success of a nation, or a group making its way in the world.
Looking at Trinidad with these questions in mind, it seems clear that a big reason for the nihilism we’re sunk in is how those questions are answered or even considered. Religion provides its traditional non-answers. Secularly, the “sense of self” many vulnerable people are taught is ethno-centred. Why they are here is to struggle and resist everything.
Institutions of education, literature, and art, pop-culture, which traditionally provide some counter-ideas, are non-functional. The result? Look around you. But remove the security blankets of ethno-nationalism, and we meet the hard reality: we are insignificant. Though the realisation of our insignificance is not itself reason for nihilism. Art, secular humanism, and the imagination provide solace if not alternatives.
In the movie, Elizabeth survives, and commandeers an alien ship. Instead of heading back to Earth, she turns to find out where the creators came from and why they decided to create, and then discard, us. She could just as easily have decided that if they (creators, colonisers, masters) gave up on us, we should forget them.
In this choice, Elizabeth embodies humanity at its best, but ironically, this trait isn’t in our biology. This determination to seek, to not accept easy answers, and to persist despite adversity, is an attribute whose existence is not natural or accidental. The creature imbued with these qualities has to be created through education, moral reasoning, and in an atmosphere of curiosity and open-mindedness.
Sadly, on planet Trinidad, we see a dogged determination to do the opposite of probing the deepest human questions, or creating people or institutions that could. Without hope, in the face of the looming void, the society disintegrates.
And you might reason that we all end up with the alien bursting through our stomachs anyway, so why bother? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
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