The Wisdom of A Ray of Light: Non-Temporal Gnosticism in Ted Chiang’s ARRIVAL


This essay, like all works of fiction, non-fiction, art, and life, exists in a curious super-position of ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’: as I write it, it is incomplete, its first sentence barely typed; yet, as you read it, you read it, more or less, in one complete unit, all its paragraphs set to unfurl before you. Both of these are valid perceptions of the work, valid states of the work, and both exist as a matter of permanent record in the form of the work itself, which serves as final crystallization of a rolling train of thoughts. Presently I perceive it as unfinished and the piece itself bears the hallmarks of that perception, which with respect to the whole piece is not dissimilar from the tuning of an orchestra which heralds a symphony. Were we to perceive the entire symphony visually, human beings could perceive it in two primary ways: through a spectrogram indicating the spectrum of frequencies of a sound measured across time, or through what amounts to a series of graphemes in the form of musical notes likewise measured across a span of time. Yet the latter is a crude representation in many ways of the former: sheet music is the programming by which a musician makes a grapheme of himself in order to produce a greater experience, being that he is but one component of a much larger whole; that he is not, himself, separate from his instrument. Neither the spectrogram nor musical notation is sufficient to communicate the breathtaking experience which is seeing an orchestra preforming in a concert hall, however, and that is an experience which can only truly be had once, by living through it. One can only experience a particular performance once, even seeing the same orchestra or band play over and over again. Each time it is something new. Each life lived is something new, something traced through by consciousness, existing in a super-position of complete and incomplete, alive and dead, struggle and success. Few works of art have demonstrated that quite so well as ARRIVAL, the film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short “Story of Your Life”, just as few movies have so honored their source material. As per usual, this story is not the only, nor even the most telling story, in the author’s oeuvre insofar as revealing his influence are concerned: the same collection, Stories of Your Life (now renamed, of course, Arrival) features “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, which begins with a Baghdadi merchant meeting the wise old man in a mystical shop full of incredible mechanical goods, located in ‘the district of metalsmiths’. It reads as an initiatory story, and does not shy away from its symbolism. “Story of Your Life”, however, is not without its wealth of symbols.

While it’s undeniable Chiang’s story is fantastic, the screen version features adjustments which work well for the plot and do a fine job of demonstrating the positive aspects of a teleological outlook. In both, the story seems straightforward: aliens make contact and Louise Banks, a linguist, is brought in to figure out why they’ve come. Those researching them have called them heptapods, and they have sent artifacts to earth: in the short story, there are nine such artifacts in the United States, one hundred and twelve in the entire world; the film version reduces this to a ‘cleaner’ twelve, and the artifacts are not looking glasses, but rather oblong black ships which require that the humans first ascend to their level, then succumb to a vertiginous gravity which allows them to walk up the length of the ship to meet with the aliens and talk. To do that, she has to figure out their language, and does so while working with a theoretical physicist, Gary in the short story, Ian in the film (much as the aliens are renamed from Chiang’s ‘Raspberry and Flapper’ to the more Hollywood ‘Abbot and Costello’). Though little initial progress is made, the first intuitive leap of understanding Louise makes is inspired by, what else, but a fruit:

Gary pointed at the Golden Delicious and then he took a bite out of it, while I displayed the “what do you call that?” expression. Then we repeated it with the slice of whole wheat.

Raspberry left the room and returned with some kind of giant nut or gourd and a gelatinous ellipsoid. Raspberry pointed at the gourd while Flapper said a word and displayed a logogram. Then Raspberry brought the gourd down between its legs, a crunching sound resulted, and the gourd reemerged minus a bite; there were corn-like kernels beneath the shell. Flapper talked and displayed a large logogram on their screen. The sound spectrograph for “gourd” changed when it was used in the sentence; possibly a case marker. The logogram was odd: after some study, I could identify graphic elements that resembled the individual logograms for “heptapod” and “gourd.” They looked as if they had been melted together, with several extra strokes in the mix that presumably meant “eat.” Was it a multi-word ligature?

Next we got spoken and written names for the gelatin egg, and descriptions of the act of eating it. The sound spectrograph for “heptapod eats gelatin egg” was analyzable; “gelatin egg” bore a case marker, as expected, though the sentence’s word order differed from last time. The written form, another large logogram, was another matter. This time it took much longer for me to recognize anything in it; not only were the individual logograms melted together again, it looked as if the one for “heptapod” was laid on its back, while on top of it the logogram for “gelatin egg” was standing on its head.

“Uh-oh.” I took another look at the writing for the simple noun-verb examples, the ones that had seemed inconsistent before. Now I realized all of them actually did contain the logogram for “heptapod”; some were rotated and distorted by being combined with the various verbs, so I hadn’t recognized them at first. “You guys have got to be kidding,” I muttered.

“What’s wrong?” asked Gary.

“Their script isn’t word divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying them. Take a look.” I showed him how the logograms were rotated.

“So they can read a word with equal ease no matter how it’s rotated,” Gary said. He turned to look at the heptapods, impressed. “I wonder if it’s a consequence of their bodies’ radial symmetry: their bodies have no ‘forward’ direction, so maybe their writing doesn’t either. Highly neat.”

I couldn’t believe it; I was working with someone who modified the word “neat” with “highly.” “It certainly is interesting,” I said, “but it also means there’s no easy way for us to write our own sentences in their language. We can’t simply cut their sentences into individual words and recombine them; we’ll have to learn the rules of their script before we can write anything legible. It’s the same continuity problem we’d have had splicing together speech fragments, except applied to writing.”

–Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life”, Stories of Your Life

As she delves into the language, she discovers it is uniquely complex in that entire phrases are combined on-the-fly into a single logogram (that is, rather than representing a sound in the sense of a grapheme/letter, the aliens use logograms, or single symbols which mean a word) so that rather than combining characters or representing frequencies, the heptapods are essentially producing a single character sentence like a spectrogram of their thoughts. Because the logograms become in a sense graphemes unto themselves, and because they have no correlation with spoken language, Louise eventually renames them: “In the next report I submitted, I suggested that the term “logogram” was a misnomer because it implied that each graph represented a spoken word, when in fact the graphs didn’t correspond to our notion of spoken words at all. I didn’t want to use the term “ideogram” either because of how it had been used in the past; I suggested the term “semagram” instead. It appeared that a semagram corresponded roughly to a written word in human languages: it was meaningful on its own, and in combination with other semagrams could form endless statements. We couldn’t define it precisely, but then no one had ever satisfactorily defined “word” for human languages either.”

Like the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ or certain Egyptian hieroglyphic characters written to aid in readers’ understanding but given no audible correlation, this allows for a wide range of non-linear, abstract concepts to be more easily ‘mapped’ and visually expressed in a ‘truer’ way. That is, the sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” would appear, not as a linear line of graphemes arranged into a series of words, but rather as one eternal superposition of all the actions, things, players happening concurrently: for that, after all, is how we perceive the world. We may focus on one thing but we see all things, whereas with a word we can only view one thing at a time so first we see a quick object, then know it is brown, register it is a fox which is jumping and/or about to jump, specifically over a lazy object which we at last see is a dog. Presumably, if we were to see that in real life, the first thing we would be aware of was the dog: the quick flash of the fox coming from the distance would be next on our list, but passive voice, of course, is a no-can-do, so we are left with the sentence as is. Instead, if one were fluent in the fictional written language known as Heptapod B and viewed the logogram expression of the sentence, one would be aware instantly of all actors, states and actions in the intended sentence: this entire essay could be absorbed at a glance, written in a blink, because it exists already in eternal form, and the fictional written language of Heptapod B is simply an acknowledgment of that—of crystallizing thought—and a manner of encoding a form of memory which works forwards as well as backwards.

Two threads run through the plot: Louise’s relationship with her dying/dead daughter, and her efforts to understand the language of the heptapods. In the film, the two threads connect with the breathtaking revelation that those flashback scenes of lonely Louise nursing her new baby and later dying teenaged daughter are not flashbacks at all: rather, the scenes, which have arrived with increasing frequency throughout the movie, are Louise’s premonitions of the future as her comprehension of Heptapod B begins to reveal the total of her life in one eternal form. From her perspective as a human perceiving the third dimension through the fourth from the perspective of the fifth, she can only experience one moment at a time, and so although all things are happening concurrently she is only able to ‘be’ in one place at a time, thus finding herself removed from her body in moments like ones of vivid memory or flashback. Her true understanding of the language comes at a moment when she remembers herself teaching it in the future, having released an indispensable book on the subject: because she understands it well enough to teach it in the future and remembers this, she at last comprehends the language in the present because of ‘finally’ ‘re-acquiring’ her ‘future’ ‘memory’, if you will forgive the hilarious inundation of quotes to express the malleability of these terms.

Likewise, one of the least compelling parts of the adaptation added to increase conflict (after a conspiracy theorist member of the military working at the artifact site attacks and kills one of the aliens, tensions rise to the point that the Chinese general considers attacking) is resolved in a very compelling manner when Louise in the future meets the general at a party celebrating world peace: at it, he thanks and commends her for what she did, and gives her two pieces of information which she is able to ‘remember’ in the past in order to prevent military action, namely, the general’s private cell number and his dead wife’s final words. Indeed, he even gives her the idea to call him at all. This concept of the future effecting the present is taken very literally here, of course, but it is a supreme example of how the individuated individual should strive to be: that is, if you realize you are meant to be the greatest tackle that ‘x’ football team has ever seen and it’s not just your dream, but your destiny, then you will find yourself having a profoundly adjusted perspective. Practice is simply what you have to do to get there, in the way that slogging through 12 tedious years of dealing with the school system got us to graduation. Going to class is simply what is done by American people; practicing every day is simply what is done by superlative athletes; painting every day is what is done by the greatest artists; growing every day is simply what is done by productive plants. You are what you do, and what you do will come back to you in the form of your higher self, your final goal and place of being, whether or not you are aware of that goal. And it is always better to be aware of the goal than unaware.

Also interesting is some of the symbolism present in the film version, adjustments made from the text which better serve the gnostic interpretation of the work. The first point worth noting is that the number of alien ships has greatly reduced, from over one hundred to the thematically significant number of 12. Like Christ’s apostles, the face of a clock or months of a year, the number 12 signifies a kind of wholeness, a roundness and completion most satisfying. Jung, in Aion, having previously many times described the famous alchemical Axiom of Maria (“One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”) writes that, “A special variant of the quaternity motif is the dilemma of 3+1. Twelve (3X4) seems to belong here as a solution of the dilemma and a s a symbol of wholeness (zodiac, year). Three can be regarded as a relative totality, since it usually represents either a spiritual totality that is a product of thought, like the Trinity, or else an instinctual, chthonic one, like the triadic nature of the gods of the underworld—the “lower triad.” Psychologically, however, three—if the context indicates that it refers to the self—should be understood as a defective quaternity or as a stepping-stone towards it.” [Jung, Aion, pg 224] With Jung having also described UFO abduction phenomena as being symbolically similar to angels in terms of representing communion with a higher self, and the fact that the aliens come in pairs (which divide themselves in this film not into male/female but alive-by-end/dead-by-end), and the singular nature of their ships floating like a great ‘yod’ shaped blot in the sky, the aliens are unarguably a kind of higher self, a means of revelation by which Louise is given not only a mystical experience but a genuine glimpse into her future.

This glimpse—the fact that it is possible at all—is where the real spiritual heart of the movie lies, past the psychology and the film’s demonstrated use of decisions about the future as a tool for the present, and vice versa. The story which has unfolded before Louise has been of the death of her daughter, in the source material by a climbing accident and in the film at the hands of an unnamed disease: but Louise still chooses to have a daughter. Her future husband, the theoretical physicist she is getting to know while unraveling the mystery of the language, will eventually condemn her decision and tell her she was wrong to do it.

One thinks in spiritual terms of the plight of the soul, which comes to earth to life a life doomed to death. In the context of ARRIVAL, we would consider Louise to be the ‘salt’, and yet far more than that, for her plot and series of personal decisions resemble most clearly the gnostic scriptures which discuss the choice of the aion Sophia to either steal light from Pleroma or, more significantly in this case, attempt to emanate or create life without her syzygy, resulting in the horrific and deformed demiurge which creates an imperfect world full of fear and despair. And yet ‘Sophia’ is wisdom personified; for the personification of wisdom to do such a thing might seem most unwise from the outside. But, as a mother, Sophia might feel a great tenderness towards her deformed creation, though she hides it away in shame; that is why she chose, knowing what would happen, to create it anyway, much as Louise, knowing what will happen, chooses to have a baby with her husband in an action which seems selfish and ruinous but is truly little more than the price of admission to a grand and beautiful new world.

Adding to this motif is the idea of Louise’s role as, specifically, a linguist. She is in many senses a bride of the Logos, having devoted her life to it and then becoming what amounts to its prophet by means of perpetuating a language which functions as a key to eternity. This is perhaps close to the idea I have discussed previously, of ‘the perfect metaphor’, and the idea that the perfect linguistic metaphor is tantamount to a kind of manifestation of a thing: Louise learns the language and manifests an experiential understanding of eternity, becoming ‘unstuck’ in time like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V, an essay for another day. What this means in both instances is, consciousness bounded to a human body can only truly perceive one moment at a time—that is to say, multitasking is physically impossible for the human brain. Jon Hamilton’s NPR article from 2008 summarizes the issue nicely and it has been rehashed many times over, but if you’re really having trouble believing it, think about your computer, or, specifically, mine. In order to write this essay, most of the action in which I engage is the mechanical action of typing, and it dominates most of my attention unless I pause to scratch my nose or sip a drink. However, there are moments when I must halt my typing and minimizing the word processor to spell-check something in a browser, or remember the name of a citation without getting up to get the book. Now the act of writing has seemingly become sub-divided, into ‘researching’ and ‘writing’, but really they are two different tasks. I may be thinking about one when engaging in the other; they may have a causal relationship; but both I and the computer are only capable of doing one of them at any given time. It is physically impossible to, say, type this essay while at the same time (perhaps with a third, spectral hand) using the same computer to search for the name of such-and-such philosopher. What this also means is that human perception is not able to conceive of eternity. Because in order to perceive a dimension one must be in a dimension above it, a creature capable of viewing eternity would require a standpoint above the fifth dimension and even about the sixth, for if the fifth dimension is perception and the sixth dimension is eternity. It is interesting then that the heptapods have seven limbs much as human beings possess five fingers and toes, five protrusions from their body if one includes the head. In Chiang’s story, the aliens are described as visually different from their appearance in the film: “…It looked like a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs. It was radially symmetric, and any of its limbs could serve as an arm or a leg. The one in front of me was walking around on four legs, three non-adjacent arms curled up at its sides.” Their limbs terminate in four digits, further linking them to the dimension of time and the symbol of the quaternity. The allusion to the symbolism of cycles, wheels and roundness is inherent here, as is the interesting correlation between the aliens as a symbol of the self and round objects also fulfilling that role. Moreover, in the short story, the aliens do not send down ships: instead, they send down television-screen like devices which are referred to as, of course, “looking glasses”. That’s right: the aliens are found in mirrors.

Of import in both the film and the short story is the mutability and flexibility of language, and how it, being a mere abstract representation of physical reality, can only ever be left up to interpretation. Louise in the film is particularly concerned with this idea, and is particularly concerned with the idea with regards to the aliens. When at the beginning the colonel in pursuit of Louise is unsold and still considering another linguist, she asks him to translate the Sanskrit word for “war”. The other linguist comes back with the response that the word “gavisti” means “an argument”, but Louise translates it as “a desire for more cows”. Likewise, the great turning point of the movie comes when other interpreters come back with the information that the aliens have come to offer humanity “a weapon”: Louise comes to realize the “weapon” they have come to give to humanity is the language, itself. What this plot point emphasizes is the abstract nature of language, and how language colors so totally our dealings with ourselves and others that we don’t notice at all the way it controls us. With everybody else taking the word “weapon” the wrong way, it takes a linguist to recognize the truth of the matter: to see behind the curtain and recognize how much power language really has. Language even has the power to frame the unconscious, itself. You can frame the alien of the Self as terrifying or benevolent; as offering a weapon against the world, or offering an intimacy with language and, thus, with the agonizing sublimity of life.

One final point I’d like to make is the difference between how the versions handle the death of Louise’s daughter. As mentioned, the short story describes how her daughter is killed in a climbing accident, and so in that case the fate of Louise’s daughter feels more Grecian, a point Chiang emphasizes: “When you’re three and we’re climbing a steep, spiral flight of stairs, I’ll hold your hand extra tightly. You’ll pull your hand away from me. “I can do it by myself,” you’ll insist, and then move away from me to prove it, and I’ll remember that dream. We’ll repeat that scene countless times during your childhood. I can almost believe that, given your contrary nature, my attempts to protect you will be what create your love of climbing: first the jungle gym at the playground, then trees out in the green belt around our neighborhood, the rock walls at the climbing club, and ultimately cliff faces in national parks.” Like Oedipus attempting to evade a prophecy only to marry Jocasta and start his happy little family, novella-Louise feels she forced her daughter into an ill-fated love of climbing by simple over-concern. There is also the sense of, say, the tragic death of Apollo’s son Phaethon, who could not hold the reins of his father’s horses and faced the consequences of allowing his holy father’s warnings to go unheeded. However, the plight of the film version is less a parable for a failed ascent and more in keeping with the choice of Louise as not a personal, human choice, but rather a choice of the soul to face an inevitable death, natural expiration at the hands of unavoidable, impartial, unwarranted illness. At least, unwarranted insofar as her daughter is concerned: Louise, in a sense, deserves the pain and grief she must endure, for it is the high cost of living, and the high cost of bringing another human being into the world despite knowing what can and eventually must happen, and, in the case of our main character, knowing with absolute certainty when and how. Throughout the short story—left unexplored in the movie—the metaphor is worked through conceptual means using Fermat’s principle, or “principle of least time”, which the physicist (in the novella, ‘Gary’) describes: “Any hypothetical path [light could take] would require more time to traverse than the one actually taken. In other words, the route that the light ray takes is always the fastest possible one.” When one remembers that light is all things, and, like Hermes, is the sure-footed courier/container all information, this principle can become quite poignant: light is, after all, that great symbol of pure consciousness, a la the Buddhists’ ‘clear light of reality’ and the alchemist’s relation of Sol to consciousness and Luna to matter. Our characters initially discuss the concept in reference to the way in which a beam of light alters its path upon hitting water, which has a different index of refraction than air. Because the light travels more slowly in water than it does in air, this peaked change of direction is actually the shortest possible distance between the two points: plunging straight into the water at the same angle it took through the air would actually take longer. Louise’ thought process becomes particularly significant when she and the theoretical physicist are out at dinner, and our main character expresses a certain reticence about Fermat’s principle:

A twinkle appeared in Gary’s eyes. “I’ll bet I know what you’re talking about.” He snipped a potsticker in half with his chopsticks. “You’re used to thinking of refraction in terms of cause and effect: reaching the water’s surface is the cause, and the change in direction is the effect. But Fermat’s principle sounds weird because it describes light’s behavior in goal-oriented terms. It sounds like a commandment to a light beam: ‘Thou shalt minimize or maximize the time taken to reach thy destination.’ “

I considered it. “Go on.”

“It’s an old question in the philosophy of physics. People have been talking about it since Fermat first formulated it in the 1600s; Planck wrote volumes about it. The thing is, while the common formulation of physical laws is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposive, almost teleological.”

“Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it. Let me think about that for a minute.” I pulled out a felt-tip pen and, on my paper napkin, drew a copy of the diagram that Gary had drawn on my blackboard. “Okay,” I said, thinking aloud, “so let’s say the goal of a ray of light is to take the fastest path. How does the light go about doing that?”

“Well, if I can speak anthropomorphic-projectionally, the light has to examine the possible paths and compute how long each one would take.” He plucked the last potsticker from the serving dish.

“And to do that,” I continued, “the ray of light has to know just where its destination is. If the destination were somewhere else, the fastest path would be different.”

Gary nodded again. “That’s right; the notion of a ‘fastest path’ is meaningless unless there’s a destination specified. And computing how long a given path takes also requires information about what lies along that path, like where the water’s surface is.”

I kept staring at the diagram on the napkin. “And the light ray has to know all that ahead of time, before it starts moving, right?”

“So to speak,” said Gary. “The light can’t start traveling in any old direction and make course corrections later on, because the path resulting from such behavior wouldn’t be the fastest possible one. The light has to do all its computations at the very beginning.”

I thought to myself, the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in. I knew what that reminded me of. I looked up at Gary. “That’s what was bugging me.”

Light always knows its fastest possible path: the higher self, the soul, that being of radiant light, does too, and so does the Self which is so foreign we can only but perceive it, in fear, fancy and film, as a literal alien. Consciousness is non-temporal: the human being who realizes they are eternal consciousness having a linear human experience has an advantage, particularly if they, like Louise, know deep within them what they are meant for. Louise has been a language her whole life, and her higher self which teaches her old one, the self with which she culminates, is a renown scholar and celebrated hero of the world: and she always knew it, because if you know it once past, present, or future, you know it forever. Learning is never really a matter of learning, but a matter of remembering.

Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and its film adaptation, ARRIVAL, are both poignant means by which one can jog one’s memory. Any small change you want to make has already been made in the future, and any big one, too. Manifesting those changes is nothing more than a matter of perspective.

MF Sullivan is the author of ALEBDO, the now-complete psychedelic follow-up to transgressive DELILAH, MY WOMAN. Be sure to keep checking the blog for more details, bi-weekly essays and the inevitable plug of DELILAH, MY WOMAN, available for ebook and hardback readers alike from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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