Some Reflections on ‘Arrival,’ on Listening and on Shaping the World [no spoilers]

When we left the cinema after the early evening showing of Arrival, my wife insisted that neither of us should watch anything else that evening on TV. We should let the movie rest between us, and we should contact our son, far away in the US. And that’s what we did.

arrivalArrival is a movie about communication and talking, but mostly about listening. About listening well and deeply to those who are alien among us and to those against whom we harbour suspicion and mistrust. These are a few initial thoughts, scribbled before I fell asleep last night, and I’m pretty sure there are no spoilers.

Coghlan and Brydon write,

“The questions we ask are fateful…social systems move in the direction of what they most talk and ask questions about. Since we discover about what we study, our questions need to be directed towards where we wish to be….words create worlds–human systems move in the direction of what they most converse about… questions are fateful – change begins with the first question we ask.”

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks an academic linguist recruited (or conscripted) by the military to translate alien communications. Jeremy Renner is her counterpart, Ian Donnelly, a mathematician, doing the same. Donnelly mentions to Banks that he has been reading about linguistics and the theory that learning a new language actually rewires the brain. This is significant. When talking about the effect of language she says that if, instead of trying to teach rudimentary words to the aliens they taught them chess, then they would see each interaction, each engagement, in terms of conflict or contest. It matters how and what we say, not least because “language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

If it’s true words shape worlds, then it is appropriate that in the movie the alien craft are called shells. They are huge oval shaped vessels, like rugby balls stood on end. But to the military, all over the world, they look like weapons. For shells can be explosive and death dealing and therefore a threat.

But there are other shells. If you hold a sea shell to your ear and listen carefully your universe is expanded to the size of an ocean.

The ear is a shell, which processes all the sounds around us and by which we learn to distinguish noise and chatter from the meaningful words of love, loss and joy.

So we should choose how we want to be in the world. Choose well those voices to which we will listen. Bend our ears in artful and careful attention to those who are different. Because all of this matters.

If we listen well to our past and our present we may also be able to listen to the future,heptapod-writing-in-arrival and learn. Learn that life is to be lived and lived with intention not stumbled into. Learn that history is not linear. If we fail to learn from it we will return to it in endless circles of destruction . But if we learn, if we bridge the gaps between us, there is the hope that time will enclose and protect us and nurture us like a womb. There’s a choice.

If none of this makes sense…you’ve got to see the film and come back and comment.


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