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Culture

Seeing ‘Arrival,’ and Learning a New Language

David Langness | Jan 19, 2017

PART 6 IN SERIES Follow Your Dreams & Meet Your Soul

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Jan 19, 2017

PART 6 IN SERIES Follow Your Dreams & Meet Your Soul

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Have you seen the new film Arrival? It has some profound inspiration to offer us about communication, spirituality and time.

Normally, I wouldn’t be tempted to write about a science fiction film. Most turn out to be instantly disposable and forgettable: hostile aliens arrive on Earth, and humans saddle up and ride out to blow ‘em up. Boom. End of story. Yawn.

But luckily, Arrival contains none of those tired Hollywood clichés. Instead, in the mold of other thoughtfully speculative movie masterpieces—2001: A Space Odyssey; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Interstellar—this film focuses on the emotional and even spiritual implications of our human struggles with time, language and the soul.

If you have a singular sense of déjà vu while watching Arrival, it might be because this visionary and almost supernatural material remains perennially fascinating. In a literary rather than a scientific sense, many of our best artists and thinkers—St. Augustine, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Carl Jung and Leo Tolstoy—have explored this same mysterious territory, and found it fertile with meaning.

All of those artists, scientific thinkers and philosophers have contemplated this conundrum: how do we distinguish ongoing experience from memory, and waking experience from dreams?

Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang

Based on a short story called “Story of Your Life” by the author Ted Chiang, Arrival addresses that question by telling the tale of a university professor and linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, asked by the United States military to translate the incomprehensible language of newly-arrived aliens from who-knows-where. The alien ships, piloted by seven-limbed creatures called heptapods, have simultaneously landed in several places around the world. All of the world’s large nations attempt to communicate with them, but Dr. Banks and her cohort, physicist Ian Donnelly, slowly try to figure out the complex circular symbols the heptapods use as a written language—as opposed to the linear language humans use. Without spoiling it all for you, I’ll just say that the alien language and the tragic life of her own daughter allows Dr. Banks to awaken to the fact that time isn’t linear—instead, because our language shapes our conceptual world, those circular symbols mean the aliens understand the real nature of déjà vu.

What if time is only an illusion, a function of the physical, an ephemeral construct? What if we can not only flashback, but flash forward? Arrival asks those questions, and answers them in the affirmative. This unusual film seems to take a spiritual view of the physical universe we live in, discounting the material forms of things and concentrating on their eternal spiritual reality:

When man’s soul is rarified and cleansed, spiritual links are established, and from these bonds sensations felt by the heart are produced. The human heart resembleth a mirror. When this is purified human hearts are attuned and reflect one another, and thus spiritual emotions are generated. This is like the world of dreams when man is detached from things which are tangible and experienceth those of the spirit. What amazing laws operate, and what remarkable discoveries are made! – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 108.

Only the spirit lasts, this film tells us—and that eternal presence will outlive every material thing and transcend time. The Baha’i teachings give us all exactly the same message:

…the spirit of life is omnipotent, especially when it establishes a communication with God and becomes the recipient of the eternal light—then it transforms itself into a ray of the effulgence of the eternal sun.

This station is the greatest of all stations, for this connection of the spirit of man with God is like unto a mirror and the sun of reality is reflected in it. Thus it becomes the collective center of all the virtues; its emanation is the bestowal of the king of bestowers; its radiations are the manifold splendors of the infinite luminary; its sanctity is from the highest summit of divine essence. This station is the station of heavenly inspiration and is called the station of the divine grace. It signifies that the rays of the sun of reality are resplendent in the mirror and the attributes of the sun of reality are reflected therein. This is the ultimate degree of human perfection, for the attainment of which the thinkers and philosophers of all time have longed and poets have dreamed; it is the mystery of mysteries and the light of lights wherein the spirit becomes eternal, self-subsistent, age-abiding. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 166-167.

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Comments

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  • Mark David Vinzens
    Aug 17, 2017
    -
    The aliens are very similar to the messengers and prophets of God. They came from „outer space“, the heavenly reality down to planet earth, as aliens and strangers, endowed with a higher consciousness, a different way of thinking, to deliver an enlightening message of peace, love and unity to us. And nearly all of humanity is poorly understanding, rarely listening and often misinterpreting them. The Psalmist said, „I am a stranger on earth“ (Psalm 119:19a). According to Hebrews 11, the „heroes of the faith“ „admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth“ (verse 13). Peter describes his ...Christian readers as „aliens and strangers in the world.“
    Read more...
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Aug 17, 2017
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    Arrival is a film about the power of language. “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict” (Ian Donnelly) Every word is endowed with a spirit, they do not simply represent that which they signify, but can convey unseen spiritual forces as well. The word – especially the Word of God, the „king of words“ - is the chief creative agent of humanity‘s spiritual life.
    „A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it ...clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding....“ (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 289)
    Read more...
  • Jan 20, 2017
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    I had to read TV Tropes on Arrival despite having actually watched the movie to get all the info I needed. (I read TV Tropes on everything I have watched, eventually.) I also saw an article on Arrival previously in Lion's Roar as well.
    http://www.lionsroar.com/a-zen-decoding-on-the-visual-language-of-arrival/
    Aliens and the nature or the space time continuum are the basis of the movie. Seeing the future and it coming out exactly as seen does bring up issues of free will. The concept of desire and attachment need to be factored in. It shows lack of wisdom in that people still choose futures ...filled with suffering despite having the foreknowledge to prevent it. I kept the description vague as to not spoil anything for anyone.
    Read more...
  • Debbie Van Den Hoonaard
    Jan 20, 2017
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    Not to forget the importance of the linguist's being a woman. Equality is one of the least recognized prerequisites for peace, as we know.
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Jan 20, 2017
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    I believe the second quote is describing the holy Prophets and Chosen Ones like Himself.
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