Arrival contemplates language in light of eternity
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
In Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) learns not just how to read and write the language of alien visitors to Earth. She also finds herself thinking, and even dreaming, in that same extraterrestrial language.
I love this story because it captures the excitement of learning an unfamiliar and mysterious language. I like to explore the thought-worlds of ancient Greek, Latin, and Chinese. Learning a language changes the way you think, as new pathways are opened up to you.
Louise herself comes to learn what the film calls “the universal language,” which is taught to her by the aliens as a gift. What might a “universal language” actually look like?
I was intrigued by the inclusion of this phrase in the screenplay by Eric Heisserer. The Latin word “universal” is a translation of the Greek word “catholic.” Moreover, the idea of a “universal language” suggests there is a “perennial tradition” or “perennial philosophy” that can open our minds to a deeper wisdom, by prayerfully adopting its eternal vantage point.
Thanks to such a “universal language,” Louise becomes able to think in a highly contemplative way. She starts to view her life from outside the sequential order of time. She begins to grasp its deepest meaning.
The movie’s scenario comes from a brilliant short story by the science-fiction writer Ted Chiang called Story of Your Life. The premise of the story is that every event, past or future, could be written down in a book, since the fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric. That is, no physical difference between past and future is visible when the laws are written down.
Further, given the fact of this physical symmetry, if you were to read the story of your life in advance, then you would undergo a certain kind of experience. The knowledge would change you. But you would feel an urgent obligation to act to bring about your own future. You would willingly choose the already-known story of your life.
The extraterrestrial language in Arrival uses a non-linear orthography, in which the expression of a thought is written in a circle. Beginning anywhere along the circle, it is possible to enter into the written thought at any point and then to proceed, in any direction whatsoever, to continue reading.
Eventually, Louise’s knowledge of this alien language enables her to see life not just along a linear timeline. She begins to appreciate the unity and symmetry in life, as if contemplating a circle from the standpoint of eternity.
In Chiang’s original story, Louise describes her transformed consciousness: “I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside of time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life.”
In Heisserer’s screenplay, Chiang’s story is enhanced, as Heisserer evokes the trend towards nationalism and isolationism in today’s world, a trend visible in events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Heisserer adds a dramatic scenario in which the nations of the world, out of fear and mistrust, are tempted to go to war against each other.
The film includes nicely satirical moments about how the media grossly distorts our perceptions of one another. We also see the metaphorical walls going up between nations. Unable to cooperate, they stop communicating. Their own languages fail them.
Louise’s entrance into the “universal language” could be best interpreted as her deeper penetration into that perennial wisdom tradition which finds expression in all human cultures. Father Richard Rohr, OFM, offers a paraphrase of that universal wisdom: “There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things”; “there is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality”; and “the final goal of existence is union with this Divine Reality.”