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TheOneRing.Net - Are We Not Geeks?

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Are We Not Geeks? - Tehanu's Eighteenth Note

Tolkien and his keen readers are often criticised for being stuck in eternal adolescence, and labelled as geeks. I'd like to take a closer look at these labels.

Consider how many useful and pragmatic people read therapy and self-help books because they're want to fulfil their potential as balanced, self-aware individuals. Many of these books talk about the notion of nurturing one's 'inner child.' The inner child is that part of us that feels enthusiasm and joy most strongly, and which responds most truthfully to the world. Well and good; evidently the "inner child" is regarded as good and precious. But what can we say about the inner adolescent? Why aren't we nurturing the inner adolescent?

I think you can hardly say the phrase 'teenager' these days without immediately thinking of somebody rebellious and confused, or remembering one's own years of irritable awkwardness. We haven't got a lot good to say about teenagers, and yet we should. The author Philip Pullman wrote something very interesting in response to a question about why he preferred to write for and about teenagers.

At that age, he said, children are becoming aware of the world in a new way, and they have time to ask the big questions: What is the meaning of life, why are we here, what is our purpose? Later on we get busy, we get cynical, and we are in danger of forgetting we ever cared.

I'd agree with that. I'd go further and say that for many teenagers, those years are a time of great stress partly because it is an age of idealism and yet they are just beginning to learn about the world's tired habits - its petty hypocrisies, callous persecutions, deadly evasions of responsibility, casual negligence towards justice, and the ignoble worms of greed that gnaw away at the heart of every great enterprise... Teenagers rage against the wrongness of the world because they see it more freshly and it wounds them more keenly. As one becomes older, wiser, and tireder, it seems less hassle to take the easy course, to act circumspectly, to be politic more often than honest. I think teenagers rage against growing into that state, and the best of them still believe that they will change the world by virtue of naming and confronting its evils.

I'd like to throw in one of the ultimate Romantic poems I've ever come across. It's by an Argentinean poet, and to me it sums up that idealism of adolescence which rejects the deceitful world with one grand gesture:

For Afterwards

I would like to die when the day is ending
on the open sea and looking at the sky;
where the agony of death may seem but sleep
and the soul may seem a bird which mounts in flight.
And in the final instants I would hear,
already with the sky and sea alone,
no other sobbing prayers or sobbing voices
than those of waves in their majestic fall.
To die when life is sadly hauling back
its golden nets from out the tide's deep green
and be like yonder sun that dies down slowly:
some very shining thing that's lost from sight.
To die, and young, before unfaithful time
destroys the delicate and gentle crown;
whilst life still tells us: I am yours
although we know so well it will betray us.
Manuel Gutierrez (1859 - 1895)

(Translation: Gordon Challis)

Yes, a modern person might find this sentimental and grandiose. It is utterly fantastical in its all-or-nothing approach to life. It offers no gritty pragmatic solutions to the problem of living in a less-than-perfect world. It may be adolescent in its grand gesture of utterly rejecting the world in all its complex awfulness. But would the world be a richer place if everything as great, beautiful and futile as this poem, were banished from our consciousness? I could not bear the loss.

For this is the inner teenager that Tolkien and many other fantasy books appeal to. They are books that are about honour and justice and the recognition of absolute good and evil; they are books about daring and courage and ultimate sacrifices and grand gestures against hopeless odds.

Nobody has lost that inner teenager who has flung aside their life and decided to change a political system or overturn a scientific belief; or who has shrugged off convention in order to embark on a great love affair across continents and oceans. Sadly, it is the inner teenager we appeal to when we send young men off to die in wars; but it is my belief that all those who have risked their lives to stand up against oppression and injustice called on their inner teenager too. Because when teenagers look at the status quo they see wrongs, and they name them truthfully, whether society wants to hear or not.

The whole question of geekdom has interested me for a while too. Other people are involved in writing more about this, but I'll take the liberty of pre-empting their more extensive study with a few thoughts. Firstly, what is a geek? Articles like Julian Dibbell's 'Lord of the Geeks' article on Village Voice seem to deride geeks as a minority of outsiders while simultaneously fearing that they're some vast inchoate conspiracy which controls the technology underpinning our modern world. They're losers, he thinks, but by some unfair twist of fate and genetics, they get to spend their lives doing cool things with art, science, technology, popular culture and the media. (And I might add that some of them get shockingly rich doing it too, and have to travel round the world for their pains.)

My own definition of geeks is this: A geek cares about a subject or system so much that they're willing to learn how to master it, whether anyone else cares about it or not. The link between geeks and teenagers exists because before that age, if a child is fascinated by something, we just think they're absorbed in play. It's only when they hit their teen years that we notice geeks because there's some expectation that they should be out partying and socialising. Instead they sometimes - or often - put aside their interest in other people because they'd rather be problemsolving on their computer, or memorising the entire history of the Plantagenets, or thinking up stories about an imaginary world, or practicing scales for three hours on the violin. Sometimes they're fixed on a goal known only to themselves, sometimes they've found a close-knit gang with similar interests, but in any case they'll follow their own instincts or interests, no matter what anybody else thinks.

The larger group of non-geeks is always going to be nervous of somebody who resists the easiest form of social control, which is shame. In their eyes, you should be able to laugh at somebody and tease them for being different, and that should be sufficient to make them toe the line and make a bit more of an effort to appear similar to everyone else. Geeks resist that because, well, it'd mean giving up the things that matter more than conformity.

There's always been geeks. Mozart? What a nerd! He had to be a geek. Who illuminated medieval manuscripts? Who preserved literacy during the difficult, violent centuries of the Dark Ages? Geek monks who remembered what civilisation was! Who were Pythagoras and Socrates and Archimedes? Total geeks every one of them, with their heads in the clouds.

And so I ask, if anything worth doing is to be done: Are we not geeks?

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