June 19, 2015
Whether or not we realize it, metaphor pervades all speech. Look no further than ‘head of lettuce’ or ‘ear of corn’ to find a common example. Expressions like these often make learning a new language fun and challenging. Today’s blog ventures into figurative language from the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy as seen through the lens of Augustine. It may seem a bit irreverent to apply Augustine to this film, but the reasons are simple. First, the film offers two fun examples of figurative speech that can be discussed in the short blog format. Second, while Augustine would clearly not have applied his rules for reading Christian doctrine to a Marvel comic, he does state, “[H]uman institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life – we must take and turn to a Christian use”. And comics have certainly saturated the film market of late, which may mean that they are somewhat indispensable…or at least worthy of a few notes. Therefore, with a sort of blessing, we will venture into the types of metaphor provided by Groot and Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy) as discussed in On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine.
Augustine discusses unknown signs as one of the problems in understanding scripture. So, in the Bible, stories can be literal and straightforward, or they can be figurative. The reader must decide which type of speech applies to each passage. Even though we understand the word for sheep, for example, the author may compare an aspect of sheep to a human condition, using the sheep as a metaphor. However, the Bible weaves back and forth switching without warning – in much the same way that we speak, and perhaps think. Add to that the mystery of translation, and honest understanding can get very complex very quickly. Augustine states, “Some of these [words], although they could have been translated, have been preserved in their original form on account of the more sacred authority that attaches to it, as for example, Amen and Halleluia. Some of them, again, are said to be untranslatable into another tongue”. As a way around the struggle of interpreting signs, Augustine suggests being “meek and lowly at heart”. He suggests that we listen, learn and not impose our thoughts on new ideas. Or, as Montaigne would say, “we shall find that it is rather familiarity than knowledge that takes away strangeness.” Free your mind of preconceived notions in order to familiarize yourself with an outside view or opinion. Accordingly, science fiction is a genre that, at times, challenges our perspective and boundaries. Enter Marvel’s 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a humorous and entertaining tale of misfits. Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are a pair of misfit, petty thieves. Groot is an oversized tree trunk that can rapidly grow branches as his main line of defense. His speech (yes, the tree talks!) is limited to three words: I am Groot. The second character, Rocket, is a giant raccoon: overly-bossy, overly-talkative, egotistical but also, an electronic whizz. Amazingly, these two unnatural beings somehow communicate effectively. Their unique communication and combined skill-sets actually make them a very effective team. Rocket has learned to understand Groot’s intonation and the way that he applies the three words: “I am Groot” to different situations. Those three words relay a lot of information if one is actually listening.
When the hero of the story, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), meets Groot, he quickly becomes disgusted at the inability to communicate. Quill asks a few different questions and gets the same answer: “I am Groot.” When Quill complains about Groot’s lack of language, Rocket shrugs and replies, “Well. He don’t know talking good like me and you. So his vocabulistics is limited to ‘I’ and ‘am’ and ‘Groot.’ Exclusively in that order.” Annoyed, Quill does not understand Groot’s actual capabilities. What Quill does not understand is that Groot is answering his questions, he simply has not listened. They do not speak the same language. (The question of why a tree understands humans, but humans do not understand a tree, I leave to you).
Augustine warns of a scenario similar to this miscommunication between Quill and Groot. Augustine asks that we disregard preconceived notions in an attempt to understand difficult and foreign language. In other words, look for meaning from as many angles as possible in order to derive the best possible meaning. It is important to know when speech is literal and when it is figurative. He states, “He, however, who does not understand what a sign signifies, but yet knows that it is a sign, is not in bondage”. Therefore, in our movie analogy, Rocket, the oversized, egotistical raccoon is light years ahead of the human Quill. Ironic.
But Quill is a bit better off than some other characters in the movie, namely, Drax (Dave Buatista). We meet Drax while he is in prison. He finds Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and intends to kill her to revenge the death of his wife and daughters. Quill convinces Drax to stop until they all kill their main target. During this scene, Quill draws a finger across his throat to indicate a slit throat. Puzzled, Drax replies, “Why would I put my finger on his throat?” Quill, obviously dumbfounded, repeats what he believes to be a universal symbol for murder. It becomes more absurd as they argue and Quill says, “It’s a symbol. This is a symbol for you slicing his throat.” To which Drax quickly replies, “I would not slice his throat. I would cut his head clean off.” At this point, the audience laughs because the misunderstanding cannot be breached. But the point is interesting. In this scenario, both speak English, but clearly, they have not communicated well. Therefore, the movie hosts a character who speaks only figuratively (as far as we can tell) in Groot, and a completely literal character, Drax.
This kind of troubled communication leads to the audience’s enjoyment within the frame of a movie, but you can see how it would be less than fun in a real-life scenario. As Augustine stated, we can see how a little patience and humility might have led to a less difficult relationship. Of course, much to audience satisfaction, these characters do grow and learn. At the end of the movie, instead of “I am Groot,” Groot says, “We are Groot.” And, Drax uses an actual metaphor. Better yet, Rocket has become just a shade more charitable and humble and Quill learned to love someone besides himself. It is as Augustine says, “[L]et charity…call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man’s pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress”. Pride often colors communication, whether we know it or not. While far-fetched (for many reasons), Guardians of the Galaxy, offers an interesting dialogue regarding communication styles and the translation of metaphor. And, of course, many thanks to St. Augustine for adding humility.
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