Harrison Middleton University

Unlikely Pairing

Unlikely Pairing

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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May 17, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

Metaphor was born from curiosity. From metaphor comes astonishing revelations. Such was the experience of this year’s April Quarterly Discussion. We discussed two short stories written by completely different authors, one by the contemporary science fiction and fantasy author Ted Chiang, and one by the Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Montgomery’s story “The Man on the Train,” first published in 1914, is about a fearful, elderly Grandma who faces a train ride by herself in order to visit her son. She doesn’t like the idea of being alone, and fearfully prophesizes, “You never know what sort of people you’ll meet on the train.” Despite her fear, however, she finds enjoyment in the experience even after having lost her train ticket. In the end, she makes it safely to her son’s house with the help of the man who sat next to her on the train. As we come to find out, however, this friendly, kind man who sat next to her is also wanted for murder. Grandma got to know this stranger’s good qualities and believed him to be a good man. Therefore, when the family discovers his picture in the paper, Grandma is astonished. She says, “I don’t care…I’ll never believe he was all bad.” Instead of condemning him, she writes him letters and sends Christmas cards to him in prison. In other words, his personal generosity to Grandma overwhelms any two-dimensional media representation and she refuses to believe in the black-and-white bombastic story in the newspaper.

This kind of hopeful goodwill might also exist in the story “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang. As Karen Joy Fowler explains in the story’s introduction, Chiang asks: “[W]hy are we so interested in finding intelligence in the stars and so deaf to the many species who manifest it here on earth?” What I love about Chiang’s stories are the fact that he listens so carefully to the world around him. This story tells only facts, but is narrated by an African Grey Parrot who claims to understand humans. Yet, despite all of the parrots talking (in a language that we have taught them and that they understand and use to communicate back to us), humans continue to believe that parrots lack intelligence. Chiang mixes science, mysticism, history, and experience to expose the deep lack of listening.

This is an ironic connection between the two stories. Montgomery’s Grandma finds the man on the train endearing, despite a number of red flags about his appearance. Those who read the news, however, condemn him unequivocally, unable to accept that he is capable of goodness. In other words, Grandma listened to a different side of the man on the train. He became more human and less peripheral. Likewise, the parrots have been listening to humans. The parrots understand the experiment at Arecibo, the aspirations of mythologies, and the desire to hear “the voice of creation.” Rather rationally, the parrot-narrator explains that humans aren’t at fault, they just aren’t listening. He says, “Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.” In the end, the parrot leaves a message for us. He simply says, “You be good. I love you.” Much like Grandma’s letters to the her train-mate, the parrot asks us to be better in the hopes that good reciprocates good. The only trouble is that the parrot never explains what it means to be good.

I like how both stories show that we are not the sum of our bad actions, but simply the sum of our actions. They allow for good and bad to coexist. This kind of complexity filled much of the conversation for the April Quarterly Discussion. I am indebted to the participants for many of the insights on today’s blog. Join us in early August for a discussion of Erasmus in the next Quarterly Discussion. Email as****@hm*.edu for more information and to register.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Colored Lights

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