Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/23/2009

Avatar, Aristotle, Cameron, and Sutherland

Avatar and friend

The process of making an argument by stating an assertion and supporting it with a reason seems to bewilder many university students—doing so in writing, at any rate. “Let’s see Avatar instead of Invictus because James Cameron has surely learned to make a great movie by now.” We  make arguments all the time. “Besides, everyone is seeing it.” Some reasons carry more weight than others. “Because,” to many peoples’ surprise, means “for the reason that.” As soon as one says, “Let’s do this because that,” one has unwittingly made a formal rhetorical argument. 

Titanic. Obviously James Cameron knows how to create trivia. Titanic defines melodrama. “Melodrama” means (according to 

A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts. 

My favorite website, Online Etymology Dictionary, gives the history of “melodrama” as: 

1802, melodrame, “a stage-play in which songs were interspersed and music accompanied the action,” from Fr. mélodrame, from Gk. melos “song” (see melody) + Fr. drame “drama” (see drama). Meaning “a romantic and sensational dramatic piece with a happy ending” is from 1883, since this was often the form of the original melodramas. 

Every night in my dreams
I see you. I feel you.
That is how I know you go on.

Far across the distance
And spaces between us
You have come to show you go on.

Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Once more you open the door
And you’re here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on. (1)

That a bipolar epileptic would find such exaggerated emotion cloying should not, I suppose, surprise anyone. In Titanic we find a young woman (now an old woman) who sees in her dreams (every night for sixty years? come on) the love of her youth, and sings a song about seeing the young man in her dreams every night. He died in the most sensational way possible—saving her from drowning in a hideous seafaring disaster. The entire affair has a happy, tear-jerking ending, when the young (now old) woman tosses her most prized possession into the ocean to be with her boy friend. I emphasize “boy” because, obviously, if she sees him in her dreams every night, he doesn’t age. She’s ninety and he’s still twenty. A match made in heaven. 

Oh, I know—don’t get all huffy with me—one must “willingly suspend disbelief” (2) in the theater. A common myth floating around in the world of narrative art is that Aristotle created this phrase. I’ve read the Poetics. He says no such thing. The phrase, as far as I can tell, comes from my old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” (3) 

So why, you might ask if you’re paying attention, bother to write about an old movie I don’t like in order to talk about a new movie I haven’t seen? 

Last night I had dinner with a group of friends. One of my favorite young couples, in town visiting family for Christmas, invited a group of us to dinner, and they included this old fart in their celebrating, for which I can hardly express my gratitude (that’s not a sarcastic comment, by the way). They live in San Francisco, of course, but they inhabit a world of electronic gadgets and popular culture and fast change that I cannot (and don’t think I want to) imagine. After dinner they went off to see Avatar

Later, while talking with another friend about the experience, we fell into conversation about telephones. I need a new one. And my “plan” allows me an update at this point. Several of my friends think I should have an iPhone. I resist. I do not need all those Aps. No one has yet made a telephone big enough for me to read texting on the screen. I will soon write about the impossibility of my remembering to make (much less follow) a calendar. And I have no interest in putting all of my CDs either on a tiny device stuck in my ear or on my telephone so I can hook it up to my computer and play any piece of music I want to hear over its speakers.

Call me old fashioned, but when I want to hear music, I play it or go to a concert. 

My friend warns me that not keeping up with the latest technology and pop culture will make me soon a fossil, a lonely old man who cannot stay in touch with the world. I will soon have no way to communicate with anyone—especially people younger than myself. 

I have news for him. That already describes me. 

Krishna and Me

I live in a world pretty much by myself. I live alone. I eat alone most of the time. I make forays out into the “real world” to go to meetings, to go to work, to go to church. I use this computer for hours on end (I bought the poor thing seven years ago—a fossil like me). I have a laptop only two years old that I use when I need to grade student papers written in Vista instead of XP, or when I travel and can’t be without a way to write. I very seldom have a “date.” I certainly do not have a lover (my young friends will soon celebrate ten years together, thereby, obviously, destroying marriage). 

The world has already passed me by, and if I live out the genetic pattern I have inherited, I may well have thirty years left on this planet. 

I wonder if Cormac McCarthy Tweets or Twitters. I wonder if Senator Robert Byrd has a Facebook page (he probably does, but one of his staffers writes it for him). I wonder if Toni Morrison texts (she probably does, remaining much more relevant and au courant than most 78-year-olds). Daniel Barenboim probably does all of those things even though he belongs to my generation. I wonder if Joan Sutherland has an iPhone. I wonder if Bishop Barbara Harris uses Skype.  

My claim: Old farts ought to keep up with modern technology because being irrelevant is the worst thing that can happen to a person.
Supporting reasons: 
Irrelevancy will almost certainly render one uncreative.
Irrelevancy will prevent one from making small talk about Lady GaGa.
Irrelevancy will destroy one’s ability to make an argument.
Counter claim: who gives a rat’s behind?
Rebuttal: James Cameron’s movies follow the Aristotelian model of the evocation/purgation of fear and pity in the audience through plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle—especially thought—so one ought certainly to see them. 

“Avatar” in its classical sense refers to the incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu in human form (most often as Krishna). I’ve never read Snowcrash, but apparently that novel started all of this computer “avatar” business (even I have an avatar—my snowshoes cat). So I wonder if the movie centers on incarnate gods or a bunch of symbols standing in for the people. As a fossil, I’d rather read Suzanne Langer to find out about symbolic transformations than suffer through another James Cameron melodrama.(4)

Dame Joan, Avatar (Semiramide)


(2) Safire, William. “Suspension of Disbelief.” On Language. The New York Times Corporation. October 7, 2007. Web. 20 December 2009. <>.

(3) Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 1817. Ed. George Watson. London: Everyman, 1965.  p. 169.

(4) Aristotle: “There should be nothing irrational in the events themselves, or failing that, it should be outside the play, as for example in Sophocles’ Oedipus” (Poetics 8.1, 25). Quoted in: Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Cheap plot tricks, plot holes, and narrative design.” Narrative 17.1 (2009): 56+.


  1. I saw Avatar last night and did quite enjoy it, but there was far too much about it that was unpleasantly derivative and manipulative.
    As for being out of touch, heck, you write a blog and you teach young people. That ought to be enough for most people. Some people try too hard to be hip, cool and in touch….and look very stupid to those who they are trying to impress. You are authentically yourself.
    May I wish you a peaceful Christmas, Harold and a great New Year.



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