You don’t have to read a lot of Noam Chomsky to get an idea of the muscle of his mind. Whether he’s talking about the contributions of Hume to western thought, or doing a thought experiment on language or reeling off — no notes needed– an array of statistics about US incursions around the world, along with the sources of his information, you know he’s got something rare upstairs. Many have read as widely as Chomsky has; few can sort it, recall it and speak it with the facility he can. He’s not even a great public speaker by the normal measurements of that — as he shows in the new animated film by Frenchman, Michel Gondry, Is A Man Who Is Tall Happy? Noninflected monotone, low and gravelly. What fascinates is the structure of what he is saying, the deep knowledge of supporting ideas and his presumption that his listeners are intelligent.
“You could look it up, it’s easily available” is a favorite tag after listing ten little known facts.
Gondry ‘s film is quite remarkable for other reasons. Over a period of 3 to 4 years he sat with Chomsky, mostly in bare settings at MIT where he has taught since 1955 — no walking in autumnal parks or around his old neighborhood as so many interviewers like to do — and asked him questions, some naive and some decently informed. Surprisingly, for those who know the seriousness of Chomsky’s demeanor, Gondry jumps right in with questions of his childhood, his mother and father. An animation of devoted aunts circling around the infant Chomsky illustrates his recollections. Surprising too, is where this leads: we hear of strong pro Nazi sentiment in Philadelphia where he grew up in the pre-Pearl Harbor days; we hear about the tough Irish kids, pro German because anti-British, chasing the only Jewish kid they knew — joined by the German kids because, well, they were German.
Gondry asks him about astrology, religion, his children’s education, his wife, Carol, and of course generative grammar. Perhaps not enough, for those who know Chomsky’s politics, about his current views. He dips into Hume and Descartes though, and Plato and Newton, each time to illustrate a point about thought, and its progress, and lack of it. Not once, simply to drop a name.
Gondry is affectingly honest about his own comprehension. “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here,” he says, and writes the same out on the screen, a whimsical clown tune playing.
Mostly Chomsky talks about his reason’s foundation: the idea that “if you’re not willing to be puzzled you risk just being just a replica of someone else’s mind.” The idea that beneath the complex lies the simple:
…the basic essential nature of language is, first of all, uniform for all languages, which is why children can learn any of them. And it is also fundamentally very simple. But when you look at the data of language, it looks extremely complex. But that’s true of anything you don’t understand. If there’s anything you don’t understand that looks hopelessly complex, the idea is to try to see if you can extricate from the complexity fundamental principles, which somehow make things fall into place which otherwise didn’t make any sense… [From opening night interview.]
Several times he goes back to the pre-Newtonian explanation for why a ball falls, or why steam rises — that it is “seeking its natural place.” This is how too many questions are still answered, he says. How do we know a tree is a tree? And he makes us understand there is something in the brain, more than the apparatus of the eye, that creates a sense of continuity, of duration through time that gives us our concepts. When is the Charles river still the Charles river? When it freezes, for example. When is it not the Charles River — when it becomes a road. How do we know a man is the same as the infant before him? “This is not so simple,” he says.
A major part of how we identify anything in the world, no matter how elementary, is the mental conceptions that we impose on interpreting very fragmentary experience. And our experience is, indeed, very fragmentary. So, visual experience is just, you know, stimulations of the retina.
And all the while, Gondry is not just asking and listening. He is drawing, animating, sometimes writing the text of his own questions, which are often hard to understand because, as he says himself, of his thick French accent. He writes equations, and sentence structures.
What’s particularly striking is to see the very “un-fun” Chomsky set in such an array of whimsical drawings and animations. His talking head reduced and set inside a line drawing of an old TV? Chomsky on a bicycle riding after Carol, his deceased wife, also on a bike, through the clouds of a blue sky? Maybe, because all this is oddly funny we let go of our resistance to significantly deep ideas and pick up on a few. The closing sequence about generative grammar, how a child knows that to make a question from the sentence “The man who is tall is happy,” she uses the second, not the first ‘is’ to put in front, making the sentence “Is the man who is tall happy?, not “Is the man who tall is happy?” Something comes with the brain that knows to get the nearest ‘structural’ verb, not the nearest linear verb. Most viewers will get the idea of why this insight was so profound.
I have to say that the viewing at the Roxie, in San Francisco, had its problems. In part, I suppose, because of Gondry’s choice to use an old 16 mm Bolex camera which I could sometimes hear whirring, in part because of low-tech sound in general, in part because of his quite thick accent, in part because of the sometimes too-frantic progression of animation and in part, I suspect, because of the Roxie’s sub-par sound system, some nice sections were lost. Like a man with hearing loss needing processing power to understand the sentence just finished, missing the one now in the air.
Take a look at the trailer at Gondry’s site, or watch Amy Goodman and her interview with Gondry which has good portions of the dialog. At the premier in Boston, Chomsky came and had more face-time with Gondry, worth while and here.
While waiting for the movie you could plan your next decade by going to his site and picking one of the hundred books he has authored or co-authored, or the articles, or the interviews, or the talks, or the debates, or the letters…. For just one example of his range of knowledge see this address to the United Nations on “The Responsibility to Protect.”
I’ll certainly get the DVD when it’s available. Those nearby can get together and have a Chomsky night, learn a bit and have a chuckle to hear him answer Gondry’s question, “What makes you happy?” with a pause and then a slightly bemused
“I don’t think about it much…”