Percy Fawcett, the "original" Indiana Jones

A couple of years ago, a graduate school colleague and I were talking about our growing excitement (tinged with well-deserved trepidation) about going to see the new Indiana Jones movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For the most part, we were just looking for a nostalgia trip. We wanted to hear the theme music, see Indy toss a punch, snap his whip, and — most importantly — pull a notebook from his pocket, bound in thick cowhide worn smooth and spotty from years of use, rubbed to a shine from being stuffed in and out of that pocket, its pages inevitably covered in diagrams, rubbings of engravings and inscriptions, translations of aphorisms originating from Sanskrit, Greek, Farsi, and any number of exotic-sounding languages (at least, those languages had seemed exotic and fascinating to our childhood selves).

That’s what had always made Indy a unique hero, in our eyes; there were any number of silver screen cowboys who could fire a pistol,t, or slick spies with laser-beams built into the bands on their watches, to say nothing of an entire legion of John McClane knock-offs who could spout off witty one-liners as they dodged bullets and capped evildoers. But Indy was a scholar; he was a nerd, like us.

Sure, he was clearly more at home in the desert, say, than in the classroom — Harrison Ford’s obvious discomfort during the brief classroom scenes always added a subtle extra layer to a potentially two-dimensional character, I’ve always thought — but Indy’s interests were clearly more closely aligned with the thrill of scholastic pursuit than with wrestling with snakes (the first time I heard Indy hiss that he hated snakes, I bonded with the character forever) and sweating in the desert. Now, I love the outdoors — I would spend every weekend on a hiking trail if time and money allowed — but as a kid, I was more interested in books. Books about the dark places of the earth, about the dark ages, the people and places that history had forgotten. I devoured books about historical oddities and oddballs. Strangely enough, I stayed away from the usual fodder; I tackled The Hobbit only when a classmate bragged that he had finally read something I had not, and it wasn’t until my teens that Idiscovered the TSR publications — the Dragolance series,  Forgotten Realms, and so forth.

I preferred nonfiction whenever I could get it, however I could get it. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series many times over — I grew up right on the edge of the last remaining stand of the Big Woods, so I felt a certain kinship to the series. When we were tasked with an extensive research project on the Civil War in the seventh grade, I decided to research Ulysses S. Grant, and — keep in mind, young’uns, this was in the days before Al Gore had even dreamt of the interwebs — promptly marched to the public library and checked out a biography. A big one. Very dense. With far more detail and insight than a thirteen year-old could conceivably track, and probably far more Freudian analysis of sexual drives, etcetera, than I probably needed to think about at that age.

The point of all this is to provide an “in” for the reasons I’ve become gripped by cognitive science and theories of cognitive structure. When I began my graduate school career, I was stunned to hear professors describe the motivation for reading and studying literature strictly in terms of aesthetics and pleasure — as in, “we are drawn to read that which takes a form that we find pleasing”; surely there was more at stake than that! Surely literature has a purpose that goes beyond just “pretty words on a page!” Of course, as my studies progressed, I gained a more nuanced perspective regarding the complex relationship between aesthetics and pleasure (a relationship that some scholars have turned to cognitive science to explain, and perhaps I’ll cover some of that in a later entry).

To me, literature was, is, and always will be the key to a mystery — the human mystery. How it is that we think, feel, and experience life, and how we are able to use little marks on a page, or computer screen, to transmit our understanding of intensely personal phenomena across space and time. To understand not who, but what we are. Just as Shakespeare’s generation could not, after theological debate and conjecture following in the wake of the Reformation, so easily accept the simple notion of man as imago dei, so too have our perceptions of what we are been irrevocably altered by the legacy of Darwin.

Just as Hamlet, who could only cry that he had “that within which passeth show” and yet could not explain just what that meant, who came close to understanding the nature of consciousness when he found himself unable to resolve the opposition between “to be” and “not to be,” we have much to gain from entering the “undiscovered country” of consciousness and exploring, notebook in hand, its pages covered in diagrams, impressions of moments and places long-since relegated to the ruins of memory, with just a few blank pages left for recording what we discover next.

P.S. — In case you’re at all intrigued, Percy Fawcett — shown in the picture above — was a British explorer, adventurer, and surveyor, who disappeared in the Brazilian jungle in 1925 while searching for a lost civilization he believed to occupy a city he called “Zed.” A friend and associate of British adventure writers such as H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Fawcett is also said to be at least part of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. Check out the Wikipedia Entry for Percy Fawcett.