Can You Grok It?

First of all, it’s really cool that I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land while Curiosity landed on Mars. I half-expected to hear that it found a human who had somehow gotten to Mars and been raised by Martians. Of course, then shit would’ve gotten pretty weird here on Earth for awhile if we’d brought him back.

It was sort of like when I was 16. I was reading Angels and Demons (yes, I know, but I was young) when Pope JP II (he’s my homeboy, I can call him that) died. For awhile I had trouble distinguishing between what I’d read in the news and what I’d read in the book. Of course, obviously JPII wasn’t murdered and there was no rogue antimatter out there threatening us (that we KNEW of!!).

Anyway.

Stranger in a Strange Land. I am really not sure what I thought of this book. It was…weird. I liked some of the commentary about religion. I especially liked Jubal’s worldview. He’s agnostic. He equally values all religions. He recognizes that most of them have valid points and that he cannot possibly be sure that there is any one capital-T-Truth. Of course (without giving too much away), Mike (the Man from Mars) throws a bit of a wrench in that worldview eventually.

Mixed with this commentary on religion, Heinlein makes brilliant points about differing worldviews. This links both to religion and different cultures. I especially liked the conversation between Duke and Jubal when Duke first realizes that Mike thinks it is an honor to eat his dead friends. Duke is horrified. He insists that his Kansas-fed faith and lifestyle is right and that Mike, with his cannibalistic attitudes, is a savage. Jubal, however, points out that Duke only feels this way because he was he was raised to feel that way:

“Duke, how could you learn so much about machinery and never learn anything about how you yourself tick? That nausea you feel–that’s not an instinct; that’s a conditioned reflex. Your mother didn’t have to say to you, ‘Mustn’t eat your playmates, dear; that’s not nice,’ because you soaked it up from our whole culture–and so did I. Jokes about cannibals and missionaries, cartoons, fairy tales, horror stories, endless little things. But it has nothing to do with instinct. Shucks, son, it couldn’t possibly be instinct. . . because cannibalism is historically one of the most widespread of human customs, extending through every branch of the human race. Your ancestors, my ancestors, everybody.”

Now, if I wanted to reference a certain French philosopher who was the bane of my existence last semester (*cough* Foucault), here would be the point. But I’m not going to.

Another thing that Mike brings to Earth is the concept of grokking (the only easily-Anglicized Martian word). ‘Grok’ as a concept is really hard to translate. Literally, it means “to drink,” but it means so much more than that. On Mars, water is sacred and sharing water with someone makes him your Water Brother. This is the most sacred bond two people could possibly share.

When you ‘grok’ something, though, it means that you deeply, intimately understand it. It goes far beyond “getting it.” It means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed–to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science–and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

As Mike communicates more capably and influences the people around him, they start to use the word “grok” and eventually actually start to grok things. A big part of Martian culture is waiting patiently to “grok in fullness.” On Mars, they wait until they completely understand something and actually are something before they form an opinion and act on it. Essentially, I think that the philosophy of Mars is best summed up by the Beatles: I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” That’s pretty much what grokking is, to my understanding.

It’s weird. I’ve started using grok in real life conversation. Barring the weird looks I get when I explain that it’s a Martian word, it’s actually kind of cool. It really makes you stop to think about other people and, really, about other things. We kind of need that most of the time, these days. Either way, I’m not sure that I completely grok Stranger in a Strange Land yet. I liked the commentary on religion and differing worldviews and the idea of grokking.

The thing is that I wasn’t so sure about Heinlein’s voice in this novel. The dialogue had a lot of “Ehs” and “uhs” and “erms.” I didn’t care for it. And some of the ways he broke out of the narrative to list things that were happening on Earth and Mars got really annoying. It made it kind of hard to fully enjoy the book.

So yeah. I’m still trying to grok Stranger in a Strange Land. It was weird, but good. I think I can sum up how reading certain parts of this book felt with this video:

Okay, not really. It was much better than that. But Shatner=science fiction and this video is kind of really weird and I wanted to share it somewhere.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

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