Written by Dyami Millarson
Neither a summary nor a review of the 2019 film Ad Astra will be provided here. Suffice it to say that I think it is a movie with a classical style that really makes you feel the ancient void of space; as a result, I felt an awe-inspiring emptiness, a kind of artistic nihilism, throughout the movie and this may be psychologically confronting to human beings. There will be no major plot spoilers in this article, because what I am interested in is the implications of the (ending of the) movie. Yesterday I watched this movie to be inspired, and it did indeed provide me with answers that I was looking for right now in my life, or at least it made me think more about the things that have been on my mind lately. Namely, the concept of trying to look for things/beings far away instead of what is close is the philosophical theme in this movie that caught my attention.
The conclusion of the protagonist in the movie, after experiencing his own extensive character-development following a spiritual and literally mind-alterating voyage (the coalescence of the literal and symbolic is a common thread through this movie), is that when we look far away, we forget the people right in front of us. This movie thus served as a philosophical critique of our society that focuses on things far away and lofty concepts too abstract to be practical. It helped me think about two things:
First of all, I have close, irreplaceable friendships with people from all around the world while I have almost no local contacts. I do not interact much with the local Frisians around me, and in that way I am like the protagonist of Ad Astra who is, as the beautiful Latin title suggests, looking ‘towards the stars’ instead of looking at the people around him. In fact, I think seeing the people right in front of us and truly connecting with them is the hardest thing to do, and therefore truly connecting with the Frisians who are all around me is the biggest challenge in my life that I have yet to come to terms with. Of course, interacting with other cultures is rewarding and challenging, yet it is easy to dismiss and completely forget about one’s local environment, as one ventures into the cultural unknown; even without adventures into the unknown, truly connecting with the people around you is no easy task.
My personal development, as with the spiritual development of the protagonist in Ad Astra, is the result of travelling in 2017 to East Asia which is as far removed physically as it is culturally from where I live, and it has helped me to realise that I looked towards distant places, namely the Far East, instead of the people right in front of me, namely the Frisians. I did learn Standard Frisian, which is a compromise between Wood Frisian and Clay Frisian, in 2016 and in 2018 when Frisian culture was being celebrated for an entire year, I delved deeper into Frisian diversity by learning to speak three small languages that ultimately descend from Old Frisian just like Standard Frisian. These languages have given me the means to connect with people and they have given me access to new social circles, and this has definitely aided my personal development to come to a stage where I ponder why I have not connected much with the people in my own local environment to the point where I have no local friends at all. In this regard, my development has been slow like a space voyage; I have wandered off into the void for years and I have finally realised that I should try seeking connection locally as well as I have finally realised how to do so.
I have often wondered why linguists travel all around the world to save distant indigenous languages, while simultaneously allowing languages spoken in their local area to perish. Wandering off into distant places sounds noble and adventurous, but just as it puzzles the peoples who receive such ‘noble, adventurous strangers’, it puzzles the people back home. I learned in East Asia, while I did my best to integrate with the local culture, that focusing on the home and the local area is essential, and focusing on distant lands may not necessarily be relevant, contradicting my own instinct. Asians often expressed the sentiment to me: ‘Go back home and live your life there’. To me, it seemed dismissive at first, but over time, I saw there is some wisdom in there. It may be contrary to my Western upbringing, but the Eastern way of thinking has merit; I did indeed not have much to return to and that is what I had to work on after 2017. This is also why I was more convinced than ever in 2018 that we must focus on the indigenous languages spoken around us and that we should strive to preserve the traditional lingusitic diversity that surrounds us in our local environment. The take-away message of our project in 2018 was that the three small Frisian languages we learned had survived until 2018 against all odds and despite predictions of their imminent demise, and they would, according to our view based on our actions for acquiring the languages as though they have always been our native tongues, survive far beyond 2018.
Since 2009, I have been living in Leeuwarden, Frisia. Only recently, on a walk on Monday 30 September, it truly dawned on me that I am in Frisia and I finally truly realised where I am in the world; I had taken it for granted, and Frisia had been an abstract concept to me that I did not see as anywhere in particular. This may make some Frisians uneasy, because they love their heitelân (fatherland), but I think that not knowing where we are in life, not just symbolically but literally, is a common problem experienced in the modern internationally focused world where people regularly look down on local affairs and think a local focus would be narrow-minded. For instance, the expression ‘local language’ itself carries a negative undertone and sounds like ‘dialect’ which carries the very negative and undoubtedly stigmatic connotation: ‘being of lower linguistic status’.
In the beginning when I moved to Frisia in 2009, I thought about Frisian language and culture in the same way, because I had been very internationally oriented while I had been attending a bilingual school previously. This gave me a huge advantage with English and my motivation to learn Frisian was non-existent. It was only when an Irishman once told me over Skype that ‘Frisian is like the little brother of English, we should protect Frisian’ when my eyes slowly started to open, but although it left an indelible impression on me he said that, I did still not think much of it and in fact even disagreed with him and expressed my dismay to that Irishman, even feeling uninterested in our contact at that point due to the fact he tried to make me interested in something local and something that frankly seemed narrow-minded and embarrassing to me.
I wanted to do ‘more important’ things like studying the international languages of the ancient world: Latin and Greek. I did not think of anything local as relevant. It seemed completely unrelated to me and it made no sense for my future, or so I thought. I did not really see the benefit at the time, and I thought it definitely would not make a good career. I could not have been more mistaken, and I should not have followed popular opinion so blindly. However, I was a teenager at the time and I did not really want to stand out too much.
I was already having a hard time at school owing to my interest in ‘weird foreign languages that are not included in the school curriculum’. My interest in national languages of powerful countries and dead languages of powerful ancient peoples/empires was quite similar to that of polyglots who shared their interest online in learning (usually socially safe and economically useful, thus socio-economically acceptable) languages, but over time my view has changed drastically from the polyglots I once admired and in whose footsteps I wanted to follow. Once I wanted to be like them and I felt like them, but for many years now, I have been following my own path. I have often emphasised that I am different from the polyglot movement and that I do not identify as a polyglot; because of my current altruism-based worldview with regards to languages, I reject being classified as ‘yet another polyglot’ and I do therefore also not answer questions about how many languages I actually speak. Others have often tried in vain to get an answer from me, but I will never answer this question, because it does no service to my deeply held belief that we should learn languages for altruistic, human, pro-social reasons. Morality is at the centre of my thought with regards to the learning of languages. I do not learn languages for the numbers, but I learn languages for others; I wish to serve others and benefit others, I do not want to serve and benefit myself first and foremost. Because of this, I cannot identify with polyglottery whilst counting how many languages I speak goes against my core beliefs and principles; it is not about me, but it is about others and their linguistic heritage that I am eagerly studying as a selfless act of charity for all of humanity. Others may note my zeal sounds religious, and I will not deny this; I am on a mission, and I hope to inspire others as well.
My first impression of Frisian was that it was basically weird Dutch. I spontaneously rejected it as an illegitimate language with no separate identity and history tied to it. At that time, I thought of speaking Latin as more important than speaking Frisian, because I thought the achievements of the Roman Empire, as opposed to the Frisians who were nearly subjugated by the Romans, were so much more important, and this sense of Roman superiority was nourished by my education at grammar school where Roman superiority was often very explicitly exalted and we would marvel at how superior the Romans were. Nowadays, I see this as the succesful continuation of Roman Imperial propaganda into modern times, and this is actually a tragic glossing over all the atrocities that the Empire committed, even by the standards of its time it could be excessively cruel and unreasonably violent.
My disinterest in Frisian gradually developed into admiration for Frisian people, as I lived longer in Frisia. However, it took until the arrival of Ken Ho in 2016 before I truly felt compelled to actually learn it; I had always postponed it indefinitely so that I would never actually do it, and 2016 presented me with the right opportunity to learn the language properly. By 2016, I had already long agreed to the notion that Frisian is not a dialect; my perception of Frisian had shifted from it being a dialect inferior to Dutch to it being a language unique in its own right. When I looked down on Frisian, I was not linguistically ignorant; however, I simply could not agree to the notion that Frisian should not or could not technically be considered a Dutch dialect, because I thought to classify it as a language for historical reasons would be absurd based on criteria of mutual intelligibility. I insisted on Frisian being a dialect until I became convinced otherwise, and this was part of my journey in life and finding new purpose in Frisia, where I have lived since 2009. The Frisians have won my admiration, they changed my views and they have given me a new mission for the benefit of humanity. As I understand it, Frisians are one of the last historical tribes in Europe and being a notoriously down-to-earth and humble indigenous tribe, they do indeed have a lot to teach us about the world we live in and why human connection matters a lot.
The film Ad Astra teaches us the importance of human connection: ‘We’re all we’ve got.’ As the protagonist in Ad Astra ventures deeper and deeper into space in search of the distant father, I have ventured deep into the study of ancient, dead languages and international languages, but I did not connect to the local language and culture around me. It is now after many years that I realise the necessity of making friends with local Frisian people and relying on Frisian people in my immediate environment, and because of this realisation, I can come up with creative ideas now how to make Frisian friends. Mentally I am ready after a long journey. Like the protagonist in Ad Astra had to go on a journey before realising the importance of the people around him, I had to make a huge detour before I could fully appreciate what is around me in Frisia. Frisians appreciate their privacy and they do not mind having alone time. The Frisian tribe may generally be somewhat shy and so I understand the ice has to be broken somehow. I know that if I approach Frisians empty-handed, this might not be interesting enough for keeping contact. Just like one does not approach an uncontacted tribe without a few presents, I think that generosity is a virtue that the majority of Frisians will appreciate, and therefore being generous in various, creative ways could win me Frisian friends. They say in English: If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
I’ve got Frisians around me in Frisia, so I should make Frisian friends and share my enthusiasm about their language and culture with them. After all, since I have lived in Frisia for 10 years and I have learned to speak and write the language and I have intimately acquainted myself with the history and culture and I now feel it is my personal destiny to make friends in Frisia, I do feel Frisian myself. I do feel connected to others around me, but I have just not expressed it enough to people I meet outside my home and so I have not yet made local friends who know my (com)passion for the language, culture and history that is local here in Frisia where we live. Ad Astra made me think, and I felt its message about human connection is very relevant to my life right now. One of the hardest things in life is to truly connect with the people right in front of you. The Frisians are close to me; they are the people right in front of me, with whom I should connect. This is the mystery of the tree and well as described by Paul C. Bauschatz (1982); fate flows through the tree in mysterious ways and it is no coincidence that the flows of fate pushed me in the direction of Frisia, for there was a lot for me to learn here and it proved to be the right place for me to realise my own charitable mission in life. Frisia has helped me find peace in my soul and to accept my own destiny that requires sincere generosity towards those around me.