Can Madness Save the World? Where R.D. Laing—and Star Trek—Meet


We’ve reached a point where the extinction of life on earth, the end of human civilization, is not only possible but, according to our most sane scientists, might actually be inevitable. What were once just the mad ravings of deluded prophet-psychotics are now sane, accepted facts. The end is nigh.

And worse: the things we think we’re doing that will save the world might just be bringing the end closer. Our current predicament after all resulted from “normal” thinking: sane experts reassuring us that business as usual would bring a bright future. Now they’re reconsidering. Many fear the rational tone of their climate change warnings might just have lulled everyone into complacency, and “green” industry promoters wonder if all the hype about recycling, electric cars, and solar houses just spreads false hope. And how about this one: what if the world is already ending and we just won’t admit it? What if it is already too late?

A lot of us can’t even think about any of this… the overwhelming emotions are just too much. Hopelessness is the new normal. But what kind of “normal” is that, exactly?

Albert Einstein (who was a socialist by the way) said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive”. So maybe instead of calm TED talks about “transition to renewables” what we really need is some… panic? A bit of madness?

I remember the nights in my twenties, alone in a San Francisco apartment: spiraling around the facts of the end of the world. I was researching inequality and ecocide, habitat loss, the military industrial complex, forest depletion… I was trying desperately to write about global warming for a socialist magazine, at a time when only a few on the left took ecology seriously. I was staring it all down hard—and it was staring back. Not sleeping, not eating, talking back to voices in my haunted descent, frenzied with fears and messages and connections. My life, my traumas, all the personal history I had never faced, it all led me to a vision I had to share, but couldn’t. I was trapped in that apartment in San Francisco, and my vision crashed down on me, my own personal end of the world.

I was locked up at UC San Francisco Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, and diagnosed psychotic. My desperate questions about saving the world? Symp­toms of a paranoid, maniacal thought disorder.

Looking back, I’m not so sure: Which is more mad, to ask questions about the end of the world, or… to not ask questions about the end of the world? Is it really sane to treat the questions as not even worth asking?

In the years since, my suspicions have grown. Mad visions are true all around us. Surveillance online, phones that are practically implanted microchips, poisoned food, infertility… and I’m just getting started: microplastics in our organ tissue “need further research”, and robots are coming after everyone’s jobs. Not too long ago it was crazy, now here it all is.

So since what is mad is now normal, can madness teach us something about saving the world?

I think Star Trek might help.

The Guardian of Forever from TOS, with an image of R. D. Laing at its center.

When did we last really ask how we could save the world—I mean really ask it, collectively? My guess is the late 1960s. It was a fierce juncture; the end of the world was everywhere on everyone’s mind: our Orwellian masters lost their grip; the nightly news gave us a raw glimpse. We stared in the mirror of our own annihilation.

The US war machine rampaged on TV every night. Military industrial puppet masters (in this author’s humble opinion) murdered Fred Hampton, and maybe even Dr. King, Malcolm, and not one but two Kennedys. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove exposed the US driving the Cold War and pushing for a nuclear first strike to dominate a depopulated aftermath. Spiritual speakers like Krishnamurti sought the sources of violence within our division of Us and Them. And in 1967’s Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist who ruthlessly dismantled psychiatry’s violent lies, diagnosed war and nuclear threat as our collective madness, symptoms, he wrote, of “adjustment to a civilization apparently driven to its own destruction.” As the psychiatric survivor movement surged, more and more people asked what it meant to be called “crazy” in a world so obviously, blatantly crazy.

And in 1967, television’s Star Trek aired its critically acclaimed episode The City on the Edge of Forever.

As with so much of the original Star Trek, it was an explicit commentary on the social upheaval of its day. And it was quite the commentary. Writer Harlan Ellison won both the Hugo and Writers Guild of America awards; he and show creator Gene Roddenberry felt so strongly about the powerful script they defied NBC censors and insisted on keeping the profanity in as Ellison wrote it. And so viewers heard Captain Kirk, for the first time in television history, say “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

I think this episode has some clues for us. A synopsis (spoilers ahead):

During a time distortion, Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a dangerous drug. He erupts into a frenzied madness, screaming “Assassins! Murderers! I won’t let you!”, and flees down to the source of the distortion on the planet below. Kirk and Spock form a landing party to follow McCoy, but he jumps through a mysterious Guardian of Forever time travel portal into the past.

Unable to contact the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock realize that McCoy must have somehow changed history. McCoy’s actions in the past affected the future (their present); as a result the Enterprise no longer exists. The landing party is stranded: for them, it’s the end of the world.

Kirk and Spock attempt to prevent whatever McCoy did, to set history right again and restore the Enterprise. They jump through the portal into Earth’s past and arrive in 1932 Chicago a few days before McCoy. Hungry and with no money, they find the 21st Street Mission, a soup kitchen run by Edith Keeler. Keeler gives them food and shelter, and preaches her vision of pacifism and utopian optimism: she believes in humanity’s bright technological future of space exploration. Struck by the uncanny sympathy with his own life as starship captain, Kirk falls in love with her.

Spock’s computer reveals that in their original timeline, Keeler died in a traffic accident. He sees that somehow McCoy is going to prevent her death, and in the new timeline created by McCoy’s actions Keeler lived on and became a pacifist leader. Her influence helped delay US entry into World War 2, and as a result the Nazis won the war. In the future of this alternate timeline, the utopian Federation was never created. And so McCoy changed history and the Enterprise no longer exists.

With this information, Spock pronounces coldly to Kirk that, in order to restore history and save the Enterprise, Edith Keeler must die.

McCoy finally arrives in Chicago. The drug overdose wears off, and he finds his way to the 21st Street Mission, where he meets Edith Keeler and also becomes fond of her optimism. Spock and Kirk run into McCoy and rejoice, but when Edith Keeler crosses the street to join them, she doesn’t see an oncoming truck speeding towards her. Kirk lunges forward to pull her away, but Spock yells to him and he stops. McCoy also tries to protect Keeler, but now Kirk holds McCoy back. The truck hits Edith Keeler, and, with a horrible scream, she dies.

Shocked, McCoy asks Kirk if he knows what he just did. Kirk remains silent; Spock replies “He knows.”

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy jump back through the Guardian of Forever portal to the present and rejoin the landing party. The Enterprise has re-appeared: Kirk says the line, “Let’s get the hell out of here” and the episode ends.

At first, we may think we know the show’s message for us at the end of the world: Do the right thing—even if it means a painful sacrifice. But The City on the Edge of Forever (like all great science-fiction) has turned things so upside down we question this apparent, surface meaning. It’s that final profanity. Like Kirk, we can’t shake the sense that something much more shattering is going on, something much deeper than just a tragic story about letting go of what we love for the sake of a higher duty to survive.

On the surface, The City on the Edge of Forever seems to say that the ends justify the means. An innocent, good person, a pacifist and idealist, must die or the Nazis win. The world is dangerous! They are evil! We must do bad things (like going to war or letting an innocent woman die) to defeat Them. Any action claiming to be ethical, however high minded, must be judged by its outcome, assessed by the inescapable calculus of history.

This theme is a preoccupation in the Star Trek universe; its constant advocate is Spock. In The Wrath of Khan Spock says “Logic clearly dictates: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

So if Spock were asked about climate emergency, global inequality, militarism, ecological collapse… and all the other signs of “civilization apparently driven to its own destruction,” he would calculate the means needed to achieve the end of survival. Logically. What sacrifice must we make? What risk must we take? Is it worth it to build colonies on Mars? Seed the atmosphere with sulfates? Logic will decide: our survival depends on it.

The allegory seems to fit—but this would miss the real meaning of Edith Keeler’s hopefulness, McCoy’s mad frenzy, and Spock’s pronouncement.

Star Trek tells us Mr. Spock’s perspective is needed. But his proper place is not in charge, but second in command, under Kirk. Science and logic have great authority—Spock is the first to be consulted when the Enterprise’ survival is at stake. But this authority is always limited: Spock doesn’t have what it takes to solve the problem himself. Spock is half Vulcan, a constant reminder that science on its own can never be fully human. Those pointed ears emphasize the grave danger of thinking otherwise: Spock’s logic always risks disaster, to follow it is to be tempted by the devil.

Instead, at the center of humanity’s utopian possibility, Star Trek puts Captain Kirk. Kirk listens to Spock’s reason and relies heavily on science, but at each episode’s decisive moment Kirk defies the logic of his second in command. Kirk defies everyone: the rules, the Federation, the Prime Directive, authority, the odds, the officers on the bridge… He risks the many for the one. He does the irrational thing. He proceeds alongside Spock’s guidance, but then, when it counts, he follows his gut, he jumps with his intuition. What makes Kirk Kirk is that he doesn’t logically go, Kirk boldly goes. By putting Spock’s disciplined logic second, and the volatile, impulsive, intuitive, emotional Kirk first, Star Trek tells us exactly where to find our hopeful future: the human heart.

Except in The City on the Edge of Forever. Kirk betrays his heart; he follows Spock. There is no conversation, no deliberation, Kirk is compliant to Spock the expert, and he kills the woman he loves. Spock believes it was logical, to save the world: logic dictates. But when Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” we know he realized something Spock, with all his reason and logic, couldn’t.

Edith Keeler was devoted to her pacifism and soup kitchen service. And just as passionately, Kirk too has his own 21st Street Mission: returning to command his ship. Mission and Enterprise: both Keeler and Kirk are dedicated to their image of the good ends. Like Kirk, Keeler has her own command; like Kirk she looks to the future for humanity’s promise; and like Kirk, she falls easily in love. Kirk was sent by the Guardian of Forever portal to meet Keeler because she is a reflection of himself.

Spock says Keeler can’t see how her devotion leads to Nazi victory and the end of the world. But what about Kirk’s devotion? How could Kirk know the future outcome of his own mission? Doesn’t the Guardian portal reveal that any outcome far enough in the future might turn into the opposite of what was intended? With the US empire at war in Vietnam just a TV channel change away (and US forever wars today streaming to our phones), is it so hard to imagine it might be Us, not Them, who is the bad outcome? And doesn’t that make Kirk as blind in his dedication as Keeler?

And so we see why Kirk remains silent and wants to “get the hell out of here.” He betrayed what he knew in his heart for the false image that Spock and his computer alone showed as the truth.

Isn’t that where we find ourselves today? Today’s scientists peer into computers and pronounce that, oops, civilization’s mission of progress was in fact blind devotion, an image of optimism and status quo hubris: maniacal technological recklessness now threatening all life on earth. Our beliefs led not to a bright future, but to the end of the world. So should we look again into the same computers for solutions? Or will we just see our own devotion displayed in more untrustworthy images? Remember Einstein—can we really survive without a new type of thinking?

In 1967, the year The City on the Edge of Forever aired, Laing struggled with the same question. He gathered 1960s political, philosophical, and artist revolutionaries (including Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Carolee Schneeman, Gregory Bateson, C.L.R. James and Stokely Carmichael) to the Dialectics of Liberation Congress. In his speech, notably titled “The Obvious,” Laing addressed the US war in Vietnam and march towards the end of the world, declaring that “Orwell’s time is already with us… the cynical lies, multifarious deceptions and sincerely held delusions to which we are now subjected through all media—even the organs of scholarship and science—force us to a position of almost total social skepticism. There is almost nothing we can know about the total social world system… We can put no trust in princes, popes, politicians, scholars, or scientists… But it is possible to know that we cannot know.”

Sound familiar? It’s the dilemma of our politics-as-outrage-theater era of war and inequality. And like Kirk, Laing goes further: he doesn’t just confront the horror of annihilation, but also faces the unreliability of any image or projection posing as a solution.

The Nazi threat was real, just as surely as climate emergency and global militarism and inequality and ecological collapse and poison in our food are all real. Star Trek is optimistic and doesn’t reject technology and reason: it keeps science close by. But Kirk knows well how to “put no trust in princes, popes, politicians, scholars, or scientists”—he just lost the courage to trust himself when he let Keeler die.

“We have to begin,” Laing says, “by admitting and even accepting our violence, rather than blindly destroying ourselves with it.” (emphasis added). Kirk might have begun that admission. But with his “Let’s get the hell out of here” he flees instead, and the episode ends with devotion to his mission restored. Kirk ran away, fearing the madness of what he learned. Yet Laing urged, and the psychiatric survivor movement continues to demand, that we instead listen to madness. The City on the Edge of Forever tries to make madness Kirk’s teacher.

Kirk and Spock declare McCoy, in his wild frenzy, to be paranoid and delusional. But was he? What if Kirk and Spock are in fact the true “assassins and murderers” McCoy ranted about? What if McCoy could see, in his mad visions, that Kirk and Spock were on their way to kill Keeler, out of devotion to their own mad image of saving their world?

The episode asks us, following Laing, to consider that the mad and sane, us and them, have more in common than we want to believe. Laing is often portrayed as championing madness as superior to sanity. This is incorrect. Instead, Laing saw both madness and sanity equally alienated from being fully human. Spock’s computer or McCoy’s drug injection: the point is that both sanity and madness fail to see the Obvious. Was McCoy ranting “Assassins! Murderers!” more delusional than Kirk and Spock killing a woman for a future they could ultimately never be sure about?

So maybe what Kirk betrayed most in this episode is the irrational, illogical part of him, the part that follows the heart, the part that is also madness. Because isn’t love a kind of madness?

Maybe everyone, the mad and the normal, us and them, is chasing their own mission. Maybe everyone has their own image they cherish, the false belief they can know the ends that they use to justify the means of their choices. What if the only choice we can really make, and trust, is the irrational, even mad, choice to love? What would saving the world look like then? Can we, with Dr. King, refuse Us versus Them but still have the courage to save someone we love from an oncoming truck, still take a stand against the Obvious violence that surrounds us?

Kirk never had a chance to ask these questions. When Spock pronounced that Keeler must die, there was no conversation, no questions about the dilemma the computer displayed, no one listening. With his friend Spock there was no communion, no heart, only the dictates of logic.

Those nights in my San Francisco apartment, before psychiatry locked me up, I was trying in my own way to save the world. Just as Kirk did, just as so many of us try. For a long time, I thought I went mad because of the questions I asked, because of not having any answers. Now I know that what tormented me wasn’t staring into the abyss of our endangered future; it wasn’t my personal history of trauma, or even the crazy world we live in. What tore me apart was having no one there with me. What drove me mad was that when I faced the end of the world, I was alone.

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from a presentation by the author at the 10th annual R.D. Laing in the 21st Century Symposium.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Thanks Will, very interesting reflection and synthesis. I like the way you blend the themes prevalent in the Star Trek Episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ with Laing’s work and resistance. Your paper, influenced by your own experience, addresses poignant questions that deal with authority, trust, claims to truth, deceit, power, harm, and unbridled damage? I can see parallels in your work with Nietzsche.

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    • A longer version would definitely bring in Nietzsche as the themes are clear: the Guardian of Forever may be teaching the image of Eternal Return and Amor Fati, which distinguish Nietzsche’s stance from nihilism. The impasse of nihilism is a central dilemma for Nietzsche, if absolute values are dispensed with in an anti-religious philosophy or in a capacity to uproot all values through endless historical re-contextualization: the episode grapples with this clearly and I appreciate you pointing that out, I just didn’t have word space to bring in Nietzsche (or the Buddhist themes of samsaric desire) but there was enough I hinted at that it is great someone picked up on it.

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    • There is a lot of critical intellectual biography out there that presents details about the history of this episode, previous versions and edits, etc. I chose to disregard all of this, and engage with the narrative itself as a stand alone work. I haven’t really read that history. I think any work of art can be unncecessarily complicated by bringing in what is extraneous, the creation process itself and what was left out of the final presentation or frame of the completed piece. We start to do sociology or psychological analysis or political theory instead of relating to art. I know this raises a lot of questions about the nature of art interpretation and I don’t want to come off as too closed to context and art as production or meaning, and art as constructed socially and historically, but to me it seems that there is and will always be something about encountering art as art in itself and sufficient to itself, and then responded to in its own terms. All art interpretation of course is a reiteration of the subjective stance of the person doing the interpretation, and so one could write about this episode of Star Trek in a very personal way (I do have that part in my essay), but at the same time the episode has its own unity and internal consistency (or intended consistency) that stands alone. Jung considered this about the existence as a psychic fact of the symbol itself, which can become a metaphysics of art and I don’t want to deny historical material reality, but I do think there is something to a work as a work on its own, a singular unity, that evokes the Self in its wholeness and completeness that is at the heart of why art is compelling and central to being human, and why art is so important for us to understand who we are and how to relate to each other.

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    • The possibility that something might be inevitable, such as war, wouldn’t obviate the imperative to overcome that inevitability. So I don’t think that the proposition negates the central questions raised by the episode. That “might” is key – the inability of final prediction is directly what is addressed by the Guardian’s revelations.

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  2. Beautifully written. The bridge you built between this Star Trek episode makes me think that psychiatry is the Spock that tells our Captain Kirk to kill our inner Edith Keeler too. I do think that the world is officially mass psychosis, and my prior experiences were not only prophetic-canary-in-the-coal-mine, but training for what’s happening now. The gap has closed between the subjective and objective. It’s disheartening but not surprising. Krishnamurti said it might only take 10 people who are undivided to change the trajectory of the world. Nothing of love can be lost.

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    • I like your suggestion that there is a teleology to technology itself that leads to murdering love and ourselves. The Guardian is surrounded by ruins and so there is a contrast between the truth of what the Guardian reveals and the end game of human technological endeavor. The episode has extensive references to technology as posing dehumanizing dangers, and as I noted in the other comment, it is the apparent defeat of death in reviving Sulu that sets the episode’s story into motion. The mass psychosis of the world is exactly at stake – is this an existential dilemma for humanity, or an historical one? Krishnamurti and Buddhism would both agree there is a normalized madness to all human endeavor that is based in thought or samsara. What is important about love is that it is intrinsic, not contingent. Love is who we are. Technology – as time binding and image – was always the problem, love is always the answer. (The episode does raise the possibility of an end-game extinction of the possibility of love, while the “species” persists, which I think is part of the “let’s get the hell out of here” of Kirk at the end. Humans surviving but no longer being human – the end of the world but the persistence of humans-as-animals, losing our humanness, is definitely raised here.) The question is whether we can see the world as mass psychosis as also within ourselves. I am mass psychosis: the obvious madness of staring at a screen while I am also surrounded by smoke and flames – instead of not running out screaming to sound the alarm. Am I constrained by my own awareness or do my actions and awareness reach the limit of what the collective is itself prepared to do? Those ten people you mention are significant because they are also us, the are part of the collective mind – such 10 people would not be leaders or distinctive they would be indicators of the change taking place collectively. To identify them as 10 people, however, is to bring the problem back personally to our own individual understanding rather than waiting for the collective, which is, in fact, us. There is a transposition of my response to the Star Trek episode into the inquiries that Krishnamurti brings forward, which I hinted at but didn’t elaborate, and I appreciate you picking that up. Krishnamurti never as far as I have encountered used cultural narrative as allegory, instead oriented towards direct inquiry. (This is not exclusive to interest in culture it’s just the teaching / dialogue moment itself wasn’t something he brought culture into. Krishnamurti loved sports cars and detective novels.) But if I were to map Krishnamurti onto the City on the Edge of Forever it seems it could be seamless (one of many reasons I chose this episode), because we can identify /thought/ as being what leads to Keeler’s death, and the imposition of /image/ in place of the Obvious of saving the woman you love as the central error made in the ethical calculus Spock deploys and Kirk obeys. Krishnamurti was often repeating the obvious of jumping away from a snake in contrast with the prison of fear of snakes – one is in time as thought, and desire, the other is not. So that contrast is clear in the episode as the love of Keeler manifest as an “unthinking” action-outside-of-thought, the impulse to pull Keeler from the truck, but also emphasized in the scene before the truck, when Kirk saves Keeler from falling down the stairs (to be scolded by Spock). I would love to do a longer critical study of Krishnamurti as related to sci-fi time travel narratives, exploring what Krishnamurti calls “choiceless awareness” — especially if there is a secondary literature on Krishnamurti and ethics that does not drift too widely into Advaita Vedanta theology, as it is the existential immediacy and phenomenological inquiry of Krishnamurti’s work that make it compelling to me.

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      • There is a paper called J. KRISHNAMURTI’S TEACHINGS – RELEVANCE TO MENTAL HEALTH by A. Venkoba Rao which doesn’t relate to the sci-fi part, but to thought. Thought “versus” choiceless awareness, attention and other dimensions Krishnamurti brings in is fascinating to me. I’m starting to relate his work also to left and right brain literature. He often said there is a change in the brain cells themselves when one undergoes a psychological mutation in the mind. I sense one is accessing the right brain, which Dr. Iain McGilchrist indicates is the fundamental problem of the “meta crisis” (overemphasis on the left brain including the left brain doubling down when it knows it’s wrong.) I recently watched an interviews with Eric Weinstein who said the driver behind the interest in physics and a theory of everything is to access unlimited power. He mentions that this is the unlimited power mentioned in Marvel and sci-fi movies. I can’t help but sense the tool is our body-embrained, and the search for scientizing it is to externalize the technology that’s already built in. I say this because through choiceless awareness etc, and owning the fact that we already are that technology, the good may prevail, and we will tame the motives of our inner Spock. Even if we don’t, there is a parallel reality somewhere where we have the chance to be choiceless again. And yes, the 10 people are invisible and operate darkly in the light.

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  3. Some problems I have.
    One problem in the writing “Kirk is compliant to Spock the expert, and he kills the woman he loves.”
    Kirk allowed the woman to die, he might have saved her, but was not directly performing the killing. A truck/car and driver did the accidental killing (in the fictional story). So that statement is wrong and dangerous to say , would be dangerous to say to a police officer because of the detail you left out.

    Second .”Save the World”. You do mean save the human population on the earth. George Carlin does a great comedy bit on how the planet should survive humans.
    “The planet isn’t going anywhere… we are! We’re going away! Pack your **** folks! We’re going away and we won’t leave much of a trace either, thank God for that… maybe a little styrofoam… maybe… little styrofoam. The planet will be here, we’ll be long gone; just another failed mutation; just another closed-end biological mistake; an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance. You wanna know how the planet’s doing? Ask those people in Pompeii who are frozen into position from volcanic ash how the planet’s doing.”

    The horror movie of everyone turning into monsters from their cell phones seems the most accurate to me. Everyone in a delusional world while running/walking around a cell phone tower. “Cell” 2016, The film staring John Cusack. Necessary food ,and water for a human body to exist are not discussed-explained in the horror film. People using technology too much or addicted to it leading to destruction of real world social practices/interactions.

    Tomorrowland 2015 staring George Clooney seems the best model to me.
    ” It isn’t hard to knock down a big, evil building that’s telling everybody that the world’s going to end. What is hard… is figuring out what to build in its place, and if we’re going to do that… we can’t do it alone. We’re going to need all of you…”

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    • This is an interesting interpretive reworking. I’d be interested in hearing the premise of Kirk’s non-responsibility for Keeler’s death elaborated into a larger critical reading of the episode as a whole. While we may have critical stances about a partial aspect of a story or work of art, it is the /whole/ of the art that is significant. How it all fits together. The nature of beauty is in the totality of what is experienced/perceived, the unity and wholeness of the experience. That completeness is the satisfaction of beauty. Any art is compelling as art because of its internal unity, the way that every aspect and detail, without exception, forms a connection and meaningful unity/purpose/resonance with every other part into a larger single whole. Critical readings that exclude any part always fail. This is for Jung why all art and all symbol are images of the Self archetype, the totality or final transcendent wholeness arising out of / making possible an otherwise fragmentary unfinished and partial context, the perceived continuity of the ego. So while a statement may stand on its own about an aspect of a critical reading of a work of art – it is or is not accurate to attribute responsibility for a death to a choice by a character – what is significant is how that statement stands in relation to a larger reading of the work as a whole.

      My instinct when i read your comment is that either the work has failed to convey Kirk’s responsibility, noted with the observation you make, and therefore the work starts to fail as a whole, and my own interpretation is flawed because the unity of meaning I convey is now baseless, or that your own statement is part of a larger critical interpretation that would re-work the “Kirk is not responsible” statement into larger meaning as a whole for the episode.

      As for the police officer, that is interesting because remember that McCoy is also indirectly responsible for a death in this episode, the phaser, and Kirk and Spock begin their Chicago experience in flight from the police, which drives them to Keeler. So the contrast between the order of the State, which imputes responsibility, and the order of the Guardian of Forever, which raises the question of /final/ responsibility, is absolutely involved here and your comment speaks to that. I think there might be an alternate reading where responsibility itself is thrown into question, and that no ethical choice is ever possible, even, as I assert, the choice to love. Remember that the Guardian is surrounded by ruins – could the evasion of all choice, the nihilism that love is not the answer, lead to such ruins? So I think that your claim the Kirk did not kill Keeler is provocative and I would like to see it elaborated into a larger image of the episode’s meaning.

      I would be interested in hearing what your larger interpretation is, if you deny the assertion of Kirk’s responsibility. I assert that the narrative hinges on that assertion, just as it hinges on the assertion that No, Keeler did not possibly revive in a hospital, and No, McCoy and Sulu do not actually die later from Cordrazine, and No, Sulu did not revive accidentally and not because of the cordrazine because he is just a strong guy, and No, Spock did not plant the newspaper stories in the tricorder out of jealousy for Kirk’s love for Keeler and his own desire to have Kirk return with him to the Enterprise. These are speculative retrofits of a narrative that are unwarranted by the narrative itself. I’d need to have more evidence that Kirk is not responsible, because in many many moments the narrative is building the case that he *is* responsible, most notably his own horrified reaction and the premonition itself he is advised of by Spock. If Kirk is not responsible, then no ethical narrative of responsibility is itself possible, and what I would argue is that the episode is saturated by narrative indicators that this is the very heart of the meaning conveyed and grappled with. Responsibility itself may be at stake, but no, I don’t think the episode says Kirk is not responsible it was just an accident chill out.

      So yes, I do agree with you that the question of /causality/ is also definitely at stake here at the center of any reading, and so if you could elaborate with your interpretation, again attending to the meaning for the work as a whole, I would be most interested, please advise me thru my website.

      Carlin’s philosophical genius is quite apt here as he is doing his bits almost around the same time, though his first Tonight Show appearance wasn’t until 1975 – what was he up to in 1967 I wonder? So we might be colliding influences, but the point Carlin makes is certainly worth exploring. Why does “the end of the world” matter at all? First of all, Who are we to say that an extinct humanity wouldn’t serve the Good of say the rise of a higher species? Or even, Perhaps the destruction of all life on earth is part of a larger cosmological cycle of birth and destruction serving some vaster Good than humans can imagine. This is all addressed in another lens by Jung in Answer to Job where Ultimate Good is unknowable. So I think your point agreeing with Carlin that “Who cares if humans go extinct” is consistent with my reading of the episode – except for my point about humans have a capacity to love, which is also central to the narrative – City on the Edge of Forever is above all a beautifully romantic love story. It’s obvious, to me, why we want to save the woman we love, why we want to save the world to that degree. The impulse to love is also part of the existential reality to be grappled with. But I agree with you there is definitely a nihilistic reading present that is possible that says Let Keeler die, Let the Enterprise disappear, it’s all good, or not, who knows, and ecologically species come and go so just let it all go. The Guardian is surrounded by ruins so perhaps a proper reading is the futility of all human endeavor and as you say the fleeting impossibility of the permanence of a species on a planet that has volcanoes with a sun that goes supernova. From this reading the Guardian is calling into question the Enterprise’s manifest destiny itself (an anti-colonial reading is implicit in the narrative especially in McCoy’s encounter because of the contrast between advanced and primitive times, which is underscored by the Guardian’s mocking of Spock’s technology and science) because what the Enterprise and Federation are doing above all is colonizing /time/ and saying No, we do not go extinct, we live forever. Futility? One reading I worked with was how this time colonization is an attempt to conquer death and that the episode is a commentary on the human impulse to deny death. Remember that on the bridge before McCoy goes mad, Sulu is going to die. The entire story is set into motion with the denial of death bc McCoy uses technology, a synthetic drug, to defeat death. Defeating death is a recurring motif. So again your assertion is apt here (more so that the idea that Kirk bears no responsibility for Keeler’s death, which I think is largely unsupported by the narrative, and would lead to a collapse of any meaingful interpretation, but again I’m open to your elaboration). I did consider the Book of Ecclesiastes and other Christian themes here as an answer to the nihilism problem you are raising, noting that the Guardian is surrounded by the ruins of civilization – while there are distinctly pre-Christian architectural elements in those ruins. However, I had a word limit.

      Tomorrowland and Cell would certainly be interesting narratives to bring in – do they raise the same “what is the point of all this” or raise some other questions, and perhaps answer them differently? A comparative study of several films addressing the question of ethics and love would be interesting, but I think that the time travel element is central and it would need to be not images of Where do we go but more images of How do we choose. My preferred collision of another narrative would be the Matrix. While the Matrix and simulation theory would appear at first to not be time travel related, the Guardian presents history /as image/ and once Kirk Spock McCoy have jumped into the past, they are, ontologically, in many ways in a simulation. So the simulation theory problematics also are in play in time travel puzzles in sci-fi narrative.

      I am with you on the pessimism of Where is this headed. Radical pessimism is also a strong element of the City episode, as the optimism of Keeler / Kirk is contrasted with the image of Nazi victory. Science seems to put us at the brink of Wow if we don’t blow ourselves up we’re going to solve world hunger kinds of extreme futures. This episode interrogates utopian idealism in a very provocative way. What I try to suggest is that once /time/ becomes part of a projection of result outcome and intention, we enter into a puzzle from which there is no escape, because of the radical unknowableness of time and the replacement of false certainty with an actual helplessness to control outcome, which is compensated for by all the mad technology we keep promising will control outcomes and defeat death. The answer to this puzzle is love, I think, if we can find something that is not the /image/ of love – remember that killing Keeler is done claimed as an act of love to save the future from apocalypse – but the actual Obvious of love as we know it to be, which may be possibly something that has no time, and has no thought.

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  4. Will, there is an easy alternative to the left hemispheric cognition of the intellect. An opposition between sanity and madness overlooks this. It is emergent but natural and intrinsic, a form of animal intelligence based in the body. Mentalism is so dominant as to be invisible, but mentalism is not the only capacity we have for understanding.

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    • The broad frame of “balancing the two kinds of rationality” – left and right hemisphere – fits what I am after here. I try to engage the paradox that a rational formulation of such a balance wouldn’t itself be balanced, the intuitive has to be there in the definition as well. I don’t think I propose an opposition between sanity and madness but something that has elements of both? And yes I agree what I am proposing is natural and intrinisic, but it still remains quite a challenge for us to find it again, much less put into words.

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