Spock and the Private Canon: RIP Leonard Nimoy

I have a routine for the deaths of famous actors whose work I appreciated: a toast, a selected re-viewing, maybe a short chat with a friend who was also a fan. But this is different. At Leonard Nimoy’s passing on February 27, I must do and say more – some of it loudly and in public. Bear with me.

Nimoy gave us Spock, and that gift has meant more to me than anything else in our pop culture. I’ve been reading the tributes in the media, and they always characterize Spock as unemotional, as if he was defined by the absence of something. I don’t doubt that Roddenberry and the early writers started with that idea, but Nimoy gave him positive traits and, yes, an emotional core.

I first encountered Star Trek in its earliest syndication, circa 1974. (Young ‘uns: There was no cable back then, but there were things called independent channels. They reran cancelled series and had fabulously bad local commercials.) I fixed immediately upon Spock: I wanted to be his friend; I wanted to be him. In the imaginal worlds of our neighborhood, I did get to be Spock. In my own fantasies, I played scientist at recess. And in daydreams, I would rescue Spock from capture and humiliation. That last part is autobiographically telling – on the show, he was in no more or less danger than others, but in my imagination, there were special threats to what Spock represented. (I was not wrong about this.) This recollection may seem childish, but I mention it because it latched on to one of the character’s real virtues, and one that would inform my life: intellectual curiosity.

Spock was exceptionally smart. He seemed to know everything, yet so egolessly – things themselves were fascinating. One never stopped, never rested with “enough” knowledge and understanding. To stop learning would be illogical. I suppose this seemed simple and damned obvious, but I am trying to represent my earliest reception of Spock in terms faithful to it. Spock mattered because I had no other model: there were no adults, no other kids, certainly nothing else in pop culture, that modeled intellectual life and insatiable curiosity. Thus my first bit of public mourning:


And this was true for a long time. I was fifteen before I met anyone who was even in the ballpark of a life devoted to knowledge. Without Spock, I don’t know how I would have made it through those years with no image of a person driven by intellectual curiosity. In other words, I don’t know how I would have become myself. Yes, there were other, richer models – canonical names – but I did not find them until my early teens. I had to get that far on Spock alone.

(For a beautiful post on finding intellectual life from a working class background, see LD Burnett’s recent post.)

My childhood interest at ages 6-8 waned, but a personal Trek renaissance came with cable TV when I was about 13. This time, it came with a crush, a strong attraction to this figure who was both the sort of person I wanted, and the sort I wanted to be. I won’t dwell on this. Suffice to say that it took over a decade for me to realize that smart, geeky guys were not interested in the likes of me, and Spock’s solitary nature became another aspect of his model. (I can’t do better than Laurie Penny, and no, I am not yet capable of discussing this article.) By this time, liking Star Trek singled one out as a nerd and object of ridicule. As if I needed help with that. But I protected the Spock within.

Anyway, the pre-teen attachment waned, and for a while, I thought I was over Trek and Spock. Then the Nineties came it, and with it, a Trek culture such as I had never know. I was in grad school then, and what I’m about to say began to emerge in that adult choice to be Trekkie. Rock out with your Spock out, as people would say in the next century.

It’s a mistake to center Spock on non-emotionality. It’s also a mistake to see him as repressed emotionality. I’ve been called unemotional my whole life, when my subjectivity is quite passionate. There’s such a thing as emotional normativity, and people viciously enforce it. So let me describe Spock by what he is centered on: intellectual curiosity, love of friends, honesty by default, deep loyalty, and openness to new experiences. In contrast to how fan fiction would have it, canonical Spock is just not sexual, or not very much. Here is a personality driven by traits and emotions that our culture devalues – finds nearly inconceivable, wants to pretend are a cover for or way of getting other things. Nimoy’s performance as Spock gives no quarter to those interpretations. Spock is living integrity, all of a piece. Here is a character centered on qualities that our culture treats as peripheral at best. Even his intellectual life is exceptional in its egolessness. There is not a whiff of “Look at me, how smart I am,” in Spock. It’s always, “Look at this. Fascinating.”

(Addendum: Please see also Robert Greene II’s memorial and discussion in terms of U.S. pop cultural history. He and I exchanged tweets on the following point: Spock’s differences were, specifically, high intelligence, non-normative emotionality, and bi-raciality. For those of us who share one or more of those traits, the specifics matter a great deal. Calling Spock merely an “outsider,” as if that category can be filled up with just anything, erases the significance of these traits.)

And Leonard Nimoy gave us Spock. He did much more, I know. Fictional heroes have advantages over real ones; they can do without the blemishes of real lives. I’m glad we don’t know more about Homer or Shakespeare. What biography would we want in the minds who created Achilles and Odysseus, Lear and Hamlet? Usually, I want the work, not the artist. I wonder what it is like for living actors to carry the projections of millions, knowing always the difference between the character and themselves. For all that, Nimoy sustains appreciation: by all accounts, he was personable, thoughtful, and ethical, and funny. He practiced many arts, including directing and photography, and has an acting curriculum vitae a light-year long. He struggled with the Spock persona, privately and in public. I never read his bios (work over artist), but I was never the type of fan to be offended at a statement like “I am not Spock” (of course not), or to see the later “I am Spock” as a change of opinion. Both are true.

George Steiner, in Real Presences, makes a distinction between public and private canons. The pubic canon is that collectively generated body of powerful works, the ones that can deeply inform individuals and civilizations. If we engage with these deeply, we each have a distinctive version of the pubic canon. The private canon, Steiner defines as those works to which we have given a deep welcome in our lives, whatever those things may be. Some of them may be embarrassing. (Quick: what music did you love at age 12?) I’m grateful to have lived a life in dialogue with real, publicly canonical literature, art, and science. But first, I had to get there, and to get there, I needed Spock. That character is an indelible part of my private canon, and I say that without embarrassment. Leonard Nimoy made him, and for that, I am forever grateful.

May Nimoy’s memory be a blessing to his family, friends, and for all of us geeks.

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