Culture

Live Long and Prosper

Leonard Nimoy was not Spock, except when he was.

Leonard Nimoy, who did a great many things in his life but is synonymous with the hyper-rational half-Vulcan Spock in the public imagination, passed away at age 83 partly as a result of that most illogical of pleasures: smoking, which he gave up 30-odd years ago. “Not soon enough,” he wrote. The diagnosis was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Perhaps he would have liked to have lived longer — his fans would have preferred that he live forever — but 83 isn’t so bad.

Nimoy grew up in Boston in an observant Jewish household where Yiddish was spoken, his family having emigrated from what is today Ukraine (for the moment, still) but what was at the time of his birth the Soviet Union. His mother kept house, and his father was a barber who came to own his own shop. His was a familiar immigrant family story: His parents wanted him to go to college and study for a profession; he wanted to become an actor. He did both.

At the height of Star Trek’s popularity, Nimoy had difficulty going out in public. The crowds that followed him were so enthusiastic and energetic that he feared for his safety. That calmed down later, but he remained one of the few figures in popular culture rightly described as an icon.

But there was something odd about Nimoy’s celebrity, as he told the story. (He wrote a memoir titled “I Am Not Spock,” and, worried that that first title had made him seem churlish or ungrateful, later published another, titled “I Am Spock.” Brent Spiner, who played the Spock-esque Data, self-deprecatingly joked that he was going to call his memoir “I’m Not Spock, Either.”) It was natural that NASA would use the actor who played a space explorer as a mascot, but people — people who know the difference between an actor and a character — often spoke to Nimoy as though he were Spock. Nimoy’s opinions on cultural and political matters were sought out, especially in the 1960s, with the expectation that he would answer like the sage of reason he portrayed. He was a Kennedy liberal who neither obscured his political views nor made them the center of his public life.

In drama, the little things have unpredictable effects. On the other side of the great sci-fi divide, it has been argued that without the lightsaber, Star Wars would have been simply another tiresome space western, but something about that luminous sword-analog tugged at the mystic chords of boyhood. In the case of Spock, it was the pointy ears. There is a legend that these were an afterthought, that originally Spock was going to have orange skin, but that on black-and-white television the makeup used for that effect looked like blackface. It is difficult to imagine Spock any other way, and Nimoy knew it: “When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day.”

But there was something else to Spock, one that spoke to seven- or eight-year-old me (Star Trek was in syndication by that point) the way I am sure it did to many others. Half human and half Vulcan, the young Spock made a conscious decision to retreat from sentimental human entanglements into logic. When another character tries to get under his skin, he observes: “I have no ego to bruise.” In a chaotic and threatening world, to be able to set aside, even if imperfectly, the aspect of one’s self that is vulnerable to the chaos is an alluring prospect: There is no threat if there is nothing there to be threatened. Twenty years later, I’d discover that this was the juvenile (a word that in this context is not pejorative) version of Stoicism, which makes substantially the same promises as Spock’s kolinahr discipline (possibly the nerdiest clause I have ever written), offering the same state of resolute tranquility that is, for the more than half-human, equally elusive. It is science fiction — and it is camp — but there is something in that leaves me still convinced that a more Spockian approach to life would be eminently desirable, that water becomes transparent only when it is clean and still.

But perhaps that is not all so remote as it sounds: Leonard Nimoy, the thinking, feeling actor and artist, the Jewish kid from Boston’s West End whose parents wanted him to get a good education — and maybe play the accordion if he needed a creative outlet — and Spock, the epitome of logic and detachment, ultimately arrived at the same conclusion about what is good, about the right life and the right ambition: to live long and prosper.

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