Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Memes, Nostalgia, and Mourning: the Case of Leonard Nimoy

 Leonard Nimoy and Kirmit place their hands to opposite sides of a sci-fi window, in a recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanImage credit: Motley News


Last Friday, Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock in countless Star Trek episodes, movies, and cartoons, passed away. As with all celebrities, grief among his fans tends to be expressed in memes—simple visual icons collaboratively authored, passed on through social media, and anthologized in sites like Buzzfeed. These reactions testify to the wide array of meanings given to one celebrity, and bring up some interesting questions about the nature of nostalgia, mourning, and televised celebrities.

First there is Nimoy's own contribution, the last tweet made before he passed away: 

 Leonard Nimoy tweets: "A Life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.Image credit: Twitter.


And, most appropriately, a Vulcan salute from the Final Frontier itself:

 A hand makes the Live Long and Prosper sign against a window of the International Space Station.Image credit: The Huffington Post


Other memes reposted by Nimoy’s fans were generally heartfelt, but not necessarily so somber. The Kermit image at the top of this article is one example, testifying to the role Spock played in countless childhoods. But then there's this combination of retro-cool and nerd-cool, where Nimoy takes up a pose reminiscent of Steve McQueen:

 Leonard Nimoy leans against a classic muscle car in a black-and-white image. The caption below says: "Coolness: You May Be Cool...but you'll never be Spock-leaning-on-a-Riviera-cool Image credit: Motley News.

Similarly, fans posted a recreation of an iconic Beatles album, with Spock being beamed up, presumably, to whatever best afterlife the reader imagines:

The famous Abbey Road cover is recreated with Star Trek characters; Leonard Nimoy is in the process of being beamed away. Image credit: Motley News.


Other reactions express a more aggressive form of nostalgia, such as this protest the Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek: 

 Spock is shown, with the caption: "There will only ever be one Spock. RIP Leonard Nimoy. Be happy in Heaven and prosper."Image credit: Motley News.


Then, because this is the internet, we have the silly responses, such as the Canadian trend of defacing currency so that it bears a remarkable resemblance to the iconic Vulcan:

 A Canadian $5 bill is colored in so that the figure on the back looks like Spock.Image credit: Twitter.


Less visually oriented was the 1968 article “Spock: Teenage Outcast,” now re-circulating furiously as a Buzzfeed article, in which Leonard Nimoy took time to respond to a biracial teenage girl via an extended discussion of Spock’s fictional struggles with both Vulcan and human racism:

 The cover to "Spock: Teenage Outcast," which features a black-and-white image of Spock and a lot of cartoon stars.Image Credit: Buzzfeed. Of course.  


But perhaps the most moving image of the weekend, at least to this lifelong fan of science fiction television, abandoned words altogether:

 This image collects two Star Trek stills as described below.

Image Source: Facebook.


The image is fascinating in its starkness. In the top frame, Bones (DeForest Kelley), Kirk (William Shatner), Spock, and Scotty (James Doohan) laugh and drink together. In the bottom frame, only Kirk is left. While the scene is drawn from early Star Trek, the message drives home just how much work time and death have done. Doohan, Kelley, and now Nimoy have passed away. The celluloid Kirk remains, looking the same as he always did (if not better, thanks to digital image remastering), yet somehow signifying an old age in which his friends are dead, and his glory years are behind him.

The image is foremost a reminder of the reality that even those who live long and prosper will inevitably watch as their friends precede them to the grave. Yet its use of only youthful faces also seems a commentary on the weird power of images to create the illusion of immortality. Kirk will always be, for those who have Amazon Prime accounts or DVDs of Star Trek, a captain in his mid 30’s, surrounded by an ever-young and ever-courageous crew, determined to boldly go where no man has gone before. Yet these actors, too, are human; Kirk’s companions, and soon Kirk himself, will survive on earth only as ghosts: recordings and memories. If adventures seem to promise an eternal voyage through the vastness of the universe, this image reminds us that such immortality is illusory. Even Spock dies—and so does every other human we know and love.

I am struck, in fact, by how often religion and nostalgia are twined together in so many of these these memes. Thoughts of the afterlife naturally tend to accompany death, but for a celebrity like Nimoy, known to generations of his fans through childhood exposure to Star Trek, the crisis is particularly poignant. Nimoy’s death is a challenge to our earliest intimations of immortality, marring childhood adventure with death, but it is also an opportunity to defy death and re-assert the eternal value of the many things Spock represented. Thus we imagine Nimoy in Heaven, beamed up, or glowing; or, simultaneously, we can argue that his spirit is immortally entwined with the civil rights movement, the quest to explore the cosmos, or other metanarratives. But I can’t get the last image out of my head—probably because it resonates so well with my own religious faith, and its ambiguous treatment of nostalgia. The history and rhetoric of Christianity is saturated with calls to remember our mortality, to know that earthly achievements are ultimately prey to the ravages of time and forgetfulness. “Dust you are,” as the Genesis narrative has it, “and to dust you shall return.” This phrase applies to celluloid demigods, it turns out, as well as to the rest of us. 

Mostly, though, I am struck by the way that so many of these responses seem tied together in Nimoy’s last tweet: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.” As much as our nostalgia tries to preserve the Edenic experience of staring at adventure stories in wide-eyed wonder, we can no more recreate our childhood than we can bring Nimoy back from the dead. All that is left is memory, recapitulation, inscription in the cultural consciousness: a process that, we hope, may provide a certain wisdom and help us to live long and prosper.

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