Staring Pingu: Man’s relationship to the Sublime (Meme Analysis)
The face of an entranced penguin is a metaphor of our relationship to awe, greatness, beauty and transcendence.
Meme culture is always filled with memes, some of them impactful, and some of them only good for a laugh. However, some memes have a deeper meaning behind the humor, or the visual. Such memes have a meaning that is easy to overlook, and are even a metaphor for the human condition. They show us something about ourselves, which is why such memes resonate so much, and thus become viral. This meme is one of them.
The Staring Pingu meme took off only a few months ago, however it has taken TikTok and Instagram by storm. Here, Pingu the penguin, a popular children’s TV show icon from the 90’s, begins the meme with his trademark phrase “Noot Noot”. At the same time, the meme shows a video of something common, like a video from an iPhone camera. All of this is happening with Mozart’s famous composition “Lacrimosa” playing in the background.
However, the common video becomes a video that is more aesthetically-pleasing than the former video, usually a drone shot or an edited video of the same object in the first video. At this point, the meme shows Pingu staring amazed and in wonder, with sparkles in his eyes, at the viewer, like Pingu himself is looking at the video. The video below demonstrates the entire sequence:
IPHONE VIEW vs DRONE VIEW
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The Staring Pingu meme originally began as “the Terrified Pingu meme”, a way of showing something terrifying and dreadful, with Pingu showing a face that is terrified or stunned. However, the meme eventually gave birth to Pingu showing a face of wonder, beholding the greatness and beauty that is being seen. So how did this meme become viral, and why did this meme become viral? Is it because the beautiful is also terrifying, which is how this variation of the meme came to be? Let’s look at how this meme ties into our own human nature…
The Awesome, the Beautiful, the Great, and the Transcendent
Firstly, let us point out something about human nature. We humans are mortal creatures, prone to decay and dissolution. We see ourselves as lowly and pitiful, or at least as something common, insignificant and temporary. That’s why being average is a common condition among our species. We know our limitations, and we are resigned to our weak condition. We know how tiny our role plays in the grand scheme of things, and we feel an unease and discontentment because of how small we are. Deep down, we want to experience and behold all things greater than us, so that just for that moment, we can forget about how much we don’t matter.
Don’t be worried on account of the wicked; don’t be jealous of those who do wrong.
They will soon disappear like grass that dries up; they will die like plants that wither.
We are always dismissive of the normal, even derogatory of the normal and petty. We feel a resentment of our own limitations. Sometimes, the normal is so undesirable, that we can deride and dismiss the demonstration of it. It’s nothing to us, almost like a joke. This is why in the beginning of the meme, Pingu derides and humours the normal video with a “noot noot”, almost like Pingu is literally sticking his nose up at the normality. His funny and offensive “noot noot” can be translated into plain English as “who cares?”, which is something we indirectly relate to.
Also notice that at this point of the meme, Mozart’s Lacrimosa piece is still at the build-up. It is simple strings, and the choir has not begun their part of the piece. This section of the piece does not stir up any intense emotions or rise our vision higher. It neither inspires us or rouses us, nor does it intimidate us. It is not uncommon to hear such music. It is common, and we despise common, hence the normal video is played at this point of the piece.
That is why we want to experience beauty and transcendence, so we can at least have a taste of what eternity is like. We all strive to behold the vastness of the universe and the power and might of God’s hand. Why do you think NASA was so eager to put man on the moon? Why do you think Norgay and Hillary were so hell-bent on making it to the top of Mount Everest? Why do people always travel to view the Pyramids, or the Northern Lights? Because they are beautiful and grand, and such majesty inspires us for greater things.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
Such transcendence can also be witnessed through great people, or seeing greatness in front of you. We pedestalize those that have done great things in the world, and our bodies react to such awe and wonder at their achievements. Even their name sends shivers down your spine, because their name is synonymous with greatness, and greatness is, you can argue, synonymous with God. That is why great people are sometimes deified, whether in the external culture, or in one’s heart.
The point in the meme where the video representing awe, wonder and excellence is shown is where Mozart’s Lacrimosa turns to the choir to give a haunting, yet powerful choral. You can close your eyes, listen to that part of the piece, and imagine what brings you a sense of wonder and surrealism. Play that part and imagine, say, the Grand Canyon, or Angel Falls, or outer space. You will feel powerful, rousing emotions that inspires you, because you are not just imagining pieces of rock and water, or just a vast void of nothingness beyond our planet, but you are visualizing within your soul the very handiwork of God. This section of Lacrimosa represents the imposing, majestic, and the divine.
Beauty is a great inspiration for all men. Men are in awe of a beautiful, radiant woman, the same way women are in awe and admiration of a handsome, powerful man. We feel awe-struck when we see beauty in front of us, making us feel less than and insecure of ourselves in their presence. We also see beauty all throughout the world, whether it is as vast as the Earth, or as small as a leaf. We are amazed by beauty. Beauty to us shows the immense detail God has put into forming the universe. Beauty, wonder, and might brings strong positive emotions, and we almost fall in love with the powerful experience of what is greater than us in that moment. In fact, some scientific studies even shows that levels of Oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible for connection and social bonding, also knows as the “love hormone”, increases due to feelings of awe.
When we see something amazing, our eyes sparkle with the light of radiant beauty. We are frozen in disbelief at the majesty and profoundness of what we are witnessing, and our eyes widen and shines with radiant light. This is why when the video that shows what is amazing and incredible in the meme, Pingu is wide-eyed, with his eyes lighting up and his body frozen in stunned wonder and awe.
Another strange fact about experiencing greatness and transcendence is that it intimidates us. We feel that the things that are awesome are also strange to us. It transcends our understanding. One can even say that the powerful and the great strikes a fear into our hearts. We freeze in terror the same way we freeze in wonder of the sublime. Such an association happens at almost a subconscious level. Why do you think boys are so scared to talk to the pretty girl they like? Why do you think death scares us so much, but at the same time ignites our curiosity? We don’t want to die, because we are afraid, but at the same time we want to experience what life is after death. Death is the frontier beyond the monotony and unfulfilling reality of life, which is why great people that are dead are revered more than those that are alive to demonstrate their greatness.
The sublime, the heavenly, the powerful, the majestic, we fear them, while at the same time want to be close to them, to conquer them. This is probably why the meme, which began as Pingu staring at something terrifying, eventually and almost naturally evolved into Pingu staring at something sublime.
The Sublime is anything that exceeds out capacity for words or concepts by being too large, too vast, too dark and mysterious. And when we face such things, we feel a touch of fear but also awe and wonder.
-Robert Greene (The Laws of Human Nature)
The Bible even states that we should both revere, worship and praise God, while at the same time fear him. The sublime, lofty, magnificent is almost scary and feared, which could be why many people don’t strive for greater in their own lives, and would rather stay complacent in normality. Greatness is only for those that overcome their fears. Greatness is beauty, and beauty is fear.
Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him
Sublime in the Normal?
One final point that should be made clear is the fact that alot of the Staring Pingu memes also involve a normal view of an object or landscape, usually shot on a smartphone, which is where Pingu “noot noots” at the normal. However, the same object or landscape is shown again when Pingu is stunned in amazement. At this point, the object or landscape is beautified in some way, whether it is through editing or video shooting from a drone, for example. So Pingu is looking at the same thing, but in different ways and from different perspectives.
Is this significant? Well, it could mean that it takes seeing the normal from another point of view to truly behold the beauty and lofty right in front of us. Most often we don’t appreciate the beauty of the world around our immediate area because we don’t look for it. The world is too common to be beautiful, but if we have a different perspective, the world actually transcends all of us.
For example, say you are looking at the sky. You could take the sky for granted and think that the sky has always been there. It is too common for you to care. However, if you think more carefully, the blue sky spans the whole world. It gives life-giving water through rain, it produces amazing light shows with incredible flashes of light dancing across the sky in the form of lightning, it can change colour from a serene blue to a passionate red, and beyond the sky above is the vastness of space. So even if the sky is an everyday thing, a given, but it is beautiful and majestic, full of wonder and might.
Beauty and greatness is all around us. It just takes a slight change of perspective to see how sublime your world is. Your wife that you wake up to every morning, with frazzled hair and morning breath, is also the same beautiful women that you fell in deep love with, that wears the captivating dresses and fragrant perfumes you like when on a date. Your car you drive every day to go to work, is the most complex mechanical system you will ever personally use. Open your car bonnet, and just see how intricate, detailed, and amazing the components of your car is. You drive an amazing feat of technological advancement and engineering genius everyday, and most of the time you don’t even know it.
Making something beautiful is difficult, but it is amazingly worthwhile. If you learn to make something in your life truly beautiful — even one thing — then you have established a relationship with beauty. From there you can begin to expand that relationship out into other elements of your life and the world. That is an invitation to the divine.
-Jordan Peterson (Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life)
The great, beautiful, awesome, and the transcendent is all around us. God created the common and the uncommon equally. It takes a keen eye and an open mind to see the normal as the truly sublime.
Meme culture is here to stay, with alot of memes demonstrating many insights into human nature. The Staring Pingu meme is one of them. The Staring Pingu meme is just that: a funny, humorous meme. It is also a powerful and philosophically-driven metaphor, a visual depiction on man’s relationship to the sublime.