Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Spiritual Mistake of Star Wars and the Political Failure of Modern Culture

Episode 1 of Ground Motive's Popular Mythology Series.
Stories--including popular myths, movies, and fiction--have a surprisingly powerful impact on how we shape and understand our lives. In light of this, Ground Motive is launching a new series of blog posts called "Popular Mythology: What the Stories We Tell Say about Who We Are." These posts will air over the course of the summer amid our usual posts. Our first post in the series, by ICS Junior Member PhD candidate Joseph Kirby, addresses moral questions raised in one of the more enduring stories to have come out in the last 35 years: George Lucas' Star Wars.

by Joseph Kirby

With the evil Emperor defeated, Darth Vader redeemed, the virtuous Republic apparently on the road to restoration, it appears that the conclusion of Return of the Jedi represents a great triumph. Understanding why this supposed “success” is actually a failure will help shed light on the deep spiritual and political mistake at the root of modern Western culture.

Let us recall the pivotal encounter. Luke, empowered by rage, has just defeated his father Darth Vader. However, when the Emperor slides over to invite him to join the Dark-Side, Luke regains his senses, throws away his Light-Saber, and firmly proclaims that he will never turn. The Emperor, enraged, starts shooting Luke with purple electricity. Writhing in pain, Luke reaches out to Vader: “Father, please, help me.” Vader looks at Luke, then at the Emperor, then at Luke again. Finally, moved by his son’s torment, he picks up the Emperor and tosses him down a shaft into the heart of the Death Star. The Emperor disappears in a cloud of blue light.

The very logic of the Star Wars universe condemns this ending. Vader and Luke have only managed to “defeat” the Emperor by giving in to their passions, Luke to pain and Vader to anger and love. But defeating the incarnation of passion through passion solves nothing. Luke and Vader simply become new Lords of the Sith, with the only difference between this result and Vader’s invitation at the end of the previous movie – “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son” – being that Luke has become master and Vader remains apprentice. Politically the lesson is even more egregious: compassion at the sight of the suffering of others should be transformed into hatred of those who inflict suffering, who should be killed. This is the error that continues to wreak so much havoc in our culture: the idea that there is some single ultimate source of evil that can be isolated and destroyed once and for all. We see the same mistake in The Wizard of Oz: once the Wicked Witch is killed, her minions suddenly start smiling, as though the only thing making them cruel was fear of some external power, as though once this external power was removed everyone would immediately revert back to the simple kind hearted beings they really are inside.

The problem with the final scene is that Luke’s compassion only goes half way. When Vader moves to kill the Emperor, Luke must once again come to his senses: “No! Hatred does not cease by hatred but by love alone is healed!” Vader stops. The Emperor continues zapping, but Luke slowly regains his equanimity, his face and arms twitching now and then to let the audience know that he still feels the pain but is no longer overwhelmed by it. Slowly, as is always the case with unreciprocated wrath and hatred, the Emperor eventually gets tired. When he pauses to catch his breath, a segment of Vader’s armor falls off, as though the magnetic force that held it in place were losing power. When the Emperor begins to shoot again, his lightening is less violent. Luke remains calm and more of Vader’s armor falls away. After several rounds, the Emperor begins to shrink, like the Witch in The Wizard of Oz. He soon transforms into a little spider and starts scurrying away. Vader, now almost entirely transformed back into Anakin, moves to squash the spider, but Luke once again says no: “It is his role to tempt us, and our role to remain vigilant. Let us be careful not to let him grow fat on our fear.” As the little spider disappears from view, the final pieces of Vader fall away. Anakin and Luke embrace.

In The Parallax View, philosopher Slavoj Žižec describes the artistic failure of Revenge of the Sith as follows: “Anakin should have become a monster out of his very excessive attachment to seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it” (Žižec 2009). Žižec’s critique misses the central problem of the entire epic: the hidden Lord of the Sith is not the Evil Emperor at all, nor is the central ethical failure the transformation of Anakin into Vader. The hidden Dark Lord is actually Yoda, who represents the Ego that only maintains an illusion of calm and equanimity by refusing to see its own dark shadow; the Republic is the outward manifestation of this false calm, and the Jedi are the soldiers this Ego uses to maintain its illusion, fighting back against the forces of repressed insight represented by Darth Sidious. At the end of The Phantom Menace, Yoda informs Samuel L. Jackson about the Sith: “Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.” The psychological reason is simple: the repressed insight that is too painful to face directly will always first manifest itself as some lesser insight, some lesser pain that both hides the real problem. Anakin should have been the bridge between the two – equanimity combined with insight – but Yoda is so attached to his social role as self-possessed defender of galactic order that Anakin transforms into the most powerful servant of the Emperor, the embodiment of Yoda’s repressed fear and hatred. The entire saga, meanwhile, should be understood as the spiritual storm through which Yoda is supposed to awaken to the fact that his virtuous Republic is already an Evil Empire, and the final scene of Return of the Jedi should be understood as a failure of insight, when passions of fear and anger succeed in stuffing the horrible truth back into the unconscious, the darkness from which new Sith apprentices will soon begin to emanate, disrupting the false equanimity of Luke, the new Sith/Jedi master.

14 comments:

  1. Hi Joe! It would have been great to see Mark Hamill touch the ground the way Keannu Reeves did after he defeated Mara, but equanimity in the face of one's own illusions is a different thing from equanimity in the face of *actual* lightning bolts. The Emperor had to either *actually* die or undergo a spiritual awakening of his own (perhaps inspired by Skywalker's example) but that seemed quite implausible given the Emperor's character. Your proposed alternative would have required a magical event: the lightning bolts no longer harming Luke. Star Wars wasn't up to that level of storytelling. That Vader could have a turnabout at all, and that Luke could find his convictions (even if they faltered as he neared death) was pretty good, I thought, for modern popular mythology.

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    1. I agree that my alternative conclusion makes no sense given the way the Emperor has been presented. This is my point: the ideas, first, that some entity is the source of all evil, and second, that this entity can and should be violently destroyed, are pernicious spiritual errors that are causing tremendous damage to ourselves and to our world. To put it politically, think of the beautiful dream that inspired/justified the invasion of Iraq: remove the evil dictator and the Iraqi people will immediately transform into wonderful, happy human beings. Think of anarchism, which puts "government" in the position of Evil Emperor and dreams the same beautiful dream. As to the difference between the lightening bolts of one's own illusions and the *actual* lightening bolts the Emperor shoots, I am afraid that I must make a counter-intuitive argument: it makes no difference whether the bolts are real or illusory. I cite Plato as authority: “no one who isn’t totally bereft of reason and courage is afraid to die; doing what’s unjust is what he’s afraid of" (Gorgias, 522e); the definition of injustice, meanwhile, is "the mastery of the soul by anger, fear, pleasure, pain, envy and desires, whether they lead to any actual damage or not" (Laws, 864a). It makes no difference whether the world he lives in is a dream or a reality - it would still be better for Luke to die than to be overcome, as he is, by fear and pain. Finally, my proposed alternative requires no magical event - the lightening bolts continue to harm Luke. His triumph becomes possible through his awareness of the law of impermanence, the fact that all sensations that come into existence will eventually come to an end, such that it it is foolish to react to them with either attachment or aversion. Ultimately, I am arguing that Yoda is also unaware of this, that Yoda is so attached to his dream of building a beautiful Republic that he constantly represses his own dark desires, and that these repressed desires eventually become so powerful that they overwhelm him, transforming his beautiful dream into a nightmare. The conclusion offered at the end of Return of the Jedi succeeds only in re-repressing these dark desires. The actual menace reverts into a phantom menace, and we are destined to experience the same tragic cycle again - only now it will be worse...

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    2. The same Plato that brought us "forms" being cited in a discussion of real and illusory? You're gonna make me cite Nansen!

      I agree that the model of good and evil and justice presented by Star Wars is as you assert, but I can't see rewriting that scene for your desired effect without either using a magical cheat or rewriting the emperor, which could necessitate rewriting the whole series.

      I still think that even presenting the moral dilemma as it did was not too bad given the era it was written (the previous millenium) and audience it was aimed at. A fine pair we make. You seem to be picking on Star Wars because it had the potential to go further while I'm defending it because it went further than I would have thought it had potential to go.

      I would point out that aversion is a kind of attachment, so perhaps "attraction or aversion" would have been a better phrasing, unless you meant something different (in which case I'm ready to have it explained to me).

      Nansen said that everyday mind is the way. It seems to me that everyday mind ultimately allows attachments; fear, anger, desire, the whole schmear.

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    3. I suppose I agree with you about episodes IV, V, and VI - they went as far as they could, given the time they were made. This does not change the fact that the "solution" is wrong. Perhaps I should put it like this: if we lived in an oral culture and I was a bard, I would retell the story of Star Wars in such a way that it could end in the way I described above, and such a retelling would make the story into a better, more truthful guide to the spiritual growth of the members of this culture. Unfortunately, we don't live in an oral culture, so the best I can do is criticize...

      As for Episodes I, II, and III, I agree with Zizec - they are an artistic failure. I did not make this point explicit, but I think this artistic failure can and should be attributed to a spiritual failure on the part of George Lucas: he has not realized that the real enemy is actually Yoda, that the rise of the Empire is the direct result of Yoda's spiritual limitations. Lucas seems to know this, at least unconsciously - or perhaps it is just that the logic of the characters he has created necessitate such a thing. Recall "Attack of the Clones," when the army raised by Yoda to fight the robot army of Lord Grievous turns out to be under the control of Darth Sidious, who uses it to slaughter the Jedi. Everything Yoda does to defeat the Emperor only makes him stronger... this is not because Darth Sidious is some arch-cunning Sith Lord. It is because this is always what happens when you try to defeat evil with violence. Yet Lucas incessantly portrays Yoda and the Jedi as the incarnation of goodness and purity. Lucas almost redeemed himself in this movie: remember how Count Dooku tries to tell Obi Wan and Anakin that the senate is under the control of the Sith, that Yoda is just a pawn. Let me suggest another rewrite for our oral retelling: Dooku should not have been a Sith Lord; he should have been a good guy trying to tell the truth, and Yoda should have killed him anyway, perhaps mistaking him for a Sith Lord, perhaps coming to see Sith Lords everywhere... At the very least, this would provide a more plausible explanation for why Anakin eventually turns to the Dark Side, instead of the ridiculous account Lucas presents us with.)

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  2. So Joe, what is entailed in not repressing our dark desires? Your alternative ending involves repressing the desire to kill the spider, no? Or is it the case that letting this desire out into the open will ultimately deprive it of the power it holds over us, that it only holds sway so long as it is simultaneously repressed?

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    1. I think I am getting this from Nik: the Devil does not begin as a terrible incarnation of evil; at the beginning of the Bible, the Devil is just a little snake, a figure of wisdom. The Devil only transforms into an arch-enemy if you just keep sinning and sinning and sinning, reacting and reacting and reacting. The more you sin, the more terrible the consequences you are inevitably going to have to face. I was reading Origen before I left: he writes that even Judas will eventually be redeemed; the fact that Judas repents and then kills himself is a sign that he still loves the good, that he still feels shame. Unfortunately, the worse you have become, the more unpleasant the path to redemption is going to be.

      Letting the spider go is symbolic of the fact that you cannot control the outside world so as to never be faced with temptation. I think you put it quite well: "letting this desire out into the open will ultimately deprive it of the power if holds over us." In Christian terms (as far as I understand them) the more you sin the more you have to numb yourself to what you have become, and the temptation you will need to face to once again feel that you have a decision, to become a better or worse person, will need to be ever more extreme. Forgive me for the descent into hyperbole, but think of Russell Williams, the rapist murderer commander of CFB Trenton - it took him three years to graduate from stealing underwear to murder. How many times in those three years was he faced with a choice, and how many times did he fail to make the right choice? And those final three years would themselves have been the culmination of what must have been decades of slow and incremental moral collapse. Every failure to resist temptation made the consequences of the next failure worse. At the opposite extreme, the spider of temptation would manifest as a choice between killing or not killing a mosquito - and now that I have written so much, I think I have finally found what I was trying to say: when you let the spider go, he gets smaller and smaller, and you start seeing little tiny choices everywhere. This is the sign that you are becoming better, becoming free.

      Now let me revert to my Buddhist terminology: when the spider bites, you remain aware of the pain without reacting; conversely, when the spider's bite instigates a craving for pleasure, and you think that the only way this terrible craving will go away is when you have consumed the object of your craving, you remain aware of the craving without reacting. The craving will eventually go away. This is what you do when you meditate - when you start feeling a painful sensation or a pleasant sensation, you simply observe it without generating either aversion or attachment. Eventually the sensation goes away...

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  3. I’ve never understood the pseudo-philosophy behind Star Wars. It would seem that a true Jedi knight would win ‘battles’ through acts of nonviolence such as the civil disobedience of MLK or Gandhi, which I think is your point. But, unfortunately, that isn’t nearly as cool as lightsabers. Lol. I mean, Gandhi was a great movie, but I don’t think a lot of Nehru action figures were sold. Hollywood’s answer: who needs philosophy when there is merchandise!

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    1. Which battles in the film are won through violence? Watch carefully and you'll notice that the defenders always win.

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  4. Oh Braden, you cynic! See here!

    http://www.amazon.ca/Little-Giants-Mahatma-Gandhi-Figurine/dp/B007Y39IY0

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  5. Joe, you got me thinking about attachments and detachment and about their connections to suffering, but also to good and evil. I am open to the therapeutic role that detachment can play as long as detachment is a therapy and thus relative to something deeper, that is, attachments that properly go all the way down, attachments like trust, hope and love. This world, be it the world of Star Wars, is the place of ultimate concern. It is in this world that we must think and act. We are attached to it; there is no choice about that. But what is the character of that ultimate attachment and how does it differ from its myriad dissimulations? That is the stuff of both philosophical and religious discernment. One can choose to die in this world and for its good. One can live ever prepared to die rather than to commit an injustice a la Plato's Socrates, but such preparation to die is a form of detachment from those improper attachments that lie at the root of suffering and bespeaks a proper attachment for it is ultimately a preparation in service of the life one prepares to leave. One is willing to die because one is attached in trust, hope and love to something worth dying for. Anyway, that is what your meditation on the moral uni(per)verse of the Star Wars series provoked in my chest, for better or worse.

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  6. When Vader attacked the Emperor, it was motivated by selfless compassion, which is the primary motivation for Jedi and the light side of the force. The dark side is motivated by selfish thirst for power. In sacrificing himself Vader thus redeems himself. If this sounds biblical it's because it's supposed to, Lucas was going for that. Just look at the setting for Anakins fall; Mustafar, a world of fire.

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    1. Yes, true, but Vader's compassion in this case is not selfless. He wouldn't have turned on the emperor if it hadn't been his own son. Vader was a nasty piece of work himself up to that point. Joe's objection is to Star Wars' failure to get beyond that kind of selfish passion, in keeping with the antidualistic Jedi ideals it sets up. I think it's a valid objection but maybe a bit unrealistic to expect a vehicle like Star Wars to accomplish it, or a character like Vader to "awaken" without at least a selfish trigger of some kind.

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