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.