Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Gazing

To write anything at this late stage about the new Star Wars movie is to confront the mathematical certainty that any observation one can make has already been done to death somewhere else, and probably made into a GIF. Let’s just say that, thanks to a half-beer drunk with dinner before the movie and my Jawa-sized alcohol tolerance, I was utterly defenseless against the torrent of nostalgia-mongering that was unleashed inside that theater. “Look! It’s Chewy!” “Look, it’s C-3PO!” “Are they really going to pack a confrontation with the new Death Star into the remaining fifteen minutes? Yes they are!” – I was ravished. On the way out the door I hung on the necks of my family members like a dead thing, saying: “I’ll never experience anything like that again in my life…” And I won’t, of course. There is no Third Coming. The Messiah can only disappear and reappear so many times before he kills his own suspense, and now I suppose Star Wars has become just another franchise, rather than the quasi-scriptural artifact from the impossibly distant past of 1977 that it was to those of us who grew up on it in the Nineties. For that small period of time in the movie theater, though, I was translated into a higher realm—the fact that the audience cheered the opening title crawl and someone said “May the Force be with us” as the lights dimmed heightened the sense of collective transcendence.

Now, in the sober light of day, it seems to me more like just a very good movie, and this remains my judgment on it. Even as I was watching, after all, I could spot the potential lines of critique that one could pursue, if one really did want to write the holier-than-thou let-down review -- I just didn’t mind them. “Are they seriously starting this movie with another droid lost on a desert planet bearing a secret message that beeps and boops and is plainly just R2-D2 except with bigger eyes and a smaller body and otherwise with its cuteness factor blatantly jacked by a factor of ten? – Yes, they are, and I like it.” Or: “Why can’t the First Order just turn the deflector shield back on again?” (Actually—I didn’t notice that second one, a friend did.) Yes, Jakku is just Tatooine and the big Death Star thing is just a big Death Star – but I accept it all.

Some things I genuinely was not fond of. I am annoyed by the new villain, and the film's contrast in this regard with the original trilogy could not be more poignant. As a child, I was deeply invested in the redemption arc of Darth Vader: it was so plain to me that he was the coolest character, and so it was a source of internal moral dissonance for me that he was also a villain – until, at last, he wasn’t, and the tension was resolved. “Kylo Ren,” on the other hand, is such a whining and whinging sort of nuisance already – who also really, let’s face it, reminds one altogether too much of Adam Driver – that my child-self (and current self) hardly sees him as a worthy acquisition for the forces of good.

What was it then that worked about the film? Was it purely the appeal to nostalgia? I can’t rule that out as a possibility, but I was well hooked before we had gotten to the Han and Chewy reveal or any other outward sign, beyond the title crawl, that this was anything more than just a particularly deft Star Wars knock-off.

I find it more plausible to suppose that the emotional trip-wire for me was the plain goodness and decency of the main characters. These were protagonists who did the right thing and who cared about one another, while also displaying fears and vulnerabilities. This was a brave choice to make in an era when irony gets such easy laughs. Whenever they were faced with a choice between cornball and screwball, the screenwriters went for the former, and this was far more in keeping with the spirit of the original trilogy.

The result was that the film had none of the slick nihilism and sadism of a movie like, say, Guardians of the Galaxy. The only moment that bordered on the latter mood was our heroes’ debate over “what to do” with the captured storm trooper commander – Captain Phasma – but this was a minor note in the emotional texturing of the film. For the most part, the protagonists in this film obeyed the private rules to which I hold all unambiguous movie heroes, behaving in such a way that reveals them to be capable of self-doubt, magnanimous in victory, and always willing to forgive the truly penitent (even for the small offense of, say, blowing up five planets).


Of course, it is fair to question the wisdom of portraying characters in such a stark and unambiguous moral light – especially when they are contrasted in a dualistic way with an opposite agency of pure evil, which is composed of faceless and remorseless automatons fit only for destruction. The real world does not, after all, contain such sharply-hewn distinctions. In our galaxy, rebel alliances and resistance armies torture and massacre people just as empires do, and if one day humanity destroys its own planet by means of catastrophic weapons, it would very likely be done by people who believe themselves to be fighting on the side of “good.” In real life, villains don’t announce themselves with ugly masks and they generally don’t realize that theirs is the “dark side." Moreover, the armies they recruit are not made up of faceless men who are as guilty and driven as they, but of child recruits and conscripts and the victims of psychological manipulation. These are important things for adults to know about the world, and perhaps it is dangerous for us to pretend that reality is any different, even in a film that is – much as we all hate to admit it – ultimately intended for children.

It ought to trouble us at this point that Robert Lifton, writing of extreme religious movements, notes that more than one of these groups displayed a marked interest in the Star Wars films -- especially the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. The observation leads Lifton to abstract and recapitulate some of the elements of the films that persistently appeal to followers of totalistic movements:
“[I]n the Star Wars films," he writes, "we encounter [...] human and nonhuman societies in crisis, planets threatened by robot weapons or doomsday machines. In both there are strong apocalyptic elements: ever-recurring struggles between absolute good and absolute evil, near-total destruction of societies or worlds, followed by renewal and the continuation of a mission. If the protagonists of Star Trek and Star Wars have families somewhere, they are generally free of them on our screens, functioning as elite teams that themselves constitute self-created, technologically transcendent families.”
Lifton here writes as someone who missed the boat, generationally speaking, on Star Wars, and perhaps even as someone whose first and only encounter with the movies took place in the context of researching the role they played in the warped cosmologies of doomsday cults, which is not the most felicitous place to encounter any icon of pop culture. However, he raises some important concerns about the type of stark worldview the films foster. It is certainly arresting, after all, to learn that Aum Shinrikyo, a terrorist entity that actually sought to acquire world-ending weapons in recent memory and managed to detonate toxic gas on a public subway with the aim of killing hundreds of innocent people, was inspired to do so in part by a film depicting an heroic resistance waged against a nemesis so heartless that it destroys an entire planet. I assume moreover that in their own minds, Aum was the Rebel Alliance, not Grand Moff Tarkin, for all the ironies involved in such an identification.

The Star Wars devotee will no doubt find Lifton's lack of faith disturbing. Do not, we ask, the films play a valuable role in our collective psyche, even if we admit that they should not constitute the sum and conclusion of our moral education?

I believe Bruno Bettelheim would defend the Star Wars films on just this score, at least as being helpful to children of a particular developmental stage. Writing in The Uses of Enchantment of some of the notoriously grisly endings that close the classic fairy tales-- the fact that the witch in "Snow White" is made to don red-hot iron shoes and dance to the death, for example-- he defends these apparently vindictive plot-lines on the grounds of psychological necessity. Children, he argues, first learn to comprehend the clash of right and wrong principles  through stories of conflicts between good and evil people. The endings to these stories that seem cruel from an adult perspective, especially if we imagine them being directed against a real person, are in the context of a fairy tale only a symbolic defeat of evil personified. Bettelheim insists that children require this sort of concrete illustration, which allows them to externalize their own inner capacity for wrongdoing or feelings of rage onto imagined objects of pure malice that therefore do not undermine their sense of self, in order to develop an initial sense of right and wrong.

Bettelheim may be right about the absolutist moral outlook of children, but I believe he is all wrong in his emphasis on punishment. Precisely what made the hero totally good in the way he or she needed to be, in my own dualistic mind as a child, was that the hero never punished anyone once he had the villain in custody. That is to say, he never inflicted violence gratuitously, in excess of what was minimally necessary to foil some particular evil plan. The true hero in my childhood scheme would never hits anyone when he’s down -- unlike the protagonists of Bettelheim’s fairy tales, who sometimes pack their adversaries into barrels or harry them with wild beasts even after they’ve inherited the kingdom and married the prince.

This wasn’t because, as a child, I had any developed moral sense of the humanity I shared even with “villains,” nor any sustained suspicion that the world might include intermediate shades of behavior between that of heroism and villainy. Rather, I had an essentially Augustinian concern with the effect of immoral actions on the agent and was, again like Augustine, fairly indifferent to what the consequences to the subject of those actions might be. This is well illustrated by the fact that I had no objection at all to seeing the closing formula (now worked to death in Disney films) in which the villain gets his comeuppance at the end of the movie by a sort of force majeure -- act of shark, say, or of slippery roof à la Bill Sikes -- due in no part to the actions of the hero, or even in spite of the hero’s efforts at magnanimity. The greedy pirate sinking his own raft with excess treasure, the Nazi refusing Indiana Jones’ proffered hand and throwing herself into a chasm in pursuit of the holy grail, and the rapacious lion being devoured by his own hyena all seemed like perfectly satisfactory ways to me of settling accounts.

The truth of Bettelheim’s remark, though, is that the stark contests between totalized and abstracted forces -- including of the sort that appear in the Star Wars movies-- are useful to children in their first efforts to conceptualize good and evil. More than that, those first encounters with abstracted notions of good and evil can actually provide a foundation for a more forgiving and nuanced moral outlook later on– one that recognizes the ambivalence in oneself and others – rather than posing a threat to it in the way that Lifton implies. After all, one has first to develop a sense of right and wrong before it can mean anything to know the potential for wrong within oneself, or the capacity for right in one’s adversaries.

In part through the stylized clash between the “Rebel Alliance,” which fights for justice and never tortures anyone nor kills civilians to achieve its aims, and the “Empire,” which deliberately ends entire worlds simply to prove its power, those of us who grew up on Star Wars were assisted in developing some rudimentary sense of morality. We learned that it is wrong to persecute the weak and vulnerable (“No! Alderaan is peaceful, we have no weapons!”), that strength is no virtue unless it is directed to creative and compassionate ends, that “hate leads to suffering,” etc., and that – if nothing else – it is wrong to destroy a planet. No doubt many of us grew up associating the Rebels with our own pluralistic and democratic society, and the Empire with fascism and other forms of totalitarianism.

With such moral tools in hand, perhaps later on it troubled us to learn that our own democratic society had dropped incendiary weapons on thousands of innocent people in Japan and Germany, that it had carpet-bombed people in Vietnam and Cambodia, that in our own brief lifetimes it had inflicted horrendous losses of life in the Persian Gulf – in short, that from many quite plausible perspectives, the obvious analog to the United States in the Star Wars films were not the Bothans and the Ewoks, but the arrogant imperial armies wreaking deliberate cruelty on defenseless alien worlds. Perhaps in our adolescence we repudiated sharply our own societies as a result. We still identified as “Rebels,” but now it was our own government that was constructing the Death Star.

And some time after that, perhaps we learned to see the dark side even in ourselves, and this forced us to confront the fact that we could not split ourselves off as "pure" from the flawed society that had reared us. Perhaps we came to understand that even the men who engineered our country’s most murderous policies were not so different from us – that they too believed themselves to be in a pitched battle against a total adversary. Maybe we even saw that when villainy does appear in the world it regards itself as heroism, and that it is not always easy for any of us to tell the difference. At the end of the process, we see that we could become Grand Moff Tarkin ourselves in the wrong circumstances, and that he could have been us.

We arrive, then, at a place very far removed from totalism, but if we had never developed a stark moral sense in the first place we could never have attained it. If we did not learn early on that what the “Empire” does is evil – if we never had a clear sense of what evil was – we would never have been able to see evil in our own society’s actions and history, or within ourselves, and so would have been incapable of seeing goodness in those who oppose us.

The problem, though, is when this process never advances beyond the first stage. Robert Lifton, after all, wasn’t writing about children devoted to Star Wars; he was writing about adults who belonged to fanatical and, ultimately, murderous movements. These were people who never stopped believing that their enemy was an “Empire” of the sort depicted in Star Wars, and let us examine what that means once more.

A New Hope, like The Force Awakens, depicts the Death Star as a military entity staffed exclusively by adult men in uniform, who appear to have no families or children, who display no remorse or hesitation at the massive acts of destruction they commit, and who die without weeping or cries for mercy (at least so far as the audience can see). To a child, evil “externalized” in this way is a useful illustration of what wrongdoing looks like—the soldiers and bureaucrats of the Empire need to be portrayed as “inhuman” so that a child is reassured that a life lived in pursuit of power and cruelty is unworthy of humanity. Similarly stormtroopers can't be shown to be afraid of death, because our heroes cannot be depicted as willingly causing anyone pain, even in the course of fighting a just war.

When such abstractions become confused with reality, however, we are all in danger.  Outside the realms of fiction, even fascists beg for pity before being shot and even Osama Bin Laden had children. When adults forget this – or never learn it – they because truly deadly. It is precisely the belief that one’s opponents are pure evil that allows us to engage in pure evil.

Here, then, is the ultimate irony: when empires and rebel alliances in the real world do carry out their atrocities, they do it thinking that they are destroying Death Stars, not that they are blowing up Alderaans. And if such empires and rebel alliances do manage to get their hands on the catastrophic weapons that exist in this, our galaxy, they could fulfill in reality the extreme and exaggerated threat presented in the Star Wars films of deliberately annihilating entire civilizations. Let my tongue cling to my mouth if I should forget thee, O Alderaan, for where you have gone we might well follow.


In a sense, the stars that hang above us in the night sky do actually show us what happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” for it takes a long time for light from those galaxies to reach us. I am reminded too of a poem by Louis MacNeice written on the subject of that distant light, traveling across innumerable parsecs and through inconceivable aeons to reach us. The poem ends:

“I mark that what
Light was leaving some […]
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive.”

I too am afraid that when news of those galaxies far, far away does reach us, we will have done to our planet what the Empire did to Alderaan, thinking all the time we were fighting the "Dark Side," and will not be left to see it.

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