Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reading the Force

How to Interpret a Galaxy

I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself as participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.

- Joseph Campbell
The Power of Myth

Most Star Wars fans should be familiar with the arresting image in Attack of the Clones when Anakin Skywalker both literally and metaphorically takes his first plunge into the abyss of the dark side.

Searching for his mother who has been captured by Tusken Raiders on Tatooine, Anakin is framed on the side of a cliff overlooking their encampment. Crouching against the backdrop of a night sky filled with stars, he is determined to rescue his mother, no matter the cost. When he dives down to the desert below, his black cloak billowing in the wind, the symbolism is ripe for anyone raised in the Western tradition.

Moments before he slaughters the Tusken Raiders in a blind rage, Anakin literally and figuratively falls out of heaven.

The connections between Star Wars and mythology have been well documented, so much so that it is difficult to read an article or editorial about that galaxy far, far away without said connection being pointed out. If the writer or reporter in question has done any homework whatsoever, he may toss the name “Joseph Campbell” around. If he is even more well-versed on the subject, he might even mention the “Hero’s Journey,” Campbell’s oft-quoted phrase that refers to the sequence of events the archetypal characters of myth and legend eternally enact.

While all these connections are accurate, it’s rare that they are ever pushed any further, or that their implications are explored. Everyone has heard a thousand times how George Lucas created Star Wars to fill the void left by the absence of modern myth. Everyone likewise knows he consulted the now classic book by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Those paying closer attention realized that Campbell and Lucas enjoyed their own master and padawan relationship, with Bill Moyers’ hit PBS series The Power of Myth even being filmed at Skywalker Ranch.

Still, Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology encompassed far more than tracing the similar threads that mythic heroes followed. Its implications for how we view Star Wars are likewise far more reaching than simply drawing comparisons between the Skywalkers and various characters out of Greek or Arthurian legend. Perhaps Campbell’s finest contribution to the understanding of myth and religion was his insight that such things were poetry, not prose, and should be read accordingly.

Campbell felt that to interpret the epic stories of East and West alike as ancient newspaper reports chronicling long ago events was to miss the point entirely. Throughout The Power of Myth series, he led the conversation back again and again to the idea that the fantastic language of myth is the language of poetry, a language evoking inner dramas and mysteries rather than outlining outer realities and history. For Campbell, myth was almost synonymous with metaphor, a vocabulary of symbols and images pointing to a living experience perpetually playing out in the collective unconscious of every human mind.

When Star Wars is read as poetry rather than prose, the saga has a remarkable tendency to open up into something richer and more profound (much like it did in my example at the beginning). Entire dimensions of meaning can be teased out of it once one begins taking this “first step into a larger world,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say. This isn’t too revolutionary. As Campbell pointed out, poetry is a language that has to be “penetrated,” because it offers “implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves.” A competent poet uses his verse to echo beyond itself, doing in words what a painter does when he uses a vanishing point to give the illusion of three dimensions on what is really a flat surface.

Too many critics dismiss Star Wars without taking this step, and so never come to terms with everything the saga has to offer. This is equally true of a lot of things in the Western cultural canon, particularly poetry. Despite modern resistance to verse, however, it really is the language humanity has been speaking since the dawn of civilization.

Myth has almost always been expressed in poetry, dating back to Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian epic credited as the world’s first story. When Homer told the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath, poetry was his vehicle of choice, and that’s true of his imitator Virgil as well when he spun his tale of Rome’s founding. Our own English tongue produced its original Beowulf in the verse of an unknown bard. This is to say nothing of Dante and Milton who, like Lucas, told their own myths of love and war, fall and redemption.

Regardless of complaints about “wooden” dialogue, it seems only logical that if Star Wars is going to be regarded as modern myth, it’s only half a step away from being regarded as poetry. This isn’t arguing execution (which could be argued forever), so much as intent and style. There are certain criteria that make a poem a poem, and the rest of this essay is going to revolve around whether or not our favorite space opera does indeed fit said criteria.

On a very basic level, there is a certain ineffable, immediate quality that imbues poetry with all its force (or in this case, Force). Emily Dickinson summed it up perfectly when she said “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” All I can personally say is that when I first saw the Millennium Falcon blast into lightspeed when I was four years old, I physically felt as if the top of my head had been taken off, and that was that.

It seems doubtful that anyone still reading this doesn’t know exactly what I’m talking about. The very first time a Star Destroyer thundered overhead, bickering droids made their way down a corridor, an armored dark lord of the Sith stepped into that same corridor moments later, a young boy stood dreaming in front of setting twin suns, a humming blue lightsaber activated … the list is endless. All of these images forever imprinted on my psyche, bringing an entire universe to life in their wake. The sheer electricity generated by such moments cannot be rationally explained any more than the best poetry can. As Dickinson remarked, they can only be intuitively experienced.

Beyond this simple emotional recognition, poetry also evokes a rhythmic quality. This is a quality shared by myth, and it is explored in great depth by Mircea Eliade. In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade defines myth as an “indefinite repetition of archetypes,” citing countless examples of primitive people who enacted the same rites and rituals over and over again. Rather than the linear, progressive view of history embraced by the Western world, archaic societies lived in a “sacred history” dictated by endlessly repeated mythic patterns.

Star Wars operates in much the same way, and this has become especially apparent with the completion of the prequel trilogy. In the great DVD documentary The Beginning, George Lucas himself states that his saga is likewise a repetition of archetypes. At one point the Great Flannelled One tells his film crew that young Anakin’s destruction of the Trade Federation ship is purposefully juxtaposed with Luke’s direct hit on the Death Star. “It’s like poetry, they rhyme,” Lucas explains, nicely demonstrating that I’m not just making all this stuff up. He says of the films that “every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.”

So the archetypal beats and mythic rhythms of Star Wars are intentional, which would explain why they are everywhere, woven into the very fabric of the Skywalker saga. In particular, the prequel and original trilogies contain many images that mirror what has or what will happen.

For instance, when the prequel trilogy begins, there are only two remaining Sith, a master and an apprentice. They are in hiding, confined to the shadows after their order has been destroyed. When the original trilogy opens, the situation has almost completely reversed itself, with only two surviving Jedi in hiding. They are also master and apprentice (or at least they started out that way). The master is introduced in the proverbial ivory tower in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant in the prequels, only to have fallen all the way to the swampy lowlands of Dagobah by the time the original trilogy unfolds. The Sith have conversely ascended to power, with the Emperor occupying a tower on the second Death Star that mirrors its Jedi counterpart.

Even the initial battles of the two trilogies echo each other, with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi bursting through a smoke-filled corridor attacking battle droids, in much the same way as Darth Vader and his stormtroopers do when fighting rebel troops. Likewise, the final battles of the first and the last film feature Sith lords plummeting to their doom down those bottomless reactor shafts that seem to litter the galaxy. And in both trilogies, there is a young Skywalker to be recruited to one of the opposing sides of the Force.

Beyond their childhoods on Tatooine, Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s paths clearly mirror one another throughout. In the second film of each trilogy, both lose a hand to a Sith lord in a lightsaber battle. When Anakin attempts to turn his son to the dark side, he threatens his attachment to Han and Leia in much the same way as Palpatine exploited his love for Padme. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s face is half-obscured by shadow in Palpatine’s office when he turns to the dark side, much like Luke’s is in Return of the Jedi in the Death Star throne room. Yet as we all know, Anakin picks his lightsaber back up, as opposed to Luke, who slings his away. And when the end of the last trilogy comes, it is the humanizing son who unmasks the father, in contrast with the impersonal machine that first masked him three films prior.

And of course, all the characters “have a bad feeling” about something at one point or another, that vague sense of existential unease lingering in the rhythms of the Force.

But beyond all this, poetry is first and foremost that which transcends its own words, that which always says more than is apparent at first glance. This plays out quite well in A New Hope when old Obi-Wan tells Luke about his father’s fate. When he remarks that Vader “betrayed and murdered” his father, he was of course speaking poetically. During the conversation on Dagobah in Return of the Jedi, he makes the metaphor explicit by admitting that when Anakin adopted the Vader mantle, the good man who was Anakin was “destroyed.” The literal-minded Luke obviously didn’t get the memo that he was in an epic poem, hence the shock of the “I am your father” proclamation.

Poetry, much like Obi-Wan, always operates from “a certain point of view,” containing a flexibility not to be found in prose. Yet because of this, it is very difficult to do much more than scratch the surface of a poem during the first reading. The same is really true of Star Wars, which no doubt so dazzles critics with special effects on their first and often only viewing they sometimes find little else about it to recommend. In the final part of this essay, this interpretive theory will be put to the test by another scene from Attack of the Clones.

Toward the end of that film, Anakin and Padme travel to Geonosis to save Obi-Wan from the fallen Jedi Count Dooku. Both committed to their respective duties of Jedi and Senator, the two have dismissed their romantic feelings for one another, despite the fact that the audience knows their repressed love must bring the twins of the original trilogy into being. Joseph Campbell would have defined this as the “refusal of the call” to adventure, this particular adventure being to awaken certain aspects of their psyches and open them up to a larger emotional experience.

One criticism of the film is the sudden coming together of Anakin and Padme at the end, yet part of their love story is symbolically enacted and worked out during a scene added after the close of production. After being chased out of a cavern by swarming Geonosians, the two find themselves overlooking a vast droid factory, only to be nearly devoured by it. While mostly computer-generated, the adventure through the factory brings them exactly where they need to be to usher a new hope into the galaxy.

As Joseph Campbell stated in The Power of Myth interviews, the “refusal of the summons converts the adventure into the negative.” The refusal of relationship between Anakin and Padme mythically means that what they won’t experience positively, they are going to experience negatively. When the floor retracts from under their feet this fall not only represents their failure, but also “rhymes” with their offspring when they will successfully swing across their own chasm in the Death Star a few films (or stanzas) later.

Campbell also notes in Power how the setting of the story is often a kind of symbolic manifestation of where the characters are internally, and so in this case Anakin and Padme find themselves trapped on the endless conveyor belts of a factory. They have been tossed into a mechanistic world, with “machines making machines” in an almost automated parody of reproduction. After stifling the natural love that would have bloomed between them, they have split their heads from their hearts, and their minds from their bodies.

Surely C-3PO’s eventual decapitation in all the chaos is commentary on this split.

One of Campbell’s favorite motifs out of Native American myth was the “refusal of the suitors,” tales usually starring eligible young women who reject any and all potential mates who try to gain their favor. This motif plays out a little with Padme (as well as with Leia later), who has lulled a part of herself asleep. After all, earlier in the film, she literally was asleep in her quarters on Coruscant, only to wake up when Anakin jumped onto her bed with his lightsaber flashing.

Sometimes a lightsaber is just a lightsaber, but the borderline Freudian imagery continues in the factory when Padme struggles with another Geonosian only to fall into a large, cup-like container. She is carted off against her will by one of the automated machines, whisked away into another part of the factory that looks as though she’s passing through the jaws of hell. The cup is a timeworn feminine symbol, and hers is about to be filled with burning, molten liquid spilling out of a large nozzle. As always, R2-D2 is quietly and efficiently working behind the scenes, the little droid saving her from the symbolism at the last second.

Meanwhile, Anakin is having his own problems. After dispatching several more Geonosians, he still falls prey to machinery, an automated arm knocking him down onto a conveyor belt. His own arm is snared and nearly welded down to a mechanism, rhyming and foreshadowing the years he will spend as “more machine” than man. His failure to woo Padme is reflected in his lightsaber hilt that is neatly split in half, emasculating imagery if ever there was any.

After the two survive all this, is it really a surprise when they pledge themselves to each other in the next scene?

Of course, some will argue Lucas was just trying to sell more video games with yet another generic action scene. Maybe he was, but for me, that’s a really boring interpretation. As the Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote, not only do we “half-perceive” the world, but we “half-create” it too. This holds as true for us when we sit down with a book of nineteenth century verse as it does when we break out the popcorn and slide a Star Wars DVD into the Playstation. At the end of the day, we’re creating the experience as much as having it, so why not make it as interesting as possible?

That has always been my mantra when it comes to interpreting Star Wars, and continues to be. “Your focus determines your reality” isn’t just a trendy Jedi aphorism, after all. From a certain point of view, Star Wars really is the epic poem of our modern age, taking the timeless themes of mythology and weaving them throughout a vast universe that we’re only beginning to learn how to live in. At its best, it teaches us how to think in multiple dimensions as opposed to only one, and simultaneously turns our eyes to the stars.

Like any good poetry, Star Wars offers a lens through which we can view not only the world from a different vantage point, but also the deep, abiding mystery that is ourselves.

* Also available at TheForcecast

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