Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Master - Sneak Preview

The first round of review copies of The Star Wars Heresies book should be making their way toward various bloggers and podcasters and the like. My own blog seems a good place to offer even more of a taste for what the text actually reads like, so I plan on doing a little promotional campaign with excerpts from part one over the coming months.

The book itself is divided into three parts, with each section dedicated to Episodes I and II and III respectively. Aside from an overarching theme for each film, chapters are based on a single character, delving into whatever themes, symbols, and philosophies may best be dissected using them as a template. Needless to say, Qui-Gon Jinn has proven to be a rich character all the way around, so here is a healthy except from Chapter Two – The Master:

     Playing as ambassadors to the Chancellor of the Republic, Qui-Gon is one of ten thousand Jedi Knights operating in the galaxy when The Phantom Menace begins. Sent to negotiate with the Trade Federation blockading Naboo, he and his padawan learner, one Obi-Wan Kenobi, find themselves embroiled in the middle of a full-scale invasion. Yet before lightsabers are ignited against the Federation's battle droids, the two Jedi engage in a bit of philosophy on the enormous control ship, opening up a pivotal window into their relationship.
     Acknowledging his padawan's existential unease about the situation, Qui-Gon calmly advises, "Don't center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs." This not only begins to highlight the sense of discord between Qui-Gon and a Jedi Order either mired in the past or gazing towards an uncertain future, it also firmly establishes a certain view of the galaxy.
     Qui-Gon's mind is not one that anxiously gnaws at the hours, grasping at time in a futile attempt to control its flow. His enormous sense of presence throughout the film is symptomatic of one able to settle into the moment and be content. In “The Lost Dimension of Religion,” Paul Tillich outlines the importance of this approach.
     "No one can experience depth without stopping and becoming aware of himself," the Protestant theologian writes, reflecting, "Only if he has moments in which he does not care about what comes next can he experience the meaning of this moment here and now and ask himself about the meaning of his life."
     Yet Obi-Wan takes the Jedi Council's tagline, arguing for Yoda's insistence on looking to the future. "But not at the expense of the moment," Qui-Gon evenly replies. "Be mindful of the Living Force, my young padawan." After all, contemplation of the future is itself an event in the present, this moment really containing all the others. Hence William Blake’s phrase, “Eternity opens from the centre of an atom.”
     Mindfulness of the Living Force is another phrase of deep significance, as it conjures up insights with Buddhist-flavored associations. While "mindfulness" is slowly becoming something of a catchphrase, its original meaning encompassed far more than simply paying attention.
     The twelfth century founder of Soto Zen, Dogen wrote an enormous book known as Shobogenzo. In it, he defined mindfulness as an attribute of everything. From this point of view, Qui-Gon isn't simply talking person-to-person. Like the Force itself, mindfulness flows through everything, binding it together, including Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, the droids on the ship, the ship itself, and even the surrounding stars and space.
     Of course, aside from intuition and the present moment, the Living Force also involves empathy with all living creatures. After evading the battle droids, Qui-Gon and his apprentice stow aboard Federation landing ships and wind up on the beautiful green world of Naboo, where many such creatures live. Unfortunately for some fans, this includes a duck-billed creature that bumbles a lot and speaks in a high-pitched form of galactic pig-latin.
     After inadvertently saving his life, Qui-Gon finds himself entangled with a Gungan named Jar Jar Binks. While initially wondering whether the babbling alien amphibian is "brainless," he soon feels out a current of possibility winding through the Force. Convinced he needs to make contact with the Republic Chancellor, Qui-Gon convinces Jar Jar to take them to his hidden underwater city. This begins a trend where the master sees potential in a moment where others only see "pathetic lifeforms."
     In the wondrous bubble-city of Otoh Gunga, Qui-Gon gains council with Boss Nass, the big, boisterous Gungan leader. After appealing for help to warn the Naboo, he meets resistance and, only after a Force-inspired wave of the hand does he win a transport, not to mention a dubious navigator through the planet's core. The luckless, banished Jar Jar is set to be executed, but Qui-Gon gets a mischievous twinkle in his eye and saves his life a second time.
     The passage through Naboo's watery core not only showcases some stunning CGI sea creatures, it also speaks volumes about the Jedi master.
     Constantly exuding a Zen-like calm, Qui-Gon sits in the back of the bongo transport which his apprentice deftly maneuvers. No matter whether it's an opee sea killer or a giant colo claw fish anxious to devour them, he keeps his cool, which is humorously juxtaposed against Jar Jar's growing hysteria. Even lost or in a sinking ship with no power, Qui-Gon's simple answer is, "Just relax. The Force will guide us." This establishes another trend.
     As mentioned in the chapter on the Force, in one of Alan Watts' countless lectures on Zen, he remarked how the "universe is like water." Letting go of his own fears and desires, Qui-Gon floats through the galaxy with ease, open and alert to whatever and wherever the Force wills. This continues when, even on the backwater planet of Tatooine with no money and no power supply for their ship, he meets the situation with measured calm, always assured that "another solution will present itself."
     And it always does.
     Moving without effort in the invisible currents of the Force, Qui-Gon always seems to arrive where he needs to be when he needs to be there. Sometimes even the galaxy around him gives the appropriate nudge to the journey, as when the sando aqua monster rises from the depths of Naboo and twice devours the sea creatures attacking them. This also yields one of the most prophetic lines in the film.
     Gazing out the back of the transport, Qui-Gon knowingly, and wryly, observes, "There's always a bigger fish."

As I note early in the chapter, “The unbound patterns of the Force are what he sees and follows, navigating them as skillfully as a mariner does the tides.” And if you want to read more, it just so happens there’s a link –

Friday, September 6, 2013

May The Heresies Be WIth You

An epic two years in the making, The Star Wars Heresies: Interpreting the Themes, Symbols, and Philosophies of EpisodesI, II, and III is available for your reading enjoyment. My copies arrived in the mail a day or so ago, and they are very, very handsome books. They even have my name on them and everything, which is pretty nifty.

Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but the content is pretty terrific as well. It’s full of chapters and paragraphs, not to mention words and sentences. Plus I feel fairly confident it will be changing the way you view the prequels, Star Wars, and perhaps even some of life in general. After perusing the first part, it seems to me the Heresies will be setting the gold standard for Star Wars criticism for some time to come. As it says right there on the back cover, “In the classic style of Joseph Campbell,” and honestly, I don’t think it disappoints.

My only reason for writing this was that I felt I could truly provide a fresh, unique perspective on what has been a substantial part of popular culture over the past decade or so. As maligned as they are, the prequels simply aren’t going away. So for anyone ready to step past the bored, tired, exhausting, and exhausted “Lucas ruined my childhood” victimization of that lowest of all common denominators criticism, namely the Internet, this is something new and dynamic and substantial. This is the thinking fan’s kind of criticism, one that offers a first bold step into an infinitely larger world.

But perhaps it’s best to let the book finally speak for itself, so here’s an offering from my draft of the preface –      

     No matter how often or enthusiastically a global audience embraces Star Wars, there is a substantial contingent of people who believe there is very little profundity to be found beyond all the special effects and computer-generated imagery. Some of them even count themselves among fandom. The classic films may have contained a mythic footnote here and a tidbit from Eastern philosophy there, but certainly nothing worthy of scholarly study. And absolutely, positively nothing when it comes to the prequels and beyond, where many have argued Lucas has lost his filmmaking abilities and is only trying to cash in on his long ago glory days. 
     Indeed, for all the critics, bashers, and second-guessers who have spent a decade or more congratulating each other on their complete and utter inability to ferret anything of substance or depth out of the prequel trilogy, a book revealing all the themes, motifs, symbols, and philosophies contained within it is probably one of the blackest heresies imaginable …      

     While understandably reticent regarding his own press, George Lucas made a telling statement during an interview recorded by the Star Wars Insider magazine regarding the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. “If criticism were the kind of analysis it was meant to be in the first place – as it is in other arts, where you have literate, sophisticated people, who are knowledgeable – then it would be worthwhile to listen to it,” he remarked, adding to the critics, “To have them rant and rave about their personal feelings is a waste of my time.” I find this really intriguing for a couple of reasons. 
     To begin with, Lucas himself very clearly delineates between two types of criticism. The first is scholarly, studied, and refined; the latter is mostly personal opinion and knee jerk reaction. More often than not, Star Wars has been subjected to the latter – especially the prequels – while Lucas tellingly identifies the former as the most important. As we will see, this is where Star Wars really lives and breathes. 
     For another, the format of the films practically demands scholarly interpretation. As much as Star Wars was influenced by the matinee serials and space opera comic strips that Lucas devoured as a child, it is also heavily based on mythology, owing a particular debt to the works of one scholar. 
     This connection has been documented to the point of cliché, 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 journalist 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 eternally enact. 
     While all these connections are accurate, it’s rare that they are ever pushed any further, or that their implications are deeply 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 classic book by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Those paying closer attention realize 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 far richer and more profound than usual. One of the classic examples I like to use is the scene from Episode II: Attack of the Clones when Anakin Skywalker is searching for his mother who has been captured by Tusken Raiders on Tatooine, and he is framed on the side of a cliff overlooking their encampment. Crouching against the backdrop of a night sky filled with stars, he suddenly dives down to the desert below, his black cloak billowing in the wind. Moments later he will be consumed by the dark side, as his mother dies in his arms and he slaughters the Tusken Raiders in a blind rage. 
     The poetic imagery is ripe for anyone familiar with the Western tradition. In one brief scene, Lucas shows us Anakin – potentially the Jedi Knight who will shine the brightest –  literally and figuratively falling out of heaven. 
     Entire dimensions of new meaning can be teased out of Star Wars by reading it like this, by taking this “first step into a larger world,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Episode IV: A New Hope. This isn’t as revolutionary as it might seem. 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 criticisms of Lucas’ writing, it seems only logical that if Star Wars is going to be regarded as modern myth, which everyone seems eager to do, it’s only half a step away from being regarded as poetry. This isn’t therefore a book arguing about the prequels’ execution, as much as their intent and style. 
     It seems relevant to point out that Lucas himself identified with this kind of analysis on a great DVD documentary. While in preproduction for The Phantom Menace at Skywalker Ranch, he informed his film crew that young Anakin’s destruction of the Trade Federation ship is purposefully juxtaposed with his son Luke’s direct hit on the Death Star. “It’s like poetry, they rhyme,” Lucas explains, saying of the films that “every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” This nicely demonstrates that the archetypal beats and mythic rhythms of Star Wars are intentional, particularly the parallel images that mirror what has or will happen between one trilogy and the next. 
     In The Two Hands of God, philosopher Alan Watts offers one of the best interpretations of myth that I’ve ever heard: “The point is, I think, that myth is to be distinguished from religion, science, and philosophy because it consists always of concrete images, appealing to imagination, and serving in one way or another to reveal or explain the mysteries of life. Yet there is a sense in which both the poetic and the mythic image at once reveal and conceal. The meaning is divined rather than defined, implicit rather than explicit, suggested rather than stated.” 
     To again put this into a Star Wars context, its like when Obi-Wan tells Luke about his father’s fate in A New Hope. When he remarks that Vader “betrayed and murdered” his father, he was of course speaking poetically. During the conversation on Dagobah in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, he makes the metaphor explicit by admitting that when Anakin adopted the mantle of Darth Vader, the good man who was Anakin was “destroyed.” The literal-minded Luke clearly didn’t get the memo that he was in an epic poem, hence the shock of the “I am your father” proclamation. 
     In other words, Star Wars really calls for a certain creative interaction, an imaginative interpretation, with and from its audience. This book is meant to establish that foundation as something both relevant and fascinating.

In short, this is hopefully going to change the way we view a lot of things, polishing off that familiar lens through which we see the world and making it feel new and vibrant again. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Being published by an academic press, my tome is rather expensive. But the more I mull it over, the more I realize it’s not really that bad. $40 will get two people as far as dinner and a movie in the real world, and this is a lot more to digest. Unless of course you go to a value cinema, in which case you may get off a bit cheaper, but then you’re going to wind up with lousy concession stand food and probably exceptionally sticky floors. My point is, just check out my book anyway.

I can personally vouch for McFarland. Not only do they produce first rate looking books, I also had the pleasure of meeting with them at Dragoncon last weekend. While a simple man working in a library, Jocasta Nu-style, I still managed to drop almost $200 at their booth. Their work is, quite simply, fantastic. This is everything pop culture should be and more.

It would please me to think the Heresies continues this tradition.