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 clich√©, 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.

16 comments:

  1. Awesome, and I just linked people to the book in the latest article.

    By the way, does this mean my review copy is coming soon? *smiles innocently*

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    1. I saw that, and appreciate! One of these days, I'm going to print out all your articles and read them one by one, as deserved. As for review copies, let me know when you do. I don't know that anyone has gotten anything yet, besides me.

      P.S. If you're on Facebook, friend me. That's where a lot of this info goes down.

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    2. Alas, I have sworn off facebook. It's just not my scene. My wife made me a page so she could tag me in photos, but I pretend it doesn't exist. I don't even think I remember the password...

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    3. As for review copies, I just fired off an email to the person in charge of that at McFarland. As far as I know, no one has gotten their copy yet ....

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    1. I'll take that woo and raise you a hoo. Really hope you like. And when you get your copy, let me know as well!

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  3. My order on amazon.ca (which I've had open since February) updated about a week ago with a "late October" date. That still seems to hold it in a "not right now" time for me, but hearing an update from you does make it feel a bit closer. The excerpt from the introduction is also welcome. I had to ask myself "what other 'poetry' have I experienced?", but it does perhaps resonate with a thought of my own, that modern fans are very good at seeing works as "documentaries" from some other place (and some of them can even believe those "documentaries" have been creatively edited to make the bad guys look worse than they really are), but not that great at thinking that what they see might represent something else or even more...

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    1. Well said, Keith. As noted, I'm not sure what the situation is with amazon. I know McFarland is shipping stuff now, or they should be. The release dates have been all over the place, but now is the time to stay on target, stay on target.

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  4. Hey Paul, has McFarland talked to you about doing a "book trailer"? They're kind of cheesy, but it seems like it'd be pretty simple to drop a youtube link into any forum thread, message board post, etc...Not even anything elaborate (though I did envision a riff on the bit in "IJ+TLC" where Indy gets Hitler to sign the Grail Diary, instead changing the backdrop to a rally featuring a mass burning of Prequel books, movies, etc., and having the Indy look-alike presenting *your* book to sign to a Patton Oswalt look-alike, clad in fascistic gear), just something 15 seconds long or so. It could probably all be done very easily "in-computer"; the first 8 seconds or so would feature an overlapping montage of various anti-PT/GL quotes (culled from actual reviews/internet screeds) that are addressed and dismantled in your book, then the screen would clear, text would appear on screen saying something like, "What if they're all wrong?" Cue pic of the cover of your book, the URL to this blog or to an Amazon/BN link to buy the book, and whammo. That could even be condensed down to a 7-second "Vine" video, but either way, it'd probably move at least a *few* more books.

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    1. Eddie, that is brilliant. I don't think anyone outside of James Patterson and the like get formal "book trailers," but that's intriguing. The very thought of it makes me laugh. Hell, I suppose I could do something very simple myself. I love the "What if they're all wrong" riff. Very heretical.

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  5. Ditto on the book trailer. "Not since Man's Search for Meaning..." followed by lots of explosions! XD

    In all seriousness, congratulations on this epic achievement.

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    1. Candy, I've always loved that one ....

      Also in all seriousness, I'm not sure it's an epic achievement, but it is an achievement, so noble Jedi bow.

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  6. Looking forward to getting this. Sounds like the type of close analysis scholars have brought to the Lord of the Rings books. I plan on reviewing it on my website.

    Do you know if there's chance it'll be issued in ebook format?

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  7. Thanks, Enjolras. Any reviews would be great, the more flattery the better. I kid.

    As for ebooks, I have been told this should be debuting on e-platforms in a month or so. I'll probably put up a link on this blog.

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  8. Paul, just saw that Amazon has it on Kindle and promptly bought it there. I have a long flight coming up next month so I'll probably read it then. The site is Poli-Sci Jedi.

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    1. And that was an amazing review, sir. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it.

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