Archive for the ‘A Closer Look at the Saga’ Category

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Identity Crises

October 2, 2009

Legend has it that knowing the true name of a demon gives you power over it; the most famous example of this in folklore is the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, but the idea of names having power exists in many cultures and contexts, such as the name of God in Judaism or name of a nix (say) in Scandinavian folklore.

In the everyday world, too, names have power. A surname for a man symbolises an unbroken lineage; for a woman, it represents that transformation in identity that comes with marriage.

More importantly, the name is the first stamp of society upon the individual. It’s the little tag attached to your persona, that mask you wear that functions as your interface to the society at large. In fact, the word persona itself is Latin for the mask worn by an actor in ancient plays.

This is where Star Wars comes in. The role of the persona is a prominent theme in the saga, where both masks and names conceal and comment upon the true nature of various characters.

Chronologically, our first introduction to this idea is the Padme/Amidala dichotomy presented in The Phantom Menace. Here, the mask is in the form of her kabuki-style make-up, symbolising the fact that the Queen is a role, not an individual. Positions of power and authority must, to some extent, erase the individual personality of the person holding that office — the ego must surrender to the persona, else you have a tyrant in place of a leader.

Queen Amidala: Padme as leader

Queen Amidala: Padme as leader

In A New Hope, however, we have a different situation: General Kenobi, exiled on the desert planet of Tatooine, has foregone his Jedi name “Obi-Wan” for the less assuming alias “Ben”. To him, “Obi-Wan” symbolises a time in his life when things were very different, and it carries with it much baggage: sadness, loss and regret — things he’d just as soon forget.

In both cases, the question that arises is, what is the relationship between persona and Self? Is Padme the handmaiden or the Queen? Is Kenobi a Jedi Knight or an old hermit?

With The Clone Wars, this question is placed in a new light: if you’re a clone bred as cannon-fodder, whither your identity? This is the problem we all face to some extent as we define ourselves as individuals despite the claims of society, but when you’re literally a product created on a factory floor, how can you possibly assert your unique existence?

The linchpin of the saga in regards to this theme, however, is Revenge of the Sith. Anakin surrenders his humanity (both figuratively and literally), adopts a new name and crafts a new identity for himself. He bristles at the persona required of a Jedi, wishing instead to serve his own ego. But by falling to the impulses of his ego, he has (ironically) been fully consumed by a new persona: that of a Sith Lord.

Anakin as the villainous Darth Vader

Anakin as the villainous Darth Vader

What is the solution, then? If the battle is between ego and persona, is there ever truly a winner? Anakin/Vader, Ben/Obi-Wan and Padme/Amidala all learn a valuable lesson in their own ways: transcend the dichotomy and instead embrace the Self.

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The Quick and Easy Path

June 17, 2009

The ideas of “Introversion” and “Extraversion” are commonplace today, often being shorthand for “shy” and “gregarious” personalities respectively. The Extravert is generally regarded as being talkative and engaging, while the Introvert is seen as being quiet and often lost in thought.

Carl Jung, however, saw things somewhat differently. To him, Introversion and Extraversion were about more than just how talkative someone is — these are attitudes that determine where the focus lies for certain psychological functions (i.e. Thinking, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition). When one such function consciously dominates the psyche of an individual, its attitude — either Introversion or Extraversion — appears predominant in that person. The Introvert is thus someone whose dominant psychological function is Introverted, while the Extravert is someone whose dominant psychological function is Extraverted.

But what are these attitudes?

The Extraverted attitude places the greatest emphasis upon external conditions. Taking care not to offend others, for example, is Extraversion at work: here you are adjusting your words and actions so as not to negatively affect the feelings of those around you — you are considering external conditions and acting accordingly.

The Introverted attitude, in contrast, emphasises internal factors. Holding to higher ideals is an example of Introversion: what’s important, in this case, is standing firm on principles that are important to you, even if that means offending others in the process.

There is, however, a darker side to all of this. Without balance, neither Introversion nor Extraversion is healthy: Extraversion without Introversion is shallow; Introversion without Extraversion is selfish.

When lacking the tempering influence of Extraversion, the internal factors become the only frame of reference for the Introvert. “What do I want out of this? How does this benefit me?”

This is the crux of the difference between Anakin and Luke. Whereas Luke is able to successfully integrate Extraversion into his largely Introverted attitude over the course of episodes 4-6, Anakin slips further and further into Introversion in episodes 1-3 until his psyche falls totally out of balance at the conclusion of the prequel trilogy.

Anakin makes things "awkward" on Naboo

Anakin makes things "awkward" on Naboo

A large part of this is Anakin’s obsession with his own feelings. He doesn’t so much care about others as he cares about how his feelings for them might affect him. Consider the fireside chat in Attack of the Clones: where is the concern for Padme in all of this? His concerns are for his feelings, not hers. Not surprisingly, when he sees evidence of Padme’s supposed disloyalty in Revenge of the Sith, he turns on her, choking her in a fit of rage. Anakin’s love is conditional, predicated solely on what benefit he can get from the relationship. This is twisted, immature, unbalanced Introversion at its worst.

Luke, admittedly, has a similar temperament at first. He, too, is short-tempered when things don’t move quick enough or in the direction he wants. The difference is that he learns to draw upon his Extraverted side, connecting with the other with an attitude of respect, not contempt. Eventually the saga comes full circle and he uses Extraversion to reach-out to his father, thereby freeing the fallen Anakin from the grip of the Dark Side of the Force.

The point of Star Wars is not that Extraversion is superior to Introversion (or vice versa) but that we each need balance in our own lives. Yoda warned of the “quick and easy path” — that is a life without growth, without balance. That was Anakin’s choice, but it needn’t be yours.

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Oedipus the Sith

June 14, 2009

The archetypes of the collective unconscious are vessels into which we pour our most formative experiences. The Ego: that with which we begin to self-identify. The Shadow: that which threatens our self-identity. The Persona: the mask that society imposes upon us. The Self: totality, wholeness, completion. We each build our own personalised images of these primordial forms, but the universal qualities remain underneath, like hidden treasure buried under the sand.

For men, the gateway to the unconscious is the Anima, encapsulating femininity in the male psyche. She represents all that he is not, in terms of a masculine/feminine dichotomy: if he is logical, she is emotive; if he is active, she is passive. The Anima is forged from the raw materials of early feminine presence: the mother, the sister, the young female teacher. And so the man is then forever in search of that perfect woman who embodies this idealised image. But who could possibly compete with Mother? It is an eternal quest to find a woman able to live in Mother’s shadow.

Father, meanwhile, is the competitor for Mother’s affections. He is the lover who threatens the harmony of relationship between mother and son, standing for patriarchal rule and law. He is a cruel and merciless tyrant, offering shoulds and oughts over the child as he grows into a man.

We find the young boy trapped in this Freudian nightmare, wishing to kill his father and marry his mother. He is locked into the ancient myth of Oedipus the King.

The two trilogies of Star Wars play out this Greek tragedy beautifully. Anakin is haunted by the image of his mother, turning to Padme Amidala when he can no longer find solace in his mother’s arms. Is he looking for an equal partner? No, he’s in search of a mother, and Padme, it seems, is a suitable substitute.

Anakin, gripped by the tragedy of his mother's fate

Anakin, gripped by the tragedy of his mother's fate

Who is the father? As in so many great mythic traditions, Anakin has no father. But “Father”, in psychological terms, is a relationship, not a biological fact; here, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s Master and mentor, is the father-figure. Anakin sees Obi-Wan as a threat, both to his ability to save his mother and to his attempt to connect with Padme. Obi-Wan represents the Jedi Order and all the rules and restrictions contained in their code.

Naturally, then, Anakin marries Padme and tries to kill Obi-Wan. The tragedy of Oedipus reaches its terrible conclusion.

Fast-forward some 20 years later and Luke, Anakin’s son, finds himself in a similar predicament. Luke is captivated by the hologram of Princess Leia Organa, dressed in a virginally white gown and begging for assistance. Here we have a very literal case of Anima projection, with the maiden being held captive by the demonic father-figure of Darth Vader.

Luke's first glimpse of Leia, his Anima, embodied

Luke's first glimpse of Leia, his Anima, embodied

Luke, of course, learns over the course of two more movies that Vader is his father and Leia is his sister. Furthermore, she is his only connection to Mother — Anakin was the boy without a father; Luke, the boy without a mother. Lightsabers clash once more between father and son, again over the affections of the mother-figure.

Yet Luke succeeds where Anakin failed. Anakin’s vice was attachment: the proclivity not to love the other person but to own them; Luke, on the other hand, was a man of compassion, loving the other person out of respect for their humanity, not out of a selfish desire to have them love him back.

In the end, Luke is able to both accept and grow beyond his Oedipal fixations. He recognises Leia not as a object of desire but as his female counterpart. Once we own the Anima as a part of our own psyches, it turns from a jealous desire into the creative force of life itself. It is that which connects us to the larger spiritual world.

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Life, the Universe and Myth

June 10, 2009
Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces"

Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces"

Life is but a series of transitions: we move into a new domain, experience life in this new mode of being and then move out of that domain and into the next. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, for example, are three consecutive phases of life, each requiring a different approach to the one before. At the start of each phase, you shed your old identity and are, in a sense, reborn.

These are all adventures undertaken in the course of a lifetime, with the greatest adventure of all being the challenge of life itself.

Birth, life, death: the act of setting out on an adventure, experiencing the challenges it presents and then returning with the newfound knowledge and wisdom. Departure; initiation; return.

This is the pedagogical function of mythology. The hero of the myth journeys out from his known sphere, enters a whole new, unknown realm and fights the demons, battles the dragons, gets the gold and returns home — if you live your life as a re-enactment of the myth, you aren’t then merely stumbling along blindly; you’re partaking in an ancient ritual in which you are joined by all those who have gone before you. You are the hero of your own life.

As this function manifests in various myths, the result is the Hero’s Journey, Campbell’s archetypal retelling of the story of human experience. Its relationship to Star Wars is well-known and well-documented, inspiring (among other things) the glorious Magic of Myth exhibit that toured the world.

In episodes 4-6, for example, Luke Skywalker departs from his homeworld of Tatooine in order to become a Jedi and help save the galaxy; along the way, he faces many challenges, both internal and external, before eventually returning with his new powers, thereby being a catalyst for the redemption of his own father.

Meanwhile, in the prequel trilogy, Anakin Skywalker also departs from Tatooine in the hopes of becoming a Jedi. Along the way, he faces temptation and succumbs, dying and being reborn as the cyborg villain Darth Vader. In episodes 5 and 6, the new challenge Anakin faces is that of recognising his own humanity beneath the cold exterior of his pitch-black suit.

And now, in The Clone Wars, Ahsoka Tano faces her own “hero’s journey” as she finds her feet as a Padawan amidst a war that places the Jedi in a morally precarious position.

In "The Clone Wars", Ahsoka Tano must now begin her own Hero's Journey.

In "The Clone Wars", Ahsoka Tano must now begin her own "hero's journey".

There is, however, another dimension to the Hero’s Journey. It is at the point of departure — the “crossing of the first threshold” — that the hero moves out of the field of time and space and into the transcendent realm. This is how the pedagogical function of mythology is related back to the mystical function: by experiencing life as a ritual, you are re-enacting the myth and thus bringing the transcendent into the world of ordinary goings-on.

This is the true magic of myth. It isn’t just about abstract ideas that have no relevance to our everyday lives; it unites the ordinary and the extraordinary, revealing the mystery behind life within life, acting as a source of light that both illuminates the path ahead and path behind. It is the guide that speaks from within.

In all our journeys in life, myth is the beacon of the soul.

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A long time ago…

June 7, 2009

The 20th Century Fox logo. The Lucasfilm Ltd. logo. The last strains of Alfred Newman’s extended 20th Century Fox Fanfare ring-out in the theatre before… Darkness. Silence. A pregnant pause.

And then, ten words in blue appear on the screen:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....

We are about to enter another world.

This is not the world of everyday concerns — of bills and deadlines, car repairs and grocery shopping — this is the world of myth.

Let’s turn again to the first function of mythology. Myths are, first and foremost, meant to point indirectly to that which is inaccessible to rationality: namely, the ground of being. Call it God, Brahman or the Force, this by its very nature transcends all ordinary categories of thought. This is the time beyond time, the space beyond space, the reality beyond reality. You can’t put rational constraints on this any more than you can grab hold of a jet of steam — it defies rational explication.

Myths, then, must use a language that itself transcends rationality. They must use the language of metaphor.

Taken metaphorically, a “long time ago” isn’t so much a literal when as it is a reference to the eternal, transcendent time. Just as “a galaxy far, far away” is not any particular galaxy but rather a world “off the map” of conscious understanding, the story of Star Wars is set in the mythic timeframe where the imagination is free to roam.

Indigenous Australians have a wonderfully apt name for this mythic timeframe: the Dreamtime. Like dreams, myths grow out of the unconscious, but whereas dreams are typically drawn from the library of accumulated experiences that is the personal unconscious, myths at heart are products of the collective unconscious, that storehouse of primordial archetypes fashioned by millions of years of evolution. As Campbell put it, dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams.

Today, cinema is perhaps the greatest artistic medium for creating these “public dreams”. Not many films reach the heights of universal myth, but when they do… wow! The audience feel elevated, elated, transformed by the experience, as if they were collectively transported to another world for two hours. “Suspension of disbelief” is merely the act of opening yourself up to receive the images onscreen as metaphors; what matters is not whether this could happen in real life but rather whether this could happen in your dreams (or nightmares).

Luke in the cave

Luke confronts his inner demons

And so, just as Luke Skywalker enters the cave to find that which lurks within, so do we enter the cinema to probe the depths of our own psyches.

The characters onscreen are thus not intended to represent real people any more than Sleeping Beauty could be confused for a real princess — these are all archetypes made flesh in the flicker of 24 frames per second. The transcendent resides within each and every one of us, and Luke and Vader, Leia and Han are the players in an internalised cosmic drama that stretches beyond time itself.

“A long time ago” is a long time ago indeed.

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Introduction

June 3, 2009

The Star Wars SagaIn 1977, George Lucas created a phenomenon. Star Wars was not just a box office smash on a scale rarely achieved, but also a cultural touchstone of its time. People from all walks of life were swept up in this grand space epic that featured heroes and villains, knights and princesses, smugglers and stormtroopers — this was a film for everyone.

With two sequels, three prequels and a successful animated TV show in its wake (as well as an entire industry dedicated to ancillary books, comics and other merchandise), Star Wars continues to entertain some 32 years later.

But what is it about this galaxy far, far away that continues to delight, drawing in a new generation of fans even today? The cynic might say it’s the simplistic depiction of good and evil, the fast-paced action, the cute critters…

A more charitable (and, in my opinion, fairer) assessment would be that Star Wars taps into truths deeper than most other “popcorn” entertainment on offer today. There are now plenty of films and TV shows that try to “wow” audiences with dazzling special effects, distracting them with MTV-style hyper-kinetic editing while perhaps offering trite philosophical morsels in between action scenes, yet people return to Star Wars time and time again. It’s the spiritual core that separates Star Wars from other action-adventure franchises, and that’s the secret to its success.

That spiritual core rests on a foundation of mythic archetypes and motifs, each with a legacy reaching back well beyond that of recorded history. In writing Star Wars, Lucas was influenced primarily by Joseph Campbell (and especially his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces), a man who recognised the import that ancient storytelling traditions held within the human psyche.

For Campbell, mythology has four primary functions:

  1. Mystical: the mythology should reflect upon and illuminate the biological function of life, using symbolism and metaphor to indirectly reveal the metaphysical ground of being;
  2. Cosmological: the Universe itself should be explained by the mythology, referring back to the mystical elements so as to ground the cosmological in the metaphysical;
  3. Sociological: the mythology should supply the society with a set of laws so as to ensure a social order, with the authority of the laws also referring back to the mystical function; and
  4. Pedagogical: the mythology should allow an individual to move from one phase of life to the next, turning the act of living itself into a ritual that evokes the mystical.

The myths of old are now stagnant, undone by these second and third functions. Our heritage is a mythology trapped in a cosmology with little relevance to science and a social order meant for another place and time. The result is that the first and fourth functions have become inaccessible — people instead turn to New Age fads and quick-fix solutions in their attempts to find answers to life.

Star Wars embodies those mystical and pedagogical functions beautifully. It may not be perfect — it is, after all, ultimately the work of one man — but, of all the modern pop-culture franchises, I believe it comes closest to supplying incredibly powerful myths to live by.