Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’


Landing at Point Rain

November 10, 2009

After the more leisurely-paced episode Senate Spy (and then a three-week break), The Clone Wars has returned with action galore in Landing at Point Rain. This is a 22-minute slice of intensity from a larger war epic — think the D-Day landing sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan crossed with Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down — and it opens a four-part story arc that will continue in the coming weeks. (Senate Spy essentially functioned as a prelude.)

The war returns to Geonosis

The war returns to Geonosis

With the earlier discovery of a new droid foundry on Geonosis, Generals Skywalker, Kenobi and Mundi lead a landing party to take down the shield generator protecting the foundry, ultimately hoping to destroy the facility and capture Geonosian leader Poggle the Lesser. But things don’t exactly go as planned, and Anakin Skywalker and Ki-Adi-Mundi must journey to the rendezvous point on foot, fending-off legions of armed Geonosians in the process.

There isn’t a clear, direct link between the fortune cookie and the episode this week (“Believe in yourself or no one else will”) though it is a truism that is particularly relevant to leaders in battles as well as to life in general. But the most interesting moments of Landing at Point Rain are quieter than the bombast on display  — they come from the world-weary demeanour of Obi-Wan Kenobi as he contemplates the price of war.

“What I worry about is the way this war seems to be drawing-out with no end in sight,” Obi-Wan remarks in the opening scene, all too aware that the need to revisit Geonosis does not bode well for the continuing efforts of the Republic. As he prepares to return to the barren rock planet that was home to the first battle in the ongoing Clone Wars, he can’t help but reflect on the events of that fateful day. There’s a real sense that nothing has changed despite the best efforts of the Jedi, and yet real people continue to die on the battlefield.

To drive the point home, clones die left, right and centre in Landing at Point Rain, with at least one hapless trooper being carried off by a Geonosian, presumably to face a fate worse than death. Flamethrowers are employed as Geonosians swarm in from all directions, and these bug-like aliens begin to writhe in agony as they burn to death. This is ugly stuff, and as the look on Obi-Wan’s face shows as the battle rages on, there are no winners in such a blood-soaked enterprise.


"Bring in the flamethrowers!"

Anakin and Ahsoka, meanwhile, jokingly compare kill-counts in a game of one-upmanship. “I’ll never understand how you can simplify these battles into some kind of game,” is the extent of Obi-Wan’s reaction, yet this difference in attitudes sums up perfectly the gulf between the philosophies of the Jedi Master and his former Padawan. Anakin’s cavalier attitude to war reflects his ego-centric view of life in general, ultimately leading him to make certain momentous decisions in Revenge of the Sith.

The role of General is a serious one, with the lives of all those under you resting on your shoulders. Obi-Wan has accepted this new responsibility by acting not as a single man but as a part of a larger whole — on the battlefield, he is simply General Kenobi: no more, no less. Anakin, on the other hand, is first and foremost interested in serving his own ego, showing-off for the sake of it and just generally acting as if the war is being provided for him to prove his abilities.

Joseph Campbell, in Pathways to Bliss, recounts the tale of a certain samurai:

His overlord had been killed, and his vow was, of course, absolute loyalty to this lord. And it was his duty now to kill the killer. Well, after considerable difficulties, he finally backs this fellow into a corner, and he is about to slay him with his katana, his sword, which is the symbol of his honor. And the chap in the corner is angry and terrified, and he spits on the samurai, who sheathes his sword and walks away.

Why did the samurai sheath his sword? Had he killed the man in a personal act of vengeance, he would have no longer acted as a samurai but instead in the service of his own ego. I leave as an exercise for the reader the determination of who, between Obi-Wan and Anakin, would have withdrawn their lightsaber in such a situation.

True heroes don’t fight for the glory or the fame: they fight only because they must. It’s not about how many kills you make or what fancy moves you can pull-off. As Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, “War does not make one great.” At the end of the day, it’s all in the attitude.


A Wasteland of Dry Stones

October 8, 2009

With time comes change. We get older; our family and friends die; our skin loses its elasticity; our eyes become weak; our hair becomes grey.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Buddhism recognises this as a fact of life, and it is — it is “the first noble truth”. The second noble truth is that the reason all of this is depressing to us is because we wish things to be otherwise.

Now, in a moment of great joy, you might exclaim, “I want this moment to last forever!” But it never does.

Perhaps you’ve had great friendships that have eroded with the passage of time. Maybe the area where you grew up is now unrecognisable. Or is it just that you can’t physically do what you could 20 years ago?

In any case, it’s only by fighting this very fundamental aspect of life that you find the experience depressing, frustrating, maddening. Embracing life means, necessarily, embracing change — embracing death: the death of people, the end of relationships, the falling away of things we hold near and dear at this moment. But it also means simply enjoying the promise of new possibilities on the horizon.

This is an active choice that we must all make in our own lives: enjoy the moment, but free yourself of attachment to that which can never last.

On Mustafar, Anakin fully refuses the call to adventure.

On Mustafar, Anakin fully refuses the call to adventure.

In Campbell’s monomyth framework, this choice appears as the first stage of the hero’s journey: “the call to adventure”. The hero or heroine who embraces life accepts the call to adventure, for better or worse. He or she is lifted out of the ordinary world and placed beyond the boundaries of rationality, ready to be transformed and renewed. A refusal of the call, however, is a clear rejection of the essence of life itself and its endless cycles; to quote Campbell himself, the end result of this refusal is that the hero’s own “flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones”. The lifeblood has been drained from the earth, leaving only barren plains.

Enter Anakin Skywalker.

Despite his mother emphasising to him upon his initial departure, “Don’t look back,” Anakin indeed does look back. Superficially, he accepts the call to adventure, but his heart is never truly in it. Throughout Attack of the Clones in particular, he acts as Anakin first and as a Jedi second. This is what the refusal of the call actually looks like in everyday life, be it a married man who continues to act as if he were single, or a political leader who places personal loyalties above the duties of the office: the choice made is to hold onto the old ways of being. Like Peter Pan, they refuse to “grow up” — to grown into their new roles and accept the call to adventure.

This is Anakin’s weakness, and he pays dearly for his mistake. He is possessive, jealous and greedy, craving control over life, love and nature itself. He doesn’t accept life on its own terms, instead insisting that it bends to his will. The cost for this attitude is nothing less than his humanity — his soul.

Anakin transformed into Darth Vader: more machine than man

Anakin transformed into Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith

Of course we should try to help others and continue to make the world a better place, but the choice is not between passive acceptance and active betterment; the choice is between living in accord with nature and merely treating life itself as a commodity.

Once we stop respecting life, we lose that which makes us human. That is they way of the Sith. That is the Dark Side of the Force.


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.


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.



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.