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Monomaniacal

The newest George Lucas production, Red Tails, forces a Star Wars nerd to come to terms with a troubling philosophy

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images and Mojoey/Flickr.)

Of the 20 or so T-shirts I own, about half make some reference to Jedis, midi-chlorians, or lightsabers. In 1999, on the day Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, I bought tickets to three consecutive screenings and sat giddily through them all, Jar Jar be damned. When my dear friends had their beautiful baby boy late last year, I was thrilled to buy him a Boba Fett alarm clock desk lamp, the best gift I could imagine. I bought another one for myself.

If you’ve understood most of the references in the paragraph above, you, sadly, belong to the same wretched class of emotionally precarious quasi-adults in whose minds and hearts Star Wars occupies the realms others furnish with accomplishing life goals or forming meaningful relationships. Which is why the next line hurts: George Lucas has ruined our lives.

I don’t mean that in the obvious way, like the sorry stares my friends and I sometimes get from well-balanced, emotionally available adults when they overhear us discussing issues like the politics of Wookie society or why all spaceships seem to always have their engines on in full thrust yet none ever seem to accelerate. What I mean is that those of us reared on Star Wars too easily subscribe to its creator’s facile mythology that sees all religions as nothing more than particular facets of one grand universal myth and that has little use for cultural distinctions or theological depth. As his newly released production, the World War II film Red Tails, clearly shows, George Lucas’ world is a place where good forever battles evil on a landscape that is smooth and flat and unchanging. The same goes for his entire oeuvre.

***

Lucas, of course, made up little of what would become the organizing principles of his Star Wars universe. An eager student of mythologist and autodidact Joseph Campbell, he adapted the latter’s opus, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to the world of spacecrafts and laser guns.

“I came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is,” Lucas said in one of his several interviews about Campbell. “So, that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. … It was very eerie because in reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs. … So, I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.”

Or a lot more. The main idea Lucas borrowed from Campbell was that of the monomyth, or the universal structure Campbell argued explained every hero humanity has ever adored, from Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker. They all followed the same pattern: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The specifics change—one went to see John on the banks of the Jordan before facing down Pilate, the other visited Yoda in Dagobah before doing battle with Vader—but they don’t matter much. What matters is the string that unites us all, the ur-story we share and that is our common human foundation.

Lucas was better than most at reimagining this human story. By setting his retelling in a galaxy far, far away, and by following Campbell’s guidelines religiously, he created an embodiment of the monomyth that was so powerful it instantly became mythological itself. We impressionable children of the 1980s found in Luke and Han and Leia the sort of universal thrust that most religions seemed to lack. In synagogue, they spoke of a personal God who gave us laws and expected us to keep them. At the multiplex, there was the Force, strange and mysterious and mystical. It was never a hard choice. We all became Talmudists of the Jedi.

Which—and I realize that by writing this I’m forfeiting any future claims to nerdhood—was a terrible thing, intellectually and morally speaking. Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.

It’s a popular theme nowadays, one that the nouveau atheists often flaunt. But its core failure, and Campbell’s, is that it fails to see the crucial nuances that set one faith apart from the other. It is true, as Campbell observed, that both Abraham and Kut-o-yis, a legendary hero of Montana’s Blackfeet, experienced hardships as boys and went on to suffer exile before emerging as leaders of their nations. That one went on to become the father of monotheism seems to matter little. Campbell has no patience for the specificity of Abraham’s—or any hero’s—teachings; all he’s interested in are the broad patterns of shared stories.

The same goes for Lucas. His good guys are so good that their unique brand of righteousness hardly matters. Take, for example, the issue of the Force, the power Jedi knights possess to manipulate the physical world with their minds. Here’s the best explanation of how it works (Lucas later concocted other, less-convincing ones), delivered by Obi Wan-Kenobi: “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. … A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.”

What do non-Jedi feel? And what are the Jedi to do with said power, other than vanquish the obviously evil masked menaces that knock about the galaxy enslaving all they meet? Lucas never says. He, like Campbell, is uninterested in such questions, which are precisely the questions religion is dedicated to addressing. Judaism, for example: With chosenness constantly on our minds, every Jew’s a Jedi, and our entire spiritual journey, as individuals and as a people, is dedicated to trying to figure out what responsibilities and privileges are affixed to those who believe themselves to have been singled out by God. It’s how we come by our concept of morality, and we’re beholden to it not because we think it applies to every single living human being—although a comparative analysis of the Ten Commandments supports the idea that many of its prohibitions recur across time and space—but because we believe in the validity and the might of our particular journey.

From faith stems nuance. From myth, generalities. And, sadly for us, the spirit of myth is winning: We revere Star Wars because to our minds—modern machines that equate religion with superstition and are willing to disregard imperfections in science but never in dogma—the movies represent transcendentalist humanism at its best, a perfect manifestation of that noxious label, “spiritual,” that people use to describe themselves when they’re too dull to believe in religion and too dim to understand science. This is why the Force has become the organizing metaphor of our time; there’s no better one for those who believe that if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.

Just how idiotic is this logic will become evident when we examine the controversy known in geekdom as the “Han Shot First” incident. In the original release of Episode IV: A New Hope, Han Solo is seated across a table from Greedo, a reptilian-looking bounty hunter who’d come to collect a debt Han owes to galactic mobster Jabba the Hutt. Greedo points his laser gun at Han, indicating his intention to shoot the dashing smuggler dead, but Han stealthily readies his own weapon under the table, blasting Greedo first and killing him. When the movie was re-released to theaters in 1997, Lucas had edited the scene. In the new version, Greedo shoots first, somehow missing the man seated about three feet away from him and absolving Han of any moral ambiguity. The fan community was outraged, but Lucas was adamant; he had to make sure, he explained, that kids believed Han had no other choice but to kill Greedo.

Call it monomythic morality: If you believe we’re all bound by structures of sameness, you’re bound to ignore what makes us different, which means that you’re eventually left seeing nothing but bold smears of black and white with no substantive shades anywhere in between. It’s fine, perhaps, when considering the origins of the clone wars, but not so much when the conflict on screen happens to be World War II—Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen financed and produced by Lucas, is another literal-minded study in black and white with a heavy-handed egalitarian message and an inevitable happy ending. The intricate roots of racism and its devastating effects on American society all vanish with a few easy, CGI-enhanced midair dog fights, and it takes a particularly curmudgeonly viewer, or an especially sober one, to recall that black Americans currently comprise 12.6 percent of America’s population and 39.4 percent of its inmates.

But Lucas is largely unburdened by details. He obeys Campbell’s mantra, “follow your bliss,” and presents us with a menagerie of uncomplicated heroes who had followed theirs, urging us to do the same.

We must refuse. Bliss is a terrible guide to follow. Unlike the rules set forth by organized religions, designed, however divergently or effectively, to shepherd the frail species to something approximating goodness, bliss is gauzy and fleeting. If we’re ever to become heroes, if we’re to undergo the sort of noble quests that Campbell and Lucas valorize, we should first find something grander, and more specific, to believe.

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philip mann says:

Liel…

Get a haircut , and get a real job.

Tamis Renteria says:

Point taken, Mr. Leibovitz, but it doesn’t have to be either/or — Lucas/Campbell (derived from CG Jung, by the way) vs. a specific religious tradition. Campbell was an ex-Catholic rebelling against the western tradition as he had learned it within that religion. He fell in love with general mythic patterns and then tossed the good out with the bad in his own tradition, neglecting to see how it had shaped his morality and world view in spite of his intellectual efforts to deny this. (He and Jung are very Christian in the way they see mythic patterns –e.g. Christ the hero as the template)

We Jews can stand in the specificity of our great ethical and religious tradition, and still benefit from an understanding of cross-cultural archetypal patterns and the idea of seeking one’s bliss as an individual without threat to being Jewish. Judaism has been cross breeding with other religious and secular traditions since the days of Abraham and it’s an intrinsically Jewish activity to constantly maintain a lively dialogue with the dominant cultural paradigms, exploring, borrowing, rejecting, modifying, transforming the tradition through this dialectical relationship. In other words, I think you can be a Jedi and a Jew.

kenedal says:

And ditto for those who have been manipulated to see in characters from The lord of the Rings and Harry Potter phenomenon (the most popular teen books in Israel) too as simplified role models to obtain a kind of pseudo simplified ‘salvation’

MethanP says:

I think you miss an important point. Judaism, if practiced Biblicly, is hard. What we gain is spiritual, not material. Lucas changed story, charachter and continuity for the $ signs of mass marketing. If you want to know what was supposed to happen, read the books. The movies would have you think the Ewoks, with a little Rebel help easily defeat the Storm Troopers. In book three they are slaughtered in 10s of thousands. Campbell didn’t understand religion. Neither does Lucas.
PS: Fans en mass are protesting all these changes.

Leor Blumenthal says:

It is interesting that Liel raises the “Han shot first” ruckus without mentioning that al pi Halakha what Han did was absolutely moral. Greedo came to collect a debt. Han, a shomer sakhar in Jabba’s employ, was forced to jetison the cargo he was delivering for Jabba. Han insists to Greedo that he doesn’t have the cash to pay Jabba the debt, but will soon (once he gets back from ferrying the old man, boy and two droids to Alderaan). Greedo instead insists that he has the right to seize Han’s ship. When Han refuses (“Over my dead body!”) Greedo threatens to kill Han. At this point Greedo is a rodef, and even if he hasn’t pulled the trigger on his blaster pistol, the fact that he IS pointing one at Han, entitles Han to kill Greedo to save his life. But that is not good enough for the Lucas of 1997. :(

It’s noteworthy that while George Lucas may have been the first major pop cultural figure to give credit to Joseph Campbell, many screenwriters and other creators of popular culture soon followed in his footsteps and employed the “hero’s journey” (aka the Monomyth) in their storytelling.

In fact, Campbell was an anti semite. He was a Jungian, convinced of Aryan superiority. He concealed this very well, both to protect his teaching job at Sarah Lawrence and his general reputation as an intellectual.
At the same time, I find Liebeowitz’s condemnation of the spiritual to be reprehensible.I can understand it, however. Judaism is primarily an ethical religion, as opposed to a spiritual one.

philip mann says:

Leor;

It makes a good Purim devar torah.

Somebody has grown up, but we can still have heroes — but they are, sometimes, only ourselves. Still don’t throw away those tee-shirts, there’s a place for Jedis too. Truly, from author of LIE.

Leor Blumenthal says:

@Philip Mann: A few years ago I was working on a piece of Purim Torah which would have been a sort of “Star Wars” gemara, sort of a Maseches Wookie. The mishna for the first page would have begun “At what age do we begin bringing Younglings to the Jedi Temple…”

I never finished it, but maybe I should try this year.

philip mann says:

Leor;

Good luck. It has style,you just have to make sure your audience knows what Star Wars is about. A while back, in one of the weekly parshah publications,they had a quotation that I recognised as coming from Yogi Berra. Trouble is, nobody else knew who Yogi is.

Mildred Bilt says:

Whosh! No Lucas or Charles Dickens? No Homer or Aristotle? Just the grinding burden of Chosen-ness? Can’t we have some fun? Should we remove all play and games from the little Jewish children? I watched all the Lucas films and am an avowed Trekkie. I still am so astute, clever and deep thinking that I know that the “Big Bang’ theory of universe creation is just another repetition of Genesis. Where is the joy of the Chosen-ness? You are weighted down with it: dour, grim. stoop shouldered. Sit up man. Life is a gift. You certainly don’t believe that only the Jews have been massacred and suffered through history.Through the milleniums others have been totally destroyed and wiped off the face of the planet. Even Toynbee thought we had disappeared. The fact that we are atill here in all our racial, cultural and differences in our belief structures (yes-do you think the 69+Chasidic dynasties are exactly the same to each other or to the Orthodox Rabbinate. Reconstructionists, Zealots or all other Jewish groups?) Yet the Jew is still here. We’ve even tried to kill each other off in our history. Rejoice! The god Amun is long gone as is Baal but we persist each in his/her knowledge of that which is Unknown. We’ve mixed with every peoples on the earth and here we are. This place too is transitory. We still have a long and rocky road ahead. In the meantime, absorb everything and don’t be afraid of the Jedi, It’s only entertainment. L’Chaim! L’Chaim! We still live!

Interesting but very convoluted and painful thought process. the author of this article works from the stance that his religion is truth. when seen from the other side, my side, in which all religion is merely approximation of truth, and in which there is no “spiritual”, i.e. post death, life, the Star Wars episodes merely point me in one direction: the gradual brainwashing of people into believing that heroes have to do grand deeds. for me, Star Wars stands in stark contrast to a reality based world, in which the smallest acts, such as changing diapers, are heroic, and the larger acts are usually self serving.

Dennis says:

“From faith stems nuance…” Oh, please, give it another try. Perhaps your own personal religious beliefs generate nuanced ideas, but the behavior of the vast majority of religious believers in the world shows that this is uncommon. Nuanced faith and belief, if it even does exist, is a rare exception.

Captain Howdy says:

“…our minds—modern machines that equate religion with superstition and are willing to disregard imperfections in science but never in dogma…”

This is thin sauce. What are “imperfections” in science? The fact that theories are never proven, only bolstered (or falsified)? I’ll take the skeptical–and always conditional–epistemology of science over dogma every day. And twice on Sundays.

Your frame of reference is kind of disturbing. Your “black stats” at the end seem to forget that German society would have placed a similar level of criminality on the Jewish populace. Did you think African Americans made the laws that put them in jail? Dominant culture criminalizing the behavior of minorities is as old as matza. Or the persecution of Jews. I would be slower to pick up the mantle.

That one went on to become the father of monotheism seems to matter little.

Wait, what? How is Abraham the “father of monotheism”? Monotheism finds its earliest known origins in the Iron Age, a thousand years before the Abrahamic faiths, in the writings of Zoroaster.

You relate Campbell’s dismissal of the Bible as somehow self-refuting, but by describing it in the terms you choose, you’re actually proving his point that it’s been over-hyped.

On the other hand, “self-refuting” is precisely how I would describe your criticism that Campbell’s Monomyth doesn’t delve into the particulars of religion, but finds only the broad similarities. Duh! And the problem with the sky is how frequently blue it is!

Abraham isn’t the “Father of monotheism,” as he was a polytheist. He just chose not to worship most of them.

” We revere Star Wars because to our minds—modern machines that equate religion with superstition and are willing to disregard imperfections in science but never in dogma—the movies represent transcendentalist humanism at its best, a perfect manifestation of that noxious label, “spiritual,” that people use to describe themselves when they’re too dull to believe in religion and too dim to understand science.”

Oh come on. Surely you can be more condescending than that! You’re just not trying hard enough.

Arandi Oreno says:

Lucas created one of the most vile creatures in sci-fi Jar Jar Binks..

I was so offended that now even in sci-fi future racism of this vile degree is present..

Lucas now has produced a lousy 2nd rate B film about the TA…He needs to come up with a better apology!!!!!!

“Black Americans currently comprise 12.6 percent of America’s population and 39.4 percent of its inmates.”

Is that a system-is-messed-up issue or a blacks-are-criminals issue?

How did that line help the article?

Jesse M. says:

While I basically agree about the weakness of Campbell’s attempts to unify all myths, and the superficiality of Star Wars’ spirituality (though the movies have the excuse of being basically pulpy entertainment, and some of the basic ideas behind “The Force” seem vaguely reminiscent of Taoism), you lose me with this bit:

‘a perfect manifestation of that noxious label, “spiritual,” that people use to describe themselves when they’re too dull to believe in religion and too dim to understand science.’

Do you really think anyone who fails to believe in any existing religion is just too “dull”, including people like Einstein and Spinoza who had their own ideas about the nature of God and the importance of seeing the universe as a meaningful whole? (see for example Einstein’s comments at www dot einsteinandreligion dot com/scienceandreligion.html or his various quotes on God at en dot wikiquote dot org/wiki/Albert_Einstein ). And what alternate term besides “spiritual” would you suggest for people who wrestle seriously with these kinds of questions but believe that all religions are purely human creations?

Jesse M. says:

Sorry, I gave a link to the wrong Einstein essay in my previous comment, meant to give a link to his essay “Religion and Science” which can be found at www dot sacred-texts dot com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm

E. Frank says:

As someone with pretty good nerd credentials, I agree that Star Wars is rife with cheap “spirituality”. Problem is that it is high tech on the surface, but merely magical underneath, and hardly scientific at all. The hero’s powers are fueled by evangelical and unreasoning faith. (“Feel the Force!) Mythical, emotional, and profoundly unintellectual. Great fun, but a fundamental disappointment to hard scifi buffs and Spinozans alike.

For cinematic heroes…to find a “Just Man”, nerds must look to stories like Star Trek, exemplified by the character Jean-Luc Picard. He is profoundly moral, and must contemplate moral ambiguities all the time, and then act, just as we must. Wisdom, knowledge and justice are our guides. “Tikkun Olam”.

Liel, it’s irresponsible to reify religion and treat “it” as if it is a stable and guiding thing that is somehow “designed” for anything. Religion as a concept must be understood as a dynamic (and ultimately imprecise) term for beliefs and rituals in some kind of communal or shared setting/group. It does not “shepherd” anything on its own and is only designed to the extent that its contours arise out of human experience; indeed, your description of religion treats it (ironically) as a force, which is far too outdated an idea to be treated seriously.

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Monomaniacal

The newest George Lucas production, Red Tails, forces a Star Wars nerd to come to terms with a troubling philosophy

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