Saturday, February 11, 2012

Star Wars and the hero's quest

The Star Wars mashup as a way to psychological, even spiritual, health.

I found the recent release of a full-length mashup version of Star Wars, composed of countless (actually, 473) clips from fan reenactments and animations, endlessly fascinating. As the Salon article that brought it to my attention mentions, it is a gloriously expressive outpouring of love. But is it healthy?

From the very first, Star Wars was an extraordinarily cheesy Hero tale. A journey by the fair-haired Luke from Potter-esque anonymity to savior of the galaxy, with a bit of magic (force) tossed in at highly convenient plot points, with luck and coincidence playing starring roles. Then the franchise went steadily downhill, but I won't go there!

As a fan of Jung, I respect the intricacies of the archetypal theory that surrounds this sort of tale, which goes into enormous detail about the typical hero, the helpers in the quest, the father-figure, the role of the underworld and its tests, the initiation ritual, the magic tools, and so forth. All this has its role. But one thing missing in the theory is its point ... why are these hero tales so gripping and perennial? Why do they emerge in every time and cuture? Joseph Campbell tries to explain it in his classic, the Hero with 1000 faces:
"The passage of the mythological hero ... fundamentally it is inward- into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space, but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power." ...
"What, now, is the result of the miraculous passage and return? 
The battlefield is symbolic of the field of life, where every creature lives on the death of another. A realization of the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the heart that, like Hamlet or Arjuna, one may refuse to go on with it. On the other hand, like most of the rest of us, one may invent a false, finally unjustified, image of oneself as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as the others are, but justified in one's inevitable sinning because one represents the good. Such self-righteousness leads to a misunderstanding, not only of oneself but of the nature of both man and the cosmos. The goal of the myth is to dispel the need for such life ignorance by effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. And this is effected through a realization of the true relationship of the passing phenomena of time to the imperishable life that lives and dies in all."
In the spirit of simplification, what I would focus on is that the Hero tale, simply and plainly, is a way to model success. As Reagan said, nothing succeeds like success, and the psychological enactment of success- of reading the happy fairy tale, of cheering for a winning team, of watching the murder being solved on CSI, reading the superman comic book, and yes, wielding one's tin-foil light-saber, is more powerful than any Tony Robbins motivational pablum. Sure, actual success is the sweetest of all, but that is a rare experience, and anyway, we only know what to do with it and how to value it through the strenuous modelling of a childhood steeped in the hero tale (including Cindarella tales).

We are all by the nature of reality and life bound by countless fetters. Biological, physical, environmental, and above all social conditions hem us in on all sides. Life is an endless series of problems to be solved and desires to be satisfied in the teeth of implacable reality- even quite active competition & opposition. The mantra of "freedom" that rings through our political discourse is far from an existential promise, but a woefully limited proposition, relative only to our ur-political condition of total Hobbesian depotism. Now, we face, in political terms merely a tyranny of the majority, (or a majority of the money), moderated by a few constitutional rights, more or less observed.

Thus the sweetness and rarity of true success, where some magical tool or insight arises, perhaps spontaneously from the same place that is so insistent on the enactment of hero tales ... the unconscious, allowing us to cut an existential Gordian knot. While obedience to the ambient social norms may suffice for a "normal", discontented slave-like existence, we all aspire higher. Perhaps tragically, but also inevitably. The hero tale is the spur, the offering of hope, and the psychological preparation for that real quest.

How best to experience it? Clearly one gets out what one puts into it, psychologically speaking. Worst of all is the passive viewing experience, supine in front of a TV or theater screen. Next perhaps is the radio format, demanding substantially more mental attention and imagination. On par would be a live reading by a friend or parent, even if there are a few pictures involved. Somewhere in there would also come the solitary reading experience, which makes some imaginative demands, but is also a bit slow and dry. How about actual re-enactment and play? Here we get to some serious interactivity, intensity, mental involvement, and imagination. Indeed, the more crude the props and implements, the higher the imaginative involvement.

Lastly of course is actually carrying out a heroic experience, engaging in the hard work involved, the practice, the training, the schooling needed to be a professional musician, or join seal team 6, or cure cancer. But that takes forever!

One can easily imagine religion arising out of this process of devising and telling heroic tales. Adults and children alike thrive on such sagas. Perhaps one saga (Homer's, the Ramayana, the Mosaic tale, etc.) captures the mood and vitality of a culture particularly well, with close scrapes, awesome enemies, deep poetry, and triumphant successes. Perhaps, in its customary recognition of the overwhelming importance of the hero's unique inner resources (i.e. the unconscious), its heroes gain magical assistance or are themselves gods under mundane cover.

Perhaps this story becomes so psychologically compelling or ritualized in re-enactment that it turns from story into fact- a "believed" religious narrative. Some other ingredients may be added, such as a back-story about how the world is created, and some more or less rationalized doctrines about how the "super" powers and "super"-beings relate to each other to satisfy the more cerebral believers. But all these things can be added later on rather easily, as George Lucas has labored voluminously (if relatively vainly) to show. (L. Ron Hubbard had a great deal more success!)

And what about humor? In striking contrast to a story that evolves into religion, the Star Wars mashup is as much spoof as homage, yet is none the less loving for that. The original film used plenty of humor, particularly from C3PO, and the comically over-drawn villains. There are fine lines between modelling success and being successful, delicious in their plasticity. Also, fine lines between profundity and platitude, between bathos and tragedy, between meaningful myth and camp. Humor seems to signify our knowledge of those lines, our mutual conspiracy to experience greatness while wearing collanders on our heads. It also, in its better tenors, affirms existential hope over the various tragic means and ends of human life.

In this connection, Campbell tried to resurrect an ancient sense of comedy, far different from what is customary today:
"We are not disposed to assign to comedy the high rank of tragedy. Comedy as satire is acceptable, as fun it is a pleasant haven of escape, but the fairy tale of happiness ever after can not be taken seriously; it belongs to the never-never land of childhood, which is protected from the realities that will become terribly known soon enough; just as the myth of heaven ever after is for the old, whose lives are behind them and whose hearts have to be readied for the last portal of the transit into night - which sober, modern, Occidental judgement is founded on a total misunderstanding of the realities depicted in the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedies of redemption. These, in the ancient world, were regarded as of a higher rank than tragedy, of a deeper truth, of a more difficult realization, of a sounder structure, and of a revelation more complete. 
The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. ... Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.
It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and 'unreal': they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs."

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  • Our government is corrupt.
  • Our media is corrupt too.
  • What we need in a new political/economic narrative.
  • Brief talk on place cells in the brain.
  • Could it be that banks are really getting cut down to size?
  • On the other hand, the Greek crisis generates even more financial innovation.
  • The CBC's look at Occupy concludes, with a rousing call to democratize capital and downsize the FIRE sector (segment 3, minute 47 to end).
  • Economics quote, from Robert Solow, via Bill Mitchell, speaking of conventional micro-based macroeconomic modeling approaches (dynamic stochastic general equilibrium, or DSGE):
"An obvious example is that the DSGE story has no real room for unemployment of the kind we see most of the time, and especially now: unemployment that is pure waste. There are competent workers, willing to work at the prevailing wage or even a bit less, but the potential job is stymied by a market failure. The economy is unable to organize a win-win situation that is apparently there for the taking. This sort of outcome is incompatible with the notion that the economy is in rational pursuit of an intelligible goal. The only way that DSGE and related models can cope with unemployment is to make it somehow voluntary, a choice of current leisure or a desire to retain some kind of flexibility for the future or something like that. But this is exactly the sort of explanation that does not pass the smell test."

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