The Three Sides of Star Wars

This is a review of The Force Awakens. But it is also a bit of an anachronistic plea for why the original Star Wars trilogy – that’s Episodes IV, V, and VI, – matter. I know that this makes me a bit of blowhard – hardly anybody wants to hear this, but I think I actually have a somewhat unique angle here.

Let me explain. I am not your typical Star Wars fanboy. Despite consistent attempts to pigeon-hole me as such, I simply am not like that. I rarely watch Star Wars, much less agonize over teaser trailer details or collect the toys. In fairness, I will reveal that as a child I loved my Star Wars micro machines and collected Star Wars cards like a maniac. That being said, since I started high school, I have largely forgotten about the whole thing.

Star Wars always has had three sides to its fans. The first is Nerd Culture. The second are children/families/pop culture fans. Lastly – and most obscurely – are fans of the mythology and technical perfection that people see in Star Wars. People like me.

First there is the technical aspects: the amazing special effects, the dazzling array of creatures and robots and vehicles. The likeable, believable-ness of the Star Wars Universe. The dialogue is essentially perfect; witty, but succinct. Smart, but not sappy or wordy. The characters are recognisable stereotypes, but are still fresh and deep in their own way. The plot – tweaked by George Lukas to conform to Joseph Campbell’s books on mythology – is perfect, complete, and fulfilling. The sounds and soundtrack are perfect. The result is a cowboy western meets samurai showdown meets epic space opera and King Arthur’s Court.

Most Importantly, Star Wars  is a portal into Zen and eastern mysticism. This sounds weird, but bare with me. If you watch Japanese samurai flicks from the ’50s, and ’60s, like those of Akira Kurosawa, or Seven Samurai, you can see the influence. In Eastern religions, and in Zen and Japanese philosophy, Good and Evil function differently. Eastern religions do not have our Manichean background; someone of extreme spirituality is just as capable of evil deeds as good ones. And while good works are definitely associated with saints and heroes, it’s possible for those that are inducted into the inner truths of things to weld great power for evil. The ultimate background of the Eastern Universe is moral-neutral; it’s cyclical, rather then the more teleological universe that we are used too.

Star Wars takes place in this “Eastern” universe. It was my first contact with this powerful, timeless mode of thinking; and for the greater American public, this legacy is more important than most people realise. In the original movies, The Force is implicitly Japanese. In the Prequels (Episodes I, II, III), it is biological, and in the latest instalment (Episode VII), it is magical, akin to the Harry Potter Universe. This is a serious step backwards.

The Force is a westernised adaptation that is akin the Tao of Chinese background. It represents both philosophic knowledge, spiritual realisation, personal discipline, as well as alignment with forces greater than yourself. It’s not magic: it has more to do with the idea of “the flow-state” or what Hunter S. Thompson would call “when the Music starts”. It’s self-actualisation and spiritual achievement. It’s the physical expression of the attainment of Wisdom and Insight into a deeper, fundamental Reality.

Luke only slowly comes to realize the Force and it’s power. He really doesn’t use the Force until the end of Episode VI; we see this in his implies to become a hermit. Like in Japanese sword flicks, the winner of the dual is often apparent – it’s a matter of inner discipline and tuning oneself to the larger Universe. The hatred and rage of the “evil” character blinds him to his own doom and inevitable defeat.

Part of the confusion over the Force is that it seems to run in the Skywalker family. This is not meant to be biological; it is meant to harken back to a sort of medieval conception of kingship, but also to Japanese schools swordsmanship which often past down esoteric knowledge from father to son, or Master to Master. The importance of the Skywalker’s isn’t that they are biological special, it is that they are more in tune with the nature of the Force; they are born to by mythological.

Luke’s training by Yoda accords with both Japanese mythology (Yoda is the master who passes on the Secret Knowledge) and Greek mythology (the hero undergoes a trip into the Underworld and is born anew). It accords with the knightly quest, and more universal mythology of the Hero who must overcome himself and journey to the Centre of the Universe to renew things.

The original movies are about the Redemption of Darth Vader – only the Emperor is truly evil and it is an insane Evil – by the son. Vader is corrected by his fatal flaw – an impatience and need to use his power to change the things for better.

Instead of being loyal to the original source material, they choose to crib and imitate it. Yes, they did a million times better than the Prequels, but I think they let the Star Wars down; its a movie for a dumber audience with a shorter attention span. Arguments to the effect of “really, what else could they do?” ignore the crass market-teering and the cynical greed that powers these new Star Wars movies. They want to appease and distract the Nerd Fanbase, while appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator. These are people who do not understand the importance of the mythology of the thing.

Ray’s use of the Force comes much to fast. There is no way her powers can match that of Kylo Ren, who has received training from Luke Skywalker. The First Order is also much more Fascist and histrionic than the Empire; it’s a more comic villain. I do think Kylo Ren was pretty well done. And a loved Mark Hamill’s appearence at the end of the movie. I can’t help but wishing that the producers would take Star Wars as seriously as I do.

Hey Rube

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I love Hunter S. Thompson, and we are much poorer without him (he committed suicide in 2005). His rants; his persona, his hijinks and General Outlook on Life are much needed in this day and age. Hari Kunzru wrote that “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”[2] 

And that this is true. Hunter S. Thompson deals in irony and hyperbole. He speaks in a language that really not that many Americans “get”. And he is right far more often than anyone would like to admit.

For example, on September 12th, 2001, he writes that “…we are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay At War with that strange and mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fuelled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy…” (page 90). This is prescient.

Things get so bad that Thompson even wishes for Nixon back; we live in the time of the Big Darkness. And it is a Big Deal when Hunter S. Thompson thinks that today is worse then the ’70s. “They where doing terrible things, but at least they had the decency to deny it”is the gist of what he says.

Most of this book is about sports – mostly football and basketball, and one good rant about baseball (something about eliminating the picture and creating a mad scramble for bases) – and gambling, but interspersed is the usual Hunter S. Thompsonisms of politics, hijinks, drugs, and ominous hints and jokes.

It’s typical Thompson. But keep in mind that these are some of the last things he ever wrote. Hey Rude is actually rather sad. Hunter was a creature of the ’60s, and ’70s…the harsh era of neoliberalism only highlights the failure of ’60’s counterculture. So that’s sad. It’s sad to read the work of an ageing rebel about a year out from his suicide.

But it’s sad that Hunter’s political insights  – he was a First Class American political observer – have gone unacknowledged. His views, often dismissed as hyperbole. And after living through Vietnam to see the whole gruesome thing repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq must have been crushing.

There is an old adage in left leaning philosophy/sociology that you must “speak Truth to power”. This comes close to capturing the magic of Thompson; it’s scary to see it so ineffective.

Thompson is laugh-out-loud funny; he walks a thin line between autobiography, politics, comedy, and sheer non-sensical farce.

It’s brilliant and necessary and I am so scared that he’s gone now…

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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This is my third Murakami; I am starting to detect a pattern. Or maybe underlying parallels between books.

Each book features a similar main character: an eccentric and not stupid, but fundamentally normal guy. Who finds himself caught up in a fantastic surreal story line and discovers his own wonderful uniqueness. All of these characters like beer and whiskey and listening to records.

Each book features a detective-esque quest which progresses but ends in a melancholy, unexpected conclusion. Each book features women who are normal and fantastic at the same time; they are the mirror of the male main character. For example, one female lead is normal and reserved except for her ears, which are beautiful in a cosmic, pulchritudinous sense. These ears also can detect and divine the future. These female characters are the salvation and oasis for the male characters who seemed fundamentally damaged and incomplete in some small, yet chronic way.

In the meantime, Murakami books speak profound truths uttered in surreal, Kafka-esque tones and babbling accents.

As perusal, it would be useless for me to attempt to describe the plot of this book to you; and as usual, Murakami pulls off ridiculous novelistic feats through sheer tactical brilliance. I will say that there is a mad-scientists who echoes mythically as God of the Underworld; a forward and plucky homeschooled teenage girl, a secret high-tech world of espionage and encryption, subterranean monsters, and a whimsical The Prisoner-esque world of imprisonment/quietude. It’s really about one man’s consciousness and the complexity and wonder of the human mind. That’s really as close as I can come.

Murakami’s secret I think is that he makes the fantastic sound and feel real; what is nonsense becomes possible, what is fantastic becomes plausible. It’s a world of magic, and now that I think about it has some similarity in appeal to the Universe of Harry Potter (i.e., magic everywhere, yet only lightly hidden; hidden because the modern world is too fast and haggard and harried to notice it).

So far Kafka On the Shore is by far my favourite, followed closely by a Wild Sheep ChaseHard-Boiled Wonderland is a distant third; it is the most dream-like, the most wooly.

Now that I am really thinking about it, there is something of Greek Tragedy about Murakami. Something about Fate and Fatal Flaws leading to disaster; there is a similar pre-ordained choreographed sense to the action.

Murakami is like kaleidoscope – or a Rorschach Test – you must read it to discover the meaning for yourself.

The Secret History

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I had heard good thing about this book – but upon picking it up off the shelf of a thrift store in Ogden, Utah, it was hard to know exactly what to think. Is it a Dan Brownesque escapade? A serial killer thriller set with the backdrop of Greek Classics? A simple murder master, perhaps?

It’s none of those things. It’s actually quite unique.

First off – it’s a terrible title. It’s both vague and irrelevant to the plot. But that’s my only real criticism. I just can’t help but think of millions of different and better titles.

The quotations on the introductory page give a hint. There is a dedication to Bret Easton Ellis (of American Psycho and  Less Than Zero), followed by a quote from Nietzsche about young men studying the Classics and Plato’s Republic.

The Secret History is one part Bret Easton Ellis, one part Dostoyevsky and one part Hunter S. Thompson. And that’s a pretty awesome combination. It’s deeply informed by a deep knowledge of the Greek classics. Donna Tartt does great in both descriptive action, sublime description, and haunting, insightful description.

It’s not a predictable book; it’s doesn’t quite fit into any boxes you might try to put it in. It does ring true in many different aspects. The characters are vibrant and vivid. Certain relationships and characters – specifically the character of Camilla – I found to be extremely similar to my own college experience.

This is a brilliant book. The sort of book that we read for.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed

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This is easily one of the best books about the ancient world that I have encountered. The ancient world – and it’s history – comes in two forms: mythology/legend and relentlessly archaeological.

Richard Miles has managed to combine both to form a sensible and thoroughly enjoyable narrative. Carthage Must be Destroyed – a title taken from Cato’s dramatic ending to his addresses to the Roman Senate – is about the foundation and growth of Carthage, it’s epic wars with the Roman Empire, and its eventual destruction at the hands of its great nemesis.

Carthage, founded sometime in the 8th century BC, was a maritime merchant city in which thrived on Mediterranean trade ranging from wine, to silver, and luxury goods. In modern-day Tunesia, Carthage was founded by the ancient city of Tyre (modern-day Israel/Lebanon). Miles tells both the story of Carthage, but also the greater picture of ancient history which tends to be obscured by military legends.

These ancient Levantine cities – like Tyre – form the background of the origin of our sense of international affairs and high politics. Out of the depths of history, nearly three thousand years ago the great powers of the day – the first great powers in history really – was the Egyptian Empire and their rivals, the Assyrians. Between them, were these mercantile cities on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. To avoid be annexed by the rivals powers, these cities sailed out further and further looking for new resources with which to essentially buy off the two land-locked empires.

In the course of this power dynamic, essentially the entire Mediterranean was settled and interlinked through a remarkable trade. Carthage was one of these cities; its sailors made it as far north as Ireland, and as far south as maybe the Congo.

While Carthage is linked to a cosmopolitan world of Mediterranean trade, Rome was much more agricultural; its link with the wider world was an affinity for Greek culture and civilisation, which it made every effort to adopt. Thus the image that emerges from Rome is an austere, militaristic republic founded on civic duty rather than trade.

Carthage for most of it’s history was in conflict with Greek colonial cities, primarily Syracuse for dominance in Sicily and the central Mediterranean. Greek propagandistic sought to portray Levantine Carthage as at the western counterpart to the Great Eastern Menace: the Persian Empire.

The Roman Empire was in a sense a late comer to this game for power in the Mediterranean. But it’s unique military and civic attributes allowed it to overcome defeat and conquer new territory like few powers before it had been able too. Where most powers simply fought to a moderate exhaustion, and considered most of its respective territory as expendable, wars tended to be peripheral.

Rome fought for keeps. They simply would not surrender, and rarely negotiated for peace. The result was in many ways a new form of warfare which literally no nation in the ancient world had the power to resist. Carthage’s wars with Rome are probably the closest Rome ever came to being defeated in it’s phase of expansion. The other powers of the ancient world – such as Macedonia, the Seleucids – it is already too late.

The Punic Wars are a bit like the WWI and WWII of the ancient world. Of course, you can’t push that metaphor too far, but it works as a nice little hook. This book is epic and informative.