Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We Are the Suitors and Odysseus Is Coming

--> In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero has a painful epiphany when he discovers that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”—that is, people who appear to be good can turn out to be secretly evil. In the Odyssey, it is the protagonist and not the villain who is the figure of disguise, and the appalling discovery is not disguise but its opposite, a comfortable naivetĂ©: the Suitors can smile and smile and be utterly doomed. Their slaughter is scary precisely because they failed to heed the prophecies, omens, and outright warnings that they would be killed if they persisted in their easy indulgence of appetite and grandiose fantasy. While Odysseus was out in the world, learning to accept his humanity and mortality through suffering and seeking, they were at his home, indoors and at ease, living without effort like the gods (or like their favorites, the Phaeacians, whose life of ease is also eventually stopped). One of the gods’ oft-repeated and defining characteristics is that they live “at ease.” As George Dimock has emphasized, the Suitors’ central flaw is their contempt for the reality of their position. This is as good a definition of neurosis as we are likely to find in Freud, and a reader with a modicum of self-knowledge might well be struck by the depth of their self-deception and then head for the mirror with some difficult questions.

Already in the Iliad, Homer sang the potential horrors of the delusions that mislead us, as in Agamemnon’s captivity to AtĂȘ, the goddess of mental blindness and “Ruin,” and in Achilles’ similar captivity to his own smoldering anger. Dolon thought he would carry off the horses of Achilles; Hector thought Apollo was Deiphobos; Pandaros thought he would win glory by breaking the truce; and on and on. Here in the later poem, person after person has been told some prophecy of a certain Odysseus who will eventually arrive and cause pain, but none of them recognizes that the new arrival is he. Which is more frightening to you: the monsters like Scylla (gigantic and bizarre man-eaters) which nobody you know has ever seen, or the disastrous experience of the 108 Suitors, whose all-too-familiar complacency destroys them? Remember that “one barrel of oil provides the latent energy of up to 25,000 hours of human labor, or 12.5 years working 40 hour weeks.” Oil will not last forever, and its supply has already entered permanent decline at roughly 9% per year. Then there's the special perversity of the American financial position, printing empty money into existence out of thin air and calling it "debt," with no intention of ever paying it back. Our consumerist culture is itself based on a fantasy of inexhaustible abundance and ease, like the ambrosia of Olympus, the groves of the Phaeacians, or the household of Odysseus viewed from the perspective of the freeloading Suitors. Their demise is a fable for our times.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Review of "Avatar" for After You've Seen It

Ok I just saw Avatar. Second row. We got seats B-4 and B-5, which seemed like a little flake of the synchronicity dandruff that descends from God's scalp now and then. It suggested that we'd be different after the film from the persons we were B-4 we saw it, and that the film itself would show before and after pictures of the world. Then I remembered there's only one seat in the house with that number. Rein in the dreamyness.

Well, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The film uses a formulaic core [good aliens + bad USMC = crisis, solved by good human] as a stable platform on which to build an amazingly innovative film. The core gets the film past the barriers that would have prevented it from ever getting made, since that core is utterly tried and true at the box office, from Close Encounters to E.T. and so on. Sure enough, $242 million in the first weekend. Richly deserved.

So here is this new movie, which just happens to be shot in IMAX-friendly format with the best 3-D glasses element ever, and a new technique of film-making, in which the body mechanics animation includes the information scanned from the actors' facial expressions, transferring it all to their virtually enhanced onscreen counterparts. This technique is symbolically parallel to the technique inside the story, whereby a human can use a machine to transfer his or her mind into a different, alien body and back again. The parallel brings the world of the movie a little closer to the world of the audience, even though a mind transplant machine is as far beyond our current capability as this new form of film-making was beyond Charlie Chaplin.

As the hero is acclimated to the culture he is trying to penetrate, he experiences an identity crisis which he resolves by "going native" and switching his allegiance to the aliens. He then leads them to a costly but decisive victory over the human intruders. The identity crisis helps to pry the viewing public out of the death grip of its consumerist ego. When this movie dismisses the entire human race with the words "They killed their mother," it hits home.

The philosophy and tactics of non-violence don't gain a moment's hearing in this movie. The alien natives are a composite of Native American traits (real and legendary), including a proud warlike courage and contempt for death, without which there could have been no hope at all. Presumably a non-violent solution to our problems here on Earth is still possible, if only the boycotts and so on were of sufficient size and scope and duration, but there's little sign of that. Copenhagen has just failed.

Insofar as our desperate situation is like that of the assaulted indigenous people on planet Pandora, only violence will do, but insofar as it's different, a massive shift of thought and practice of the kind pictured at places like The Post-Carbon Institute might still be possible without armed conflict over it. Planet Pandora has a biosphere in which every organism is linked electrochemically with every other, so that the whole thing forms a unified conscious intelligence capable of deploying various organisms against the intruders. Our planet may (or may not) be fighting us with viruses, but it cannot seem to go all Hitchcock on our asses and launch the birds against us or it would have by now.

Toward the middle of "Avatar" when the Home Tree fell, we saw the protagonist walking on the forest floor as a rain of ash settled on and around him in an arresting visual parallel to the WTC. When the natives merge with their steeds or with another organism, the linkup is in the tail--but when the failing human body has to be transferred into a healthy alien one, the linkup is at the base of the head, evoking "The Matrix," where that cranial site was the hookup for McWorld. The payoff on invoking that movie, I think, is to reinforce the motif of the false self, whose (capitalist) false consciousness leads to disaster.

As Heidegger explained so well in "The Question Concerning Technology" (the only essay of that Nazi pig I can stand to read anymore), the heart of the matter is the way industrial civilization perceives ("enframes") nature as a limitless source of free wealth of lifeless "resources" to be exploited without constraint. In "The Matrix" (an innovative but verbally flatulent film) human beings are factory farmed for "bioenergy"; though it's never entirely clear just who has set up the dystopian system in that movie, the Matrix is clearly a figure for our own civilization. In "Avatar," the bad guys are the corporate-military crowd, up to our old human tricks, while the good guys are the natives, their planet, and the few human turncoats decent enough to side with the victims.

Sometimes the Marines wear giant metal robot battlesuits, similar to what the human defenders of "Zion" wore in "The Matrix," but there's also a parallel to the forklift-like suit that Sigourney Weaver (the Good Anthropologist of "Avatar") wore in "Aliens." In that movie human beings are meat, but we are bushmeat, not cattle. The enemy is not tech gone wrong ("Terminator", "Nine", "2001") but wild nature in the form of Ridley Scott's hungry, insect-like alien monsters. Since they want to eat us just as the wolves used to, we are roused to defend ourselves with the same insurgent yet humble courage with which King Arthur killed all the wolves in Britain and Hercules drove the lions out of Greece. Nature was vastly bigger than us, we were the endangered underdog, and we fought like hell to survive. Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed Humbaba the Forest God so that civilization could continue in spite of Nature's power to snuff it out. Films like "Alien" are satisfying because they relieve guilt about destroying nature (since they restore Nature to its lost ferocity) while allowing us to return to the state of insurgent heroic self-assertion that we dearly miss from the old days when good Beowulf killed bad Grendel. In "Jurassic Park," the opponent is both human hubristic tech gone wrong, and Nature's retaliatory self-assertion, since by bringing back the dinosaurs we have re-armed Nature against ourselves.

Most boys lose the Oedipal struggle to possess the mother, and must mourn for that loss in pain. A few are truly unlucky; such a boy wins the Oedipal struggle and commits incest with his mother, only to find his sanity has been destroyed. Like such an Oedipus, civilization cannot sort out the good feelings of its incestuous and matricidal triumph over Nature from the bad feelings of the resulting loss, guilt, and the mounting fear of real planetary catastrophic system failure and collapse.

Kafka wrote, "there is plenty of hope, but not for us." In "Avatar," the planet of nature that can still be saved is called "Pandora" and the Earth is already ruined.