Star Wars, orthodoxy and spirituality

I was looking over the post I made about The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and I thought back to actual philosophical conversations some friends and I have had about Star Wars.

We were all born in the late 1970s, so Star Wars was part of our childhood mythology. It’s a passion for us, and the debates have gotten quite heated, particularly surrounding the Prequel Trilogy and their place in the pantheon.

In all seriousness, the Prequels aren’t really respected by most fans I know. I don’t know about die-hard, convention-going fans, which we are not. But just regular people who, like us, grew up fantasizing about the movies, making lightsaber sounds every time we turned on a flashlight—we’re having trouble reconciling the quality of the Prequels with our love of the Original Trilogy.

So hoping to inject some intellectual coherence into the Prequels, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what Lucas is try to say there. There’s this whole messy political plot that is incomprehensible to me. Mixed up in there is a statement about Messianic theology, dogmatism, orthodoxy, mysticism, and religion in general. (And now for the indulgent fan-boy analysis. Hey, I’ve got to do something to redeem this franchise.)

After seeing Episode III, then watching the later episodes, I was struck by how different Yoda was as a character in the Prequels. He was a caricature of the version of himself in Empire Strikes Back. In Empire Strikes Back, he played the fool and did the jumbled grammar thing for a while, but when things got serious, so did he and so did his dialogue. His foolishness was a test, a threshold that needed to be crossed. And when it was crossed, he didn’t get dark, but he got mystical, he got deep. It’s because he, during the last twenty years of his life, finally understood what the Force was all about. And it’s clear that he didn’t understand it as well as he thought he did back in I, II and III. Sure, he could absorb energy and leapfrog around while duelling, but that’s not the Force. That’s charlatanism. On Dagobah, he finally made that distinction and was able to tell Luke about it.

(I think of similar thought threads in the story of Siddartha Gautama’s eventual mastery of yoga and subsequent Buddhahood; yoga practitioners were supposed to be able to perform special feats such as levitation and the like. But of course, that misses the point of yoga, which is supposed to be a doorway to Enlightenment.)

You look at the institution of the Jedis in I, II and III, and it’s an institution that is rigid and orthodox. Yoda was part of that system, that hegemony. You can see in the first five minutes of Episode I that Yoda and, for example, Qui-Gon Jinn are at philosophical odds. Qui-Gon talks about the “living Force,” a term that was never once mentioned in IV, V and VI. He’s the outsider, the reckless one, the unstructured one. He was aloof, detached, above it all. He’s the one who truly understood what the Force could be. It’s not an institution. It’s flexible. (This hearkens back to what I was saying about Jesus and the spirit and the law). That spiritual core is what you find Yoda talking about in V that he never once talked about in the Prequels. It’s not about “crude matter”; it’s about people as “luminous beings.” He too, in his last years, became aloof, detached, above it all.

The Jedis fell not because of a prophecy, but because they were too conservative to respond to the challenge of the Sith. They lost sight of the living Force, just like so many orthodox religions seem to lose sight of the Spirit at the expense of the Law. They lost sight of the ethical core of their religion. So once again, you have outsiders who want to change the institution. They go on about the Dark Side of the Force as being freer (plus, the whole world domination thing). Really, they are radicals in the same way that terrorists of all stripes are today. They are dissatisfied with the status quo, dissatisfied with the institution which they deem to be corrupt or misguided, and they aren’t willing to sit around waiting for things to change in their favor.

In III, Palpatine goes on about the “dogmatic view” of the Jedis, how narrow-minded they are. Yes, he was evil and manipulative, but every manipulation has an element of truth to it; that’s what makes it so effective and so seductive. The dogmatism, the certainty of the Jedis, is the only way one can explain their spectacular downfall. I mean, Sam freakin’ Jackson, man, the original Bad Mother Fucker. But he wasn’t the enlightened, briefcase-protecting, pancake-eating Jules Winnfield in Star Wars. He was the gun-toting, Bible-quoting Jules Winfield in Star Wars. And that’s why he got fried.

The point of all this is trying to figure out just what the hell George Lucas was trying to do with the Prequels. I still have no idea. There are so many other ways it could have gone. Although I thought Ewan McGregor was great in II and III, can you imagine Kenneth Branagh as Obi-Wan? And Obi-Wan as the reckless mystic like Qui-Gon instead of the dutiful babysitter? The Obi-Wan of IV, V, and VI is a complex, broken man, a man who lies about his failures in an attempt to hide them. You kind of understand why after seeing III, but I still wish Obi-Wan and Anakin could have had more conversations about the Force and less about curfews and rules and the like. Where was the “reckless” Obi-Wan that was talked about in V? No idea. Where was the inescapable “power of the Dark Side” that gave Darth Vader such strength and conviction? No idea. But at least I kind of understand the mythological framework of what happened in I, II and III. Things were hinted at, but never fully developed.

I still don’t know what the hell Episodes I and II were about, and I still think they are almost entirely irrelevant to the next four episodes, plot-wise. Yes, there were a few pieces that were necessary: Qui-Gon’s living Force, Palpatine’s ascension to Supreme Chancellor, and maybe the creation of the clone army (though really, who cares?). Other than that, the story of Episode I should have begun where Episode III began: the fall of the Old Republic and the siege of Coruscant, with Obi-Wan and Anakin flying against the backdrop of exploding starships. Who cares about the pod races on Tatooine? We don’t need to know how Obi-Wan and Anakin met. And Jar-Jar? Why? I mean…why?

I wanted to see Vader chase Jedis across the galaxy the way he chased the heroes in Empire Strikes Back. I wanted to see Palpatine and Vader being allies. I wanted to see Obi-Wan as the wise outsider, like Qui-Gon. I wanted to see The Clone Wars Obi-Wan talked about in IV, not The Clone War. And it was a crappy war at that.

But most of all, we never really got to understand what the Force was really about. It seems like all it was good for was doing a bunch of cool flips. That’s the Force that binds the galaxy together, that gives people insight and all that? Besides maybe Qui-Gon Jinn, I didn’t see a single Jedi in the Prequels having any kind of wisdom, and that’s sad. Instead, they were simply ineffectual policemen who could do cool flips. But then, that’s the reason why they were wiped out, isn’t it?