Thursday, April 22, 2010
“Learn well, Jakesully. We will see if your insanity can be cured.”
Kaltxi one and all.
This is my long awaited philosophical exploration of Avatar, the James Cameron film that has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Months before the film's release, most of us had heard the story behind the story. We knew Cameron had conceived Avatar well over a decade ago. We knew he had to wait years for technology to catch up with the visions conjured by his imagination. We'd heard again and again how this promised to be a lavish, epic 3-D experience, a panoramic digital painting of an alien world with a level of detail previously unheard of.
As the hype began to build, trailers surfaced online, and hushed presentations premiered on the convention circuits. We soon learned that the film centered around a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully, and took place a hundred and fifty years into a grim future. With the Earth's resources almost exhausted, a mega-corporation known as the RDA had found a new world to plunder, though it was light years away.
Calling upon Jake to take his late twin brother's place, the RDA brought him into their Avatar program. On a beautiful, rich moon named Pandora, he became an avatar of the native humanoids who lived there. Known as the Na'vi, these exotic, ten-foot tall blue aboriginals reluctantly agreed to train Jake in their ways. Though originally sent to infiltrate the peaceful tribe, he soon falls for a striking Na'vi called Neytiri, experiences a profound connection with the wondrous forests of Pandora, and predictably questions his own loyalties.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Though the most expensive movie ever made, Avatar eventually spun box office gold. It is now the most successful movie of all time, earning over two billion dollars worldwide, and even eclipsing Titanic at the box office. It was nominated for a handful of Academy Awards, and won three of them. It was also a significant critical success, though some have argued its story is somewhat clichéd and its themes are one-dimensional.
I had hotly anticipated the film's release, poring over the trailers and even buying the art book and the soundtrack ahead of time. Still, after that first midnight showing, I'd felt like some of the critics. The visuals were undeniably spectacular, the music was stunning, and the direction was exciting and imaginative. Nonetheless, the story and the script had seemed very one-note to me, not really providing the depth my analytical mind enjoys feasting on. What was worse, at times the film felt more like a static political allegory, and less like the grand, multi-layered myth I'd been expecting.
To be sure, Avatar has generated a fair amount of political controversy. While the left has not been without criticism, the right has been particularly adamant about chastising the film. Rightly or wrongly, they have seen it as attacking capitalism, criticizing the war on terror, and clobbering unwitting audiences with an aggressive environmental message.
For me, the film unarguably contained two or three lines of overt political dialogue, and they hindered my enjoyment during that initial showing. While my concerns are most certainly with humanity as well as with our planet, I cannot help but shrink away from the political side of things. Not only do I personally find politics divisive, unintelligent, and consistently playing to the lowest common denominator, more often than not, it seems real issues are hijacked and become little more than fodder for campaign platforms.
Whether I personally agree or disagree with Cameron's political sympathies is beside the point, because as far as I'm concerned, politics themselves are beside the point. The sometimes smug, usually fevered politicizing of environmental issues is something of a minor tragedy. After all, even though the right and left wings live in different worlds, they do share the same planet. Unfortunately all both sides do now is engage in territorial threat displays, flashing their colored crests at each other like massive Pandoran Hammerhead Titanotheres. And in the process kick up so much dust no one can see a thing.
As the poet William Blake said, politics seemed to him to be "something other than human life," and human life is what this blog is exploring. Particularly how we experience that life, and how that experience informs our relationship with everything else.
That sort of thing really appeals to me, though I didn't see much of it in Avatar the first time. But I was still interested, and so I sat back and watched as the film grew into an unstoppable phenomenon. Clearly, it was resonating with audiences, and with some of them on that deep, mythic level I'd expected and wanted. So much so that many even felt empty and depressed when they had to walk out of the theaters and into our own troubled world.
Fortunately, someone convinced me to go see it again, and I enjoyed it considerably more the second time around. Things started clicking for me, as if the story had been waiting to gel. Then I finally dropped my preconceptions altogether, and went to see it a third time alone. I was transported even more this time, and it became a magical movie-going experience. Now I own the Blu-Ray, and the visual quality remains utterly stunning.
After immersing myself in it, I can honestly there is much to love in Avatar. I love the story, the characters, and even much of the dialogue. I love the creatures, the fauna, and the entire moon of Pandora. Most of all, I love the Na'vi culture, especially the Omaticaya tribe we as the audience are initiated into. In the end, they taught me about as much as they did Jake Sully, at least as far as appreciating the film goes.
Undeniably, Avatar provides a very visceral experience for film-goers. The 3-D practically envelops the theater on a good day, and one can almost swim in the spectacle of the bioluminescent forests at night. Connection is a big theme in the film, and it is easy to connect with the action here. Alongside Jake Sully's avatar, audiences can thunder about on mighty, six-legged direhorses, skate over the uppermost branches of the primordial trees, and soar through the air on enormous, four-winged mountain banshees.
Not to mention simply sit back and savor the majesty of the floating Hallelujah Mountains.
But what struck me most of all, what freed the film from any and all political commentary and opened it up to considerable philosophical interpretation, was one simple line. When it was being decided whether Jake would be taught the ways of the Omaticaya tribe, Neytiri's mother Mo'at was interested in one thing, and one thing only.
Mo'at wanted to know if Jake Sully's "insanity can be cured." And by extension, the insanity afflicting the whole of humanity. Now this was something I could philosophically sink my teeth into.
For some time, it has seemed a distinct possibility to me that modern human beings feel, interpret, and experience reality - and really our very existence - in an utterly dissociative, almost schizophrenic way. The reasons for this are complicated, but much of it boils down to the nature of our self-conscious minds. With the ability to endlessly intellectualize, to conjure up concepts and ideas about life, we have lost much of our basic connection to life. We are trained to live in a commentary on reality, rather than in reality itself. This handicap is in no small measure the reason for both our estrangement from nature, as well as our often destructive technological relationship to it.
In his wonderful book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig looks back over the history of the Western World and comes to the same basic conclusion. Investigating the underpinnings of modern civilization, the narrator even remarks -
And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained the power to understand and rule the world in dialectical truths had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth - but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.
And indeed, Avatar was saying much the same thing. No cinematic creation in recent memory is more a part of their world than the Na’vi, and they even reflected on the impossibility of teaching someone who’s "cup is already full.”
This is of course evocative of a modern mind filled to the brim with so many ideas and preconceptions it can no longer process anything else, much in the same way that an RDA executive is so convinced the real wealth of Pandora is in the market value of Unobtanium rather than in the spiritual wonder of the moon itself.
It is a mentality that has no problem crashing through grove after grove of sacred trees with massive construction vehicles just for another wad of money, an artificial symbol of wealth. It is a mentality that likewise kills Jake's brother, a living, breathing human being, for nothing but "the paper in his wallet." The Na'vi princess Neytiri provides a stunning counterpoint to this when she mourns and prays over the pack of viper-wolves she had to kill in order to save Jake, addressing them as brothers and sisters.
The point of this essay is that scenes like this have absolutely nothing to do with politics, nor can they simply be chalked up to unrestrained corporate greed. They have to do with the institutionalized cultural insanity that has nurtured and developed such a mentality both in the fictional arena of the film, as well as in our own reality. What we are dealing with is a psychological fracture in the way human consciousness has evolved, a neurological divide between the holistic right side of the brain and the hopelessly analytical left, and the way that schism dictates how we view the world. No matter how many plastic bags we recycle or how eco-friendly our corporations become, it is very likely no fundamental change can occur until things are dealt with on some existential level.
As Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, and there is no indication whatsoever that politics are capable of or even interested in exploring deeper issues. On the contrary, a political mind is one of the fullest cups on the planet, and if human beings are ever to "see" life the way the Na'vi do, politics is probably the first thing that needs to be jettisoned.
This may be borderline heresy for some people, but the story is largely told from this point of view. When Neytiri takes Jake under her wing, and teaches him how to tease out the faintest "scents and sounds" of the forest, how to feel the "network of energy" that flows through all living things, and shows him to respect the "spirits of animals," she is not making political statements. This cannot be stressed enough.
The statement she is making has to do with a complete psychological orientation that values the unity of life over the isolation of the self-conscious ego. She brings him into full participation with the one life that the Na'vi see in all things, and she does so by hunting and swimming, chanting and flying, diving from tree branch to tree branch, and precariously using large leaves to slide down enormous heights. As Jake muses, with Neytiri, he has to "trust his body to know what to do," and that it's either "learn fast or die." She certainly doesn't break out pie charts and lecture him on the injustices of deforestation.
The Na'vi are able to live as they do because that is the way they interpret and mythologize their existence. They let nature speak for herself, specifically through the planetary neural consciousness they personify as the living goddess Eywa. One of the most fascinating things about their culture is that the spiritual has no identity separate from the material, and even their deity only serves the greater "balance of life."
Indeed, their religion consecrates everything they touch, so much so that the corporate executive Parker Selfridge complains that you can't drop a stick on the moon without "hitting some sacred fern." It is a spirituality that is about moving in harmony with nature, rather than perceiving it as something fallen or sinful, something that needs to be conquered and corrected.
But keep in mind, the Na'vi do not live this way to hammer home a political ideology, much less because they're environmentalists. It seems highly likely they would simply see environmentalism as another aspect of our insanity that needs to be cured, if for no other reason than a true Na'vi would never conceive of themselves as something separate from the environment to begin with!
Their entire existence speaks of connection, from the way they all form a network around someone who has been "reborn" into the Omaticaya tribe, the way their braided qeues allow them to essentially download their consciousness into that of other creatures, the way they mate for life under the trees of voices, and even the way in which they are cradled in cocoon-like beds by their beloved Hometree every night.
If the Na'vi are telling us anything, it is that we're going to have to come back to our senses. But if we're going to do that, we're first going to have to go out of our minds - or at least out of the endless narration going on in them that serves to cut us off from life's ebb and flow. Much like Jake Sully, humanity is going to have to learn to sink into the rhythms of nature again, to move with them as easily as branches seeking sunlight, and to foster a deep love and respect for them. In other words, we are all going to have to abandon our old wheelchairs and our old habits and our old mindsets, and learn to walk all over again.
It may be remarkably easy to forget in a world of traffic jams and skyscrapers, but human beings bloomed out of the rich fabric of nature as surely as any tree or flower. There is no fence with humanity on one side and nature on the other, no matter what our social systems or religions or philosophies or sciences may have sometimes argued. The reason Avatar resonates so deeply is because this primal connection with the entirety of nature, what the Na'vi call shahaylu, was also experienced by modern homo sapiens for the better part of the last 100,000 years. It's just the last few thousand that have been so rough.
Yet this natural bond is still direct and immediate, and can be experienced in the biological legacy of our own bodies. After all, our physical organisms are ecosystems of marvelous intricacy and intelligence in their own right, with river systems of veins and arteries and vast root networks of neurons and dendrites. The deep organic wisdom that the Na'vi revere as Eywa is surely the same as the natural patterns that grow our bones, color our hair, animate our limbs, and beat our hearts. We continually miss it because we regard intelligence as something that exists almost solely behind the eyes and between the ears, as if we get in our bodies and drive them around, not unlike the mercenary Colonel Quaritch in his mechanized AMP suit.
Keep in mind this identity with all of life is not, as Dr. Grace Augustine pointed out in the film, "some pagan voodoo." That we are intimately connected to everything around us is evident in the genetic history of every cell in our bodies, starting with the lineage of our parents, then our extended family, then our ancestors, and then into the animal kingdom, and finally into the entire planetary whole, including earth and air, sky and water. Our senses and nervous systems imbue our reality with light, smell, taste, sound, temperature, weight, and color, our bodies unconsciously playing the continuum of nature as a master pianist plays a piano.
But again, all of this has to do with states of consciousness and awareness, not red states versus blue ones. The Na'vi are raised to perceive life as an organic whole, whereas socialized human beings are largely hypnotized into seeing it as an assembled machine that can only be grasped through elaborate signs and symbols.
While it is true that such an orientation enables the humans in the world of Avatar to do amazing things like launch the enormous spaceship Venture Star and travel five light years to the Alpha Centauri system, it also inhibits them from understanding what Pandora truly is when they get there. As Pirsig pointed out, in this bargain we have lost what it means to be a part of the world in exchange for our ability to rule it through language, science, mathematics, and technology.
The late great mythologist Joseph Campbell said it best -
But if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.
The trick is simply feeling this to be so, to bring it into our awareness, even when everything around us is screaming the opposite.
In closing, this sort of orientation cannot really grow in an atmosphere of divisive politics, ecological sermonizing, or doom-laden warnings concerning climate change. Quite frankly, the average individual really has no control over such things anyway, aside from the usual self-congratulatory feelings that one might derive from pointing accusatory fingers at the other side.
One has the choice of growing depressed over this, or simply embracing the one thing they do have control over, namely their own awareness of the world around them. There is nothing whatsoever that prevents any of us from teasing out our own connections to life, and to seeing nature, our relationships, our bodies, and ourselves as something sacred.
We can take to heart the words of our own William Blake when he suggested, "Arise and drink your bliss, for everything that lives is holy."
In the end, we know what saved Jake Sully. In his own words, he simply "fell in love." Even moreso than his apotheosis under the Tree of Souls, that was his redemption, the maturing of his own hero's journey. And it seems fair to speculate that he fell in love not only with the Omaticaya People, and the forests of Pandora, and of course Neytiri, but with life itself. His world wasn't saved through fear, guilt, or angry protests, but rather through love. Love was what taught him to truly "see," to open his heart to a much broader and richer life experience, and to be able to take a deep breath and simply sink into the sheer wonder and beauty that is existence.
No doubt love can do the same for us and, if it does, then we can rest assured this wonderful planet we all call home is more than capable of taking care of itself.
So Kiyevame, and may the All-Mother smile on your path.
* Happy day. My article has been officially posted at naviblue.com in the editorial section as well as the forums, though that version does contain a few typos I failed to catch before submitting.