“Star Wars” and the Immanence of Myth
As a longtime fan of the “Star Wars” saga (yes, I even have a soft spot for the dysfunctional prequels), I eagerly anticipate the release of the long-awaited seventh installment. And like countless other nerds, I’ve watched the few snippets of promotional material more times than I care to admit. (After all, one can never watch enough lightsaber duels).
Perhaps the most striking moment of the most recent trailer for me, however, was the short clip of a graying Han Solo. Han reflects on the long-ago clash between the light and dark sides of the mystical Force, which appears to have passed into legend in the intervening years between “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” As he speaks, the film’s fresh-faced protagonists – young, unaccustomed to hearing such stories treated as fact – begin to comprehend the significance of what this means for their concept of existence.
Thematically, “The Force Awakens” appears to touch on the power of myth – not only implicitly (as a superstructure giving form to the saga’s overarching narrative), but also explicitly in-film. And whether intentionally or not, this sparks some sobering thoughts about the possible real-world correlates of those things often described as “mythic” or “legendary.”
(As an aside, the term “myth” is often incorrectly deployed as a pejorative referring to something that is actually false. A myth, properly understood, is a narrative that is inextricably bound up with core truths of reality. As C. S. Lewis explained in his essay Myth Became Fact, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”).
It is the custom of the contemporary age to offer up Hallmark-card explanations for historical occurrences originally believed to violate natural laws (see, for instance, Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” in which a sage figure recounts the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 – not as a miraculous act, but rather as an occurrence in which, one by one, everyone slowly began to share with one another the food they had brought themselves). “The Force Awakens” seems to upend such modernist sensibilities, stressing the reality of stark encounter with supernatural disruptions of the natural order.
Consider that “Return of the Jedi” ended in a violent conflict to which no one (save Luke Skywalker) bore witness. In the original films, the power of the Force is highly subdued, rarely manifesting dramatically. Accordingly, its very existence is easily written off by Han Solo’s quip, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Those instances where the Force appears with maximum dramatic effect (lightsaber duels, lightning blasts) are typically scenes with very few witnesses – and those witnesses tend to be Force wielders themselves. It makes sense that Han can write off the Force as simply an eccentric worldview.
Yet here, Han appears to acknowledge, “It’s true. All of it.” His statement of its truth isn’t some saccharine pronouncement about how the Force is “the love and compassion that motivates us all”: it’s a real acknowledgement that some things might break through the materialist clockwork of life and radically shift one’s paradigm (as his has been shifted) – myth becoming fact.
As someone whose mental schema of the world definitely skews toward the mechanistic (and tends to stress God as Sustainer rather than God as Potential Intervener), I found this a particularly challenging – and potentially discomfiting – undercurrent: what if life really is not always as rational, as empirically predictable, as we believe it to be? When this idea is coupled with an appreciation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (the idea that the act of observing a phenomenon unavoidably adulterates the character of that phenomenon), one is pushed toward an epistemic position that favors “inquisitive humility.”
Our tendency to automatically educe the inexplicable to metaphor, ignorance, and misapprehension has not been without its functional advantages: the empirical process has reduced human suffering by orders of magnitude and enabled vast advances in human knowledge. This reflection is by no means a frontal attack on the presumption that “the unexplainable can be explained in natural terms.” Yet perhaps in treating that presumption as a fixed law, and not as a starting point, we risk having that paradigm become so entrenched that we grow unable to see beyond our pre-constructed horizons.
There may well be more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.