Monday, April 06, 2009
At City Journal is a thought-provoking piece by Benjamin Plotinsky, who maintains that popular science fiction, from Superman to The Matrix, has been taking on a decidedly more religious cast in recent years.
Agreeing with Ayn Rand that philosophical ideas drive a culture, part of me initially reacted by thinking something like, "Well, that's not only borderline obvious, it's almost a forgone conclusion since Christianity saturates our culture." (Men do have free will, however. No intellectual influence determines culture.)
But as a veteran of an undergraduate major in English literature at a Catholic university, part of my initial reaction was also a deep skepticism. Some Christians are so intent on reading their faith into other people's minds and words that sometimes, it seems, so much as a mention of a right angle is treated like an allusion to Calvary. I recall at one point hearing Rand's John Galt likened to Jesus Christ at least in part due to his initials being J.G., the letter "G" being a Roman variant of the letter "C." We all know what Ayn Rand was really up to, despite her profession of atheism. Yeah, right!
But overall, I think Plotinsky is on the mark regarding what he describes. I think he also makes an interesting connection regarding when Gilles Kepel's "Revenge of God" started, as he puts it, to "begun to be felt even in secular Hollywood."
... In the 1980 [Star Wars] sequel, Yoda ... instructed Luke to "feel the Force around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!" Such language, smacking of the period's flirtation with natural mysticism, gave way in the new movies to an explanation more in keeping with our current fascination with molecular biology: the Force, we learned in [post Cold War] The Phantom Menace, was actually the product of microorganisms in the blood. It's as though Lucas, instinctively realizing the intellectual poverty of the New Age, gave it up, exchanged it for something resembling science, and then turned, elsewhere in the script, to a far older, more powerful story.The Christ-like quality of the origins of Anakin Skywalker, usually bestowed on heroes is, here, written into a villain, but this paragraph ties together several lines of Plotinsky's reasoning, which I would summarize as something like, "During the Cold War, science fiction had a more geopolitical inspiration. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, science fiction writers were lost in terms of models for moral conflict, and this loss exposed the poverty of 'the New Age' (read: modern philosophy) as a source of either an artistic inspiration or a moral foundation for heroic fiction."
As far as that goes, Plotinsky is correct, but he doesn't go far enough. Religion, being based on faith, has, as such, no intellectual intercourse with reality. Assertions of Christ's divinity -- and indeed the whole concept of divinity -- are arbitrary and completely unsupported and unsupportable by evidence and logic. Whatever "power" Christianity has as an intellectual force, it does not lie in helping its followers understand or deal with reality.
This is not to say that Christianity is powerless, though. As Ayn Rand once noted,
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy. ("The Chickens' Homecoming," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 46)Her point is that the aspirations of religion, to discover truth and to learn how how to live properly, are legitimate, but its means, blind faith, contradict those ends. Consequently, religion does not deserve the monopoly it has over discussions of man's aspirations or higher emotions.
Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy -- an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality -- many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. ("Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, 25.)We can see some of this when Plotinsky cites a work that originally inspired Gorge Lucas:
[Star Wars] doubtless owes much of that success to mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces described certain features of the "standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero." The adventure's outline was simple: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Many myths shared even more than this, explained Campbell; for example, "the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or an old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass." Think of Arthur, Merlin, and Excalibur.The story of Christ, like many Biblical stories, shares many elements with (and is probably based on) the myths of other, more ancient religions. But the similarity is deeper than that. Morality and life -- Ayn Rand is the only philosopher to demonstrate how the one can be rationally discovered from the requirements of the latter -- are all about good men overcoming obstacles, including the evil of other men. (Rand's morality alone rejects the altruistic call for human sacrifice.) All good stories involve conflict for this very reason, and all heroes will share certain moral attributes as a result.
But what qualities? Our mythologies,being products of more primitive times when men had to face much more physical danger (and with much less intellectual sophistication) than we do today, make much of physical strength. But as "resourceful" Ulysses indicates, the more fundamental quality of a strong mind has been indicated since ancient times. Virgin birth is common, too, but that is a biological impossibility, and, but for the obscene doctrine of original sin, would not even be on the radar as a moral requirement.
The hero is good, in touch with reality, and efficacious. The morality underlying the story determines the answer to the question of what "good" means and of the question "efficacious -- for what?" But how one becomes in touch with reality is the really interesting question, and it explains why the science has been undercut and is disappearing from science fiction.
Science fiction is -- or used to be -- premised on the idea that the universe is intelligible to man, or, perhaps that at least physical phenomena were amenable to rational inquiry. As such, it provided a refuge (much like science itself) for many people from the irrationality of an increasingly irrational culture. The heroes were men of science, whose extraordinary capabilities were usually made possible by the application of past rational inquiry to such diverse fields as space travel, biology, and engineering.
The characters of Star Trek might appear on the surface of a planet moments after being in space on the Enterprise, but they got there thanks, ultimately, to reason. And often, a character had to think for himself to get through the events of an episode. As seen in "The Corbomite Maneuver", neither technology (nor deductive reasoning) alone are enough.
But something went wrong, and it wasn't just the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cold War provided was a life-and-death conflict that almost anyone could understand, at least up to a point. (And that point was passed, and all understanding lost, any time someone said he agreed with the ends of the Soviets, but not their means.) The Russians were the bad guys, and they were threatening our lives. Contrary to the actual implications of the altruism pervading Western culture, it was easy to gloss over the fact that "morality" conflicted with the requirements of life and spin a heroic yarn.
And once the Cold War ended?
... Star Trek, for example, continued to imitate geopolitics as it launched a phenomenally boring new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in 1987 (it would end its run in 1994). The Federation and the Klingons were now at peace, and the Enterprise resembled a spaceborne United Nations, a bustling enclave safe enough for the crew to bring children with them. So yawn-inducing was the galaxy that the show frequently sought to introduce drama with a device called the "holodeck," a virtual-reality entertainment area where the characters could cavort in more exciting locales -- the Wild West, say, or 221B Baker Street. ...Yes and no. Yes, the writers were using a geopolitical model, but no, that's not the whole story behind why Star Trek: The Next Generation was boring. And yes, geopolitics as it was was insufficient inspiration for an exciting show, but no, turning to the Bible was not the only viable alternative. (I do not here claim that Plotinisky is necessarily saying this, either.) Neither science fiction nor anything else can help us evade moral or philopsophical questions forever, and the end of the Cold War marked the end of that refuge for science fiction writers and their audiences.
Is having one's world, or nation, or even just one's existence directly threatened by an enemy a necessary plot element for a story of heroism? No. Just watch The Pursuit of Happyness. Is having super powers? Or being armed to the teeth with lasers and nuclear weaponry? Or being born of a virgin? Or having mystical powers? No, no, no, and no. Just read Atlas Shrugged, which does have other elements of science fiction, although I would not classify it as such.
Without having time to elaborate, I would suggest that the problem being "answered" by God, so to speak, is that most writers in our culture today do not really understand heroism or romantic realism. The "good", as preached by altruism, is fundamentally at odds with rationality -- Just ask why you're expected to commit sacrifices some time -- and practicality. Since it is at odds with the requirements of man's life, its goals offer nothing personally motivating to an audience used to the pursuit of its own happiness. This is what made The Next Generation boring. Worse, when practiced consistently, altruism is deadly, as every "hero" of altruism shows, and as every deus ex machina that magically renders such acts world-saving actually attests.
And this is why writers are turning to the Bible when they run out of other movies to remake or serialize. The modern, secular philosophies held by (or that have influenced) many science fiction writers agree with Christianity that altruism is a proper morality, which means that they do not and can not see how the goodness and efficacy of a hero really do, in fact, go together. They reject reason in favor of an empty skepticism, which means they have already rejected the means by which to correct this earlier fatal error of aesthetics. And, as pragmatists, they throw their hands up and notice that lots of people find the Bible compelling, or at least familiar, and borrow heavily from it.
And then, of course, actual Christians who want to write science fiction will also be more than happy to step in to fill the modernist void.
Call it the Cold War Bubble of Romantic Fiction, if you will. There is indeed no shortage of grist for the pulp mill. But you have to understand what the essential qualities of a hero -- contact with reality, morality, and efficacy -- really mean before you will know how to find it. The alternative isn't "God or boredom," but: reason -- or self-immolation.
You know, that sounds like the kind of conflict one could write an epic novel around....