Saturday, September 25, 2010

12: The Return (V)

V: Mars

You knew if you waited long enough that I would get back to that bloody film.

You may remember that, at the end of the Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker's Father, and cuts off his hand. In a single moment, the Hero (very definitely the Hero) is deprived of his right hand, his much revered paternal role-model, and his only weapon. This scene is widely regarded as "quite good". Some people (for example, me) have said that the scene "means" that Darth Vader has castrated Luke.

But what does "mean" mean?

If we read, in a medieval legend, that a certain King has been wounded in the bottom then we probably spot that "bottom" is a euphemism for "genitals" – especially if the injury makes him and his land infertile for seven years. The fairy tale Rapunzel simply makes more sense if we assume that when it says that the Prince fell from the tower and lost his eyes, "eyes" really means "balls". And people like Fred Astair and Elvis Presley wouldn't have had careers if we couldn't easily see that "dancing" usually means "having sex".

So: George Lucas is using one terrible injury (the loss of a hand) as a euphemism for a different terrible injury (the loss of a penis).

Well, no, obviously not. On at least two occasions, James Bond is literally threatened with being emasculated. And you can sort of see why. When a man is so thoroughly defined by his masculinity and has such a big collection of guns, motor cars and ladies then threatening his penis with a whip or a laser beam seems appropriate – even funny. It makes him even more masculine when he pops up again. It's a sort of an apology to the ladies in the audience for the existence of a character called Pussy Galore. It really doesn't make much sense to say that Casino Royale said plainly what George Lucas expressed coyly – that the film would have been essentially the same if Vader had taken Luke to a torture chamber and attacked his gonads with a knife.

So: all that happens at the end of the Empire Strikes Back is that one character sustains a nasty injury and silly people have read all sorts of silly meanings into it in order to justify their enthusiasm for what is, after all, only a kids movie.

No, that won't do either. The scene isn't just about a boy having a fight with his dad, any more than Moby Dick is just about a man chasing a whale. It's about a Son having a fight with his Father. It is about Fathers and Sons with Capital Letters. Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker packs an emotional punch which Sherlock Holmes fighting Moriarty simply doesn't.

Does it resonate with us because many of us have experiences of idolizing our fathers and being scared of our fathers and being disappointed with our fathers all at once? Or does it seem particularly significant because this is the kind of story in which particular significance is attached to Fathers and Sons? Because it is like other stories about Fathers and Sons? You would, I am sure, be quite upset if someone murdered your Dad; but then you'd be equally annoyed if someone bumped off your Mum. (A lot of people would regard the loss of Mummy has an even worse tragedy for a child than the loss of Daddy.) But in literature – in stories – the Death of the Father is a specially big deal. Lots of heroes are motivated by the deaths of their fathers. Can anyone think of one who is mainly motivated by the death of their Mother? [*]

The Empire Strikes Back isn't about fathers and sons nearly as much as its about stories about fathers and sons. (Move on to the next point quickly, Andrew, they may let you get away with that one.)

When a hero does something Heroic, it is very likely to make us think of other stories where other heroes have done other heroic things. If you want to make your hero seem extra-heroic by all means make him re-enact the exploits of other heroes. When Spider-Man carries the whole weight of Doctor Octopus's base on his back, it's a bit like Atlas [**] holding up the Sky and a bit like Samson bringing down the Philistine temple. But it would be an act of reckless lunacy to say that Spider-Man "means" Atlas, or that we can sort through all the irrelevant Christmas Pudding of Spider-Man and get to the precious little sixpence of Samson or that even though Stan Lee was Jewish and Martin Goodman was Jewish and Steve Ditko was Jewish its obviously a Christian allegory. [***]

Spider-Man and Atlas and Samson and Jesus and nine hundred and ninety six other heroes are all a little bit like each other. That's not because there's a deep underlying Jungian meaning to strong guys lifting things which are a bit too heavy even for them to lift. It's because people who tell stories draw on the stories which other people who tell stories have told and people who listen to stories associate stories they hear with other stories they have heard whether the story teller meant them to or not.

And there is my whole quarrel with Joseph Campbell, or maybe just with Vogler. ("Campbell was all right, but his followers were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it which ruins it for me.") Of course we can say that the life of Harry Potter is a bit like the life of King Arthur. And of course "his parents were killed when he was a little boy, for reasons he doesn't know yet" sets up expectations in our heads about what kind of story this story is going to be. And of course those expectations are one of the things which J.K. Rowling uses, well or badly, depending on your point of view. (The fact that he's called "Harry" sets up some expectations too: it's both a common, working class name and a royal name. The fact that he wears little round National Health glasses make us think that he'll be a nerd, and shy, but maybe one day he'll become a famous rock and roll star like that other shy orphaned nerd who wore cheap National Health glasses. Everything in a story allows meanings from other stories to pour into it. You can't say "It was a beautiful summers day" or "It was a dark and stormy night" without making the reader think about other beautiful summers days and dark and stormy nights.) Some stories are like other stories and the whole point of Star Wars was that it was like lots and lots of other stories. But I don't believe that Star Wars and The Philosopher's Stone and Spider-Man all point to (or disguise) a single archetypal truth in the same way that The Stork, The Gooseberry Bush and the New Baby Train all point to to (or conceal) a single biological fact.

C.S. Lewis noted that that the original point of Sorhab and Rustum was that it reminded classically educated English readers of Homeric diction. But most English schoolboys, reading the Iliad for the first time, say "Oh! It reminds me of Sorhab and Rustum." Nowadays, they probably say "Oh, it reminds me of the Empire Strikes Back." I know I did.

The more times a scene has happened the more times it has happened. When Obi-Wan gives Luke his father's lighstsaber, it reminds us of Prince Arthur taking the sword from the stone. Or Father Christmas giving Peter the magic sword in Mrs Beaver's house. Or Lion-O taking up the Sword of Omens for the first time. But it might very well be better to say that it reminds us of every scene in every story where a hero is given an important sword. Even the ones we've never heard of. And that might very well be all "archeype" means. 

("So, Andrew, archetype really is only a posh word for cliché.")

But do you really think we can strip away all the particulars of all the different stories until you are finally left with "Hero Getting Sword From Mentor" or "Hero Getting Weapon From Weapon-Giver" or "Person Getting Thing From Person Who Gives People Things" and then say that we've arrived at the original form of the image? And that this "original form" is more important than the scene in the cave with Mark Hamill and Alec Guiness? That the image somehow contains the true kernel of meaning and the eternal energies of the cosmos?

Freud thinks that boys can't turn into Men because they are afraid that their fathers will Castrate them. Freud seems to have meant this quite literally: kids and neurotic grown ups have a real (but unconscious) fear that their bits will be chopped off; lots of guy's hangups go back to standing next to an older man in the shower and wishing theirs was like that. But it works better as a metaphor. If "your penis" is literally "your manhood" -- "whatever makes you a man" -- then "castration" is simply "losing whatever it is that makes you a man". The "castration complex" is "the feeling that whatever it is which makes you a man is going to be taken away".

And it is by no means far fetched to say that Star Wars (and Harry Potter, and Spider-Man) is a Growing Up story; and that for Luke Skywalker Growing Up means "Becoming a Jedi, like my father before me."

And it is quite true that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a sort of father figure, and that he give Luke the lightsaber and that Darth Vader, in the great primal scene, stops Luke from growing up by violently removing the exact thing which will make him a man.

And if you put George Lucas's growing up story alongside Freud's growing up story you'll probably spot that they have things in common. And some of those things were probably put there by Lucas who had probably read Freud or met people who'd read Freud, or seen films made by people who'd met people who'd read Freud. And some of them were probably not there until the first time we put the two stories side by side, and that's fine too.

Freud's story of how Little Hans' Daddy said that if he didn't stop playing with his widdler he would chop it off is a good story. Lucas's story of how Luke rushed in to confront his enemy before he was prepared and learned truths he wasn't ready for is also a story. I think that George's story is like Sigmund's story in some ways, but unlike it in other ways. I don't think that George's story "means" Sigmund's story. I like George's better.

[*] Joe Chill and/or the Joker killed both Bruce's parents. The Orestia involves a bloodbath in which Daddy kills daughter, Mummy kills Daddy (to get back at him for killing her daughter), Son kills Mummy, (for killing his father for killing his sister) and so one until everyone is thoroughly dead or the Furies intervene. Greek tragedy and comic books: with this footnote you are spoiling us, Mr Ambassador.

[**] Steve Ditko. Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. Bang. Bang. Bang.

[***] Spider-Man is bearing the sins of the world on his back. He goes through a whole series of deaths and resurrections. He wins an elixir of life which brings Aunt May back from the point of death. And it all happens in issue #33. See how easy it is?


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Keith Schooley said...

Andrew, your discussion of castration anxiety as metaphor finally makes sense of something that I've always been puzzled about. I always thought the topic was silly--I mean, it would be a drag if it happened, but it's not terribly likely. But as metaphor for whatever it is that makes you a man, then it makes perfect sense.

And maybe that's the problem with Freud and Campbell et al. They want to substitute the story that appeals to them for the story that appeals to you. Every story must ultimately reduce itself to the story that appeals to them. They think they've found the inner reality behind all stories; in fact, all they've found is the version of Story that they like best and they want to bend all other stories to match it.

Yes, there's a core of commonality to lots of great stories, but it's the particulars of individual stories, not just their Great Big Common Themes, that give them life and grab us.

Millennium Dome said...

"Lots of heroes are motivated by the deaths of their fathers. Can anyone think of one who is mainly motivated by the death of their Mother?"

Oh, I hate to do this to a beautifully constructed piece like this, but:


see especially "Attack of the Clones" (obviously), but arguably his whole life story, fall to the dark side and return to the light is "about" losing his mother, replacing her with wife, losing his wife and replacing her not with son but with daughter (it is, after all the discovery that Leia is Vader's daughter that bushes both Luke and Anakin to the crisis point)

Andrew Rilstone said...

But apart from Batman, Elektra, Anakin Skywalker and Dick Grayson, can you think of anyone who's motivated by the death of their mothers?

Helen Louise said...

Bambi? I mean, who can forget "Your mother can't be with you any more"? I'm sure I heard that the stag who utters that line is meant to be Bambi's father, but he's not even slightly helpful.

Jake said...

Ichabod Crane in Burton's Sleepy Hollow.