Posts Tagged ‘hope’
(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)
Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War of the Ring, even though it remains in living memory: they seem not to remember, or take seriously, the fact that they once strode with gods and angels in a war against pure evil, and were victorious. Instead, children play at being Orcs for fun; the death of Elessar has been an occasion for political striving and reactionary plots; and even something like a secret death cult of devil-worshipping rebels seems to be spreading through the elites of Gondor.
Tolkien wrote 13 pages of it.
He later wrote:
I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.
Instead, Tolkien turned his attention back to the imaginative project that had more or less defined his life: The Silmarillion, begun between 1914 and 1917, which he tinkered with on and off until his death in 1973. The Silmarillion has always marked, I think, the grey line between being a casual Tolkien fan and becoming a Tolkien enthusiast — a path that then leads one even further into Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth and the discovery of Tolkien’s own very elaborate (and somewhat fannish) self-commentary on his legendarium alongside many multiple alternate drafts of the narratives that form the barely glimpsed mythological background of The Lord of the Rings.
The Silmarillion is nominally a prequel — ostensibly it is the Elvish legends that Bilbo translated and appended to the Red Book while he was retired in Rivendell — but the published version of the book includes a two-page summary of the War of the Ring that culminates in a brief, New-Shadow-style glimpse past Aragorn’s reign. We are reminded of the sapling of the White Tree that Aragorn and Gandalf find in the mountains near Gondor, which Aragorn plants in Minas Tirith as a symbol of his reign, and told that “while it still grew there the Elder Days were not wholly forgotten in the hearts of the Kings.” While it still grew there — which is to say, it doesn’t grow there anymore.
I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.
I’ve been thinking about The New Shadow since it became clear that The Force Awakens would be borrowing from the Expanded Universe the notion that the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi did not mark a full or permanent victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joked in the link post earlier this morning that you can tell who read the EU novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the Knights of the Old Republic games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.
This is why, while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens‘s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral, and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. The film is extremely vague about the relationship between the Republic and “the Resistance,” but it appears to be a proxy guerrilla war against the First Order fought inside their own territory, secretly funded by the Republic — and prosecuted by Leia, Akbar, Nien Nunb, and all our heroes from the first movies, whose lives are now revealed as permanently deformed by a forever war they can never put down or escape. (If you want to ask me where Lando is, I think he said “good enough” after Endor and walked away, and that sort of makes me hope they never find him, never drag him back into it.) It’s horrible to lose a parent to addiction, or to mental illness, or to ordinary everyday cruelty, however you want to allegorize Vader’s betrayal of his children — but how much worse would it be to lose a child to it, how much worse would such a thing taint every aspect of your life and poison all your joy.
That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi‘s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. Return of the Jedi never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90% of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.
Being a collection of things I may or may not have forgotten to include in today’s Thursday links.
* Postcolonial Catan. The English version of the piece starts about halfway down the page.
* A defense of Contemporaneanism. Typical tripe from the rearguard forces of retro-Contemporaneanism. Search my blog archives for a definitive rebuttal.
* In short, when institutions invest in pools and climbing walls, they are catering to the needs of their least motivated, and least needy, clients — good for the colleges’ bottom lines but the opposite of society’s priorities. I’d need a lot more evidence even to grant these were “good for the colleges’ bottom lines.”
* The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, and the clocks were striking thirteen: Ms. Bolender was three days behind on her monthly car payment. Her lender, C.A.G. Acceptance of Mesa, Ariz., remotely activated a device in her car’s dashboard that prevented her car from starting.
* Dialectics of Obamaism: Campaigners said the Pacific Remote Islands reserve – because of its sheer scale – would cement Obama’s conservation legacy. However, they noted that Obama had dramatically scaled back the reserve following opposition from the commercial tuna industry. I dunno, that seems to cement it pretty well.
* Making use of PSID data for 1984, 1989, and 1994, we examine race differences in patterns of asset accumulation. Our results indicate, as expected, that inheritances raise the rate of wealth accumulation of whites relative to that of African Americans. But, while whites devote a greater share of their income to saving, racial differences in saving rates are not significant, once we control for income. Though our results may be period-specific, we also do not find evidence that the rate of return to capital is greater for whites than for African Americans. Simulations suggest that African Americans would have gained significant ground relative to whites during the period if they had inherited similar amounts, saved at the same rate, had comparable income levels and, more speculatively, had portfolios closer in composition to those of whites. And thus.
* BREAKING: They looted the public pensions but good.
* What we need now, more than ever, are technologies and organizations that are not only equally useful, but also more desirable than the status quo. Too often, leftists engage in a strange kind of doublespeak—on the one hand, we describe an insidious marketing machine that can produce want-product binaries with ruthless efficiency and efficacy, and on the other offer up restricted diets and buggy open source software as alternatives. How do we expect to win the hearts and minds of future generations?
* I don’t know that the state really needs to fight every case: Pennsylvania Attorney General Blames Woman For Her Own Rape.
* And you think things are bad now: Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market.
* But it’s not all bad news: Bill and Ted live!
I wanted to Storify my back-and-forth with my friend Aaron Bady (and a few other people, but mostly him) on the question of guilt and complicity in liberal politics, which was prompted by his Texas Stands With Gaza post and ultimately looped around, as all things must, to Snowpiercer.
Aaron is right that I’m using Snowpiercer (along with Pacific Rim, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and some other recent Anthropocene science fictions) in a piece of academic writing I’m working on, so I’ll hold off on doing a full reading of the film here for now. But I think the film actually figures this debate we’re having in a pretty direct way. The people on the train are all “guilty” and “complicit” with the Snowpiercer system, albeit in different ways and to different degrees; like any necropolitical survivor, they are all alive while/because someone else has died. Even on the level of character development, much of the movement of the film is directed towards making Chris Evans’s character Curtis feel as though he is worthy of great things despite the guilt he carries with him; characters frequently say this to him explicitly, even, most notably, the character he once tried to eat as a baby and who he later abandons in the name of the larger mission! In fact this guilt, in properly liberal terms, is indistinguishable from his worthiness to lead, with the final act of the film culminating in Curtis being offered the position of the Wizard of Snowpiercer. The Curtis plot in the film is more or less a familiar liberal drama about coming to terms with your own guilty complicity in the system, a process which as if by baptismal magic thereby makes you worthy to run the whole thing as if you’d never been guilty or complicit in the first place.
Aaron’s reading on the film insists that this is the only trajectory open to us, even as he repeatedly turns to Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong as the voice of alterity, rejecting his plan as nonviable. Namgoong knows the train is a horror and knows the train is doomed by its own entropic breakdown, rejects guilt or complicity as a frame, and instead works to blow open the doors and escape. (And this is the position Curtis ultimately settles into as well, having finally hit an encounter of guilt which he can’t autoredeem his way out of in the form of the children in the engine.) Here then we see one version of the Canavan position: guilt is a way of becoming re-trapped, linked back into the atrocity engine, while refusing to identify with the system and its terms opens up the horizon of the future. Neither Namgoong nor Curtis survive the derailment of the train (“there is hope, infinite hope, but not for us”), but their protégés do, and in the final shot of the film see a live polar bear moving outside the train, indicating that life of some kind persists outside the train and that therefore there is something like hope after all.
Now, Aaron rejects all of this — “it’s too cold out there! they have no skills or supplies! that polar bear will probably just eat them!” — and of course he’s right to do so on the level of cold realism; like most such apocalyptic scenarios, the situation is too far gone to allow any sort of genuine renewal. (I always think of the way the Matrix sequels had to confront this, ultimately having the heroic rebels make a truce with the monsters they were supposed to slay because the world is too far gone to actually free anyone anymore.) But this is where Aaron’s flattening of Jameson’s theory of utopia hurts him a bit — because the kernel of the Jamesonian reading of the film is not to imagine it as a practical alternative to the present so much as to figure the ongoing exist alternative in an era that, at every turn, loudly insists there isn’t one.
For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break. (Archaeologies 232)
Snowpiercer, it seems to me, is pretty plainly about this effort of the imagination; neither the setup nor the climax is really amenable to any sort of realistic analysis about the practicalities of the situation. It’s preposterous from start to finish. The point of the film is to disrupt our guilty comfort and our comforting guilt about a system we all know is terrible (“those crooked fuckers”) but think we can’t oppose, only picket and sigh about and be more beautiful than (“oh, we guilty sinners, oh this fallen world”). So of course the film is an allegory after all; what it figures isn’t the actual situation of capitalism but the hopeless prospects for people who can’t see any way to stop the train, other than a crash, and who perhaps for that very reason have come to believe they’re the ones who are driving it.