The always-interesting Daniel Mendelsohn writes (‘reviews’ is too thin a concept for it) about director James Cameron’s recent blockbuster film hit “Avatar”.
The piece is well worth a look. I’m going to riff a bit on some of Mendelsohn’s insights, since they lead Us to some mighty interesting places.
The overall plot of the film in a nutshell: sometime in the not-so-distant future Jake, a legless ex-Marine (he had lost his legs while the Marines were fighting as mercenaries for ‘The Company’ (!) in Venezuela (!))* is part of another expedition sent to get hold of a planet with some valuable resources; they run into the locals – ‘natives’ as they were known in an earlier day – who are a remarkable race of not-really humanoid creatures called the Na’vi; Jake – it’s Hollywood, after all – gets to know the Na’vi, especially a lovely princess; and he goes over to their side after he gets to know them/her better.
So far, so politically correct – Mendelsohn observes. And he notes that We’ve seen this before, mentioning 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” where Kevin Costner’s young Army officer, repelled by the dissipated and repugnant cavalry-culture and its officers that he finds at his new frontier posting, ‘goes native’ – as the Victorian era Brits would pithily put it. Perhaps you spent good money to see it way back then in those heady times. It was – to certain types – a heart-warming spectacle (and perhaps still is, possibly constituting part of the syllabus for this or that “Studies” course even unto this day).
But Mendelsohn is no hit-and-miss reviewer. Cameron, he reflects, is probably not the best guy to be making a movie about human interactions. His work has consistently and most clearly demonstrated a fascination not with weak and inconstant humanity, but rather with the superhuman powers of technologically advanced machines. He recalls the ‘Terminator’ series, where the main characters are human-appearing androids with powers “far above those of mortal men” (you remember the original TV “Superman” intro, right?).
Neatly, Mendelsohn also observes that the ‘good’ Terminator was embodied – as it were – by none other than Ahhhnuld, the fleshy (and kinda metrosexual-looking) former body-builder who quite possibly laid the foundations for a career in Our post-modern celebrity politics by demonstrating in images 20-feet high on the theater screen his superhuman powers of commitment, strength, concentration, purposeful determination and undistracted focus on his task (so un-postmodern, really).
Cameron’s fascination throughout his productive career has been on the superhuman, which – when you think of it – is really a kind of non-human (not to say anti-human).
Curiously, that also brings up memories of Lenin, who built his entire fantasy of a Soviet paradise on a Russia that didn’t exist except as an “abstraction” in his mind, and on a Russian people who equally didn’t exist ‘on the ground’. Indeed, this was the core of Solzhenitsyn’s undying antipathy to Lenin and all his pomps and all his works.**
And, as I have often said on this site, the assorted ‘revolutionaries’ whom the vote-desperate Dems ‘empowered’ in the 1960s-1970s had certainly read their Lenin. And their Mao, who conveniently (and somewhat more succinctly) provided that Little Red Book as a how-to for aspiring revolutionary cadres. Lenin and Mao were probably the only dead males that the American revolutionistas actually read (though Lenin was ‘white, and Mao was still alive in the salad days of America’s “many revolutions at the same time”). But that may be thinking too much.
And didn’t 1972’s philosophical toast of the Party – John Rawls – base his entire “original position” empowerment-friendly philosophy on a creature that didn’t exist: the abstraction of a human being old enough to think but with utterly no connections of any sort to a culture, a heritage, a tradition, or a community actually existing?
Which leads you to wonder if the Beltway didn’t make Lenin’s mistake, and base its entire revolution-friendly pandering and deconstruction programme on an ‘abstraction’ that was hell-and-gone from any America or actually existing American People? But then, how can you run a revolution if you have any respect for what’s already there? The whole idea is to wreck what’s there and replace it with … whatever ‘vision’ or ‘dream’ you have not taken the trouble to really figure out yet. Such mature leadership.
Although ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ – replacing the somewhat more in-your-face cockiness and outright arrogance – are now expected to plaster over the monstrous fractures that have been created. Does that work when you’ve neglected the infrastructure of a huge dam and it’s now cracking and creaking ominously? Get the Fuhrer’s old house-painting ladder and bucket and figure you can climb up and slather enough plaster or play-dough to make everything better?
Anyhow, Cameron is looking for what is “stronger” and “tougher” than human being. “Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher”.
Well, I can understand that. Don’t all of Us wish that at one point or another? But then the Reality Principle kicks in: We are here, encased in this human flesh and in these human commitments and connections and communities. And the problems and challenges thereby generated constitute the field of Our lives, and the record each shall inscribe into History, trying to become that genuine Self in an accurately-perceived Present. And while the consolations of fantasy are a handy and portable and user-friendly release from pressure, yet you can’t build a life – individually, communally, or nationally – on them. Nor can you build a Self on them – nor sustain one.
And yes, you can be ‘educated’ into making a more Correct ‘appraisal’ of things; after all, PTSD is a matter of how you later ‘appraise’ your experience (what happened to you or – though it’s not considered polite or Correct to mention this - what you did to somebody else). And so yes, you can ‘reframe’ your ‘reality’, but that only goes so far and then History shades into Fiction. And once you’ve gone over THAT line, then all the ‘hope’ in the universe isn’t going to help.
‘Dreams’, like mood-altering and psycho-active drugs, can’t ground a Self – nor sustain one.
And although I draw no inferences connecting Cameron to the late Fuhrer and his Master Race excitements, it strikes me as a tad ironic that from his Bunker in those last months when Consequences were fighting their way implacably into artillery range from the East and B-17s were flying over Berlin like angry turkeys coming home to roost, Hitler blamed the German Volk for not being up to the vision he had so nobly offered them. If you’re going to do stuff that’s going to stir up consequences, then you’d better think things through first and make sure you’re going to be able to handle the Consequences.
And didn’t the late Jesus say something much the same? If you’re a king and planning to start a war, shouldn’t you first sit down and do some calculations as to whether you can pull the thing off? But that was in a book – and a Book that was precisely pooh-poohed by the Dem-empowered cadres. They already had a book – that Little Red one. If you already have one book and you like it, why bother reading a second one? Geez.
Again, Mendelsohn turns his thoughts to Cameron’s “fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh for metal”. And I think that this was the whole dynamic of the frakkulous fantasy called “New Soviet Man”, that ‘perfected’ human (as Lenin defined perfection) that would populate (but not govern) the Red Utopia.
And what might We call the New American Person who will populate (but also not govern) the new American Utopia? (Although the Multiculturalisti might object to the use of ‘American’ or ‘America’ in the first place.)
Nicely, the Marines in the film have access to these reely reely great ‘suits’ that when a simple human puts them on gives superhuman enhanced powers and strength.
I can’t help but wondering if part of the Beltway’s continued indenture to de-masculinizing the military is based on the sure and certain hope that such suits will be coming along shortly, so that the question of female physical strength (leaving aside politely the huge matter of emotional make-up) will no longer be an issue on the battlefield and in combat. And – who knows? – might give American occupation forces the type of upper-hand over the terroristicals that the Krag once gave to Smedley Butler’s Marines in the Philippines and the Banana Wars? At the moment, the Pentagon seems to be getting by with simply issuing various energy-drugs to the troops, in addition to the downers that calm the unremitting stress of conducting an actively-suppressive (fill-in-the-blank: occupation, invasion, pacification, liberation).
You get the eerie echoes of Adolf’s ‘hope’ for the V-1 and the V-2. Which he unswervingly voiced in those shriveled staff-meetings in the Bunker, when he wasn’t playing with the mock-up set of architectural models for when he re-made his home city of Linz, moving around the toy-sized models of the assorted massive buildings – the library, the government offices, the SS and Gestapo headquarters complex – to his heart’s content.
And how many cohorts of American youth (and now not-so-young) pretty much go through their days walking around but mostly playing in their mind with the blocks that constitute their dream-world? Their dream-Self? While human reality – in all its interpersonal, communal, and political fracturedness and incompleteness – simply fades into a shady, insubstantial ‘back-drop’? This cannot end well.
Are there such models in the basements of any world capitals today, d’ye think?
But, acutely, Mendelsohn doesn’t allow himself to be sidetracked with the merely technological and political. There is an “ethical” problem with the film; there is an “incoherence” that is rooted in Cameron’s “ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity”, in his “lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling superior Otherness”.
And you can see it clearly by comparing it to a previous Hollywood hit, “The Wizard of Oz” (in 1939 they didn’t call them ‘blockbusters’ but that what it was). Dorothy, if you recall, comes back to Kansas, to the same Kansas she left – she has changed, but she comes back – and wanted to come back – to the matrix of family, community, memory, folkways, tradition and heritage that constituted her real life.
Nor is she ‘superhuman’; she has the strength of a newfound maturity, certainly, but this is an organic human strength achieved through undergoing her Journey. And the viewer can reasonably hope that she will deploy that new strength not as ‘power over’ her real world, but rather as a contribution to her real world, and to all the humans and human stuff that constitute that world.
(Yes, perhaps like Jean Harlow she might decide to be “reckless … to go places and look life in the face”, but even if she does, she won’t be looking to pull the rug out from under her world or its people. And looking life in the face realistically isn’t the same as getting in Humanity’s face).
Jake becomes a Na’vi, and in leaving his broken human body behind he leaves humanity behind, and its world – in order to live among the Na’vi (and there’s that princess, too).
“There’s no place like home”. So says Dorothy. But to Cameron – and perhaps to far too many today – ‘humanness’ and ‘humanity’ is no longer a ‘home’, nor even a given field for the Shaping of a Self and a life, both individually and together with all other humans. (So I have to wonder what hope can remain for Lincoln’s sublime and marvelous goal of “achieving a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations”.)
It almost seems as if the take-away from the film is that being ‘human’ is really not what you should be looking forward to (and I thought it was bad enough when the Sixties pooh-poohed being a ‘mature’ human). A humanity so disinterested in itself starts to resemble what used to be said of European culture in 1900: “decadent”, no longer interested in its own genuine potentials and, instead, sunk in escapist pleasures and fantasies.
I’m not saying that Depression-era Kansas (well, the first Depression, to be specific) is a place that could be just anybody’s cup of tea. But there’s no ‘place’ that doesn’t have its not-Technicolor aspects … human nature, weak and (Un-Correct as it is to mention it) shot through with the type of Sin that adheres to all humans: putting your own desires over everybody else’s and doing whatever it takes to shape your life experience the way you want it no matter what it does to anybody or everybody else).***
So, concludes Mendelsohn, the message in this film is “that ‘reality’ is dispensable altogether; or at least whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets”.
And just what are the consequences and Consequences of that for the Constitutional Republic and for that People which it exists to serve?
*This not only isn’t far-fetched but actually reflects retired Marine Brigadier General Smedley Butler’s rueful reflections on his Marine assignments in South and Central America and the Caribbean: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
In case some of a jingoist bent might think him a ‘weak sister’, be it noted that Butler served robustly in the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippines, Wilson’s Veracruz expedition, the Banana Wars, interwar China, and World War 1 (not in a combat command, because he was considered – you can see why – “unreliable” by his bosses in Washington). He won two Medals of Honor. There is good ground for believing his post-retirement report that he was approached informally by a bunch of old-school Big Money types who were looking to set up a coup against FDR in the mid-1930s – in which he refused to participate. (There is, if I recall correctly, an alleged Bush-family involvement in the coup story.) He died in 1940.
**Helen Rappaport has a meaty book entitled “Conspirator” about Lenin’s thought and attitude in the years before he came to power (you may recall, he instigated the Red Revolution against … the Russian people and workers, who had already done the heavy lifting by overthrowing the Tsarist regime and had set up their own provisional government under Kerensky).
***It’s a curious and hardly coincidental development that the nation is presently obsessed with ‘sex offenders’, men (almost always) who are stigmatized for putting their own sexual urges above the rights of anybody else and who abandon their own responsibility to master their own powers and desires. Yet the entire thrust of the national culture – especially in its trajectory over the past 40 Biblical years – has been precisely to sweep away the claims of any pre-existing or ‘objective’ commitments or responsibilities in order to become the Totally Autonomous Person who is ‘free’ to fulfill by whatever means necessary the ‘desires’ and ‘values’ that such a Person has chosen to adopt. One’s Personal reality is also a Private reality (unless the government can re-shape the ‘reality’ of enough of the Citizens – and you’re back to Lenin again).
You can see how ideas, poured into your magick pot, actively blend together with each other ideas, and you really have to know what you’re doing so as not to lose control of the reaction such that the ideas blend and interact in ways that create god-knows-what.
And this is especially true if you have heated the pot through the stoking up of mass (no longer genuinely ‘public’) opinion (no longer really ‘opinion’) and emotion.
If the Multiculturalistic dogma is that there is no distinctive ‘American’ ethos – perhaps even that there doesn’t deserve to be one … and then you blend that with the feministical deconstruction of any Capital Letter Reality (that might stand in judgment upon the many baaaad or at least dubious ideas of the feministical agenda) … then you can wind up with not only a profoundly ‘anti-American’ potion, but also a profoundly anti-human one.
In this regard you can also see where Raymond Aron’s ‘democratic conservatism’ – dedicated to the idea that a truly Liberal politics seeks to conserve not only what is best but what is essential to the prudent functioning of an actually human politics – opposed what he identified in the evolving ‘modern’ liberal politics of his day (roughly 1935 to 1983 when he died) as an anti-democratic and anti-Liberal politics based on utopian and perfectionist visions that rode rough-shod over the structural needs of an actually-existing human community.
I’ll toss this in as well. I hold no brief for the sexual abuse of children, especially by those in authority over them (which includes religious and educational figures as well as – and they are statistically by government figures the greatest threat – family members, relations, and persons invited into the familial (however defined nowadays) circle).
But the latest phase of the curiously un-ending campaign against the Catholic Church (and only that Church) just happens to be targeted at what is also the largest institution left on the planet that formally and strongly holds Capital Letter Realities (God, Divine Will, Divine Providence being only the most significant) to be objective Realities that stand above and beyond the ‘world’ of human affairs and human history, and in addition stand in judgment over this dimension (and all its pomps and all its works).
This strikes me as wayyyyy too significant to be a coincidence.
It’s surely true that the Church has been rather lax in its administration and management of its ordained (and, neatly, male) agents. And that the Church itself, being extended deeply into this dimension and having a large organizational ‘footprint’, was itself wracked by the excitements of the Sixties.
And in that regard the Church must accept its place among the many major institutions of this world that have failed to live up to the best potentials of its mission.
But it remains rather stubbornly committed to its declared mission of standing up for those Capital Letter Realities – even in the face of its own weaknesses – and THAT surely is gall and wormwood to the post-modern revolutionary demand to Flatten the human dimension merely to the things of this world, declaring any Beyond to be not only irrelevant or ‘private’ but also quite probably nonexistent.
The result of the Church’s undoing (which doesn’t seem to be anywhere near complete) would be to force human beings to rely on what were once referred to as ‘the powers of this world’, especially governments. And to so collapse the levels of human reality into this one fractured dimension would Flatten humans’ sense of themselves as a species, deprive humans of any sense of transcendent Meaning and Purpose, and leave humans feeling hugely vulnerable to the vagaries of human events and the various huge forces generated by a surely imperfect humanity as it staggers selfishly through Time.
Naturally, such hugely weakened beings would have to look to ‘government’ not only for ‘protection’ but as the sole provider of whatever Meaning and Purpose humans might rely on.
And that profoundly undermines the core assumptions of the democratic ethos, and paves the way – as We are now seeing – for the Regulatory-Preventive State not only as Nanny to its squalling ‘children’ but also as – not to put too fine a point on it – humanity’s only ‘god’.
This, for all practical purposes, constitutes the essence of ‘idolatry’ – even though in the current era the whole ongoing dynamic has been cloaked in the appearance and bleated pieties that still pay official lip-service to ‘religion’ and ‘belief’.
I think that this dynamic must fail because it is so profoundly contrary to the demonstrated transcendent dimension of human being, maintained throughout the history of the species.
But surely, in its frakkulous excitements – for however long they last – and even in its death-throes, this dynamic can wreak much havoc in the world.
So there are no grounds for a too-easy consolation that the post-modern revolutionary project in its many manifestations is ‘wrong’ and ‘doomed to fail’. Even a dying dragon can maim and kill.
Rather, then, humans must ground their resistance to this post-modern revolutionary project in the confidence that so misguided and treacherous a project must surely fail, and on the basis of that confidence (Hope with a capital ‘H’) intensify the efforts to re-order and recover the genuine Sources of human Meaning, Purpose, and of Human Nature itself.
Nor is it irrelevant that it was not ever the Roman Catholic way to demand a fully achieved perfection – and Perfection Now – from human beings. Human weakness and the necessary imperfection of all things human and generated by humans has always been a key factor in the Church’s millennia of conducting its work.
Rather it was the Protestant Reformation – with its purist zeal and its emphasis on the ‘war’ element inherent in the Christian tradition (‘war’ against evil, imperfection, and against imperfect zeal for God’s word and way … however this or that sect defined those terms) that introduced not only a reforming but also the seeds of a revolutionary zeal into Western belief and also into its political praxis.
Let it also be recalled that while the Church did burn heretics from time to time during the pre-modern era, it was only Protestantism that went hunting for ‘witches’ and burned many of them; one of the difficulties of the entire Protestant programme was that in denying any overarching guidance in matters of doctrine, each sect was thus rendered vulnerable to the excitements of its particular local adherents, which unleashed many dark forces of paranoia and suspicion latent in human beings and their communities. And when those darker forces turned their attention to ‘things unseen’ – especially evils unseen – the hunt for witches (and warlocks) and their violent persecution was quick to follow.
In light of this, then the peculiar and ominous weavings of recent American cultural politics make unhappy sense.
While the surfaces of that politics seem to indicate a ‘conservative and religious’ Right versus a ‘liberal and secular’ Left, there are actually much darker and more vital unities deeper down.
For one thing, the ‘revolutionary purity’ of both the Left’s radical excitements (so darkly influenced by the 20th century’s Leninist and Maoist assumptions and processes) and the Right’s fundamentalistic ‘religious base’ combine to create a powerful undercurrent hostile to any prudent and reasonable assessment of improving society while maintaining its essential structural Shape.
For another, both the anti-Transcendent Left and the Fundamentalistic Right are eager to take over the cultural place and authority of the Church in American culture. (They would have both turned on the former ‘Protestant mainstream churches’, had those entities not already eviscerated and deracinated themselves through their ‘liberal secularizing’ in response to the this-worldly contours of a materialist, consumerist, and later a revolutionary culture as all those elements came together in the Sixties.)
Humanity, I think, will be the great loser in all of this.
Unless humans stand up for themselves … in all their multi-dimensional, un-Flattened, and transcendent potential.