Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Spengler vs. Star Wars

In a recent article entitled "May the Farce Be With You," David P. Goldman (aka "Spengler") criticized Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Wagner's Siegfried via George Lucas' Star Wars films. Apparently criticizing the Star Wars saga or Harry Potter is verboten, unless it has to do with some stupid plot point or editing error. After receiving extensive criticism, Goldman then attempted to further explain his point in a follow up article: "How Tolkien Ennobled Western Culture (While Star Wars Degraded It)." However, to really understand where Goldman is coming from, you must first read his review of the Metropolitan Opera's presentation of Wagner's Siegfried, part of the Ring cycle. Especially, if like me, your only exposure to Wagner was "Ride of the Valkyrie" booming from the speakers of the helicopters in Apocalypse Now (a movie which was a poor imitation/adaption, in my mind, of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness).

Goldman's complaint about Wagner's Siegfried is:
“At the beginning of this century there were people called Wagnerians,” Hitler said in 1943. “Other people had no special name.” He was right. Wagner did not invent the main themes of post-Christian culture—follow your bliss, invent your own identity, do your own thing, all you need is love—but he softened us up to accept them in the intimate dimension of music. We continue to emulate him, above all in film. If we find Wagner in the original tedious, it is because the Star Wars series, the Harry Potter films, and a hundred other imitations have corrupted us with Wagner Lite. 
Like Caliban, Wagner set out to people this isle with Siegfrieds. He succeeded: Luke Skywalker is the most obvious knockoff, down to the battle with and redemption of the father figure. (Wotan almost says, “Siegfried, I am your grandfather!”) Harry Potter is a younger Skywalker, except that unlike Siegfried, he doesn’t murder Dumbledore. The most popular English novel of the 20th century, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is modeled on the Ring cycle, although Tolkien intended his epic as an antidote to Wagner rather than an imitation.
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The reason so many clever people adore Wagner, I suspect, is the same reason that I raved about him as an antinomian adolescent: Wagner makes sensuous their desire to be free of the constraint of covenants, to give themselves to the moment rather than dedicate themselves to goals. In that sense Wagner is far more revolutionary than Marx, who read Aeschylus and Shakespeare at home: Wagner asserts the right of strength to remake the world according to caprice. Wagner delivered the cultural message of the 20th century more vividly than anyone else. That is why you should not miss the Met’s brilliant Ring cycle. But try not to enjoy it.
In his "May the Farce Be With You," Goldman continues his thoughts, but turning to modern works:
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of  a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false. This sort of figure is largely absent both from biblical and Chinese narrative (that in part explains Campbell’s unconcealed hostility to the Jews and their sacred texts). The patriarchs could be tough, like Abraham, or averse to conflict, like Isaac, but “heroic” is not a qualifier that springs to mind. For that matter, the protagonist of every Kung Fu creaker is a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.
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Think of Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried as the pop-culture equivalent of the self-esteem movement in education. If we can’t persuade our kids to accomplish anything, at least we can enrich their fantasy life.
Following up in "How Tolkien Ennobled Popular Culture," Spengler contrasts the works of Tolkien and how he reformed European myth, through a review of The Children of Hurin, by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. He writes:
J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings. 
In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil. 
Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West. 
It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.
Thus, while most of us criticize Star Wars on minor points (Han Solo shot first; why couldn't the Storm Troopers actually hit anything; Jar Jar Binks--okay, the last is a major bone of contention), Spengler is looking at the deeper impact and lessons taught by the Star Wars saga and the Harry Potter teenage malaise series.

As Spengler notes, the pagan concept of hero is someone born with special powers (typically a demigod, such as Hercules), whose success is not based on his hard work and discipline, but his or her possession of these special powers. It is thereby a license to do whatever feels good.

Episode 4, A New Hope (the first of the Star Wars films) hides this theme somewhat because it draws so heavily on traditional Japanese stories of the samurai. There, Luke is the son of a knight killed by an evil lord and hidden for his safety in the wastes, raised by poor farmers. Luke learns to be a skilled pilot, but is not otherwise special. Although he has the potential to become a great warrior like his father, it will require training. Luke then goes off to the enemy "castle" to rescue the princess, thwarts the evil lord's plans, and receives his reward. It is not readily apparent that the use of the Force is limited to just a select few.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke apparently continues to practice at using the Force, but is soon forced to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master, for training. Here is where the pagan hero comes into being. Luke is strong and willful. His powers of the Force become special, almost magical powers. However, he cannot restrain himself to finish his training and races off to confront his enemy before he is ready. After a battle between what is now two super-heroes, Luke is dealt a stunning defeat and learns that he is the son of Darth Vader.

In The Return of the Jedi, the distinction in power between the Jedi and ordinary persons is made more apparent. The story features again and again, the impetuous over the disciplined and hard work. Luke defeats the emperor, but only because of the last minute redemption of Darth Vader.

Next, Lucas takes us back to the prequels, where among other amazing things such as warfare being permitted between members of the Republic, no one using Republic money outside the Republic (is this because of horrible inflation?), we learn that becoming powerful in the Force is no so much training and discipline, but the number of midi-chlorians in our blood. Darth Vader (although he is not yet called that) is a god-like being, not only possessing more midi-chlorians than anyone else, but is the product of an immaculate conception. Again, however, the story moves into the themes of "follow your bliss, invent your own identity, do your own thing, all you need is love" quite quickly and remains that way for the remainder of the prequels. Anakin falls in love and begins stalking and obsessing about Padme; Padme falls for the most self-centered, self-obsessed person in the universe; Anakin's love for Padme is so great that he willingly sells his soul to the Emperor to prevent her death, and turns out to be the person that injures her so she dies. So, by the end of Episode 3, we now know that if Anakin was a god, born of a midi-chlorian immaculate conception, Luke is a demi-god, hiding out in a peasant's hut until he priest reveals to him his true identity.

In a 2003 article, Goldman compared and contrasted Wagner's and Tolkien's works. He wrote:

The details are far less important than the common starting point: the crisis of the immortals. Wagner's immortal gods must fall as a result of the corrupt bargain they have made with the giants who built Valhalla. Tolkien's immortal Elves must leave Middle-earth because of the fatal assistance they took from Sauron. The Elves' power to create a paradise on Middle-earth depends upon the power of the three Elven Rings which they forged with Sauron's help. Thus the virtue of the Elven Rings is inseparably bound up with the one Ring of Sauron. When it is destroyed, the power of the Elves must fade. More than anything else, The Lord of the Rings is the tragedy of the Elves and the story of their renunciation.  
What Tolkien has in mind is nothing more than the familiar observation that the high culture of the West arose and fell with the aristocracy, which had the time and inclination to cultivate it. With the high culture came the abuse of power associated with the aristocracy; when this disappears, the great beauties of Western civilization and much of its best thought disappear with it. That is far too simple, and in some ways misleading, but it makes a grand premise for a roman-a-clef about Western civilization.
Tolkien enthusiasts emphasize his differences with Wagner, as if to ward off the disparagement that The Lord of the Rings is a derivative work. As Bradley Birzer, David Harvey, and other commentators observe, Tolkien detested Wagner's neo-paganism. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and explicitly philo-Semitic where Wagner was anti-Semitic. But this defense of Tolkien obscures a great accomplishment. He did not emulate Wagner's Ring, but he recast the materials into an entirely new form. "Recast" is an appropriate expression. A memorable scene in Wagner shows Siegfried filing the shards of his father's sword into dust, and casting a new sword out of the filings. That, more or less, is what Tolkien accomplished with the elements of Wagner's story. Wagner will still haunt the stages of opera houses, but audiences will see him through Tolkien's eyes. 
What does one do when the immortals depart? One acts with simple English decency and tenacity, says Tolkien, and accepts one's fate. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-epic (as Norman Cantor puts it), whose protagonist is a weak, vulnerable and reluctant Hobbit, as opposed to the strong, wound-proof and fearless Siegfried. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins does his duty because he must. "I wish the Ring had never come to me! I wish none of this had happened!" he exclaims to the wizard Gandalf, who replies: "So do all that come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." No utopian is Gandalf; what one must do is to muddle through.  
"I will remain Galadriel, and I will diminish," decides the Elf-Queen of Lothlorien, rejecting the chance to take possession of the One Ring and preserve her powers. The Elves choose between vanishing and accepting a taint of evil, and choose the former.  
Modesty, forbearance, and renunciation are the virtues that Tolkien sets against Wagner's existential act of despair. The high culture of the West is gone. The world that remains after the Elves board their gray ships and sail into the West is devoid of beauty and wonder. The kingdom of Men that emerges from The Lord of the Rings is a humdrum affair, in which the best men can do is to get on with their lives. Even the anti-heroes of this anti-epic, the Hobbits who bear the evil Ring to its ultimate destruction, cannot remain in Middle-earth; they sail off along with the Elves.  
Those who hold America in contempt for its lack of refinement (this writer always has held the term "American culture" to be an oxymoron) should think carefully about this conclusion. From their founding on Christmas Day 800 AD, when Charlemagne accepted the crown of the revived Roman Empire, the institutions of the West have been formed in response to external threat. The Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages, Tolkien's conscious model for the Kingdom of Gondor, arose in response to the incursions of Arabs in the south, Vikings in the north, and Magyars in the West. Boorish and gruff as the new American Empire might seem, it is an anti-empire populated by reluctant heroes who want nothing more than to till their fields and mind their homes, much like Tolkien's Hobbits. Under pressure, though, it will respond with a fierceness and cohesion that will surprise its adversaries.  
Orcs of the world: Take note and beware. 
It is the loss of the modesty, forbearance, and renunciation that Goldman warns against. While Star Wars begins there, it ends by extolling the capricious aristocrat. That movie heroes have progressed to outright super-heroes merely underscores Goldman's concern.

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