Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Psychodynamics of Star Wars


A long time ago in a galaxy far away…” So begins the opening “crawl” of
Star war movies. These movies invite us to consider them as evocations of an ancient legend that explain the origins and foundation of the world we have inherited and as we know it today. In this blog post I would like to take this conceit seriously, namely to examine Star Wars as a modern myth or origin story that sheds light on our current experiences. The risk in doing this is to take what is after all an entertainment vehicle and commercial undertaking far too seriously. On the other side, the franchise’s persistence over thirty years in films and books, its world wide popularity, and its trafficking in the fundamental themes of good and evil should give us pause enough to consider it seriously, as we might the legends of the Greek gods, the Norse heroes of the Wagner Ring Cycle, or even the portraits of the patriarchs in the Bible.

C.J. Jung suggested that myths could be seen as social dreams through which our shared arc of life, from birth to death, is expressed through universal archetypes, for example, mother, father, child, devil, trickster, wise old man or hero. If we accept this idea, we could say that Star Wars might be such a myth in which such universal archetypes, for example, Yoda as the wise man, Darth Vader as the devil, the droid as the trickster, and Luke Skywalker as the hero, are joined to our collective preoccupations as we experience them today. The newest film’s casting, The Force Awakens, underlines this feature.  Actors who were young some thirty years ago, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, reprise their roles, but as older and aging characters. As aging actors they too will recede in importance, as younger actors take up central roles in succeeding films of the Star Wars franchise. Older filmgoers, watching this latest movie, can come into touch with their own aging. Let’s for the sake of argument assume that this mythical and archetypical frame of reference is relevant, and see what insights this point of departure affords us.

The Disordered family and cosmos

A striking feature of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is that the cosmos is disturbed because family relationships are disordered.  Failed family relationships are evident throughout the movie. For example, the new female heroine, Rey, whom the film suggests will succeed Luke Skywalker as the next great Jedi warrior, has been orphaned early in life, separated from her parents as the result of some traumatic and perhaps political event. When we encounter her early in the movie she methodologically records every day she has been separated from her parents by markings on a wall, as if she were in prison. In addition, Kylo Ren, the grandson of Darth Vader and the son of Hans Solos and Princess Leia (now a general in the Republic), is estranged from his parents. In addition, Solo and the Princess are estranged from each other, most likely because they have lost their son, Kylo Ren, to the dark side. Also, Luke Skywalker has vanished from the face of the galaxy and is thus estranged from his sister Princess Leia and all of those who have depended on him as the Jedi representative of his generation.  Finally, as the Fore Awakens informs us, Luke Skywalker once trained Kylo Ren to become a Jedi, thus acting as both his guru and as father figure. When Ren went over the dark side, precipitating Skywalker’s withdrawal, the two became estranged permanently.

Now in the life of a small child, a disturbed family life is indeed a cosmic disturbance. In this sense Star Wars evokes a child’s feeling that parental conflict can literally unravel his or her world. But the bridge from the cosmos to the family has adult meaning as well, insofar as we believe that the foundation stone for civilization is the orderly family. In psychoanalysis the figure of the father, or more broadly, the paternal function, personifies this linkage. The father introduces his children to the demand that they control their impulses in order to take up their roles first in school and then in society. We know that children who grow up without fathers, are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drug and alcohol, have more problems with aggression, are twice as likely to commit suicide, and for boys, are more likely to commit crimes. In short, children in such families are more likely to feel overwhelmed. As they mature, their powerlessness may lead to feelings of despair, one reason why they are more likely to commit suicide or crimes.

There is a pivotal emotional moment in the film, when Kylo Ren kills his father, Hans Solo on the Starkiller base. Solo spots Ren from behind walking across a narrow footbridge on the base and calls to him by his original name “Ben” (named after Ben Kenobi). They see each other for the first time after years of estrangement. Solo shows emotional strength in reaching out to Ren. Yet on the other side, he is foolishly risking his life in trying to make contact with his son. After all, at that moment they are antagonists. Kylo is looking for Rey and her droid, while Solo is protecting them. Should Kylo find the droid he could locate Luke Skywalker’s hiding place in the galaxy and destroy him, eliminating the latter’s potential role as a tutor to the next generation of Jedi warriors.

Responding to his father’s pleas that he rejoin his family and the light side, Kylo says, “I'm being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain.” One question is what is the source of his pain and why has it led him to such a point of despair that he is being torn apart. One conception is that Ren suffers from the burden imposed by weak fathers and father figures. The weak father is an attenuated version of the absent father. Hans Solo was once a vagabond, a trader who lived at the margin of society making money by dealing with shady characters, borrowing money and not repaying his debts. He attained moral stature by joining the rebels’ fight against the Empire, (Star Wars IV, A new Hope). But in the Force Awakens, (Star Wars VII), he has apparently reverted to his original dubious profession as a merchant and trader on the galaxy’s fringes, partly because Kylo, originally named Ben, has turned to the dark side. When Rey the heroine first meets Hans Solo and asks him if he is in fact the famous Hans Solo, he replies, “I used to be.” On the bridge, when Hans asks Kylo to remove his mask and reveal the face of his son, Kylo replies, “Your son is gone. He was weak and foolish like his father, so I destroyed him.”

One psychoanalytic conception is that a weak father burdens the psychological development of his son. In this conception, every son needs a “strong enough” father to help him gain control over his own impulses. The son identifies with and internalizes his father’s competence and independence. He trades his wish to gratify his impulses for his father’s love and respect. His father and later other figures of authority, whom he both loves and fears, become the precipitates of what Freud called the son’s “superego.” But when the father is weak, the son must become his own internalized policeman. Unmodified by love and respect, his superego becomes unduly harsh charging him to excess with being inadequate, ineffectual and guilty, for this is the only way he can control his impulses. When this experience becomes intolerable, it leads to despair. Under these conditions the son may seek relief by turning over his harsh superego to an overly strong father figure, such as Snoke the leader of the Dark side, who relieves him of his guilt, and assures him of his potency.

One conception is, that at that moment on the bridge, Kylo is caught between two experiences of his father, as loving or weak, as the forgiving father or the fool. This is too painful a tension for him bear. This is why he tells his father that he wants to be “free of this pain.” Then, though first hesitating, he kills his father thus underlining his transition to the dark side. The psychoanalytically tuned viewer may link this scene on the footbridge to the scene in Oedipus Rex in which Oedipus, meeting his father on a narrow road, kills him in a dispute over whose carriage has the right of way.

The dark side and the devil

This link between despair and murder also has religious and mythological roots. Goethe’s story of the Faust legend is the exemplar story here. Faust, despairing of ever reaching a complete understanding of the universe, considers killing himself. He is saved by a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, who promises to do his bidding in this world if Faust will in turn serve the devil in Hell. When Faust agrees, the devil soon after helps him seduce Gretchen, a woman he finds attractive. Gretchen in turn poisons her own mother so that she and Faust can meet in private. As this drama suggests, the devil permits what is normally forbidden for example, killing for sexual pleasure, an impulse we may at some point entertain in our fantasy but that we would never express in reality.

Examined from a mytho-theological perspective, the Faust story suggests that despair challenges faith, raising the prospect that God, like failed fathers, is weak in this world. If this is true, it suggests that an anti-god or anti-Christ is strong, and in the theology of the western world this is none other than the devil. The devil offers us a road out of despair by promising us potency, if we make good on our crisis of faith and abandon God. If God in turn represents the moral function of the superego, the set of, the “thou shall nots” and “thou shalls” of the Ten Commandments, then as David Bakan argues, the devil suspends the superego, permitting what the superego forbids. This is the religious meaning of the dark side. Snoke as the leader of the dark side is the devil. He frees up his followers, to act out fantasies they would ordinarily keep out of awareness and certainly keep in check for example murdering innocents at will. He relieves them of guilt. This is why his followers feel grateful to him and seek his approval. Broadly speaking, this is the basis for what historians call the “totalitarian seduction.” It is a deal with the devil. This is why Hux, the military leader of the dark side’s storm troopers, sounds like Hitler when he addresses them in a mass rally as they prepare to destroy the resistance’s base. Hitler personifies the devil in modern times.

The emotionally vulnerable man

In some currents of popular culture, when a man or father is moved by his emotions, it is a sign of weakness, an indication that he cannot control his impulses. The Force Awakens initially traffics in this conception. Luke Skywalker upon facing the devastating loss of Kylo Ren and the murder of his Jedi students, is depressed and withdrawn. When we see him --only at the very end of the movie-- we encounter a man all alone and seemingly in despair. Solo, as we have seen, is victimized by his love for his son. Indeed, one of the movie’s conceits is that Kylo Ren is an “incomplete devil,” who becomes inappropriately enraged upon meeting obstacles.

But then the film goes on to offer a more nuanced perspective on the emotionally vulnerable man. The question posed is, can a man’s emotional vulnerability trigger his growth in stature?  In the first Star Wars movie (IV, A New Hope,) the male paragon is the virtuous warrior, the Jedi, a man disciplined enough to risk his life to preserve the Republican and democratic way of life and to do so with equanimity and deliberation.  Obi Wan or Ben Kenobi is the exemplar. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope he confronts Darth Vader in order to give Skywalker a chance to escape and fulfill his mission of ultimately destroying the Death Star.  Obi Wan understands that Vader, both younger and stronger can kill him. In the middle of their light-sabre battle, knowing he has helped Skywalker escape, he simply accedes to his defeat, saying to Vader, "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

At one level he is predicting his reappearance as a spirit or ghost. Indeed in The Force Awakens, Rey, upon discovering Luke Skywalker’s light sabre in a dungeon-like setting, hears Kenobi’s voice. But in naturalistic terms we can interpret his statement to mean that he will become an ideal, much as Moses or Jesus are, and will inspire other warriors to take up the battle of the dark side with the same courage, equanimity and poise that he has done. The other warrior/pilots of the republic, as befit ordinary heroes, demonstrate a similar grace under fire.

Kenobi has achieved what Freud called sublimation. He has learned to regulate his emotional or instinctual life, which can overpower the rational faculties, by linking them to the work of achieving higher ideals and thereby forgoing immediate gratification in the service of a wider love, what Freud called “Eros.” His control is so complete that he can sacrifice his life for the welfare of a next generation. In a sense, the mantra, “May the force be with you,” may be translated as, “May you appropriate those instincts or drives which animate you, for a greater good.” In this sense Kenobi becomes for the next generation, what Freud called an “ego ideal.” While the superego is the seat of injunctions and the source of guilt, the ego ideal is the seat of aspirations and a source of the capacity to love at a level that goes beyond immediate gratification. 

The newly introduced main character Finn, presents a different picture. Unlike the fighter pilots of the resistance, he initially lacks grace and courage. When we first encounter him as a storm trooper he is overwhelmed by the sight of blood as his fellow troopers kill villagers on the planet Jakku. Fearing that he will get caught for failing to fire his weapon, he deserts his troop, then pretends that he is a Jedi so that Rey will help him in his flight, and finally abandons her -- despite her pleas that he join the resistance- when he can arrange for a flight off the planet. In other words, he is at first a coward and a liar. Finn ultimately grows into a warrior when, upon learning that Kylo Ren has captured Rey, he comes into touch with his love for her, and masters the weapons he must use in an attempt to rescue her. In a sense, Finn is at a lower level of  “warrior development” than a Jedi, because his courage derives from his passion for a person, a woman, rather than from his commitment to an ideal.

A culture of narcissism?

The difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and the men of The Force Awakens highlights the psychoanalytic distinction between the ego and the self. The former describes an executive function of the mind that is aware of its own divisions and ambivalences. It is the way a person observes and controls his own emotional responses to internal as well as external stimuli; for example, by distancing himself from feelings of self-imposed guilt, or taking an ironic stance toward his own passions. Eli Zaretsky, in his wonderful book Political Freud, calls this type of person an exemplar of psychoanalysis’ “maturity ethic”. But in a post-modern age, Zaretsky suggests, we privilege our emotions and put greater value on responding in the moment to them, whether they are noble or not.  

One popular and scholarly conversation suggests that this shift from ego to self highlights a new culture of narcissism where we use our feelings to make peremptory demands on others for recognition and affirmation. For example, students in college classes who demand that they not be exposed to literature that creates discomfort.  Conservative critics worry that such a culture of narcissism with its focus on self-esteem, means that people lack courage and the will to take risks. To them it represents a decline in the masculine elements of the culture as well as a cultural attack on “white males,” and on what they represent and have achieved. This may be why today, Donald Trump, in all his primitivism, is nonetheless appealing.  

The movie presents a different possibility. It suggests that as men take on more “feminine” characteristics, women can take on more masculine ones. The paternal and maternal functions are preserved in our culture but are expressed differently and in new ways by both men and women. This parallelism evokes experiences in every day family life. Fathers are increasingly involved in infant and baby care- changing diapers, feeding, bathing and story telling -- just as mothers are more engaged in the world of work, making good on their ambitions. The hopeful aspect of this vision is that as men mature into their adult character, they will feel less taxed psychologically by the demand that they repress their feminine side, for example by being passive, and for women, the demand that they repress their masculine side, for example by being active. People would feel more psychological freedom and less guilt in taking up their adult roles more fully.  

Rey, the movie’s central character, exemplifies this new role for women.  She represents the next generation of Jedi, the Force flows through her naturally, and as an orphan has learned to defend herself against predators who occupy the frontier settings on her home planet of Jakku. She has mechanical skills, is a self-taught aircraft pilot, and is inspired by the history of the resistance. But she is not a one-dimensional superwoman. She longs for her parents and is drawn to Hans Solo as a potential father figure, a yearning that Kylo Ren, who battles her in a penultimate scene, senses. In the movie’s final moment she finds Luke Skywalker in his mountain hideaway and in a gesture of love returns to him his light saber that, once he had abandoned it, had been stored for some thirty years in a dudgeon/castle on the planet Takodana.

The psychoanalytically tuned viewer may see this as a moment in which a woman returns a phallic object to a man - his weapon -- as the first step in helping to revive his potency. But this is too narrow a “reading” of this moment. I suggest that it is instead a moment of tender reconciliation between the sexes and the generations. It suggests that the daughter cannot be wholly herself without her father and that a man cannot be wholly himself without a woman. In this sense, the very last scene answers the opening chords of the first scenes by offering the prospect that the family unit can be restored so that civilization may once against thrive. It is in this way a romantic ending but not necessarily an unrealistic one.

The Force Awakens leaves me with the question about the meaning of the “warrior” archetype in a post-modern culture. Emerging from the devastation of the twentieth century, a century of two world wars, nationalisms and ideologies, we may be wary of ideals and feel more secure in strengthening our attachments to specific people whom we love and wish to protect. But Star Wars suggests that the dark side is ever present, that the totalitarian seduction, with its political implications, is always just around the corner. This is the warning that Freud offers us in his magisterial, Civilization and its Discontents. Do we take this seriously? If we do, are we prepared?

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