Dark side of the soul


With the release of The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III), George Lucas delivered the final episode in the most commercially successful cinema series ever. The films are notable for dazzling special effects, clunky dialogue and only occasional lapses into good acting. Why then their popularity? I suspect it's because they tell, in a thoroughly contemporary way, the most ancient stories about the human condition.

Perhaps because Star Wars pioneered the phenomenon of movie-as-marketing-bonanza, it has earned the withering disdain of elite critics. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane denounced Lucas and all his pomps and works in his review of Sith. "Deep nonsense" was how he began his vivisection of the Star Wars six-part series, finally condemning it all as "flawless and irredeemable vulgarity". Twenty-eight years ago, it was the same with the first Star Wars in The New Yorker, with then-critic Pauline Kael panning it as the "genius of plodding" and saying that Lucas "has the tone of bad movies down pat."

Everything that is popular is not meritorious — which goes double for pop culture — but one might step back to ask why, in the most ephemeral of industries, show business, Star Wars has been so popular for so long. It was Kael, after all, who earned her place in history not for her reviews but for her comment on president Richard Nixon's landslide re-election in 1972: "How could that be? I don't know a single person who voted for [him]."

The legions of the fans who consume (it is the right word for the merchandising machine that accompanies the films) Star Wars are not exactly a Nixonian silent majority; to the contrary they loudly trumpet their sometimes fanatical devotion, even queuing up for days before the films open. For boys of a certain age (I was six when the first film was released in 1977), Star Wars provided the architecture of our imaginary worlds. I remember well the only boy in our class whose parents had bought him the Millennium Falcon — invitations to play at his house after school were highly prized. Star Wars was brimming over with the things loved by boys of all ages: spaceships and grotesque creatures and alien worlds and — best of all — lightsabres. But other movies had that too. Star Wars added a strange mystical reality — the Force — and codes of honour and duty, played out against the cosmic drama of good and evil. It was this that sustained interest in the saga over almost 30 years.

From the beginning, many fans noted the religious images in Star Wars, far too numerous to be accidental. Sir Alec Guinness in the garb of a monk in his turn as the elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke Skywalker, when he finally makes it as a Jedi, dresses like a young priest. Darth Vader's helmet is a stylized mitre of sorts, all the better to evoke the corrupt bishop he has become. The wicked emperor carries a staff and is attended by a court that includes attendants decked head-to-toe in cardinalatial red. The latest installment gives us the sinister "Order 66" — subtle it's not — and a Jedi "temple" with a minaret-like construction. Above all, there is the Force which, in addition to allowing the Jedi to levitate objects and other cool things, is a potent combination of everything-is-god pantheism, quasi-Buddhist eschatology, New Age energy fields and Manichean dualism. Anakin Skywalker is called the "Chosen One"; the Dark Side is the evil principle which seeks the corruption of the best, even as Lucifer was the greatest of all the angels.

It is striking that for a saga saturated with violence, the final triumph of the Jedi is through a work of mercy — the sparing of Vader by Luke — and the witness of suffering.

Yet Star Wars is not principally a religious story about the corruption of an elite priesthood (Lucas has hinted that the Jedi were modelled loosely on the Jesuits), seduced into employing their special abilities in a quest for power. Rather it is an older story, a much older story about the deepest human dramas — the tale of love, sacrifice and fatherhood on the one hand, and the tragedy of hate, domination and tyranny on the other. It is the conflict between competing stories about the human experience. It is a test about which account is more authentic description of the path to human flourishing.

The Star Wars double trilogy is the tale of Anakin Skywalker, a young boy of preternatural abilities who has no father — whether it is because his mother was abandoned or, as suggested in The Phantom Menace (Episode I), because he was conceived without a father at all. Identified by the Jedi masters as strong in the Force, he is taken into their custody for training after his mother is captured as a slave. The Jedi present to him the ideals of honour, duty and sacrifice — including celibacy — in which those who have been given much are required to serve the good of all.

As a young man, Anakin decides to follow another way, rejecting the spiritual fatherhood of the Jedi knights in favour of marriage, which he contracts secretly. In Sith the fatherless one becomes a father himself. He turns away from his Jedi masters, and the evil Emperor Palpatine offers a different vision to Anakin: Those who have been given much have the power to seize more — even the ultimate power to create life and cheat death. Anakin accepts Palpatine's vision, not first for personal gain, but to avenge personal loss — the murder of his mother in the past, and the death of his wife in the future. Anakin accepts that to avoid destruction one must be the first to destroy. It is the way of domination not sacrifice.

In this Lucas revisits an ancient debate about the nature of our human sojourn. Is the primordial reality the one of the master and the slave, as the philosopher Georg Hegel would have it? Does man have to choose between being dominant or dominated, in which case the purpose of life and the engine of history is the struggle for power between those who would be masters and those who would be slaves?

That is the way of the Dark Side, in which the desire to avenge one's own pain — Give in to your hate! — fuels the lust for power. Power is the only remedy for pain — to hurt others before they can hurt you. In Return of the Jedi (Episode VI), the Emperor attempts to seduce Luke into the Dark Side with an offer of revenge against Darth Vader. Luke is invited to kill Vader and take his place at the side of the all-powerful Emperor. It is the Hegelian dynamic of master and slave at work. The slave either remains a slave to be destroyed at the master's command, or he kills the master and takes his place. It is the way of the gun or, if you will, the lightsabre.

"Show no mercy," is the first lesson the Emperor teaches Anakin-cum-Vader in Sith. Mercy is the undoing of the tyrant, for he considers it a weakness that allows his potential opponents to fight another day. There is no room for mercy in the Hegelian master-slave telling of the human story. Kill or be killed it is. Without mercy, anything is possible, and soon the new Lord Vader massacres the innocent "younglings" in a slaughter which echoes exactly the biblical figures of Pharoah and King Herod.

Eventually the Emperor will make the same offer to Luke, to kill Vader and take his place, or be killed. But Vader is Luke's father, so the master-slave dynamic meets the father-son relationship. In The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), Vader offers Luke the position at his side. Together they will kill the Emperor, and rule the galaxy. He offers his son a chance to become a tyrant. Luke prefers to remain the son of his father. Eventually in Jedi, Luke refuses to kill Vader, and so suffers the wrath of the Emperor who prepares to destroy him.

It is striking that for a saga saturated with violence, the final triumph of the Jedi is through a work of mercy — the sparing of Vader by Luke — and the witness of suffering. It is the suffering of the son that accomplishes the conversion of the father, and Vader turns against the Emperor and destroys him. The "show no mercy" domination of the tyrant is finally defeated only by the medicine of mercy and the power of filial suffering to move the paternal heart.

In the end, the only alternative in human relations to the Hegelian master-slave dynamic is the father-son relationship. Either the powerful oppress the weak, as tyrants suppress slaves, or the powerful one sacrifices himself for the weaker, as a father will even give his life for his son.

This clash of archetypes is at the heart of Lucas' mythology. Star Wars is not a work of philosophy, much less theology. But good storytelling always includes both, and it is this ancient story made new that invites us to return again and again to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Dark side of the soul." National Post, (Canada) May 21, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 National Post

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