STAR WARS BETWEEN MYTH AND GOSPEL

“The original idea was a story, ultimately of salvation, of revealing that the villain is actually the hero.” – George Lucas, in an interview on the occasion of the AFI Life Achievement Award.

The goal of the following video essay is to highlight the difference between Joseph Campbell’s reading of myths and René Girard’s reading of myths, as well as their different understanding of the Gospel.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is inspired by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), among others. He understands the Gospel as one more example of a myth. According to him, myths are essentially about a dying and resurrecting “monstrous hero-god”, whose necessary and inevitable violent sacrifice establishes an ever provisional peace and order. Moreover, Joseph Campbell believes that such hero myths exemplify inescapable dynamics working in human life and culture, at an individual as well as a collective level.

René Girard (1923-2015), on the other hand, understands the Gospel as a radical criticism of the violent sacrificial structure that is justified by traditional hero myths. The Gospel takes the universal mythological pattern, only to uncover from within its dependency on the lie of the scapegoat mechanism. In contrast to Joseph Campbell, René Girard shows how the Gospel undermines the idea of violence as an inevitable “transcendent” force that governs human culture. The Gospel shows that violence is human, not divine.

The way the following video essay highlights the similarities and differences between Joseph Campbell and René Girard, is by analyzing the first six episodes of the Star Wars movie saga. As is well-known, Star Wars creator George Lucas was heavily inspired by his eventual mentor Joseph Campbell in the final conception of the Star Wars story.

Understood as a “mythological tragedy”, it will become clear that Star Wars revolves around the similarities and radical differences between Myth and Gospel, between the Sacrifice of the Mythological Hero and the Sacrifice of Christ.

Joseph Campbell and René Girard both turn out to be indispensable, brilliant guides in uncovering “the magic of myth”. 

Watch the video below (or click to watch a pdf of the video here):

Star Wars

To conclude, here are some excerpts from interviews with George Lucas where he exposes some of the ideas that formed the background for Star Wars:

From an interview with Ty Burr for The Boston Globe (25 October 2005):

GEORGE LUCAS: There’s absolutely no conflict between Darwinism and God’s design for the universe – if you believe that it’s God’s design. The problem for me is that I see a very big difference between the Bible and God. And the problem they’re getting into now is that they’re trying to understand intelligent design through the Bible, not through God. Our job is to find all the “intelligent design,” and figure out how He did everything, and I think that’s consistent with science.

All we’re doing in our own fumbly, bumbly, human way with our inadequate little brains is trying to figure out what He did. And once we figure it out, we say “Ooh, that’s great!” And then we just continue on. Will we ever figure out everything? I don’t know. There’ll always be that faith there that there’s something more to figure out.

TY BURR: When you’re in there creating the nitty-gritty of the “Star Wars” universe, figuring out how an inhabitant of a given planet might evolve a given way, do you feel like you’re playing god?

GL: Well, I started out in anthropology, so to me how society works, how people put themselves together and make things work, has always been a big interest. Which is where mythology comes from, where religion comes from, where social structure comes from. Why are these things created? Now we’re getting into more of the social sciences side of the things, but the biological side is starting to float into that. I’m looking forward to the evolution of neuro-anthropology, because I want to see our genes affect how we build our social systems, how we develop our belief systems in terms of our social beliefs and cultural beliefs. We’re at an exciting time.

TB: What’s neuro-anthropology? I’m not familiar with the term.

GL: It doesn’t exist. [laughs] It’s sort of an extension of neuropsychology, which does exist. But the next step is neuro-anthropology.

TB: The nervous systems of social groups?

GL: Yeah. A friend of mine is writing a book on the social interactions of people based on brain research and how the way we interact with other people is affected by the development of our brains in terms of how the synapses and neurons work. You know, like how married couples influence each other just on a neurological level. What I’m interested in is what happens when you take that to the next level. How do the social institutions reflect the neural activity of the individuals. But that’s an outgrowth of how, in the case of “Star Wars,” I’ve taken psychological motifs from 4,000-year-old stories and put them into a modern vernacular. The reason they worked then is that they were told verbally over and over and over and handed down from father to son. Because they were tested by an audience for thousands of years, they have a certain emotional integrity to them, and you can take those little modules and stick them into a story as they are. They work well because emotionally we have not shifted all that much in the last 4,000 years, whereas intellectually we have.

TB: Are you saying that motifs like the lone hero coming to grips with his father are encoded into our cultural DNA?

GL: I see mythology as a kind of archeological psychology, in which you take psychological fossils that sit in our brain and test to see if they’re still working.

TB: Does your penchant for painting detailed pictures of entire societies come from these interests?

GL: Yes. Also, I love history, so while the psychological basis of “Star Wars” is mythological, the political and social bases are historical. I like to take things and strip them down, then use the model and build a different story on it. You can put in a motif of Saturday-afternoon serials to make it relevant to kids of today, but the political situation of the Empire and the Republic — that’s a scenario that’s been played out thousands of times over the years and that never seems to change much.

I had an interesting discussion when I was doing publicity in Europe for the final “Star Wars” movie. I was sitting around with a dozen reporters, and the Russian correspondents all thought the film was about Russian politics, and the Americans all thought it was about Bush. And I said, “Well, it’s really based on Rome. And on the French Revolution and Bonaparte.” It’s shocking that these things get repeated through history. The same mistakes get made and the tension between democracy and tyranny is always the same. And we haven’t figured out any way around it.

From an interview with James Cameron (in his series Story of Science Fiction, 2018), wherein George Lucas makes some claims that might sound “scandalous” in some ears: the “good” Jedi of the Star Wars movie saga are compared to “terrorists”. Lucas talks about the Viet Cong, while Cameron even mentions the Mujaheddin. The dialogue, in other words, points to the underlying similarities between adverseries in what René Girard would call “mimetic rivalry” (rivalry based on imitation):

“The original idea was a story, ultimately of salvation, of revealing that the villain is actually the hero.” – George Lucas, in an interview on the occasion of the AFI Life Achievement Award:

 

Otello’s (Des)demon(a)

My summer holiday started with a blast. Some of my friends are real opera connoisseurs and they invited me and my wife to experience Otello, a true operatic masterpiece of the Romantic era, composed by the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The libretto was provided by poet and musician Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), the play itself of course being one of William Shakespeare’s tragedies (in English written as Othello, Italian Otello).

René Girard wrote a very interesting book on Shakespeare’s oeuvre, A Theater of Envy. Chapter 31 of this book deals with Othello, entitled Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary? Desire and Death in Othello and other plays. The main characters of Othello are indeed driven by jealousy, by envy – a ‘force’ biblically and traditionally identified with ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’. Girard describes envy as the negative side of ‘mimetic’ or ‘imitative’ desire. When a desire is mimetic, it means this desire is based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. We often desire what others desire or possess, not because we intrinsically want to obtain a certain object or goal, but because we more or less unwittingly imitate each other’s desires. An imitated ‘other’ becomes a ‘model’ – someone who is admired – and an ‘obstacle’ at the same time – someone who is envied because of what he owns or is supposed to own; someone who ‘stands in the way’ between the mimetically created subject and object of desire.

Othello is an uncertain and tragic hero. As a dark-skinned Moorish general in the Venetian army, he’s not at ease in the aristocratic circles of Venice. Yet he finds himself married to Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator. Throughout the play Othello more and more becomes the puppet of his own uncertainties, as well as of others who ‘pull the strings’ of his worst fears. He first seeks refuge with Cassio, whom he highly admires and therefore will also start to distrust as a potential rival in his love for Desdemona. Othello’s relationship with Cassio (his ‘model-obstacle’), originating from his uncertainties, is at the heart of Othello’s eventual tragic downfall. René Girard in A Theater of Envy (in the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991) writes the following on the subject (p.290):

“At the thought of entering for the first time the exalted world of Venetian nobility, Othello is struck with panic and he… resorts to a go-between, his own lieutenant, Cassio. […] Cassio is everything that Othello is not: white, young, handsome, elegant, and above all a true Venetian aristocrat, a real man of the world, always at ease among the likes of Desdemona. Othello appreciates Cassio so much that he selects him rather than Iago as his lieutenant.”

Iago becomes the demonic machinator of the play, driven by envy himself. Jealous of Othello’s choice for Cassio, Iago sets up a trap by which he convinces Othello to lower Cassio’s rank. He then gains both Othello’s and Cassio’s trust: he advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead for him with her husband, while at the same time he suggests to Othello that Cassio is after his wife. So, every time Desdemona puts in a good word for Cassio, Othello’s suspicion as well as his desire to possess Desdemona ‘completely’ is reinforced (as he ‘imitates’ the supposed desire of Cassio). In order to fulfill his desire Othello eventually murders his wife – so she can no longer belong to Cassio or someone else. Girard is right to emphasize the close relationship between Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death) – p.294-295:

“Death… often has a sexual meaning in Shakespeare… Like everything else in Shakespeare, the kinship of death and desire can be read in either a comic or a tragic vein. Whether or not it ‘really occurs,’ and whether or not it is turned into a pun, the violent conclusion alludes to the overwhelming presence of death at the climax of the mimetic process. As desire becomes increasingly obsessed with the obstacles that it keeps generating, it moves inexorably toward self-and-other annihilation, just as erotic courtship moves toward its sexual fulfillment.”

In Verdi’s rendition of the play, the dramatic pinnacle lies in the second to last act of the opera, Act III. I chose fragments of this act from a 1995 performance, with Placido Domingo as Otello and Renée Fleming as Desdemona, at the famous Metropolitan Opera House (the Met) in New York. My friends and I were lucky enough to hear Renée Fleming as Desdemona once more at the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris, last Friday, July 1. The setting was different, but she was just as great…

CLICK TO WATCH the first part of Act III:

What strikes me the most in Act III, from a dramatic point of view, is Otello’s refusal to listen to his wife. He considers listening to her as taking advice from the devil. At this point in the libretto, Arrigo Boito refers to the Medieval Catholic formula for exorcisms, “Vade Retro, Satana” (recorded in a 1415 manuscript found in the Benedictine Metten Abbey of Bavaria). Otello sings “Indietro!” (“Aback!”), an important word that is not translated in the fragments shown. The aforementioned formula as well as this word are similar to Jesus saying to Peter “Get behind me, Satan” in Mark 8:33 or Matthew 16:23. There, Jesus refuses to listen to Peter because Peter tries to seduce him to compete with ‘the rulers of this world’. In other words, Peter takes the role of ‘Satan’, meaning that he tries to trick Jesus into ‘mimetic rivalry’. Peter tries to trick Jesus into enviously comparing himself to others ‘to protect himself’. With this in mind the tragic irony in Act III of Verdi’s Otello becomes obvious. Otello’s paranoia has become so powerful that he is no longer capable of hearing the truth. The truth is Desdemona is innocent, but she becomes the victim, the ‘scapegoat’ of Otello’s anxieties and frustrations. Otello believes he’s denouncing ‘Satan’, but in fact he actually takes advice from Iago’s hints and is consumed by envy.

Click to continue the important duet between Otello and Desdemona and keep enjoying two of the greatest singers of all time

– CLICK TO WATCH: