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Richard Rohlin
"I have been doing battle forever against the proud forces of stupidity." - Boethius
"I have been doing battle forever against the proud forces of stupidity." - Boethius


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Nietzsche, Wagner, Star Wars, and The Last Jedi

In this post I am going to argue that Star Wars: Episode VII: The Last Jedi is the most Star Wars film of all time; that is, it is the most true to the philosophical assumptions at the core of the franchise.

I am also going to argue that, because of this, it is not a very good movie.

If you don't like people mixing philosophy with your fandoms, you can skip this post with my blessing. If you just want to uncritically enjoy a movie about space wizards and laser swords and goofy space gravity, I wish you all the best. I am not looking to destroy your fun, nor to feel superior to you in any way.

I’m just broken in this way that makes me think about things.

All right, disclaimers out of the way, let’s try to hit this thing in as roundabout away as possible.

In his essay A Funeral for a Great Myth, C.S. Lewis addresses what he considered to be the great and most poignant myth of Modern times: that of "'Evolution' or 'Development' or 'Emergence.'" By this Lewis did not mean the biological theory of evolution, which Lewis considered to be a genuine scientific hypothesis, but rather the accompanying myth of Evolutionism: the belief that the universe has progressed out of darkness and chaos into light and order, and that later forms represent improvements beyond their earlier predecessors.

This Myth of Evolutionism - and Lewis does not mean to be unkind with his application of the word 'myth' - is separate from the idea of biological evolution in that it applies the idea of this cosmic march forward towards improvement not just to the physical world, but to the idea of governments, philosophies, and religions. In fact, as Lewis demonstrates, the clearest statement of the Myth of Evolutionsim in the English language comes a number of years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species:

“If popular Evolutionism were (as it imagines itself to be) not a Myth but the intellectually legitimate result of the scientific theorem on the public mind, it would arise after that theorem had become widely known. We should have the theorem known first of all to a few, then adopted by all the scientists, then spreading to all men of general education, then beginning to affect poetry and the arts, and so finally percolating to the mass of the people. In fact, however, we had something quite different. The clearest and finest poetical expressions of the Myth come before The Origin of Species was published (1859) and long before it had established itself as scientific orthodoxy... The finest expression of the Myth in English does not come from Bridges, nor from Shaw, nor from Wells, nor from Olaf Stapledon. It is this:

As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs:
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness.
(II 206-215)

Thus Ocean, in Keats' Hyperion, nearly forty years before The Origin of the Species.”

In Keats then we see the prevailing mythopoeic mood that would eventually lead to the widespread acceptance of Evolutionism, many decades before the Theory of Evolution was first published as a scientific hypothesis. But Keats is far from the only poet or artist working with this theme. As Lewis points out, it also plays an important role in the works of another notable Romantic poet - Richard Wagner:

“And on the Continent we have the Ring of the Nibelungs.... as a mythopoeic poet he [Wagner] is incomparable. The tragedy of the Evolutionary Myth has never been more nobly expressed than in his Wotan; its heady raptures never more irresistibly than in Siegfried. That he [Wagner again] himself knew quite well what he was writing about can be seen from his letter to August Rockel of 1854. "The progress of the whole drama shows the necessity of recognizing and submitting to the change, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal novelty of the Real. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own downfall. This is all we have to learn from the history of Man - to will what is necessary and to bring it ourselves to pass."”

The "eternal novelty of the real" turns out to be an apt description of the modern world view and is, as Lewis points out later in his essay, its uglier side is at the root of consumer culture. It is the idea that things ought not to be made to last - that the newest iPad or self-driving car will make your life better and safer because they are new, because they represent progress. It is the idea that to dwell very long on the beliefs or wisdom of the past is to regress; to actually base your life on them may even be socially irresponsible.

It goes almost without saying that Wagner as a poet has his philosopher counterpart in his friend and contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche. There could be a long and fruitful conversation at the cross-section of Nietzsche and Star Wars, but the idea which is most important to my present point is probably his most famous: That of the Ubermensch (Superman). The Ubermensch is Nietzsche’s ultimate ideal, the solution to the “death of God” and the problem of nihilism. Nietzsche saw the Ubermensch as the ultimate goal of human procreation and society. The Ubermensch was both destroyer and creator: the destroyer of old orders (social and religious), which Nietzsche saw as morbid and anti-life; and the creator of a new order which would be justified, not by an appeal to tradition, but to power alone. What makes the Ubermensch so compelling as a protagonist is that he is at once both an iconoclast and the ultimate icon. He appeals to that part of us which wants to be a “rebel” as well as to that part of us which wants to justify the use of power to force our own will upon reality. Obviously, Nietzsche and his philosophy leant a deadly imperative to the diseased minds that created the Third Reich. But his ideas are still very much alive and well today among us in a number of ways.

For Nietzsche, the “life force” is the only absolute thing. One of Nietzsche’s other core tenants was the philosophy of the Eternal Return, the idea that we are essentially locked in a cosmic cycle that is playing out over and over again (well, there’s more to it than that, but if you want a more detailed explanation I’d suggest you just read Nietzsche). For Nietzsche, the soul is merely part of the body, and death is only part of the great cycle of life. The “eternal novelty of the real” is thus the imperative of all life.

It’s child’s play to point out the Wagnerian themes and references in the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s been the subject of books, websites, and doctoral thesis, all of which would furnish you with far more fertile examples than I have the time or inclination to provide here. It is not hard to see Luke as the Ubermensch, the Sigfreid character, overthrowing the established order (the Empire) to establish a new and better order in its place. And it is even easier to see Vader as the Wotan figure, who in the end must will his own death so that “a power, more strong in beauty, born of us” can supersede him—and the Empire. The original Star Wars trilogy is most beautiful when it is most Wagnerian: the music, the sweeping grandeurs of myth among its roots, the contrasted images of light and darkness, new and old. Vader is the coolest character in Star Wars at least partly because tragedy is beautiful, and Vader is as tragic as Wotan. Like Wotan, he has sinned terribly in the name of order. Like Wotan, his sins can only be atoned for by his offspring (his son instead of his grandson, here) directly opposing his will, until Vader at last sacrifices himself by willing his own death.

Anakin is even the tragic hero of the prequel trilogy, which for all its shortcomings is at least honest—maybe a little too honest—to the Nietzschean/Wagnerian metaphysics of the world. The Jedi Order, with their asceticism and restraint, had somehow paralyzed the Force. They had ossified it, restrained it (out fear of power), and tried to control it. They would not submit to the Eternal Novelty of the real, and so Anakin is Sigfreid here as he was Wotan in the original trilogy: destroying the Jedi Order to create something new and Stronger—the Empire—where in the original trilogy the Empire had to be destroyed to make way for a New Republic. As far as the Force is concerned, everything Anakin did in Episode III was justified. It is part of the Eternal Return, the cycle of creation and destruction which drives all of life forward.

Not that the franchise has ever really been able to commit to this. We, the viewing public, are not really capable of seeing light and darkness and calling both good. We can see the contrast, but we need the dark to be evil and the light to be good. Or at least, for the first six, maybe seven films, we did. Enter The Last Jedi.

I have posited that the hero of Star is always an Ubermensch; or at least, that they have qualities of the Ubermensch. But what the new trilogy has given us so far is not just one Ubermensch, but two: Kylo Ren and Rey.

Both are characterized by a tremendous amount of power, including force powers that have never been seen in the films before. Both carve a path of destruction through the “old orders” of their day (the Republic and the First Order, respectively). Importantly, in the most interesting moment of the two films thus far, they work together to kill Supreme Leader Snoke. But Rey is obviously a better Ubermensch than Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren destroys Snoke only to assume leadership of the old order; Rey continues on at the end of a metaphorically (but not VERY metaphorically) reborn Rebellion, and the cycle continues. Rey is a better Ubermensch in other ways too. She, unlike Anakin or Luke in their beginnings, is categorically more powerful and, what is more, more potent than her opposite number. Throughout The Last Jedi, the First Order is – despite what we’re intended to believe is their complete and overwhelming superiority of force – passive and immobile, while the Resistance/Rebellion is proactive and mobile. The First Order sit and wait while the Rebellion comes up with one clever plan after another for foiling their enemies.

But if Snoke represents one branch of the old trilogy, Luke and the Force Temple represent another. All tradition is dead weight in Nietzsche’s paradigm, for tradition is what weighs us down, what keeps us from moving forward by restraining and chaining us with old rules and tradition. When Yoda’s force ghost destroys the sacred texts, we’re intended to see it as a liberating action – freeing Rey to do what she needs to do without the fetters of training or tradition. And Luke, who failed as an Ubermensch because he allowed tradition and morality to fetter his use of power, is finally freed to do what he needs to do. I realize that Luke’s death was controversial with many fans, but I would argue that in the face of Rey as Sigfreid, it was the only one he could be given. Like Wotan, he had failed by trying to bridle power with laws, and like Wotan, he willed his own death when he finally yielded to “the eternal novelty of the real.”

If Nietzsche is at the core of the philosophy of Star Wars—as I believe it is—then The Last Jedi is the most true to that vision. It is also the least artful in its representation of that philosophy. Rey is too good an Ubermensch; or at the very least, the obstacles she must overcome are the artistic product of a society so untethered from its past that it cannot produce the menacing fascism of the Empire or the paralytic conservatism of the Old Republic. There is no fear that Rey will not overcome. There was no fear that she would join Kylo Ren, either—not because she is too virtuous, but because she is too good an Ubermensch to be fettered by another’s order—whether it be the First Order, or the Jedi Order.

If it is to rise to the importance of the original trilogy; if it is to be as enduring as the original trilogy, the newest incarnation of the “eternal novelty” of Star Wars will need, as in fact the last several minutes of The Last Jedi did, to return to Wagner. Wagner’s romance and tragedy must moderate Nietzsche’s relentless lust for progress. Nietzsche would feel no sorrow over the destruction of the sacred Jedi texts, but Wagner could make us weep for the fall of a Vader or a Wotan.
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The "debunking" trend is one of the more pernicious aspects of current pop-history. There isn't a single podcast or book in the genre that isn't rife with it.

As always, some good thoughts from the Clerk of Oxford about how to read the legends of olden times.
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Domne Eafe's Deer
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I'm going to be joining the terraforming efforts over at MeWe. If you're going as well, add me.
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Feasts interrupted. #Tolkien #TheSilmarillion #MiddleEarth

Interrupted feasts make a recurring theme in Tolkien. Some of these are minor interruptions, like Dwarvish intrusions into Elvish merrymakings in Mirkwood: they cause mostly annoyance to the Elves, rather than present a serious threat. Other feast…
Feasts interrupted.
Feasts interrupted.
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For the early monks, and for Benedict's disciples, the psalms were not only an external discipline, but also a help to the internal life. Little by little, when combined with silence and lectio, external words, the words of the world, are gradually abandoned, until all that is heard is the Word of God. When that Word is all that there is to shape the mind, the thought, the conversation of the disciple, then it has begun to be internalized, and it can begin the work of transforming the heart, what Paul calls 'having the mind in you which was in Christ Jesus' (Phil. 2:5). The words of God become our words, so that we become the Word's.

- The Benedictine Handbook
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