In what I think is the most interesting scene in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren, after killing his dark-side master and fighting off a bunch of guards with Rey, urges her to join him:
The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.
I think his words here reveal a lot about the Kylo Ren character, The Last Jedi movie itself, and the struggle in which the entire Star Wars franchise has been engaged for some time—a struggle I would characterize as negotiating one’s relationship to tradition.
Some context for my thoughts:
I was leading a poetry seminar a couple of weeks ago in which we discussed T. S. Eliot’s (in)famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and one participant questioned the possibility of tradition at all. “In what sense is it even meaningful to talk about a ‘Western literary tradition’?”
Eliot and his modernist compatriots seemed to think of tradition as something very real–something you could have, or not have—and, for poets, something you were responsible for making sure you had in order to write proper poetry. But for many of us today, “tradition” is a very problematic term. The only safe way to use it in popular culture seems to be in phrases like “faith traditions” (with a respectable emphasis on the pluralizing “s” at the end); otherwise, to speak of “tradition” in the singular with any kind of reverence, one is perceived as advocating for a misogynistic unenlightened power structure, or of idealizing an ossified set of texts that neglect the literacies and voices of marginalized groups.
Even Eliot acknowledges that the term was problematic in his own time:
We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction.
Obviously there is much to be said about tradition in general and the poetic tradition more specifically, but I think an interesting way to explore how human beings grapple with tradition is to look at it through the lens of Star Wars.
Kylo Ren proposes discarding tradition altogether, no matter the source: “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi.” One’s identity can only be uncovered by “killing” the past.
My dad was reminiscing about seeing the first Star Wars movie when he was a senior in high school, and one of the things he loved about it, apart from the incredible visual effects, was how the original movie engaged playfully and cleverly with film tradition. George Lucas incorporated elements of WWII movies, cowboy westerns, cheesy sci-fi thrillers and Japanese culture and films in a kind of hodge-podge that resonated rather deeply with American popular culture at the time; it was fun and recognizable, and yet fresh.
Lucas’ borrowing from those well-known motifs (and in some cases even specific storylines) reveals his engagement with, and sense of indebted-ness to, tradition. He was making something new (“make it new!” Ezra Pound says) but his innovations had a kind of reverence for the movie-makers that had come before.
I think the Star Wars franchise today — like so many other rebooted franchises that have to navigate nostalgia and memory — is grappling with conflicting conceptions of tradition. The characters within the story grapple with repeating the past, reinventing it, or rejecting it, and more importantly, the directors and writers of the films themselves do, too. They are trying to come to terms with a thing they did not create and which seems to have taken on a life of its own.
In an article tellingly entitled “Why Star Wars’ past is so important to the future in The Rise of Skywalker“, we get some hints from one of the writers of the upcoming movie on this engagement with tradition:
“The idea of how the legacy of the Jedi is carried on and how the Force and its uses extend to the next generation [is] a thing that we for sure are taking up,” Chris Terrio, the co-writer of The Rise of Skywalker, told io9. […] “We first meet Rey, literally, in the wreck of the old war. The old war is so present in her life in every possible way,” he said. “So we wanted to explore [that] a little bit further and the origins of the First Order and how the past affects the present…And by exploring the story in the ways that we did, we could keep the sense of the past, even in the present war.” (emphasis added)
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, J. J. Abrams got the new trilogy into structural and plot problems by choosing to repeat the universe’s situation from the original movie — merely replacing the Empire with the First Order and the Rebellion with the Resistance — instead of imagining new challenges a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy with a fledgling Republic might encounter. As Eliot says in his essay,
Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, emphasis added)
On the other hand, choosing to have Kylo Ren be a microcosmic illustration of this approach within the film — acting as an inferior Vader wanna-be, helmet, black cape and all — was a much more interesting decision. Ren’s subsequent advice to Rey to “let the past die” seems to come from his own vacillation from slavish imitation to extreme iconoclasm, a pattern which Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Johnson’s The Last Jedi also exemplify structurally and thematically. Director Rian Johnson, in another memorable scene from the second movie, has Kylo Ren smash his Vader-like helmet to smithereens after Snoke shames him: “You are no Vader; you are just a child in a mask.”
Too add yet another thread to these musings, I’m reading a book of essays on poetry by Peter Balakian, Vise and Shadow. In a chapter on Theodore Roethke, Balakian gives an interesting description of the transition from T. S. Eliot’s modernism (exemplified in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) of the first half of the twentieth century to the confessionalism of the 1950’s and ’60’s; a description that I find profoundly echoes something that’s going on in Star Wars as well. The old, original trilogy that embodies the Jedi mythos, I would argue, has the feel of a T. S. Eliot-modernist reverence for and invention within tradition, whereas the new trilogy has the more fractious feel of the confessional poets’ approach.
See if you agree.
American poems of the later 1950s and 1960s were a departure from the passion for mythic structures and Eliotic notions of impersonality (“the poem Eliot insisted should be a ‘flight from the self‘”) that dominated modernism.
Think Obi-Wan and Yoda’s teachings on a kind of self-denial and asceticism as the proper way to wield “The Force”. The old Jedi tradition has a quasi-religious reverence for centuries of teachings, passed down to each new generation, and demands an intense self-discipline when engaging with them.
Balakian contrasts this T. S. Eliot modernism with the newer approach:
The new confessional orientation was embodied in a poetics that appropriated a more intimate and transparent sense of autobiography; it was created out of a personal mask that was forged from an idea of intimacy […]. (emphasis added)
Just think of all the stuff going on with Kylo and his mask. He wears it to imitate his grandfather Vader, of course– then he takes it off for most of The Force Awakens. In the second movie, as I mentioned above, he destroys it.
Interestingly, in the upcoming (and Abrams’-directed) third movie, he reforges it again for some reason, and, at least in the trailers, we see him wearing it, red-cracks and all. So much for “let the past die.” Maybe I’m being too literal here, but Balakian’s whole section on confessional poetics reminds me a lot of Kylo Ren:
This new aesthetic orientation was grounded in experience that was located in the personal realm […] [and] defined itself with a bold and visceral idea of a self located in the daily life and domestic space of stress and trauma, and often in a domain in which the dynamics of family become a location for self, history, and culture. […] In the way that classical myth and Western intellectual history were essential to the modernist poet, the domestic, the personal, and the family-historical–or some variant of personally inherited history—became central to a post-World War II poetic orientation. (Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era,” Vise and Shadow 56-57, emphasis added).
Now here’s the big distinction. Both the old trilogy and the new trilogy have a lot to do with the past and one’s family—but not in the same way.
Young Luke wants to become “a Jedi, like my father”—but the Jedi part for him ultimately comes first. His family legacy, the fact that Obi-Wan tells him Darth Vader “murdered” his father, is a point of entry for him into a larger, older, vaster tradition, that goes beyond his personal family history. The Jedi tradition itself is the real object of his desire. “The Force is strong with this one,” Vader observes, even before he realizes that Luke is his son, but Luke himself quickly realizes that his natural talents require a lot of hard work and cultivation.
Similarly, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot says, “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”
You see that kind of labour in Luke, especially in The Empire Strikes Back as he runs through the swamp with Yoda strapped to his back. His bloodline is important, but his struggle to learn and live the Jedi tradition is more important. Contrast his experience with Rey’s — who, as many have noted — seems to have inherited the force with no labour at all in a matter of minutes.
Ultimately, though, for all his fascination with the Jedi tradition, Luke does need to contend with his personal family history—he needs to come to grips with the legacy of his father. His greatest fear seems to be becoming the man behind the mask, as his famous tortured reaction to the “I am your Father” reveal in Empire Strikes Back shows.
Yet Luke does find a way to integrate his vocation as a Jedi with his personal identity as son. Even when Obi-Wan warns him that Vader is “more machine now than man,” Luke insists that there must be “still good” left in Vader, and tells Leia this as well. In accepting the truth about his family, Luke does save his father.
But notice, in the key scene in Return of the Jedi, when he cuts off Vader’s hand in a fit of anger, just as Vader had done to him in the previous movie, he looks at his hand, pauses and throws away his lightsaber. He refuses to merely repeat the past, and tells the Emperor, “I will never join the Dark side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
His sense of particular family legacy is fully integrated with his sense of the larger, deeper Jedi tradition. And it is his love for family and that tradition that saves him and his father. The redeemed Anakin, as he dies, asks Luke to help him take off his mask so he can look his son “with my own eyes”; that is, with love. The final unmasking of his father is a powerful moment that also unmasks and disarms, finally, Luke’s fear of what lies hidden in himself.
Kylo Ren, on the other hand, the embodiment of the new trilogy’s ethos, seems to be a kind of confessional poet who puts on a mask in order to manufacture an identity for himself. His “art” is all about releasing and unleashing his pain, his anger, his trauma. His obsession with his family legacy becomes the lens through which he interprets the world and it precludes any reverence for or sense of a larger, older tradition or schema in which he can find meaning. His interest in artifacts (Vader’s helmet) is not about Sith teaching, but about family bloodline and how it fuels his own experience of pain and power.
Despite his obsession with family, the only way Ren can cut himself off from the larger tradition is, ironically, by literally killing his own father. In this way he is an anti-Luke. He has no desire for tradition in the broader sense, though paradoxically by forging his own “new” path he seems to tread a very well-worn one down into dark side despair.
The prequel movies, also the work of George Lucas, reveal a lot of problems with the Jedi tradition. By these late ’90s early ’00s movies, the tradition is no longer a source of wisdom, but rather a kind of blind, ossified set of restrictions that alienate the young Anakin (a proto-Kylo-Ren, especially in his experience of unleashing his trauma on the world) and blind the Jedi themselves to the obvious machinations of Palpatine. You get the sense that over-adherence to tradition is what pushes Anakin away.
Rian Johnson’s older, embittered Luke in “The Last Jedi” seems to have adopted the Kylo Ren approach; his own trauma over the loss of his academy and his nephew seems too much to bear, and he lashes out in disgust against the tradition that he once reverenced as a young man but now feels has betrayed him: “the Jedi must end,” he says, in a moment that initially horrified even Mark Hamill (and, I suspect, still kind of does). He tells Rey, “Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”
In The Last Jedi, tradition is symbolized by the sacred Jedi texts, old books which Yoda surprisingly seems to incinerate when he comes to comfort Luke towards the end of the movie. (We find out later, however, that Rey somehow saved them.) They don’t seem to play a very important role in the movie practically-speaking, and I suspect this is due in part to Johnson’s own perplexity as to what to do with tradition. The books are there, but nobody seems to actually read them—what they actually say is never discussed. (A powerful image of contemporary education.)
I kind of doubt that they will appear again in the Abrams’ movie, but we’ll wait and see what happens next week.
If I were penning this new trilogy, I would have liked to explore Rey’s character as a possible “balance” between these views, between the Eliot-style desire to recover and insert oneself into an ancient tradition and the confessional-poet approach of Kylo Ren that rejects tradition in favor of the trauma of ones’ personal experience. That would, however, require that she actually read those old books and learn about the past, and not simply “inherit” her power without “great labour”.
I think this integration of tradition, family legacy, and personal experience is the un-woke balance Luke achieved in the original trilogy, and therefore one that we are not very likely to see unfold in this one.
But who knows? Perhaps Abrams’ has realized that neither Johnson’s wholesale rejection of Star Wars mythos nor his own overly-nostalgic imitation of it really work. Perhaps we will see a new balance that successfully integrates the old and the new in The Rise of Skywalker. As Luke says to Rey in one of the trailers, “We’ve passed on all we know. A thousand generations live in you now.”
But it’s Kylo Ren I’m really interested in. He’s the archetypal millennial, embittered by the the family pressures and traumas the boomer-generation bequeathed to him, unsure what to do with his pain and power, attracted to and yet repulsed by the tradition.
Interestingly, he says to Darth Vader’s helmet early in The Force Awakens, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”
At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader is redeemed by the love and example of his son and (seemingly) defeats the Emperor who had enslaved him for so long.
With Emperor Palpatine back for the final movie, Kylo Ren’s words to his predecessor carry some new weight.