There’s a famous episode in book 6 of the Confessions where Augustine takes special note of the fact that Bishop Ambrose had the habit of reading silently to himself:
But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (Confessions Book VI)
Augustine’s apparent surprise at seeing Ambrose reading without vocalizing–he even spends time speculating as to the reason why–has caused many people to wonder about how people read in the ancient world, and whether or not reading silently was an anomaly. This question seems rather controversial–and perhaps people are misreading Augustine’s surprise in this frequently referenced passage. (Check out this 2015 interview with Daniel Donoghue of Harvard on the subject.)
Others have argued that since Latin (and Greek) did not have spaces between words or punctuation, reading aloud made texts easier to comprehend. I mean, the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid would actually look like this:
Or, in English:
Imagine hundreds of lines of that!
The line reads, “Of arms and the man I sing, he who first from the shores of Troy…” For another example, take a look at this beautiful 1,600 year old illuminated manuscript page of the Aeneid digitized by the Vatican:
So you can kind of see that the argument about reading out loud for clarity as your eyes interpret a long series of letters without punctuation or spacing might have some weight.
Whatever the case might have been for the ancients and medievals, it seems that most of the reading we do nowadays is silent. Texting, twitter, and other social media platforms don’t require speaking out loud; nor do they usually involve in-person contact unless you happen to be showing a friend a juicy text you just received from a potential admirer. And even then, I suspect that 70% of the time people usually pass their phones over for the friend to read the text for herself.
I read rather quickly, and reading silently certainly accelerates my pace and allows me to read a lot more. But sometimes I wonder how well I read when I don’t have the demands of vocalizing or listening to others to slow me down.
In my Jane Austen seminar I’ve been reminded again just how delightful it really is to read out loud with others. Austen is more funny when you read her aloud. (So is Flannery O’Connor, by the way; so if you’ve had trouble getting into her stories make sure you’re attempting your best Southern accent with friends.) There’s kind of a social dimension to humor; we are more likely to laugh when we hear others laughing. And I don’t think this is superficial or merely herd instinct or groupthink–I think there are real elements of a text that can come out more clearly in community.
In Austen’s novels themselves you often encounter scenes where characters read aloud to one another: Mr. Collins boring the Bennet family with Fordyce’s Sermons or Henry Crawford charming Fanny Price and the Bertrams with Shakespeare. One thinks also of Marianne decrying Edward Ferris’ lifeless reading of Cowper in Sense and Sensibility:
Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!
Jane Austen herself, according to John Mullan, seems to have been a bit particular about how to voice each of her characters appropriately. In a fascinating interview you can listen to here, Mullan explains,
There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.
Can you imagine Jane Austen reading her newly published work out loud with her family? How wonderful to have experienced that!
When I was teaching high school, especially in the first couple of years, I was afraid to spend time in class reading passages out loud to my students lest they think I was condescending to them or treating them like little kids. But I soon discovered that some of them had never been read to at home, and many of them had trouble reading anything at all. It became clear that if many of them were going to learn how to read better or at least approach challenging works with more open-ness it would require a communal effort.
It took me a while to get the hang of it–my voice had to get stronger–and I had to be willing to take more risks in trying to adopt different voices and tones and pitches. In Huckleberry Finn Twain adjusts the spelling of his words to echo the accents of his characters, so in order to read the dialogue comprehensibly you need to adopt a Southern drawl (which tickled my Louisiana students when they heard their Boston-born teacher attempt it!)
Some of my favorite memories of teaching are the classes I spent reading out loud with my students. We could pause and I could give some explanation or background, they could ask questions about what certain words or phrases meant, and all of us could laugh out loud or gasp or groan together. You could see many of their faces light up as even Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter started to seem a little less laborious.
I was reminded of that experience again in the Austen seminar. I often take on the role of narrator, but I often ask others in the group to take on the speech of Darcy or Elizabeth or Lady Catherine, just as you might when reading a play. And the result is marvelous. Besides discussing the nuances and artistry of a well-written story, sometimes it’s just good to simply sit back and enjoy it together, to let Jane Austen speak for herself.
If you don’t currently have a space in your life where you read literature out loud with others, I highly recommend asking a friend or family member to join you to try it. It’s good for the soul.
Austen scholar John Mullan, whose marvelous collection of essays What Matters in Jane Austen? I am reading now, talks about how part of what makes Austen great is that if you pull on a thread in her work, you find fascinating and intricate patterns woven throughout the fabric of her novels.
One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading. And when you do notice things it is as if Austen is setting puzzles, or inviting you to notice little tricks, which do justice to the small, important complications of her life. Readers of Austen love quiz questions about her novels, but the apparently trivial pursuit of the answers invariably reveals the intricate machinery of her fiction. Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? Who is the only married woman in her novels to call her husband by his Christian name? How old is Mr. Collins? […] Every quirk you notice leads you to a design. The boon of Austen’s confidence is that the reader can take confidence too, knowing that if he or she follow some previously neglected thread it will produce a satisfying pattern.
Here’s one example I noticed (I think Mullan mentioned the topic and I later decided to investigate it):
In Pride and Prejudice, who laughs?
The word “laugh” with all its iterations–laughing, laughs, laughingly–occurs 44 times in the novel. (Smiles are more frequent, occurring 57 times.) What’s intriguing is that the characters who laugh or who talk about laughing the most by far are two that we normally think of as being extremely different people: Elizabeth and Lydia.
Who never laughs? Darcy, predictably (though he smiles). Neither does Jane. Nor Charlotte. Nor Mrs. Bennet, surprisingly, despite her similarities to Lydia. Nor do Mr. Collins and most of the other characters.
Who laughs once or twice? Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Caroline Bingley.
Let’s pull on this laughter thread a bit. Why might it matter that both Elizabeth and Lydia are the ones who really laugh in this novel?
Consider this early exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy, after Caroline Bingley asserts that she could never laugh at Darcy, and warns Elizabeth that he is above reproach:
“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh.”
“Miss Bingley,” said [Darcy], “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”
In another scene, Jane says to Elizabeth, in response to her sister’s amusement over her tendency to think well of others, “Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.” Elizabeth, at this point in the novel, thinks that Jane is rather naive in her desire to assume the best of people like Mr. Darcy. She finds her sister’s stubborn good-will amusing, and silly.
But Elizabeth’s laughter (as she indicates: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good”) is not totally unrestrained. When Mr. Bingley (surprisingly) teases Darcy for his somberness, she is not unkind. “Mr. Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh.”
Lydia also loves to laugh. After sharing a story about dressing up a servant in women’s clothes as a joke, she tells her sisters, “Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”
Much later, in her letter to her friend explaining her elopement with Wickham, which causes her family such distress and shame, Lydia writes, “You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed.” She adds, regarding her family, “You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name ‘Lydia Wickham.’ What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.”
Lydia, unlike Elizabeth, has no sensitivity at all for the feelings and concerns of those around her and laughs with abandon.
And yet, if you examine more of these examples of Elizabeth and Lydia laughing throughout the novel, you start to realize that both sisters, as different as they are from one another in many respects, share a tendency to enjoy the discomfiture or perceived silliness of others–a trait they also share with their father Mr. Bennet.
He also seems to derive the greatest pleasure from observing human folly. His chief enjoyment in life seems to be observing stupidity in his own wife and children, as Elizabeth comes to realize later with regret: “Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters.”
Indeed Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth towards the end of the novel, after sharing with her a letter from Mr. Collins: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
This is very similar in spirit to what she had said at the beginning of the novel to Darcy: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” But it is clear by this time that, though Elizabeth still loves to laugh, she has realized that this kind of amusement at the expense of others has its dangers–and even its own kind of viciousness.
Why does this matter? Well– I rather think that Austen likes to employ another technique in her novels: character foils—characters that contrast each other’s qualities in ways that lead the reader to new insights. Obvious examples in P&P include Darcy and his friend Bingley, Elizabeth and Jane, Darcy and Wickham, Lydia and Mary, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner.
The foil dynamic only works, however, if the characters share important similarities as well. I think Lydia and Elizabeth are a less obvious but extremely important example; their love of laughing connects them subtly throughout the novel, but it is the extent of their willingness to be educated in that laughter that sets them apart.
You see this, too, in their attraction to Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth ultimately realizes her feelings for him are superficial, and later that they are bestowed upon a very unworthy object, but Lydia’s affection, like her laughter, is unreflective and self-absorbed. Even after the elopement ordeal and the forced marriage, Lydia returns to her family with her new husband unchanged:
Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there.
Just as Mr. Bennet favors Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet favors Lydia. Both daughters are spirited, sanguine and, arguably, independent—but Elizabeth is willing to suffer the embarrassment and sadness of recognizing her own flaws. She says, famously, “Til this moment I never knew myself!” Lydia, meanwhile, is happy to remain ignorant. Her self-congratulatory laughter rings in our ears as she and Wickham drive away to the north of England.
Austen herself provokes a great deal of laughter in us as we read the novel, but perhaps she is inviting us to learn to laugh not like Lydia or Mr. Bennet out of self-absorption and superiority, but rather like Elizabeth, at ourselves and with others.
In a letter to her aunt in the penultimate chapter, telling of her engagement to Darcy, Elizabeth expresses an interesting change: “I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”
Her laughter now is motivated not by derision or self-satisfaction, but by joy.
Virginia Woolf, a leader of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century, deeply admired Jane Austen but once quipped “that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
Why is this?
Well, before we examine that, you might realize that you may feel this way, too, when you pick up one of Austen’s novels for the first time. If your experience of Austen has only been through Keira Knightley and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with its lush landscapes and affecting music – or, even better, the award winning BBC 1995 miniseries with its delightful acting, quick banter, and wit, and Colin Firth – you might find when you finally open a copy of the original written work itself that it seems a little… flat.
What is all the fuss about, anyway? How do these novels inspire such adoration and affection? Why do so many people keep making different movie versions of them?
All Austen’s plots certainly seem rather predictable, and their social norms archaic. The average reader would be hard-pressed to discover how they are “ahead of their time.” For those with strong religious convictions and a kind of rosy-eyed nostalgia for earlier ages, you might be disappointed to discover that, despite scholarship around Austen’s exploration of virtue, she never discusses prayer or God, nor do her characters seem troubled by any obviously existential questions. In fact Austen seems to have an unusual kind of restraint or reserve concerning the areas of life most intimate (and important) to us, areas of faith, of loss, of love–though her novels are populated by courtships, clergymen and country estates aplenty.
So, what makes her so wonderful?
I’m unpacking that question myself, and I think there are many ways to answer it. But here’s one “act of greatness” in which we might be able to catch her: the ability to reveal the interior lives of her key characters through a technique she was one of the earliest writers to master. It’s called free indirect discourse.
Technically, free indirect discourse occurs when certain words / phrases / clauses that are part of a third-person narrative reflect the perspective–and, I would argue, voice–of a particular character.
It’s often best to explain with examples. Here are three I made up that contain basically the same content, but are expressed in different modes of discourse:
Direct discourse: She said, “I love Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, his desire to do what is right—oh, but it’s more than that. How can I express it?”
Indirect discourse: She said that she loved Mr. Darcy because of his quiet seriousness and his desire to do what was right, but admitted there was something more she could not put into words. She wondered aloud how she might express it.
Free indirect discourse: She loved Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, that desire of his to do what is right—yet it was more than that. How could she express it?
In direct discourse, the narrator quotes the character directly—we hear the character’s actual spoken words.
In indirect discourse, the narrator reports to us, indirectly, what the character is saying. But the tone, the voice, the diction of the sentence remains the narrator’s, just the phrasing of words would be if we report to our friend Ashley what our other friend Mark said to us at lunch.
In free indirect discourse, however, the narrator actually slips into the thoughts of the character—almost as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce would in stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, free indirect discourse is a precursor to that modernist technique. In free indirect discourse, the narrator takes on the interior voice of a character.
Another way to think of it is that in direct discourse and indirect discourse, we are being given reports of what a character says– either in his spoken voice or the narrator’s. In free indirect discourse, we are being given access to the character’s unspoken thoughts.
Here’s a real example from Pride and Prejudice, right after Elizabeth unexpectedly runs into Darcy at Pemberly. I will italicize the text where I think the free indirect discourse begins–though of course it is not italicized in the original:
The others then joined her, and expressed admiration of his [Darcy’s] figure; but Elizabeth heard not a word, and wholly engrossed by her own feelings, followed them in silence. She was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange it must appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man! It might seem as if she had purposely thrown herself in his way again! Oh! why did she come? Or, why did he thus come a day before he was expected?
The exclamation points are a giveaway, which makes this example of the technique all the more clear (the narrator herself never employs them). Obviously, the narrator knows that this meeting is not “the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world.” Those are Elizabeth’s (mistaken) thoughts on the matter. The narrator is not quoting Elizabeth either–Elizabeth is not speaking–nor is she merely reporting indirectly her own version of what Elizabeth is feeling (as she does when she says “[Elizabeth] was overpowered by shame and vexation”). Rather, the narrator has actually slipped into the mind of Elizabeth so that we can hear her— so that we can have access to thoughts that otherwise we never would have in a third person account.
Why should we care about this?
Well, Austen is revealing to her readers something I believe had not been really made fully explicit in literature before: the notion of the private self, the hidden self.
Think about it. Achilles is as Achilles does and says, and though we see him moping on the beach and rampaging through Trojan lines we never hear his private thoughts. His lamentations are public–spoken to his mother, his slaves, etc. Most of ancient literature is like that. The closest thing we might come to it prior to Austen is Shakespeare’s monologues (“To be or not to be!”) but even then, these are spoken aloud, performed—and thus rendered in a way that is not really how most of us converse with ourselves.
Elizabeth Bennet is so relatable and delightful not just because of her quick intelligence and witty replies to the snobs around her, but because of her interior life. We have access to thoughts and feelings she never shares with other characters: not with her beloved sister Jane, not with Darcy. We get to see her make mistaken internal judgments–and then learn from them. We note her interior frustration and embarrassment around her family not just because of the color of her cheeks, but because of her mortified thoughts.
This is a degree of intimacy with a person we normally can only have with ourselves.
First person accounts, like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or even Augustine’s Confessions (more intimate since written as a prayer to God) also come close, but I would argue that they still don’t give you that same kind of access. In a way, the first person narrator is addressing you as he would a confidante, but not as he would address himself.
The genius of Austen’s technique is that it alienates us from some characters just as much as it connects us to others.
Why does Mrs. Bennett seem so utterly ridiculous and Wickham so despicable? Why is Lydia so annoying? It’s not just because of their reprehensible actions and stupid (or deceptive) words. It’s also because, for us, they have no interior lives. Presumably, as human beings in the real world, they might—-but Austen’s narrator keeps us safely ignorant of them. It’s interesting to track which characters in each novel are revealed to us through free indirect discourse, and which ones are not.
Why do we love Emma, despite her stupidity, manipulation of others, and snobbery? One reason is that Austen gives us this same kind of interior access to her interior life in this later novel as she does with Elizabeth–more, in fact, and so much more that we end up seeing most of the story through Emma’s eyes even though it is a third person account. As a result, we are also deceived about other characters and situations and likewise humbled when the truth of the matter is revealed.
When Knightley helps Emma see how badly she behaved toward the impoverished Miss Bates, we not only see Emma’s actions and words as she repents later and try to make amends, as we would in any novel, we also get to hear her silent self-recrimination. Again, I’m putting the free indirect style in italics:
[Emma] continued to look back, but in vain; and soon, with what appeared unusual speed, they were half way down the hill, and every thing left far behind. She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!
Notice the beautiful movement in this paragraph from the exterior to the interior, gradually moving more and more inward: first, Austen gives us the barest brushstrokes of the outer scene, accessible to any viewer, of Emma looking out the carriage window until “they were half-way down the hill”. Then the narrator takes us into the carriage and reports (and, in a sense, interprets) Emma’s feelings: “agitated, mortified, grieved”. Already the narrator’s voice may be giving way to the character’s. We learn that “she was vexed beyond what could have been expressed;” so, of course, she does not express it. At least not aloud. And at last, we are drawn into Emma’s inner thoughts, that no one else in the novel will hear. Other characters will see her actions, hear her voice, but they will not share with her this pivotal inner moment of remorse and regret, like we will.
It’s so subtle. Free indirect discourse is not something we usually notice when we read–and that’s kind of the point. We are pulled in and find ourselves sympathizing before we know what we’re about. In pioneering this style, Austen gave us a great gift; the ability to imaginatively and sympathetically enter the hearts of flawed, ignorant people like ourselves who are trying to be better.
It’s an experience, I believe, that allows us to look at those around us in the real world a little differently, with greater kindness and a sense that the real story of each person’s life is the interior, hidden one, the story which only that soul and God get to read—except in the case of a good novel.
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.
“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.
The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe features prominently in the beginning of Willa Cather’s sparse and beautiful novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, a story based on the lives and friendship of two French Catholic missionary priests in the southwest. Today is the feast day of Saint Juan Diego, so it seems like a good time to return to a fascinating scene and discussion in the novel that explores the miracle he experienced.
Father Latour, later the “archbishop” of the novel’s title, is a fictionalized version of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and, like his historical counterpart, is contemplative and intellectual. He and his more emotive friend Father Joseph Vaillant (who is based on Joseph Machebeuf, eventually the first bishop of Denver) have an interesting conversation in the opening part of the book. Both of them have just listened to a young priest retelling the story of the miracle of Juan Diego’s tilma and the roses. Both friends are deeply moved when they hear of how Our Lady converted millions to Christianity in the matter of a few years, as they, too, are in mission territory in the vast expanses of the new archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Latour later observes to his friend, reflecting on Juan Diego’s experience of the apparition and the image on his cloak,
Where there is great love, there are always miracles…. [They] seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (50)
It is a beautiful and thought-provoking interpretation. Indeed, Cather ends first part of the novel with his words, as if to emphasize that everything else that comes afterward in the novel should be considered in these terms. Latour’s description suggests something of the miraculousness of the every day– if we could only see and hear “what is there about us always”. It makes me think of a favorite epigram of Emily Dickinson: “Not revelation–tis–that waits / But our unfurnished eyes.”
And yet… there is something distinctly modern in Latour’s interpretation of miracles too, as if they are more a matter of adjusting one’s internal, subjective perspective than bumping into something unexplainable in external, objective reality. His words are particularly strange when you consider the story itself; what is the miracle of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego if not an instance of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off”?
But setting aside for the moment its possible problematic theological implications, I think his description is an important interpretive key to the novel. There’s another way Cather might be inviting us to conceive of Latour’s words here, especially when you consider them alongside his friend Father Vaillant’s very different description of the event.
Vaillant, moved almost to tears by the story, says fervently, “The miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love” (50).
In my senior thesis in college, in which I focused a lot on this scene, I summarized the differences in the two friends’ descriptions of miracles this way:
The bishop locates miracles as occurring within interior human perception, whereas Father Joseph locates them as occurring in nature, in the external world. Father Latour seems to define miracles as a process—of refinement, clarification or sharpening; but Father Joseph seems to define miracles almost as objects: indeed, they seem rather unsettlingly personal and tangible—they can be touched, even held “in our hands.” Miracles, for Father Joseph, are interventions into nature. But Father Latour distances his definition from the idea of divine intrusion, of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off,” and places it instead within the context of corrected human perception. And of course, one cannot hold that in one’s hands!
Or can one?
Now, I think there is a way in which these views might be harmonized–or at least brought much closer together. What if we considered them as different descriptions not just of miracles, but of art?
I mean, one could argue that miracles themselves are a kind of special divine art. All of nature is divine art, of course, but when God intervenes in nature He’s making a rather unique statement. So maybe there is a kind of analogous connection there.
But I think there is also textual justification for looking at these two definitions as descriptions of art. The conversation between Latour and Vaillant occurs in the context of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that story’s miracle explicitly involves a work of art: the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, which we are told looks “exactly as She had appeared to him on the hillside” (49). The mantle, especially in its strange properties and marvelous preservation over hundreds of years, becomes a kind of “miraculous portrait” that we can “hold in our hands and love.”
Maybe in this scene, Cather is suggesting that art (literature in particular?) can achieve two things: it “refines” the reader’s interior perceptions, our ability to see the world as it truly is, and it offers us a kind of tangible object of wonder and beauty to hold and to treasure. The first description concerns what art does for us, the second more what art is in itself.
Why does any of this matter?
I think these two “roles” of art are often in tension with one another. They are like two poles that pull the artist in different directions. On the one hand, art should be about “refining perceptions”—that is, correcting our vision, or even challenging our assumptions about what art is and can be. I think (in my very inexperienced opinion) that a lot of modern art (and literature) likes to push boundaries for this very reason. Contemporary art is very much about changing the way we see things, perhaps especially art itself.
On the other hand, art should also be about creating “something we can hold in our hands and love”— that is, something grasp-able, accessible, that moves us with its beauty. This kind of art is more content with being something beautiful than with engaging in mind- and category-bending acrobatics.
I think my favorite examples of art, both literary and visual, do both of these things, but I think I am drawn much more to the Father Vaillant side. Theologically, I’m also more drawn to his view of miracles. They are real, they are out there, they aren’t just in my head, they happen.
But as Father Latour points out, we do need the “eyes and the ears” to perceive them, and this takes the healing of our perceptions. “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:9).
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)
I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.
There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.
Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.
In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.
According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is
a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)
I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.
In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.
The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.
I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.
At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”
I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.
It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.
There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.
The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”
This accomplishment, even despite the fact that it was not done “under race conditions” and even included other time-optimizing elements, is nonetheless astonishing. His average mile was under 4 minutes and 34 seconds!
But his observations on his feat have given me pause.
“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”
As a teacher who has admired the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and the importance of cultivating in my students (and in myself) the sense that my mental capacities and abilities are malleable–that intentional practice and effort does make a difference–this statement feels inspirational and motivating. I have seen so many students trapped by their perceptions of their lack (or, oftentimes worse, their surplus) of talent. Students who have decided at fourteen that they “just don’t like reading” or they “can’t write”. Or, conversely, that they have always been “A students” and need to maintain that confining, impoverished, grade-based identity. And I look at someone like Kipchoge and his example gives me hope. I remember what many of us were often told when we were young: “You can be anything you want to be.”
“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”
But then, I start to wonder.
To be a creature is to be limited. To be a human being is to be confined by one’s biology, location, health, intellectual assumptions, cultural milieu, prejudices, anxieties, talents, desires, wounds.
And, to be clear, we aren’t just minds trapped in bodies, free except for these unfortunate physical constraints on our consciousness. We are our bodies, for all the frustration they sometimes cause us. It’s through the body that we see and touch and taste and love and desire and think.
To be embodied is to be bound by time and space. We grow old. We get tired. We get sick. Eventually, we die. There are limitations.
And as much as the human person continually strives to overcome these–to go farther, faster, deeper, higher–in ways that are often awesome and admirable, I think that some people have discovered a different kind of liberation, an expansive freedom in limitation.
Chesterton has this great image that illustrates the tension I’m talking about:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (Orthodoxy, Ch 9)
Without walls of some kind, we actually lose our freedom. Limitless autonomy is a kind of horror.
Is it just me, or are women especially attentive to this kind of freedom in limitation?
Emily Dickinson, unrecognized for the genius she was in her lifetime, self-confined to her Amherst house as the mysterious “woman in white”, describes the expansiveness she finds within the boundaries poetry imposes:
I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
She names poetry “possibility”—even though her poems were written on little pieces of paper, on tiny notes to friends, and only a few were published during her lifetime. Her “narrow Hands” are nonetheless capable of “gathering Paradise.” Life itself, fleeting and fragile, is stretched between possibility and poverty:
In this short Life that only lasts an hour How much – how little – is within our power
For Dickinson, literature, despite the humble pages upon which we grasp it, is by its very limited-ness and focus on a particular story, a particular character, a particular life, able to transport us toward infinite horizons:
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll – How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human Soul –
My dear friend Flannery O’Connor, to whom I often refer in this blog, was limited by her community, her illness, her prejudices, her sin, but she saw her limitations and the kind of freedom I am describing more clearly than most. Throughout her twenties and thirties (she died at 39) she hobbled about on crutches and lived with a mother who loved her but did not often understand her and a Catholic community that often regarded her stories with incomprehension and dismay. She found her freedom in her vocation as a writer, but as her stories attest (they are all about strange, wounded and distorted characters encountering violent intrusions of grace in the rural South) she embraced the boundaries of her knowledge and of her talent:
A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to do a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has. (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”, emphasis added)
What she says of artists could be applied to all of us insofar as we recognize our own lives as a kind of art:
The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them. (Ibid)
Isn’t this, really, what it means to be a saint? Saints are often trail-blazing and controversial and provocative, to be sure, but not at all in the way that celebrities are. Francis binds himself to poverty, Dominic to homelessness and preaching, Benedict to a particular place, Edith Stein to the cloister, Dorothy Day to the worker community, Mother Teresa to the untouchables of Calcutta, John Paul II to the burden of the papacy, Gianna Molla to the life of her unborn child, Therese to her littleness.
They have, of course, Jesus as their model—Jesus, who imposed upon himself the limitations of our nature, who was born in an obscure village, belonged to a conquered and beleaguered people, “never travelled two hundred miles from the place he was born,” who wed himself, finally, to the cross.
All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.
And so I wonder about the limitations in my own life. To what extent do I resist them? Which ones am I called to break, and which ones am I called to embrace as doorways to a deeper freedom?
Did you know you can play old versions of Oregon Trail, and apparently other computer games of a bygone era, for free online?
I discovered this through friends a couple of years ago when we were reminiscing about computer-typing classes in grade school, and how most of our time was actually spent trekking across the pixelated wilderness and losing beloved family members one-by-one to dysentery. Well, we promptly fired up the old game on a web browser and marveled, appreciatively, at the ancient graphics.
This morning, another Buzzfeed article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed, trying to remind me of all the childhood memorabilia and literature I’ve forgotten about. Boxcar children, anyone? Slinkies?
And I’m sure you’ve noticed the avalanche of reboots and sequels in the movie industry in the past five or ten years. From live-action or CGI new versions of classic Disney animations to new iterations of Spiderman and Batman, from Sherlock and Endeavor to one last Gilmore Girls, from Star Trek to Marvel to Star Wars, it seems like there’s no end to this digging up and repackaging of old treasures.
Why, I wonder?
I mentioned in my last post that the biggest problem with the new Star Wars franchise seems to be difficulties with story-telling, with crafting tight and compelling plots. Is it that we are having a harder time telling good stories—and so we must keep looking back to the older stories that once compelled us?
Yet some of these reboots end up not only being updates but also critiques; as The Last Jedi was for Star Wars, and I imagine Joker is for Batman (haven’t seen it), and the live-action Beauty and the Beast was for the un-woke original.
But all the reboots, whether they be homages, inferior repetitions or edgy critiques, are riding on the powerful engines of nostalgia. That’s why we go to see these things, even when we already know the plot by heart. That’s why we click on the Buzzfeed articles. That’s why we play Oregon trail with our friends. We want to feel nostalgia—or, we want to sharpen the nostalgia we are almost always already feeling under the surface.
This term nostalgia, though it’s based on Greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“pain”), isn’t actually quite as old as it sounds. It was coined in the 17th century by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer and originally used to describe the severe homesickness of Swiss mercenary soldiers.
Though it means something like “the pain of homecoming,” it’s a kind of pain that a lot of us rather enjoy.
Yeah. Abrams is really good at nostalgia.
It’s a concept that is increasingly interesting to me.
I think that nostalgia in a more literal sense, as a longing for one’s homeland, is a timeless part of being human, attested to throughout the ages. One thinks of Odysseus:
Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days— to travel home and see the dawn of my homecoming. And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total— bring the trial on! (Book V)
Or the exiles in Babylon remembering Jerusalem with intense grief in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon We sat and wept, remembering Zion. There on poplars we hung our harps For there our captors asked us for songs; Our tormentors, for joy: “Sing for us a song of Zion!”
But how could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?
Or in Genesis, beyond the punishment of toil and pain in childbirth, the irrevocable sense of banishment from home:
“He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3:24)
Yes, nostalgia has been with us for a long time. But I wonder if some of the strains we’re experiencing now aren’t a little different than those expressed by Odysseus and the Jewish people and our first parents. We seem less desirous today of specific places than of specific times—or, really, experiences.
A famous example of modern nostalgia is the experience of the titular character in The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve always thought rather underwhelming except for passages like this—and these are the last words of the book:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Oof. Now that’s nostalgia—but in a distinctly modern key; it’s the kind that merges a hoped-for future with the dreamt-of past, a past that probably never really existed no matter how much we insist that it did. It’s a longing for an experience rather than for a specific place, or even really a specific time. Gatsby loves what Daisy represents for him; not Daisy herself.
Christmastime nostalgia is a bit like this, I think. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” resonates with us so deeply not just because of the song’s original purpose in honoring soldiers serving overseas, but rather because the “home” it describes really is the stuff of “dreams.” One cannot really ever get there, even if you beat the traffic and are blessed enough to go to the house you grew up in and spend the holidays with your family.
So much of our modern and post-modern experience, even for the most forward-thinking and progressive among us, seems to be tinged with nostalgia. There are hopes for a Friends reboot or The Office (it only ended in 2013!). Stranger Things, though very much a unique show, relies heavily on nostalgia for 80’s pop-culture. Why?
It would be interesting for those more informed than I to look at the Classical education movement through this lens as well, or even the traditional Latin Mass movement. I say this with respect: there seems to be a strange kind of longing in those communities for something that never really was—at least, not quite in the way we now imagine it to have been.
I have no conclusive thoughts on all this. I think that maybe our contemporary preoccupation with nostalgia might have something to do with how home has been problematized—we are far more mobile and global; we identify less with specific places, much less with nationalities. There seems to be no home to long for—but there are still memories, and experiences that, when excavated by memory, look rather like home.
But Billy Collins has a poem entitled “Nostalgia” we could end with, for now:
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult. You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade, and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular, the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework. Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon, and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.” Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone. Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room. We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang. These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.
The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big. People would take walks to the very tops of hills and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking. Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft. We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs. It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821. Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits. And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment, time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps, or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me recapture the serenity of last month when we picked berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present. I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past, letting my memory rush over them like water rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream. I was even thinking a little about the future, that place where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine, a dance whose name we can only guess.
J.J. Abrams’ upcoming The Rise of Skywalker has a nigh-impossible task: bringing a satisfying conclusion to a 42-year-old saga whose mythology has become an integral part not only of American pop-culture, but also movie-making. The Last Jedi, which, for all its divisiveness, did not move things forward plot-wise or explanation-wise for the new trilogy, has left the characters pretty much where they were in The Force Awakens, minus a few thousand troops and, of course, Snoke.
Back in April, the teaser trailer revealed with his unmistakable cackle the return of Emperor Palpatine.
In the visually-appetizing last trailer dropped on Monday, we hear and see a little more from our old enemy. Rey and Ren apparently visit the old throne room from Return of the Jedi (inexplicably intact after the explosion of Death Star 2.0), another throne (inspired by art from Ralph McQuarrie?) looms on a frigid planet where OT-era Star Destroyers emerge from the ice, and Rey faces a hooded figure looming on some kind of royal hovercraft.
Ian McDiarmid’s iconic voice, in rather Yoda-like phrasing, explains—“Long have I waited.”
(For a really great Star Wars movie? Yes, Emperor, so have we.)
Although many are speculating about how the Emperor will
return in this concluding episode of the saga—did he somehow escape the fall
into the death star’s shaft? did he find a way to cheat death after all and
come back from the dead? Is he a force ghost? A hologram?—a more interesting
question to me is why.
Why does Abrams need to bring back the Emperor?
And why now? Why not in his first movie?
I suggest three reasons—though I’m sure I’m not the first to recognize them:
The vacuum left by Snoke’s untimely demise in The Last Jedi
The foundational plot mishandling in The Force Awakens
The need for continuity, a thread that connects us to the entire saga
The nostalgia factor
The first three reasons have to do with plot; and if there is one critique I’d make of a lot of movies these days, esp. the new Star Wars ones, it’s the thin-ness of the plots, the lack of robust stories.
1. The Vacuum
As neat as it was to watch Kylo Ren use the force to slice Snoke in half during The Last Jedi and (momentarily) join forces with Rey, this decision caused a big plot problem for the next movie. The questions raised by TFA as to Snoke’s origins were simply dropped, rather than explored or deepened.
And, conspicuously, the main enemy of the new trilogy was simply gone, almost as soon as he appears on-screen in the flesh. Kylo Ren, for all of his ruthlessness, is too ambiguous a character to properly provide a dark side “balance” to Rey’s wholehearted commitment to the light. His form of evil is angsty, emotional—like Anakin’s (not Vader’s); and it’s a bit hard to take it seriously. (Imagine Lord of the Rings with a Saruman but no Sauron). Most importantly, as a kind of Anakin 2.0, Ren’s character arc is too bound up with the possibility for redemption to make him the kind of robust bad guy you need for the last movie.
Abrams knows (as we do) that Kylo Ren’s shoulders are too thin to bear the burden of evil mastermind. It’s too late to introduce a new bad guy.
So, where do we get the gravitas we need for that role?
From Palpatine, of course.
His origins in the original trilogy didn’t need to be explained in the same way Snoke’s did (but weren’t) in TFA. In the OT, the emperor is part of the background setting, not even appearing in A New Hope (Vader is sufficiently evil and mysterious for that plot) but introduced in The Empire Strikes Back to provide a deeper look into the nature of the Empire and to contextualize and complicate Vader’s character in time for the big “I am your father” reveal at the end of that movie. But really he is a feature of the original universe Lucas created—he does not need to be explained any more than hyperspace travel does.
In Palpatine, the disturbing opaqueness of evil is preserved, and the void opened up by Snoke (now more superfluous than ever) is more than filled.
2. Plot issues in The Force Awakens
The problem with bringing the emperor back (like many of Abram’s other initial choices in TFA) is that it undermines the original trilogy in rather egregious ways. After two death stars, Alderaan’s annihilation, Obi-Wan’s demise, several lost limbs, and Vader’s conversion, the Emperor is back?
It’s not entirely fair to blame Rian Johnson’s abrupt execution of Snoke and the subsequent void created, either—the underlying structure of the problem is something Abrams set up for himself. In TFA, he essentially copied and pasted the state of the galaxy from A New Hope, but gave the actors and entities new names: The First Order replaced the Empire, the Resistance replaced the Rebellion, Rey replaced Luke, Ren replaced Darth, Snoke replaced Palpatine, Starkiller base replaced the Death Star.
The problem with that approach is that it renders rather null the sacrifices and plot development of the original trilogy even without the return of the Emperor. You get ten minutes into The Force Awakens and realize that everything that happened in the OT essentially doesn’t matter. The galaxy is no better off now than then. And though certainly, in the real world, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you can’t say that the world was in the same place it was after WW2 as it was before, or after the Civil War as it was before, or after The Revolutionary War as it was before.
Not so in Abrams’ rebooted galaxy. Nothing has really changed. You see this pattern in a microcosmic way with Han and Leia’s defunct relationship—Ren, as their son, the fruit of their love, is simply a new Anakin at the very beginning of the new trilogy who has already destroyed almost everything his parents built. Instead of watching the process of Ben Solo’s demise, or the challenges of establishing a New Republic, or the rooting out of old Empire holdouts (in other words, a NEW plot), Abrams has merely dressed up and repeated the old one.
With the return of Palpatine, necessary as it now seems, the undermining of the original story has become fully explicit—The Emperor wasn’t defeated at all by Vader’s sacrifice. In fact, he’s been in the shadows this whole time.
3. The Need for Continuity
Continuity, I think, is the most robust reason to bring back Palpatine, and would be an essential factor no matter what the first two movies did or did not do: Abrams needs establish that all three trilogies are somehow part of an overarching story. The Emperor was an important presence in the older two, and in that way it does make sense to have him be the antagonist for this one as well.
But the main reason Palpatine, rather than someone else, has to be that principle of continuity for the last film in the new trilogy is that all the other possibilities have already been excluded, usually by the plot issues of the first two:
Luke can’t be a principle of continuity (a symbol of the re-established/renewed Jedi Order) because he was killed off in The Last Jedi (in a rather superficial kind of last battle–he wasn’t there) and, more importantly, rejected the Jedi teachings of the older movies altogether.
Leia, unfortunately, can’t preserve continuity either (as a symbol of the Republic), although I suspect she was originally intended to, because Carrie Fisher died in 2016. Although I’m glad Abrams is trying to make her presence felt as much as possible in this last film, I doubt that any amount of unused footage from The Force Awakens will be able to make her an essential part of the plot.
Han, though important to the OT, doesn’t have connections to the prequels. Also, he’s dead. (And, more importantly, I don’t think Harrison Ford would agree to be in another Star Wars film.)
What about Darth Vader? As a force ghost?
This is a possibility—and I think it’s likely we will see Hayden Christensen appear—but since his role in the sequels was so divisive, he can’t really be a principle of continuity. He seemed to symbolize the fundamental break in tone between the prequels and the originals.
The droids, perhaps? C3PO and R2D2 have functioned more like furniture in TFA and TLJ than real characters, though judging by the latest trailer it seems that Abrams has devised more important roles for them now, at least for 3PO.
Who are we left with? Palpatine. And, if it weren’t for the issues discussed above, I would be more on board had his influence (rather than Snoke’s) been hinted at in the earlier movies.
3. The nostalgia factor
Rian Johnson’s TLJ was so divisive amongst long-time fans that some good ol’ fashioned nostalgia might be the only thing that can bring us all together in the last film; and there’s nothing quite like the feeling brought back by Ian McDiarmid’s laugh.
I suspect that Abrams will backtrack quite a bit from Johnson’s postmodern critique of the light/dark side mythos. I could be wrong. But I hope he does, in a way that acknowledges the failures of the Jedi past without rejecting it altogether.
To be honest, even with the problems I suggested above, I think the Emperor striking back is the best chance the new trilogy has of ending on a resounding, triumphant note.
Palpatine is a great bad guy because he, like evil in general, is ultimately not that interesting.
What is interesting is how our heroes respond to him. Perhaps his unadulterated evil presence will allow this movie a deeper and more meaningful exploration of Rey’s character, and a real possibility of redemption for Ben Solo.