Constantly Risking Absurdity
Saturday, May 21, 2005
 
Deep Thoughts on Revenge of the Sith

Before the film came out, A.O. Scott of the New York Times claimed that Lucas took some political jabs:

Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." You may applaud this editorializing, or you may find it overwrought, but give Mr. Lucas his due. For decades he has been blamed (unjustly) for helping to lead American movies away from their early-70's engagement with political matters, and he deserves credit for trying to bring them back.

Neither Scott nor I can know whether Lucas was intentionally jabbing his light saber at Bush, but after watching the film, I can safely say that, even if he was trying to be anti-Bush, he failed. If being anti-Bush means to be against “thinking in absolutes,” then all the Jedi knights are Bushites. Lucas can’t suppress the absolutist, quasi-Manichean structure of his own Star Wars universe. And he can't suppress the biblical patterns that keep informing his plots, either.

“Only a Sith Deals With Absolutes”

Take the famous line that Scott cites: “Only a Sith deals with absolutes (1).” The line that precedes it--“If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy”--probably is an affront to Bush’s “You are either with us or against us.” But Obi-Wan’s reply makes no sense in the larger context of the film. Earlier, Palpatine (AKA Darth Sidius), as he tries to seduce Anakin into the Dark Side, tells Anakin that the Jedi Council takes a “dogmatic” and “narrow minded” view of the Force, and that he prefers a more broad-minded approach, one that can appreciate the Dark Side and all of its enticing gifts. Anakin doesn’t give in yet, but the very biblical offer is already on the table: “Ye shall be as gods…”

So what is Obi-Wan doing, lamenting Anakin’s absolutist thinking? For no more than a few minutes later, Obi has some absolutist remarks of his own. He tells Anakin, “Can’t you see that Palpatine is evil?” Anakin replies like a good moral subjectivist: “Not from my point of view,” or something like that, I can’t remember exactly (it was a very forced line). Who is the absolutist now? Obi-Wan, who speaks of “evil” (much like George Bush), or Anakin, who says that evil is in the eye of the beholder?

This is the universe that Lucas created: the Dark Side is evil, the Jedi Council is good. The Jedis are selfless servants (Anakin says so early the film), and the Siths are selfish and evil (again, as Anakin tells Palpatine early in the film). Palpatine tries to seduce Anakin by using relativistic language: Take a broad-minded approach, don’t be dogmatic. He also acts as a sort of serpent in the Garden of Eden: he tells Anakin that, if he practices the Dark Side of the Force, he can defeat death and become all-powerful. The Empire, defended by relativistic rhetoric, is an Empire of Lies: lies about the Force, about the Jedi Council, and lies told to the Trade Federation, who are betrayed in the end.

And Palpatine is right. The Jedi Masters (especially Yoda) exhibit nothing if not dogmatic certainty in every judgment they make. I can see Socrates giving them the Euthyphro treatment.

A Biblical Fall


Anakin’s fall also takes a biblical pattern, that of Satan, the fallen angel, who was once God’s most beautiful angel. Anakin was the greatest of the Jedi knights. Obsessed with himself, and not wanting to trust the will of the Force or the will of the Council, he chose to join the Dark Side and pursue omnipotence. Thus Obi-Wan’s admonition to the beautiful Padmé, that he was trying to “save [Anakin] from himself.”

Childbirth v. Cyborg

Lucas chooses to juxtapose Anakin’s excruciating operating-table metamorphosis into Darth Vader with Padmé’s painful childbirth and slow expiration. Again, the light/dark, good/evil dichotomy is all too absolutist—and again, Lucas sees no conflict between it and Obi’s earlier remark. Anakin is the sign of selfishness and darkness. In contrast, childbirth is a sign of hope—Padmé suffers and dies for her children, who are, as we have already seen, A New Hope.

Conclusion

No, this wasn’t a Bush-bashing film. Lucas couldn’t have made one even if he tried—he can’t escape his own universe. If anything, this film is an argument against Richard Rorty and his school of “ironists,” because it favors moral absolutism, objective standards, and a metaphysical foundation for society. Those who blame Bush for being an absolutist who clings to outdated notions of "good" and "evil" should find no support from this film. I agree with Dan that the Empire looks a lot more like the totalitarian “Lies” of the twentieth-century (Nazism, Fascism and Communism) than any contemporary regime. What Michael Novak recently wrote about Communism could've be said about the Dark Side. Just substitute “Party” for “Dark Side” (comments in red are my own):

What helps the Party is moral; what hurts it is immoral [i.e., "If you're not with me..."]; any other moral principle is an illusion. Metaphysically, this is not nihilism, for at least the Party has ontological status as the dynamo of history and measure of moral progress. But for the participating individual it requires a relativizing of every other moral code. An emptying out of the moral individual, so that the Lie may occupy that place [Anakin was "emptied out" by the Dark Side's own "purgatorial fire," and Darth Vader is the Lie that has come to occupy his former place as the Chosen One.]

Now I am reading way too much into this, and I should stop. But some questions linger.

Free Will?


Does Anakin’s demise mean that Qui-Gon Jinn’s reading of the prophecy was mistaken? And where did Anakin’s dreams come from? Was his fate sealed by the prophecy, or by his dream?


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Footnote: (1) Scott got the line wrong. It's not "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," but, "Only a Sith deals with absolutes." I wonder if the future bumper-sticker manufacturers will take note.

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On a related note: Jonathan V. Last a couple of years ago wrote a defense of the Empire. He'd probably disagree with me on the nature of the Empire. Then again, I'm pretty sure his essay is tongue-in-cheek.

Santiago
 
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The intimations of a mild-mannered Paraguayan undergraduate, studying Eng. Lit. and philosophy in a small, midwestern Jesuit college.

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