I am leaving the paneled halls of the stately Mead manor today to spend a week giving lectures on American foreign policy in Lithuania. This is a kind of trip I’ve been making for the State Department since the Clinton administration, and it’s taught me a lot. During the Bush years I traveled pretty intensively in the Muslim world and especially in the Arab countries. Dedicated readers of this blog will have read my post on my last visit to Pakistan; that was also a State Department trip.
The State Department doesn’t put any restrictions on what you say when you appear as part of these speaker programs, and as blog readers know, I’m not shy about sharing my personal opinions. However, over the years I’ve learned that foreign audiences are usually more curious about learning how this crazy American system works and why we do the things we do than they are in listening to personal opinions about what the United States should or should not do next. What I’ve found to be most useful is to help people see how our history helps shape the debates we are having now — and I do my best to be fair to all sides as I try to put our current debates in a historical context.
I’ll do some blogging from Lithuania if I get the time; the redoubtable Sam has set me up with a digital camera and cable; I’ll see if I can manage to upload pictures to the blog. I’ve also prepared a couple of posts in advance to prevent any outbreaks of SMWS out there (Sudden Mead Withdrawal Syndrome).
But while James is revving up the Bentley and Jeeves is calling one of the footmen to take the luggage, I’ll just share a few thoughts with you about the western literary canon and how a knowledge of it could have helped James Cameron make Avatar a better movie.
Avatar is about losers; that’s not a bad thing from an art point of view. Avatar has taken the losers of modern history and put them on another planet, where it replays the encounter of advanced technological cultures with complex but not very technological societies.
So far, so good. This is mainstream western art. Our culture revolves around losers. It starts with the Iliad; the Trojans are much more interesting and sympathetic than the Greeks. Greek tragedy still moves us today, and even Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta is told from the point of view of the losing side.
The Romans, devoted to the cult of mastery and victory as much as anybody ever was, traced their state back to defeated Trojans fleeing from the ruins. Virgil’s Aeneid is the story of refugees, driven by fate and storms across a hostile world (depicted above). The Carthaginian queen Aeneas dumps is a much more fascinating character than the lifeless Lavinia he marries in Italy.
This isn’t just true for classical times — though it’s interesting that there aren’t any books on the rise of Roman power that have captured the imagination of the modern world like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
The pattern continues through medieval and modern times. Malory’s book is about the failure of King Arthur; Roland blows his horn and dies. Dante’s hell is more interesting than his heaven; Milton’s Satan is more interesting than his God. The Alamo gets more attention than any of Texas’ military victories in its revolution against Mexico; General Lee is more interesting than General Grant. Wagner’s Valhalla burns and the gods go down.
A lot of this probably stems from our own awareness of oncoming death. In the end we all lose, and art offers us a way to process that information while keeping it at a distance.
So when Avatar, itself something of a loser at the Academy Awards if not at the box office, celebrates losers, it is right in the mainstream. The Na’avi, modeled after the innocent native Americans and others who were mowed down by the aggressive forces of advancing capitalist civilization over the centuries, live at peace with nature and all those wonderful things that we horrible industrial and urban people don’t understand.
Many critics have noted that by now this is hardly a fresh or courageous take — the noble savage is one of the stock figures of our time and we are all in awe of the simple wisdom of unspoiled humanity living as one in the mighty forests. Others have noted with even less approval that the Na’avi are helpless until one of the earthlings takes their side and gives them leadership.
This is historically defensible if politically incorrect. For centuries in North American history both men and women from the English speaking settler societies chose to join with the tribes. Because they understood the settler culture and its strengths and weaknesses better than their new associates, the English speakers and their mixed race children often played an important role in helping organize tribal resistance and strategies.
But my quarrel with Avatar isn’t about its uncritical and hackneyed portrayal of the noble savages on Pandora. This is Hollywood, after all, and Titanic wasn’t exactly noted for the fine grained subtlety of its moral vision. And, whatever is wrong with it in other dimensions, Avatar was an excellent entertainment that has enriched our world by opening up new ways of making and seeing movies. So thanks to all involved.
But if a person wanted to make a book or a movie that moved along Avatar‘s general plot lines (and, as someone who reads a lot of science fiction in my spare time, I can tell you that a great many people do write books of exactly this kind) and you wanted to give your creation some real moral life and depth, you would need to think more deeply about your losers.
The cheesy and sentimental way to make a ‘deeper’ Avatar would be to have the Na’avi lose. Dirge for the rain forest people, Pandora weeps, maybe the young lovers flee to restart life in a new place.
But the more interesting way to do this, and something that Avatar could have done without ripping up its script, would have been to make the bad guys more interesting, more complex, more nuanced. They are, after all, the losers here. Why not let them be a bit beautiful? Maybe the Earth is really suffering, and the loss of the unobtanium deposits means wretchedness and starvation for millions. Maybe the tragedy is more personal; the head of the corporate program needs the money because he has some terrible and expensive wasting disease — or his wife and child do. Or maybe what’s really driving him is the quest for the cure for some terrible earthside disease that his young and photogenic daughter is dying of back home. Give them real motives — and then give them the dignity of a tragic flaw.
These corny and inept plot suggestions should make it obvious to everyone why I’m not a a zillionaire Hollywood movie producer. But even if these specific ideas are pretty lame, the point is real. If you want your drama to work, your losers need to shine. They need to be rich, complicated characters and in some ways they need to be more human than your winners.
The idea that history’s losers had their dignity and their point of view is important. It helps us stay human. A view of the world that has nothing but contempt for the Trojans in their doomed city, for Dido weeping for her lost love, for native peoples scattered before the uncaring might of advancing civilization is not a world view from which much good can come. Even in more difficult cases, there is much to be said for a compassionate view of history — for example one can and perhaps even should pity and admire Confederates fighting for a way of life that had to die if justice were to prevail. Moral arrogance and historical triumphalism makes for bad art and also makes for a shallow and brutal social life.
Enough for now. Jeeves is coughing discreetly in the doorway; I am off to the Baltic.