Made to last?: The Jedi texts, book burning and totalitarianism in The Last Jedi
Needless to say, spoilers for The Last Jedi.
I should probably start with the disclaimer that even though I am a Star Wars fan, I have only ever seen the movies and most of the info about the Star Wars universe here comes from the internet.
When I saw The Last Jedi in the cinema last week, I experienced one of those moments when the things you’ve been reading, seeing, and hearing over the past weeks all seem to come together in your mind. In my case, I’d just started researching a magazine article about Jewish book smugglers in European ghettos during World War II, a time period which has become a popular setting for good-trumps-evil narratives with a clear moral message. I was in the middle of reading David E. Fishman’s excellent book The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, and given that Star Wars has always been a thinly veiled analogy of totalitarianism, I began to see a few similarities.
Early on in the film the Jedi texts were mentioned. Hinduism has the Vedas, Islam has the Qu’ran, Christianity the Bible — it makes sense that the biggest belief system in a galaxy far far away relies upon sacred texts as well. They were actually already visible in the official movie trailer, around the 0:40 mark, so I knew they would likely be important.
When The Force Awakens ends, we see the Force-sensitive girl Rey visiting Luke Skywalker, who is living in exile on a seemingly abandoned island. In The Last Jedi, we find out that the island in question, Ahch-To, has a strong spiritual value for the Jedi. It therefore makes sense for Luke, ‘the last Jedi’, to live there (even if it doesn’t seem particularly rich in food resources). We soon find out that the spiritual heart of the island is still beating; Rey finds herself drawn to a big tree — nicknamed ‘the Force tree’– where the Jedi texts are located. We find out that they contain wisdom, sure, but their significance appears to be bigger than that: the texts represent the age-old patrimony of the Jedi, and, as most sacred texts do, they represent traditions and principles. And with The Last Jedi being the first Star Wars movie to actually break with a few traditions and go down a new path — unlike The Force Awakens, which very much played it safe — the introduction of the books as objects is significant. However, the Jedi texts did not end up being integral to the plot. As of yet, their purpose hasn’t fully been revealed: will they be used to debunk or to continue tradition? To make or break the Jedi Order?
According to comicbook.com, the Jedi texts “contain the earliest teachings of the Order and its relationship with the Force.” We are not told how old the texts are, if they existed before Luke or if they came into being when he started his new Jedi Order and updated the Jedi Code. According to Wookieepedia, the Jedi Code is “a code of conduct intended to help establish, regulate and maintain the general behavior of all Jedi.” The article gives an extensive list of what is in the Jedi Code and its many appearances throughout the Star Wars universe. Presumably, then, the Jedi Code comprises one or several of the books in the collection in the Force tree. Wookieepedia gives a list of other texts that exist in the SW universe; might not a book called Meditations on a Padawan’s Journey make it into the Jedi canon as depicted in the movie?
Rey visits Luke because she needs a teacher to school her in the ways of the Force, just as Obi-Wan Kenobi taught Luke all those years ago. She learns about the history of the Force and how it ties her to Kylo Ren. What I found refreshing about this plot point is that the movie deviates from black-and-white Jedi-versus-Dark Side narratives: the emphasis is more on the characters’ spiritual and human core. Both Rey and Kylo struggle with choosing a side and they show characteristics of both the dark and light. When Rey is drawn towards the Force tree and lays eyes on the texts, Luke offers to give her three lessons about the ways of the Jedi. Luke clearly sees the Jedi as obsolete: they “must end”. To achieve this he sets fire to the Force tree and the texts in it, not just to cut himself off from the Jedi forever, but to destroy the last remnants of the Jedi Order. Of course, the Jedi cannot simply be destroyed by burning their sacred texts, as Yoda points out when he appears to Luke: “Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.” What I inferred from Yoda’s speech was that, in other words, the books are just books: even if the paper copies have been destroyed, the information in them has already been passed on to Rey in some other way. However, we catch a glimpse of the books being stashed on the Millennium Falcon at the end of the movie, meaning they have apparently been saved from the fire. So we can also interpret Yoda’s quote here as meaning that the library in the tree literally contains nothing, as the books were already removed when the tree was set on fire. From her previous life as a scavenger on Jakku we can assume she is no stranger to smuggling or stealing (she steals the Millennium Falcon, after all). She presumably smuggles the Jedi texts on board of the Falcon so that she can study them at her leisure. With Luke gone, the texts are her guide to what it means to be a Jedi. In addition, they are likely the first paper books she has ever seen or touched.
It may seem like a strange leap back to our own galaxy in the 1940s — the Second World War, to be precise — but both narratives are about totalitarian regimes wiping out resistance, and in both cases books play an important role. An aspect of the Holocaust which is often overshadowed by more horrific events is the destruction of Jewish literature and culture in addition to the killing of Jews themselves, in a two-pronged effort to wipe the Jewish people from history altogether. Under the auspices of the Einsatzstab [Taskforce] Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) the Nazis looted and destroyed incredible amounts of cultural property that belonged to the countries they occupied. The book I read by Fishman zooms in on Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which prior to the German invasion bore the title of ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania’ due to its large Jewish population, rich history and thriving Jewish intellectual climate. A ghetto was established in Vilnius and with it a ghetto library, which brought solace to many of its inhabitants. The ERR tasked a group of Jews, nicknamed the ‘paper brigade’, with sorting out all the books from all Jewish institutions in the city: 30 per cent was to go to Germany, specifically to the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage, where German experts in Judaica and Hebraica worked on providing the Nazis with justifiable scientific grounds for their racial doctrine and the Endlösung. The rest of the books was destined for the paper mills.
Fishman’s book tells how a very brave group of people tried to smuggle as many books, Torah scrolls, letters from famous Jewish authors and other cultural artefacts into the ghetto where they were hidden from the Nazis until after the war. They hoped there would be a Jewish people left to enjoy the fruits of their history and culture and made it their mission to pass on the written words, both secular and religious, that were sacred to them. After the war, the remaining paper brigade members struggled to find the books and texts, which had become scattered across Europe and America, a new home. This was no mean feat under the anti-Semitic Soviet regime that held Lithuania in its grip and ordered that all Jewish institutions, once again, be demolished. The massive smuggling operation and the risks that the paper brigade ran are testament to the power the written word has to bring people together, which totalitarian regimes recognize as tinder for rebellion and therefore try to eradicate.
Could we imagine that there were once many paper copies of the Jedi texts, which every Jedi was required to own? Would the Empire, and the First Order after it, apply the same censure that the Nazis did, campaigning to destroy all paper copies in the galaxy? The choice the creators of the new trilogy made to go with paper books is certainly an interesting one. Why, in a futuristic society like that of the Star Wars galaxy, where people fly in space ships and use digital interfaces everywhere (even in the 1970s movies), would the sacred Jedi writings be captured in perishable paper books? Why not in a more enduring format like stone or metal tablets, or on some type of holographic device stored in an R2-unit, or even carved into a wall? To my knowledge, these are the first examples of physical reading material in the Star Wars movies. When we see them on screen, they appear to be colourful leather-bound books that might also be the collected works of Dickens or Austen. For the viewer, seeing ancient books on screen immediately communicates that they are valuable, authoritative, precious, and vulnerable: they seem distinctly human in a movie that is chock full of aliens and futuristic apparatuses. So why was it so symbolic for Luke to destroy them, and why did Rey save them if she already had all the knowledge she needed to get on? After all, once the people in charge decide that Torah rolls are of more use in a leather factory to patch up the soles of German soldiers’ boots, or that the letters of Tolstoy may as well be used to wrap fish in the marketplace, how do they retain their credibility? The situation only requires for one person to decide that what is written down must be preserved for future generations, when those who have the knowledge in their heads are gone.
In The Last Jedi, then, it seems to me that Rey was thinking like a scavenger again: in themselves, those books are precious and rare objects that need to be preserved. At the same time, they contain information with an enduring value. Burning the books won’t bring an end to the Jedi Order (German book burnings did not bring an end to the Jewish people and Judaism), but it does present an obstacle to someone like Rey who wants to revive the Order and is looking for the teachings of her Jedi-ancestors to do it.
We can imagine the delight of someone from a futuristic society at seeing something as fragile, yet powerful as a book. I am reminded of Winston in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who, when starting a diary, marvels at his pen, “an archaic instrument” with which to write on “the beautiful creamy paper [that] deserved to be written on.” Writing, as an extension of reading, is a “decisive act”: it is done with the intention that what is written down will be read, either by oneself or by others. Someone once took the trouble to write down the Jedi code with ink on paper, which might easily be destroyed, and in a world where paper is almost completely lacking that is a remarkable characteristic for a text. Did they want it to be read and to endure, or was it written down in perishable form on purpose? It is not difficult to imagine the author of the Jedi texts, like the Jewish inhabitants of Vilnius, Warsaw, Minsk, Amsterdam and many other places, and like Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, wondering just for whom he or she is committing the treasonous act of writing.
For the future, for the unborn. … How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.
Regimes like Nazi Germany, the Empire in Star Wars and the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four continually make the decision “that this fragment of the past should be preserved, that one falsified, and the other rubbed out of existence,” but fail to understand that the value of literature and transcends the lives of individual persons, and of societies as well. What is intended for destruction by one may be praised for its value by another, years later, and someone will always survive to live to see that day. For many of the Jews in Vilnius, saving books was the last act of goodness that was available to them before their inevitable death; and when the director of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), Max Weinreich, set about getting ‘his’ books back after the war, he was asked by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to distribute several of the YIVO’s volumes among the Jews in transit in the many camps in Germany, who were begging for Jewish literature and study materials. Though he wanted to preserve the many valuable volumes that would now finally return to their rightful place, Weinreich decided that the material had been preserved precisely for the Jews who were alive and remained after the Holocaust, as a balm for the horrors and a well of knowledge for those who wanted to learn more about Judaism.
Whether the Jedi texts will have the same purpose for Rey still remains to be seen, but the fact that they were saved for the purpose of futurity confirms the importance of physical reading material for those who want to find their identity in a totalitarian world.