The Last Jedi, Moana, and the etymology of Evil
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Back in middle school, I vividly recall a conversation during class between myself and our history teacher. The entire term was devoted to the complex political machinations that led to the rise and end of World War II. In the final minutes of class, I felt like I had arrived at a revelation that seemed so obvious, I had the impulse to speak. I raised my hand and the teacher called on me.
“Despite all the wars, the good guys always win.” I proclaimed, then suddenly grew less confident as the words left my lips. The class fell silent and looked to our teacher.
“Well,” he responded with scholarly kindness. “Every side always thinks they’re the good side.”
My middle school brain, with its adolescent need to frame the world into the foundational binary of good and bad could no longer compute. The cognitive dissonance detonated my simplistic model of morality and I was instantly dropped into the murky depths of complexity. I could never look at the world the same way again.
It was this conversation that came to mind as I watched The Last Jedi, filled with the familiar struggles between good and evil, the dark side versus the light. It is this archetypal battle that defines the universe of Star Wars, and arguably, the entire landscape of the dominant global culture.
Recalling her own youth, writer Laurel Carney recounts the impact the original Star Wars had upon her worldview:
“The struggle between light and darkness within each of us became the lens through which I viewed and coped with my surroundings, and Luke Skywalker, who appeared, to my young eyes, to beat back the darkness for good with a single act of mercy, became my hero.”
With the recent episode’s impact of seeing Luke’s fall from grace, and the subsequent backlash from the fans, she defends the film with an appreciation for a more nuanced hero archetype:
“Darkness comes for all of us, in many forms, and no single act of goodness can beat it back forever. Victory is temporary, and useful only insofar as it makes it easier to face the next challenge, and the next, and to inspire goodness in others. Learning to embrace this cycle, to accept setbacks with peace and purpose rather than grief, is one of the most painful (and ultimately necessary) lessons to be found in The Last Jedi.”
Her conclusion — to embrace the fallibility of our heroes while upholding the ‘universal and inevitable’ war against darkness — I find ultimately unsatisfying. I believe there is a missed opportunity to pull on a more provocative thread to unravel the deeper pattern stitched beneath.
The Machine of War
Take for example, the Master Codebreaker (played effortlessly by Benicio Del Toro) who reveals to Finn and Rose (the spunky maintenance worker and the first Asian-American character to appear in a Star Wars film) that the weapons dealers they are quick to condemn sell to the First Order and the Rebellion just the same. “It’s a machine.” he says of war, matter of factly.
Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker made the connection that the Codebreaker could just as well have been talking about the entire Star Wars franchise, “which depends for its continued existence on a story of perpetual war.”
This leads me to what I believe the most interesting scene in the film: the moment when Kylo Ren and Rey have defeated the Supreme Leader Snoke and his legion of red guards. As the room continues to blaze and the rest of the First Order have yet to descend upon them, Kylo reaches for her hand and offers a simple solution to transcend the past:
On the surface, the moment is portrayed as one more seduction for Rey to choose the dark side and betray the Rebellion. Rey (and the audience) know there are only two choices: the light or the dark. Rothman connects this moment to the vision Rey had previously experienced in the cave beneath the Jedi island, and the inherent paradox of this perspective:
“…she sees the world as a system of opposites: light and dark, life and death, love and rage, the dark side and the light. There’s a pleasing symmetry to this view of the universe, but if the cosmos is truly constructed this way, then the good side can never win, because good and evil will always be evenly matched.”
What if Kylo was actually, albeit through violence, inviting her to transcend the narrative of the dark and light, and thereby end the infinity war?
Instead, it was Rey who was unwilling to step outside of her attachment to the Light, the paradigm of good/evil, and the need for victory, thereby collapsing the tension into an epic space battle once again. This game plays out for the rest of the film, ultimately ending in Luke Skywalker’s “heroic” death and the escape of the Rebellion.
Good and evil, the supposed universal narrative, remains to fight another day.
ON FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES
Let’s talk about the dark side. Let’s talk about evil.
How do you define it? Without too much thought, and depending on where you grew up, you are likely to respond: someone or something that is inherently bad. The opposite of good. That which exists beyond redemption.
This provides the foundation for most super hero movies that choke Hollywood and the imaginations of young children.
“Why do they have to kill the bad guy?” They always ask, wide eyed and curious.
“Because they’re evil.” Often comes the response.
While I was not raised in church, I did grow up in a culture with a foundation of Christianity. From that religious perspective, the world is not our true home but a stage for the God and the Devil to battle over the eternal souls of mankind. We participate in that drama by choosing whether to serve the darkness or the light, our fate in Heaven or Hell ultimately decided by our deeds.
This orientation continues to play itself in different costumes and communities, from the unnervingly perky Lightworkers to our punitive system of justice. It’s the same answer whether speaking of a comic book villain, disease, or a terrorist.
If we could only get rid of the bad, the good will win.
Charles Eisenstein calls this war thinking: “…the pattern of fixing a problem where you look for the enemy, the thing to fight. You believe that if you can defeat or dominate that enemy then the problem will be solved.”
And herein lies the trouble: just like in Star Wars, any victory ensures a loser and the conditions for future war are already planted.
This way of thinking is not universal to all cultures.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be schooled in a fashion that re-animates the living quality of words. Whenever I attempt to understand what they “mean”, I no longer settle for the withered understanding that words have always meant the same thing as they do now. It’s far more appropriate to ask “when and where?” alongside your inquiry. Such as “in what time and what place are you wanting to know what that word meant?”
Let’s consider evil, again.
A brief etymological study reveals that from about 1400, evil was understood to mean “actions that were morally sinful” and therefore actions deemed to go against the will of God.
So far so good. That continues to line up with the definition upheld the good guys, you just need to substitute “good guys” for “God.” Evil therefore, is any action that goes against the will of the good, as understood by the good guys.
Unless of course, as I found out in my middle school history class, the bad guys generally think they are also the good guys. Not much help there.
Luckily, I happened recently to be reading the classic book “Finite and Infinite Games” where the author describes two types of games: those that are finite and those that are infinite. A brief overview:
Finite players play to win.
Think of a soccer match, where the players all work together to defeat the other team by scoring more goals, with a clear winner and loser. There are rules and penalties for stepping outside of the boundaries, not because they are inherently punishable, but because not playing within the rules jeopardizes the ability to confer with clarity who is the winner.
Infinite players, on the other hand, play to keep playing.
Think of making love. A skilled player aims to conduct actions and choices that reveal ever more delightful realms of pleasure, for themselves and for the other. Those achieved in the language of eros know that it is a way of being, with no clear beginning and ending — every move a possibility to play more finely with every caress, word, and contact.
One could say that Life itself, flowing freely, is the ultimate infinite game, endlessly expressing and evolving through a myriad tapestry of diverse peoples, flora, fauna, and minerals — from the tiniest microbe to the vastness of the cosmic theatre.
With this in mind, I was floored when I came across the author’s precise definition of evil:
“Evil is the termination of infinite play.”
“Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil. […] Infinite players understand the inescapable likelihood of evil. They therefore do not attempt to eliminate evil in others, for to do so is the very impulse of evil itself, and therefore a contradiction. They only attempt paradoxically to recognize in themselves the evil that takes the form of attempting to eliminate evil elsewhere.”
Translation: the existence of evil is not something gone haywire in the fabric of the universe. It doesn’t mean God somehow got it wrong or that he’s asleep at the wheel. It might mean there is no such thing as good guys that are devoid of their own capacity for evil. And in fact, attempting to eliminate evil in service to the good is how evil is enacted in the world.
This is demonstrated powerfully in another moment from The Last Jedi, when Luke is shown approaching the bed of Ben Solo, contemplating killing his own nephew to avoid the evil that might ensue. At that moment Ben awakes to this moment of betrayal, and flees to join the dark side. The attempt to eliminate evil in another, blinds oneself to their own capacity, thereby generating evil in the world.
In Finite and Infinite games, the author finishes the chapter by stating:
“Evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game.”
I’ll say that again differently for emphasis:
Evil is the attempt to collapse all games, both infinite and finite, into ONE finite game.
If there is one ultimate winner, the rest of life loses.
The Consequence of ‘More’
At the risk of making any statement that generalizes into a pan-indigenous understanding, I have a hypothesis that many indigenous cultures do not have an equivalent word for “evil” — meaning the presence or possibility of evil as the inherent opposite of good. (See my Facebook post to follow that interesting discussion).
With my aforementioned love of words (and their precision), I feel it’s important to take a moment and define my use of indigenous. The term itself is problematic and tends to draw heated debate depending on where it’s used. True, all humans are indigenous to the planet. But more helpfully, I’m using it here to refer to a people who are still connected and living on their land of ancestral origin.
In contrast, settlers are those people who have relocated, whether through choice or otherwise, to colonize other lands, usually at the deep expense of those peoples who are already living there. ‘Colonization’ is also best understood as not just the theft of land and oppression of people, but also a significant psychological trauma that hides by making itself so normalized as to be invisible by those who continue to “benefit” from its rewards (more on that later).
It appears to me that intact Indigenous cultures, and/or those who have managed to revive their ancestral understandings and ways, tend to view acts of malice coming not from an inherent “evil” but from a lack of right relationship.
For many reasons, a sickness may arise in the soul that gives way to hostility, violence and mayhem, whether to oneself or others. And contrary to isolated individual and “their” problem, this dis-ease is generally not placed solely on the shoulders of the individual, rather, the whole village is tasked in service toward healing.
I spoke with a friend Pulxaneeks Love, an woman of the Haisla nation, who has spent years doing important reconciliation work between indigenous and settler cultures. I asked her if her people had the equivalent of a word for “evil.”
At first, her response was grief. As a woman who grew up two generations after the residential school system, and lived half her life in the realm of the colonialists, she felt the sorrow of what has already been lost in her own story and that of her people.
When she did respond, she said:
“We don’t have a word for evil to my awareness, and I know us to have been a very abundant people who didn’t have the need to fight over anything. Words that aren’t often used in daily life can be very hard to find the Haisla word for.”
“But the Haida though…” she continued. “The Haida were a neighbouring tribe who would come and raid our villages. They would take our resources, along with the strongest women and men. They were not satisfied with what they already had.”
In this story, Pulxaneeks drew a progression that mimicked numerous other cultures. When a people feel they don’t have enough, they rise to take it from others. This is the origin of war, and from war comes trauma, displacement, and further colonization.
Etymology again. Now armed with this nuanced understanding, I pursued the trail of “evil” back even further, before it became known as morally sinful actions against the will of God, that is, before the Christian colonization of the Northern European indigenous peoples:
In the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto, he writes:
The root meaning of the word [evil] is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern German Das Übel (although evil is normally translated as Das Böse) with the basic idea of transgressing.
It probably comes ultimately from “upelo-”, a derivative of the Indo-European base “upo-, under (source of Greek hupo, under, Sanskrit “upa”, at, to, and English “up” and “over”), and so its underlying connotation is of “exceeding due limits, extremism.
So here we have evil stitched together with the faded fabric of ‘transgressing’ and ‘exceeding due limits.’ Said with a little more flourish, perhaps we could say:
Evil was originally understood as describing anything (or any people) that grew beyond the natural limitations of the place that could carry them.
Evil was the trauma that would be unleashed by those who were not able to satiate the seduction for ‘more’, who sought war and displacement on behalf of empire, growth for its own sake.
A tragic irony then, as it often is, that once the colonizers rolled in, “evil” no longer described the expansionist actions of those very people, but instead became anything that went against the will of their one and only God.
As it often goes, in the name of purging the new definition of evil from the world, they covered the tracks of the old understanding, like building a temple to the new god on the rubble of the old.
James Carse says it clear:
“There is much evil that remains beyond redemption. When Europeans first landed on the North American continent the native population spoke as many as ten thousand distinct languages, each with its own poetry and treasury of histories and myths, its own ways of living in harmony with the spontaneities of the natural environment. All but a very few of those tongues have been silenced, their cultures forever lost to those of us who stand ignorantly in their place.”
By the tip of the sword, then the barrel of the gun, they demanded all infinite players collapse into one finite game.
Lest you think the past is history, the same agenda continues to this day. The biosphere is buckling under the weight of an expansionist culture that refuses to acknowledge its mania for more. Ravenous eyes are now set to reach Mars as the next frontier, as if our collective deus ex machina lies with ditching the planet we’ve already messed up and starting over on a lofty, inhospitable, red rock.
But thankfully, there is a new hope.
TOWARD DE-COLONIZED STORYTELLING
Perhaps you’ve noticed a recent trend in Hollywood. Though the vast majority of the slurry that comes from the big studios continues to fall in the binary-oppositional range, there continues to be a rising crop of big-budget films that shatter the mould.
Here are just a few I’ve noticed:
- Lego Batman — Healing toxic masculinity through transmuting grief and rebuilding trust in the village
- Arrival — Understanding the role of language and its relationship to conjuring our perception of time. Hint: not all cultures (and aliens) conceive of time as linear.
- Interstellar — Love is not a feeling but the animating force of the universe (read my feverish essay for more).
- Tomorrowland — We cannot build a life-affirming future unless we are first able to imagine it.
I submit that narratives like these can be classified as de-colonized storytelling, breaking the trance of modernity that has kept modern humans lockstep in the spells of monocultured universalism.
I believe as storytellers we have a moral imperative to transcend the binary of good and evil, crafting visionary narratives for our personal and collective vitality to flow towards.
Which brings me to Moana, one of the best examples of this type of storytelling in recent times. Spoiler alert!
The opening myth of Moana tells the story of how the demi-god Maui steals the heart of the Goddess Tafiti in order to control her capacity to regenerate life. Upon his departure from the theft, he is met by the power demon Te Kā who attempts to thwart his escape. Ultimately, Maui loses the heart in the bottom of the ocean and is banished to a remote island.
Yet the damage had already been done. A sickness spreads throughout the islands, strangling the flora and poisoning the sea life. Eventually it reaches the shores of Moana’s kingdom, and it’s up to her to set out beyond the reef to restore the heart of Tafiti.
Until this far, the film doesn’t deviate much from the typical heroic narrative that most Disney films have followed, the only difference is a girl in the title role. Various adventures and hijinks ensue, until Moana has retrieved the heart and is ready to give it back to the goddess.
In this moment of revelation, for her and the audience, it’s revealed that the Goddess and Te Kā are the same. The demon’s rage is that of the Great Mother scorned, her capacity to generate life stolen by the egoic pride of a Hero.
“I have crossed the horizon to find you…I know your name…they have stolen the heart from inside you…but this does not define you. This is not who you are…you will know who you are…who you truly are.”
The seas part and Moana approaches Te Kā, willing to make contact, where others were only able to make war. The demon softens, and the young princess returns her heart (placing it in the holy spiral), thereby restoring wholeness to the Goddess. The demon’s skin cracks and the vitality of life springs forth again.
To recap: many would agree that humanity, and the entire web are life, are in a collective moment of great peril. Whether this moment is one of extinction or initiation remains to be seen.
“Finite players aim for eternal life. Infinite players aim for eternal birth.” — James Carse
On winter solstice last December, I stood gazing at the ocean while the last rays of the golden sun drained from the horizon. I watched the languid waves roll in toward the shore, and was reminded of the phenomenon I read somewhere in a physics essay.
To the uncritical eye, it appears the water is rolling toward the shore. Yet this is an optical illusion. The water is simply moving in a circular motion, while the actual wave is the energy moving through the water, generated far out at sea.
I sat with this crystal recognition: that I was witness and awash in the energy of events generated long before I was born. And it was clear that my actions will generate ripples that will continue long after this body is gone.
From this vantage point, the individual peculiarities that I believe are “my life” seem less significant, or perhaps equally significant, then my presence and affect upon the whole.
I am both the wave and the particle.
We are all storytellers. The stories we tell, particularly in this time of mass connectivity, have the capacity to affirm or transform the underlying mythologies of our civilization.
Will you continue to perpetuate the finite games of separation, violence, and war? Or will you choose the infinite game of contact, love, and diversity?
Choose wisely. The future (and the past) depends on now.
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