30 December 2009

Avatar and Fantasies of Harmony

Two weeks after its release I'm still pondering whether to take a look at Avatar, James Cameron's new wonder film. I've seen reviews that praise it as a visionary, genuinely artistic film with pictorial qualities that transcend many admitted cliches in its story of a modern (or futuristic) technological man going native to protect an idyllic world and its noble culture from exploitation and conquest. Cameron's fantasy, according to these reports, presents a world that takes the harmony of nature and living things to almost icky new levels of literal-mindedness. The creatures of the planet appear to be equipped with biological plugs and jacks so that they can physically link and commune with each other. The dominant species, the Na'vi, are idealized aboriginals of the sort that many moviegoers may find insufferable. I'm not sure how I'll react to them, but the commentary inspired by the film so far is increasing my interest in seeing the thing for myself.

In the current New Yorker David Denby anticipates some of my own reservations about the idealization of aboriginal or "noble savage" life. While generally praising Avatar as "the most beautiful film I've seen in years," he figuratively rolls his eyes a bit at the "whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture" detected in comparison of Na'vi and future-human culture.

"Well, actually, life among the Na'vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there's no reality TV or fast food, but there's no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either," Denby comments. In other words, Denby misses what he regards as high culture. I can sympathize with his attitude, but not without questioning both his attitude and my own. There's something condescending about such comments, which remind me of the novelist Saul Bellow's query, rejecting the equality of all cultures, on where he might find the Tolstoy of the Zulus. To ask such a rhetorical question, or to prepare a checklist like Denby's, should beg the question of whether the Zulus need a Tolstoy or the Na'vi a Chandler. The fact that some cultures may not need what individuals in others think they need isn't necessarily a point for or against either culture. But it does tell us something about our own culture, or people in it, that explains a dubious reaction to aboriginal fantasies like Avatar, Dances With Wolves, etc. People who partake of American or western high culture (or pop culture) seem to feel some anxiety over the apparent absence in actual or imagined aboriginal cultures of space for private, individual experience and enjoyment. They've experienced an anxious recognition of a crucial facet of utopian thought. If we want to imagine a utopia based on the collective good, the well being of all people rather than the maximum flourishing of the best, and reject the accumulation of material wealth by which individuals distinguish themselves in inegalitarian societies, we have to face the necessity of finding our own individual fulfillment not in acquiring stuff but in fellowship with our fellow humans. At least we assume that aboriginal peoples found fulfillment in fellowship, and so it must be with the more ascetic or puritanical utopians of our own day who think we can all be happy without "having it all" or even having what we think we want. But fellowship as the utopian condition bugs some people who see it carrying the baggage of conformity, superstition, rigid traditionalism and so forth. On the other hand, for those who believe in harmony with nature, and thus in harmony among all human beings, a utopian condition that individualists would find alarming would probably cause no alarm at all.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg reports that some of his fellow conservatives are attacking Avatar because they see it as a kind of pagan or pantheistic film. The Na'vi, apparently, are not monotheists, and for all I know neither are the future-humans in the movie. Goldberg himself has a point when he says that Avatar would be a really controversial film if "the good guys accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts," but he likes the film better than his colleagues and he thinks they miss a more important point while complaining about the film's fictional belief system.

"What I find interesting about the film is how what is 'pleasing to most people' is so unapologetically religious," Goldberg writes. Avatar isn't something out of H.G. Wells or even Gene Roddenberry in which the future witnesses the triumph of reason over superstition. Instead it seems to be like the decadent Star Trek of the Deep Space Nine era in which the Bajoran religion, for instance, is shown to be essentially true. Goldberg suggests that the film reflects a growing understanding that "humans are hard-wired to believe in the transcendental," and a belief that religions may have been essential to human evolution by encouraging altruistic behaviors in the interest of group survival. An environmentalist bent to Na'vi culture in the film reminds Goldberg of appeals to spirituality or holism by present-day environmentalists on Earth.

Neither Goldberg nor Denby makes clear whether Cameron's future-humans are believers themselves or rationalists. Until I understand that better, I can't even speculate as to whether Avatar is intended as an affirmation of spirituality against materialism. I suspect not because the story depends on the special circumstances of the Na'vi planet and thus has limited relevance to the real world. But Goldberg is on to something by pointing out how religiosity pervades the film that most people will call the biggest "science fiction" movie of the closing year. That brings me back to the question of harmony and fellowship: do they depend on everyone believing in something "transcendent" or bigger than themselves? In our own context, most conservatives seem to think so, and Goldberg suggests that more liberals and leftists are thinking along similar lines. The difference seems to be that conservatives look to something above and outside themselves -- God -- while the left may be leaning toward something they can claim is within us, call it Nature or what you will. It's probably a significant difference, but it makes me wonder whether there's still room for an approach different from both, the now old fashioned-seeming Enlightenment commitment to enlightened self-interest and its corollary, enlightened mutual interest. Can we achieve a harmonious culture with neither biological assistance or a mandatory endorsement of some "noble lie?" Can we even imagine doing so now? If someone can, then that's the movie I'd really like to see.


d.eris said...

"conservatives look to something above and outside themselves -- God -- while the left may be leaning toward something they can claim is within us, call it Nature."

These relations could be exchanged with one another: many conservatives might just as well argue that God is something within us, while the liberal relation to nature is often framed as if nature is above and outside us. An approach different from both might have to work within categories other than those of inside/outside, above/below.

Anonymous said...

How about they just forget about it? You can't even begin to plan a realistic "utopia" as long as the majority of the human race still lives in a fantasy land. Religion is still used to justify war, violence, hatred, intolerance, cruelty, etc.