Ok, one last Star Wars post (just one tiny wafer, sir…) and then I’ll return to more serious issues. (Sorry to those of you who read this blog looking for something other than a cadet branch of Star Wars geekery…)
In the comments on my last post, Dan talks about “nerd hermeneutics”, about the ways in which a fiction like Star Wars invites a particular kind of reader to make it into more than it is, to fill in its gaps, invent coherencies, see themes that are only barely there. I think the key attribute that it is “in the text” that invites this labor is that Star Wars, like Middle-Earth, self-presents as a “total world” text, whose referentiality largely turns inward.
While nerd hermeneutics can be serious, even pompous, as it goes about its business, it’s ultimately a form of interpretative gymnastics, a system-inventing game. The skills and passion it requires are also not really that different from non-nerd hermeneutics: the difference is less in the intellectual substance of the work as in the sociology and importance of the two practices.
The biggest mistake that some non-nerd hermeneuts make in looking on with curled lip is to assume that the work of nerd hermeneutics is about wish fulfillment, about fashioning universes in which we would prefer to live. There’s some of that going on, to be sure, and I mentioned it in an earlier post. Jedis, wizards, nobility, superheroes are attractive figures to adolescent geeks who imagine themselves as possessing inner talents and merits that are scorned or marginalized in the wider culture. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned the one issue of Scott McCloud’s astonishing comic Zot in this context before, but during his “Earth Stories” arc, in issue #31, the story of the character Ronnie is so eerily on target that it unnerved me and evidently others: McCloud comments that it has led some readers to accuse him of “spying on them”. Ronnie’s an alienated and very serious, almost humorless, geek who dreams of writing comics. He’s had a day full of teenage melodrama and at the end of it he slides into a chair and imagines a sort of Cyclops-and-Phoenix against the whole world apocalypse scene while listening to bombastic symphonic music. The imaginary world Ronnie slips into magnifies and ennobles his adolescent angst.
But a substantial amount of nerd hermeneutics is not about wish fulfillment, quite the contrary. Like David Brin, the more hermeneutical work I do on Star Wars, the less I want to live in its universe at any time. In the end, I don’t like the Jedi at all, much less wish I were one. The way I “read” them by filling in the interpretative cracks (sometimes yawning gaps) in Lucas’ vision? An ascetic order of militant monks, celibates, clueless about the real world, smug, hierarchical (and worse yet, hereditary), ripping young children away from their families. If being Jedi were something that anyone with sufficient will, desire, and training could be, that would be one thing, but instead it seems to be something like being a mutant, you have to be born with the right supply of midichlorians.
The same certainly goes for Middle-Earth. In Middle-Earth, being morally right is largely about living within the contours of the role that the gods have decreed for you, accepting your place in life, bearing the burdens designated for you. It’s a marvelous “total world” to do hermeneutical work on, and a rousing story, but I would find it a horrible place to actually live.
This is the thing about total-world fictions: the pleasure of the text lies in filling out the world in its own terms. I would be profoundly offended if the upcoming film version of the C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books soft-pedaled or discarded the overt Christian content of those books. Not because I strongly identify with that content particularly (though The Last Battle is the most appealing presentation of death and apocalypse I’ve ever seen from a Christian thinker), but because it’s part of the total-world rules that Lewis set out. It’s the necessary foundation of his fiction, and from that foundation, a nerd hermeneutician could ask many interesting things. Say, for example, how the Calormens got into that world, and if they’re Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, why they weren’t equally threatening to the White Witch. Or for that matter, where all the nasty evil creatures in the Witch’s army come from, given that she’s the only evil creature in Narnia at the Creation. And so on.
That I would defend those foundations as integral to the fictions built upon them has nothing to do with my imaginative desires, with envisioning a world in which I would like to live. I’m hard-pressed to think of a total-world fiction that I like in which I would actually prefer to live, in fact. Superhero comics? No way: entire cities, families, neighborhoods get wasted by psychotics, aliens, disasters on a regular basis, and human institutions are more or less beholden to an unelected elite of superpowered people. Hierarchical medieval or science-fantasy worlds? No, for a lot of reasons. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a total-world fiction where the protagonists are fully human characters and the abiding themes are about the achievement of self, the exploration and achievement of individual freedom, the reform or transformation of the world, the building of better societies, the cultivation of pleasure, the sacrifice of oneself for the good of others, or any of the other things that mobilize secular modern humans for good (and ill). Earthsea, maybe.