When James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time in the United States, it was greeted in many quarters as a breakthrough, a work of original genius. In fact, it is a member of a very ancient genre of endemic or Arcadian fantasy and, even in the film world, is by no means the most original or challenging contemporary version of the genre’s basic theme.
The fundamental idea that underlies the genre is the concept of the natural human being, the unfallen and innocent being who is not alienated from nature and is at home in the cosmos. One of the oldest known images of early human ritual/artistic activity is the deer-headed dancing shaman of Trois Frères from 13,000 years ago (similar images have been found in many prehistoric sites all over the world). The image clearly represents an attempt to imagine ourselves as animals, with the power and spontaneity of animals. In the oldest poem in the world, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, who is originally a sort of Tarzan or Mowgli who lives with the animals, is seduced into human consciousness, true rational friendship and the tragic conflicted mortal condition by a temple prostitute. In the founding story of the Abrahamic religions, we began as innocents at peace with nature and fell into a state of alienation, knowledge and the awareness of death. The Greek tradition imagines the natural man either as a savage brute—the one-eyed Polyphemus of Homer—or as the naïve shepherds of Theocritus’ Arcadian pastorals.
One of the key features of all these representations is a complex sense of irony about the difference between the human condition as it is and the yearned-for but seemingly inaccessible state of edenic simplicity and existential completeness. Usually the latter comes only at the price of self-awareness and the individuality that makes possible both death and friendship. We appreciate the former for its promethean curiosity, its technological ingenuity, its richness of cultural meaning and its ability to substitute collective immortality in the civilized traditions of the community or city for the deathlessness of the unfallen state. But we bemoan the awakened human condition for its suffering, its guile, its conflictedness, its bad faith and its destination in the grave. In any case, the thought-experiment of the unfallen human is a source of rich and complex understandings and beautifully shaded and colored thought. When we run across one-sided or simplistic versions of the idea—whether in arrogant triumph over the natural man or in callow adulation of him—whatever our initial enthusiasm, we eventually feel cheated of the prospects for deeper understanding and exciting insight that the thought-experiment invites. The “West” is not unique in the possession of this archetype or myth. In China, Monkey God is the natural man, like his companions Pigsy and Sandy in their service to the holy pilgrim Tripitaka. In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan epic, the Hero Twins defeat their “natural man” half-brothers One Monkey and One Artisan. In the African epic Sundiata, the hero himself is the son of an animal-spirit mother, Sogolon, and his story, like that of many heroes (such as the Nordic Sigmund, the Armenian David of Sasoun, the Persian Rostam and the Irish Cuchulainn), tells of his emergence from animality into humanity. In all cultures, there seems to be an implicit racism, more or less benign, that nominates some foreign tribe or group as the naïve and virtuous (or brutish and stupid) Natural Man. When the myth gets into political philosophy, it does so as Rousseau’s Noble Savage, Montaigne’s Cannibals, Shakespeare’s Caliban, Swift’s Yahoos, Hobbes’s nasty brutish egotists, Locke’s solitary fruit gatherer or even John Rawls’s ideal chooser of social order, protected from bias by a veil of ignorance. The myth inspired the great questioning of the social status quo and of religious and political tradition that gave us democracy, enlightened scientific rationality and the Rights of Man. But it also fueled colonialism and scientific racism, since the natural man can easily be interpreted as the racial inferior.
As we have come to live more and more in cities, and have forgotten the crushing parochialism of what Marx called “rural idiocy,” we have tended more and more to idealize the noble savage and forget his savagery. At its worst, the myth of natural man can feed such phenomena as European anti-semitism or the killing fields of Cambodia, in which virtuous ignorance seeks to rid the world of its corrupting burden of intelligence, self-consciousness, ambiguity and alienation. We should not forget that Martin Heidegger—the foremost philosophical apostle of Blut und Boden (native blood and home soil), follower of Hitler and critic of modern science, economics and technology—equated industrial farming with Auschwitz. But in defense of the myth at its best, it can inspire beautiful philanthropic efforts on behalf of the downtrodden, real progress in environmental restoration and the professional idealism of the discipline of anthropology.
One version of the “natural man” myth is the more or less successful attempt by the alienated civilized man to “go back to nature,” to become a member of the native tribe. This version occurs especially in cultures and times where the natural man is admired and the state of nature is nostalgically yearned for. It is especially pointed when the admiration and nostalgia are tinged with a sentimental and resentful sense that the noble natives are threatened with genocide or civilized corruption, and that some group—even the majority—of one’s own tribe is the culprit.
Anthropology researchers literally go and live in what the urban popular imagination regards as the state of nature. Sometimes, like Sam Houston among the Cherokees, they “go native” and are adopted into the folk they study. In any case, they characteristically fall in love with the culture they have chosen for their research, comparing its lovely richness with the shallowness of the one they grew up in. Sometimes, as lovers do, they overlook the cynicism and folly of their chosen tribe, and—because of academic specialization—they utterly ignore in their comparison the great classics, noble philosophy and ethical grandeur of the best of their own home traditions. Being human, they would be almost incapable of doing good research without such falling in love, such “counter-transference,” as the psychoanalysts would say. We should love what we study, but, alas, if we love one thing very much, we can come to hate something else by contrast. The first infatuation should, if the young anthropologist is lucky and wise, modulate into a more critical if accepting love, and in maturity enable a vision of one’s own home culture that is as generous as that which one brought to the mysterious other.
But there is now a powerful and long-lived genre that explores the delicious fantasy of becoming an accepted member of the alien tribe. It is delicious partly because of the implied but usually unstated premise that, because we do still have the skills and techniques and sad wisdom of our own corrupt culture, we actually have an advantage over the other tribesmen, and the story often ends up with the hero being made the leader of the alien tribe. So the hero gets both the existential centeredness and inside line to the Divine that comes with membership, and the sage and romantically troubled perspective of the disillusioned scion of civilization. A perfect fantasy for the one who feels under-appreciated in his own universe.
Thus Deerslayer adopts Indian ways, Joseph Banks gets a Polynesian bride, Thoreau becomes a native in Walden, Melville lives happily with cannibals, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee comes to dominate the Arthurian world, Huck Finn “lights out” for the Indian Territory, Dorothy is crowned a Queen of Oz, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter, equipped with earthly strength, marries the Martian princess Dejah Thoris and becomes a prince of Mars. Ursula K. Le Guin, whose The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic in the science fiction version of the theme, is herself the daughter of the distinguished anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who wrote the first anthropological dissertation at Columbia (on the Arapaho). The hero of The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai, a sort of anthropologist/advocate of the Gethenian culture in which he lives, is a science-fiction Kroeber, the Kroeber in Le Guin’s own middle initial. In film, the tradition thunders on: Kevin Costner dances with wolves and leads the Indians in battle, Robert de Niro perishes at the head of his adopted tribe in Mission, and Tom Cruise dons a kimono, learns Kendo and rides shoulder to shoulder with the Last Samurai. Almost always, the hero meets the exotic alien princess, falls in love with her and experiences a true love unavailable among the shallow and superficial females of his native land.
The best examples of the genre, like The Left Hand of Darkness and Black Robe, the fine French movie about a Jesuit missionary among the eighteenth-century Algonquins, rise above their kind and resist the temptation to simply lionize the natives and vulgarize the civilization from which the traveler comes. They use the form to ask searching questions about human sexuality, social conventions, religion and personal identity. The lesser examples of the genre arouse emotions in the viewer that can cheaply enlist and encourage our less worthy resentments against our own society, our fantasies of power, our desire for a community without its moral costs, our yearning for an unearned uniqueness, and our need for an excuse for our own inadequacies and a group on whom we can avenge them. Mission rises above many of its fellows because it fully acknowledges the great gift of European music and European Christianity to the natives who are colonized, but it makes the same simplistic Leninist equation between industrial commerce and evil that is the cliché of the field in general.
Three recent films, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature The Princess Mononoke, James Cameron’s Avatar and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, exemplify different aspects and uses of the genre, and this essay will look at them in a little more depth. Of the three, Avatar is the most popular, the most obviously spectacular and, in this critic’s opinion, the most compromised in its artistic standards, the one most deserving of Plato’s censure against the poets for making us believe pretty untruths and substituting emotion for balanced judgment. The dramatis personae of Avatar divide conveniently into the good guys and the bad guys. The hero, Jake Sully, begins as the dupe of the bad guys, Colonel Miles Quaritch (“soldier with an itch for quarrel”) and the evil corporate exploiter Parker Selfridge (“peak-of-selfishness tamer of nature”). Jake, as his surname suggests, is “sullied” by his polluting technological culture but is a good guy at heart, as his working-class forename certifies. He earns his credentials for goodness from the beginning by being a paraplegic war veteran, by taking his murdered twin brother’s place in the mission and by being shunned and mocked by unfeeling fellow soldiers.
Now comes the ultimate adolescent wish-fulfillment (imaged again and again in other films by the transformation of the ordinary dork into the muscular übermensch—Superman, Spidey, Neo). Jake sheds his mortal human weakness and receives a beautiful strong body, as blue as the Hulk’s is green. Passing over the fact that the technology for this miraculous healing transformation is the product of the hated earthlings, the movie takes him and us into the edenic forest of Pandora, Cameron’s Narnia without its indigenous witch. Pandora is another suggestive name: female of course, and evoking not only the Greek myth of the transgressive female but also the Roman half-human, half-animal god Pan. Jake has the good luck to meet the Native Princess right away and quickly leapfrog into acceptance, the group hug, dragon-whispering, communion with Eywa the local Gaia, and leadership of the Navi (“natural natives”). The tribe is a monarchy, of course, with all the monarchical glamour and nobility that the democratic American audience misses, and is in a state of perfect religious unity and communion (not like our cacophony of sects). The scientists in the movie begin as dupes of the bad guys but morph, as in the popular myth of our times, from Dr. Strangelove into Al Gore, shedding their cold, evil technological objectivity and taking on a warm, fuzzy ecological empathy. The bad guys destroy the Hometree of the Navi and try to destroy the Tree of Souls, the motherboard of the planet’s Mystical Body. Jake and his princess, Neytiri, save the second tree and defeat the evil Quaritch in a climactic battle where Quaritch dons an Amplified Mobility Platform suit, a headless robot or full-body waldo, and the biologicals defeat the mechanicals. This suit is of special interest, because it embodies an idea popularized by the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, arguing that technology has been a male way of shedding the irrational flesh and becoming a “cyborg,” a powerful, logical and unfeeling machine. In Alien (starring Sigourney Weaver, who also plays the scientist Grace Augustine in Avatar), the heroine, Ridley, puts on a similar suit to even the odds in battle against a monstrous female alien. So Weaver is redeeming herself for having played an earthly heroine versus an alien villainess (who only wants a nice warm nutritive place for her young, after all). In these days
of “tailed good, tailless bad,” it is more authentic to have one’s consciousness transferred into the (stolen) body of a big blue alien than to be at the controls of a robot honestly constructed by human ingenuity. In the moral system of the movie, to be the former is to be an “avatar,” literally, in Sanskrit, a god assuming the body of a mortal; to be the latter is to be degraded into a machine. The wonderful “realism” of Cameron’s beautiful special effects, replete with pseudoscientific explanations, works directly against the essentially magical fairy tale premises of his story. Any scientist—or even real science fiction reader—would, for instance, know perfectly well that a technology capable of transporting heavy cargo at apparently superluminal velocities to the Centauri system would already be so advanced that Pandora would not be worth exploiting for its raw materials. No mere physical material, such as the laughably named “unobtanium” that the evil corporation wishes to dig out from precisely the one spot on the planet where the local god resides, could justify the huge cost of the trip. Any technology that could travel faster than light could synthesize matter to any given requirements (and materials science, especially in the fields of quantum dots and non-nuclear matter, is already well on its way). The antigravity mountains Cameron images (borrowed, at first hand, from the 1980 Flash Gordon movie and, at second hand, from Gulliver’s Travels) are obviously fantasy, not science. So Cameron’s masking of magical moral allegory under the guise of science is not unlike the masking of religious creationism under the guise of “intelligent design.” After all, since the moral premise of the movie is that local magical traditions are good and “Western” rationality—which created modern science and technology—is bad, is it not dishonest to falsely use the latter’s prestige to bolster an anti-science and technology moral? None of this is to deny that we have been polluting our planet (in the course of globally doubling people’s lifespans, improving health and education, and liberating slaves and women), nor that we have at times shortsightedly cut down biologically rich rainforests to get at crude raw materials, and atrociously displaced native peoples in the process. But modern scientific/industrial capitalism was the essential funder and patron of the biological research that made ecological awareness possible, of the biomedical advances that may one day heal cripples like Jake Sully, of the anthropological ethnography that made us care about native peoples, and of the marvelous graphics that make Cameron’s movie so attractive.
Cameron has thus taken many of the tropes of an ancient and subtle human argument and reduced them to a simple moral tale that is, the moment one goes an inch below its surface, artistically flawed and philosophically dishonest. By contrast, let us look at two movies in the same basic genre, one released in 2009, the same year as Avatar, one—an animated film—released in 1997.
District 9, though a huge box-office success and costing about one-tenth of Avatar’s budget of over $300 million, is boldly original, artistically rich and intellectually complex everywhere that Avatar is derivative, shallow and simplistic. There is no pixie dust anywhere. The science and technology are more or less plausible; the biotech of the “Prawns,” the aliens, is not utterly beyond reasonable extrapolation of current knowledge. I still don’t like gigantic space vehicles hovering over the ground, but at least there are implied spacewarp devices in the mothership that might be within reach of an advanced civilization, and the media documentary style of the movie explains the lack of scientific explanation. And, in any case, there is no implied condemnation of “Western” scientific rationality to occasion a sense of bad faith in this respect. It could be argued that District 9 is not a true member of the arcadian genre, and this is defensible. Perhaps we could say that the movie is a searching and grittily realistic critique of the genre itself. Many of the genre’s basic tropes are certainly present: the human who becomes acculturated to the alien culture and joins forces with it, the biological emphasis of the alien culture, the part-human, part-animal imagery of the Prawns, the xenophobia and arrogance of the home culture, and even the manned robot fighting machine. Like Jake Sully, Wikus van de Merwe, the Boer central figure, actually turns into an alien. But everything has been changed. The manned robot is now part of the alien, not the human technology. The aliens may include enlightened and affectionate individuals, like the scientist Christopher (a nice detail, to have the aliens adopt human names); but they can also be criminal, wretched, demoralized, disorderly, alarmingly fecund and deceitful, just like human beings when deprived of their accustomed technology, leadership, economic viability and hope. No noble savages they.
Blomkamp, the director, like Shakespeare, has no illusions about his natural Calibans, who simply want to people the isle with Calibans. There is no nonsense about advanced civilizations operating without advanced technology. The human blacks in the movie are not noble Mandela types who resist white racism, but either well-meaning bureaucrats or cheerful exploiters and tribal thugs. The government of the film’s imagined South Africa is oppressive not because it is evil and self-interested but because it is paternalistic, statist, aware of the darker angels of its legitimate constituency, and likes to mind other people’s business. The nation is prey, like most democracies, to rent-seeking and profiteering by private interests who would rather use law to corner some commodity than compete in the open market. The hero, Wikus—the most unlikely hero, to the film’s credit, I have ever seen on screen—is a well-meaning government caregiver who, as the film opens, has totally denied his genteel liberal elitist racism. And the true villain in the genre itself, our use of the idea of “naturalness” to demonize or dehumanize some group of intelligent and sentient beings or other, is nicely targeted.
The movie’s positive message is not some kind of Kumbaya interspecies group hug but the emergence of friendship and loyalty between members of different groups, the miracle of personal individuality, the importance and survival of our idiosyncratic attachments (like Wikus’s love for his wife, the daughter of the corporate villain) and the recognition of our common care for our young. Though the movie is technically a science fiction fantasy, it presents a clearer view than many documentaries of the anthropology and sociology of the favelas, townships, ghettos, slums and shantytowns that urbanization has created across the world, and the complex ethical puzzle they present for well-intentioned conservatives and liberals alike. Our own arcadian fantasies are part of the problem; the South African context reminds us that part of the philosophy of apartheid was an arcadian vision of the Bantustans (like that of the Indian reservations here) as unspoiled edens of traditional native simplicity and harmony with nature. What keeps unspoiled edens unspoiled is a deathrate that keeps pace with the unhampered birthrate, after all, and people leave such places in search of work in the cities. D o we bulldoze the slum of AIDS-infected migrant workers or let it rot? Who are “we” anyway? District 9 asks the tough questions, which is one of the implications of art’s duty to “tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it.
Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful animated feature The Princess Mononoke is in many senses a provisional answer to the issues that the genre raises, that District 9 brings up to date and that Avatar suppresses. Nobody thinks that an animated movie is a literal representation of reality, so the viewer is not the passive victim of the work’s visual rhetoric but is at once pushed, as with poetry and opera, into an interpretive mode that can and must “read between the lines.” District 9 meets the problem of how to represent the fantasy world by doing it explicitly through the already-compromised and untrustworthy eyes of the mass media; Avatar cheats by using as its means the sophisticated technology and realistic scientific perspective that the film’s message rejects. The Princess Mononoke at once admits by its very form its identity as a fable, and thus meets the challenge of the discerning viewer, to make its ethical case without appeal to documentary and evidentiary verification.
The hero, Prince Ashitaka, is not the product of modern technology but of a traditional society, “in tune” with nature, who is afflicted by a curse given him by a natural force, the disease he gets from the mad wild boar Nago, during his entirely justifiable defense of his village against the monster. The curse, like all true curses, is ambiguous: it is the result of a human-made musket ball that has poisoned Nago, but the swarming worms that cover the beast and afflict the innocent young hero are themselves forces of nature, not culture. The curse gives Ashitaka immense magical fighting strength but it is painful, ugly and debilitating, and will, if uncured, turn him into another mad enraged animal. The film explicitly identifies the curse as hatred, but instead of simplifying it as a sin or pollution, it turns the curse into a rich multivocal symbol.
The film is named for the character San (the spirit-princess Mononoke), who, like Jake and Wikus, is a human who has become an alien, having been raised by wolves. Her relationship with Ashitaka evolves into a complex and beautiful—and not untroubled—true love. Instead of there being two sides, there are many, as in real politics: Ashitaka’s traditional rural village, the violent and patriarchal aristocratic samurai city, the new industrial iron-working city of Lady Eboshi, the various animal tribes of apes, boars and wolves with their own leadership issues, the agents of the distant Emperor, the Forest God and his retinue, and the trickster Buddhist monk who wants to advance his own cause of civilization by replacing the local nature cults with abstract Buddhist wisdom.
Our sympathies switch from one to another of the various parties as the story unfolds and Ashitaka seeks to make peace among the warring factions. Our judgments are not easy. If we regard Iron Town as symbolizing the bad modern technology and commerce that Avatar scorns, we find out that the free and feisty workers there are lepers and former prostitutes who have been rescued by Lady Eboshi from exploitation, slavery and stigma in the samurai city. Miyazaki discerningly implies the real fact that industrialism and market wealth have saved a huge portion of humanity from both cultural and natural oppression. Lady Eboshi is arrogant but beautiful, noble, compassionate, canny and genuinely heroic. If we fall in love with San the nature girl as we should, we must also reckon with her own hatred of humans. If we join in worship of the gorgeously pictured forest spirit, we must be aware that he can be devastatingly destructive to his own natural offspring when he is in search of his severed head.
The problems the film raises are very real today: no less than how to mesh the gears of political economy and natural ecology by means of social and spiritual progress. Miyazaki knows that the solution can only be a continuingly dynamic balancing among priorities, loyalties, loves and goals that cannot privilege old over new, new over old, progress over conservatism or conservatism over progress. The one thing that is clear is that hatred is the disease and its healing is the precondition of any even provisional solution.
The result is The Princess Mononoke, an extraordinary beautiful and rich work of art, a sign that the ancient genre still has life in it. Perhaps Cameron can redeem the flaws and inauthenticities of Avatar in the sequel he is reportedly filming; we can hope that Blomkamp, and his superb producer Peter Jackson, will not betray the honesty of District 9 by its own rumored sequel, District 10. The Princess Mononoke should serve as a good inspiration to both.