Bill Moyers- What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
Joseph Campbell- What we've got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read THE NEW YORK TIMES......from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill D. Moyers (1988).*****
James Cameron's film Avatar is an example of a mythology for a modern world that is hungry for it. Cameron created a world with its own unique living creatures and humanoids, its own history, its own language, its own rites of passage, its own religion and deities- its own mythology. We, the audience, our drawn up and in to this world through the use of cinematic 3D wizardry, so much so many of us- myself included- experienced a virtual reality, where computer generated creatures became real and dandelion-like seeds floating in the air seemed to be falling down so close to us that we could touch them. Consciously and subconsciously we became part of the world of the Na'vi, the blue, seven foot tall inhabitants of Pandora, who in the film became more human to us than the "Sky People"-the earth colonists, who looked just like you and me.
I saw Avatar a week after the catastrophic earthquake that all but destroyed Haiti, the same same Tuesday that that Republican Scott Brown took the Senate seat held by Edward M. Kennedy for nearly three generations, and the very day when Chris Christie was sworn in as the Governor of New Jersey. Some people who have seen the film have experienced depression after leaving the idyllic world of Pandora to return to the reality of their own lives. Its as if one were awakened from a pleasant dream to be brought "back to earth" abruptly.
I had a similar reaction after seeing the film, but it was not the blues. Rather, I felt a sense of anger regarding the situation in America, where we have two political parties who have been engaged in trench warfare for nearly 20 years. In my eyes, the Democrats were inept, the Republicans morally and spiritually hypocritical. Furthermore, the audacity and arrogance of the Wall Street crowd I found even more appalling than before, and the pontificating of the Religious Right seemed more mind numbing than ever.
It was as if during the experience of Avatar I was briefly in a better, but not perfect world, one filled with danger....but the priorities of the simple Na'vi were in the right place, and in harmony with nature, with life, and with themselves. And in looking at the reality of our own lives in the real world, I couldn't help but think....."How did we manage to blow it so badly?".
Since seeing the film I've dusted off my books by and about Joseph Campbell (1904-87), the great teacher, mythologist and author. My prevailing thought for days after seeing the film was "What would Joseph Campbell think of Avatar?
But before we go any further, we must first define "myth". We commonly think that if something is a myth, it is a lie. But the most accurate definition of a "myth" is that it is a metaphor. Campbell told Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth, a book and PBS documentary from 1988 based on conversations held between 1985-86, the following;
"Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life"
Take a look at the video below. It was produced during Campbell's lifetime. Here he explains "myth as a metaphor"
Avatar presented a myth that included several classic themes- "The Quest"; "The Romance"; and "Birth, Death, and Rebirth" to a modern audience that needed such a mythology. Myths can address our psychological need to find out answers to complex questions in terms that are understandable. The audience lives in a "real world" that is in economic recession, that is at war, that is threatened by terrorism, is in danger of falling victim to even more severe climate change. In the film the Na'vi were shown as a primitive but wise and spiritual people with a deep connection to nature and to all living things. They live in a harmonious coexistence with their environment with lives full of rites of passage. The chief deity of the Na'vi is a goddess called Eywa- this is consistent with hunter/gathers on earth, because women are central to creation and revered in many primitive societies as the creative force. Neytiri's mother Mo'at is the shaman for their clan, much like the "wise woman" was found central to Native American societies.
The human colonists in Avatar represent "man the destroyer", too often found in the story of the western march of Europeans and those of European ancestry in the age of exploration, and during America's push for "Manifest Destiny" and beyond. To the "Sky People" nature is a hindrance that must be conquered and exploited rather than treated with respect. The Na'vi were also an obstacle to these colonists- they were the "Others", a term author James Bradley used to refer to the non-white people of America and the Far East by "the Aryans" in his recent history The Imperial Cruise. To The Sky People the Na'vi had to be either removed, or they needed to be eradicated.
Some have criticized Cameron for the portrayal of humans as not being very human. There are humans in the film who are sympathetic and descent- most of them in the film are the scientists. But the humans who work for "The Corporation" and their military mercenaries are shown to have only monetary profit as a motivation. These are the direct descendants of those who killed off the buffalo, destroyed the culture of the plains tribes, and waged war on America's Native Peoples in the 19th century. After the plains were made "civilized" America turned its eyes on Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, China, and the Far East....and later still, to the oil producing countries of the Middle East. Again, for more information on this aspect of American history, refer to The Imperial Cruise. The author, James Bradley, also wrote Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys, both histories of World War II.
Joseph Campbell said that myths are clues to human potentiality. If we use the premise that Avatar is a modern mythology that has been financially successful and has affected its viewers on a personal level, the questions are ....."Why and how?"
I'll break a rule and answer a question with a question.
This is exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth, from the beginning of their conversations (pages three and four"..........
Bill Moyers- Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do myths have to do with my life?
Joseph Campbell......One of our problems today is that well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that a university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to your inner life and the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition- Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe and others who speak of eternal values have to do with the centering of our lives. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you have to attend to the inner life- well, if you don't know where it is or what it is, you'll be sorry.
Attending to "the needs of the inner life". In a world where are attention has been diverted by a constant bombardment of information, a film is released that has a mythology that brings people back.....and makes some of the viewers a little more "centered".
Maybe that is behind the underlying reason for the success of Avatar.
...........I'll continue this discussion in PART THREE with some additional thoughts, and I'll try to sum it all up....
I'll be back soon.