Friday, June 17, 2005

Off to hell, a Manichee?

Caryn James writes about quasi-spiritual concerns in the current crop of fantasy films, such as Batman Begins and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. She repeatedly refers to them as "Manichaean." . . .

She writes:
And as crowd-pleasing movies so often do, they reflect what's in the air, a climate in which the president speaks in terms of good and evil, and religion is increasingly part of the country's social and political conversation.
. . .When Night Watch was released in Russia last year, it quickly became the highest-grossing film in that country's history. It's hard to predict how an action-fantasy with subtitles will do here, but its eternal battle between good and evil is simple to translate, and its language is familiar from statements like this: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name." Those words weren't spoken on the planet Tatooine, but by President Bush at West Point in 2002 (considering the lag time of movies, practically yesterday). By now, whether the real-life rhetoric of good and evil reminds us of the movies, or the other way around, is probably impossible to guess.
Ms. James is dutifully doing Frank Rich's work of making political commentary under the guise of an Arts review. Unfortunately, when discussing Manichaeism, she's out of her depth. . . . Read more . . . She apparently believes that any reference to clearly delineated good and evil is "Manichaean." She would do well to acquaint herself with the actual doctrines of Manichaeism, namely, that good and evil were effectively equal but opposing principles, and that the physicality per se is morally debased. Mere depictions of great good and great evil in the world are not Manichaean (or at least not uniquely Manichaean -- they are also Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Confucian, etc.)

Ms. James, despite her misunderstanding, is essentially correct about the entire Star Wars series having Manichaean (and gnostic elements). These include a belief in a special elite knowledge and training given to Jedi that allow them special spiritual and material benefits, a general equivalence between the Good Jedi and the Evil Sith, a disdain for corporeal existence and a lack of physicality presented as an evidence of sanctity (the absence of blood in these movies, Obi-Wan and Yoda's bodies vanishing at the point of death, etc.). These elements are in the very first Star Wars installment, which predates the current administation by about twenty-five years.

Bush, on the other hand, clearly does not believe that evil is as strong as good generally. Such a belief would contradict both his stated Christian beliefs and his approach to evil in the world. Indeed, the prevalent criticism of Bush at the Times is that he is overly sanguine about the likelihood of success for his military ventures. A Manichaean would view the evil opposition as being as strong as the good protagonists.

If Ms. James is looking for a modern Manichee, maybe a better example would be George Felos. She could start with a review of his book Litigation as Spiritual Practice, in which describes joyously freeing a woman of her pesky body. Presumably she is one with the Force now.
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