Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself

Contents

Episode III: I Have a Bad Feeling About This

At this time, I was trying to get an online magazine off the ground. The group working on it was always on the lookout for material worth spending time on for publication. I submitted a draft of the Star Wars essay to them, and it met with some enthusiasm. We’d all agreed that every piece would be assigned an editor to work with the author to really polish the material for online publication. On this particular piece, I came to work with Jamie Myxter, the only one in the group who actually did this kind of work for a living. I thought there’d be a bit of back and forth and we’d be all set.

I was wrong.

The piece went through many incarnations, changes in structure, changes in tone, changes in focus. After several tries, we’d agreed I’d made a lot of progress, and we were close to licking this project. Then a few comments from someone else in the group made all the work seem to go up in smoke. Starting from scratch again, I proceeded through a few more versions. I’d originally intended to write and publish the piece quickly, while the film was still out in theaters. Instead, here it was, January 2003, the video release of the film already a memory in the public’s mind, and I was up to version number 14 with no end in sight.

Now, I’d never been one for seriously rewriting anything I’d ever done, no matter how many times I’d heard about how often so many professional writers rewrite their material. With each rewrite of this piece, I honestly felt everything was fine — some versions I felt compromised certain stylistic aspects I’d hoped to incorporate, but I always felt, each time, that I’d gotten across my ideas. Yet each time, at least in Jamie’s informed eyes, I was missing the forest for the trees, too lost in arcana to produce something that would make sense to the average reader. The rewriting process had been so grueling that I questioned whether I was a good writer in the first place.

Jamie told me that sometimes a piece just doesn’t work, and that also sometimes one can be too attached to a piece to make it work. Better to put it away for some time. I’d either discover that it wasn’t worth coming back to, or I’d gain some perspective and be able to return to it one day with a fresh approach and hopefully make it work. I’d not wanted to give up on it, but I finally had to. It was simply too frustrating. Further, the editor’s advice obviously contained shades of Csikszentmihalyi’s notions about incubation, whose validity I knew from experience. I knew that setting it aside was what I had to do.

What on Earth was I trying to say that seemed so important back then? Because those ideas would eventually take on a whole new level of relevance for me, I’m going to try to make some sense of it here. If now or at anytime while reading the rest of this section I start to lose you, just skip it. I’d love for people to read this, and I think it’s important in the context of this memoir, but I’d rather people read what comes afterward than give up having gotten bogged down in a heady film criticism that just doesn’t matter to them.

The piece I wanted to write was, from the start, called Forcing the Balance. It was all about how George Lucas had made the new trilogy much more philosophically sophisticated and meaningful than the original trilogy, but how, in the end, the very way he’d made the original trilogy made it impossible for him to make good on his new ideas.

The new trilogy was a set of prequels, taking place years before the original trilogy. As such, it put the original trilogy into a whole new context. Where the original trilogy in itself seemed a simple tale about the good guys in the Rebellion beating the bad guys in the Empire, that story is now seen as just the second half of a single larger story. And where Darth Vader was just a fairly simple even if highly memorable baddie in the first trilogy, we now see that the story as a whole is about this character’s entire, very complex life story. Anakin Skywalker starts off as a sweet child, becomes a Jedi, wrestles with his obligations, his politics and his emotions, betrays all that he loves for the sake of misguided ideals, becomes imprisoned in the life support suit we all recognize as Vader’s, and then eventually he redeems himself by rescuing his son and killing the evil Emperor, paving the way for democracy to be restored to the galaxy.

This is all well and good as a story, and it takes no interpretation to figure out. What I thought was interesting and important was the larger context in which Anakin’s story takes place. A bit of Star Wars geekiness, to be sure, but leading to something I felt important enough to bother with.

There is no story unless Anakin becomes a Jedi. But normally, as we learn in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council would never permit a child of Anakin’s age to train as a Jedi, since he is, by the time they discover him, too old. He has already formed emotional attachments, which we see very clearly in how he relates to others, especially his mother. A Jedi, however, must be free from attachment. Attachment leads to fear of the loss of attachment. And as Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Why, then, is such a significant, dangerous exception made for Anakin? Because there is an ancient Jedi prophecy which says that one day someone will bring balance to the Force. When the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn meets Anakin, he quickly learns how strong Anakin is with the Force. A blood test reveals evidence that he is potentially stronger even than the greatest Jedi masters then known. This convinces Qui-Gon that Anakin must be the chosen one who will fulfill the prophecy, and so he demands that Anakin’s training must be allowed.

This notion of balance, though, undermines the entire story. To understand how, we need to first learn what the people in the story understand to be the meaning of the prophecy.

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin joins the Sith, the Jedi’s arch enemy, and helps slaughter the Jedi in order to bring absolute power to the Sith’s galactic Empire. In their climactic duel, Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s mentor, declares to Anakin, “You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!” To the Jedi, then, the prophecy means that the Sith are the cause of imbalance and that balance will be restored only when the Sith have been eliminated. Though no mention of the prophecy or of balancing the Force is made in the original trilogy, we can accept the original trilogy as depicting the fulfillment of the prophecy in this way when Vader relinquishes his Sith identity and destroys the Emperor, the only other member of the Sith. George Lucas has even said as much in interviews, that this is how the prophecy is fulfilled. This is therefore what Lucas considers to be a satisfying ending to the saga.

Amazingly, though, none of this makes sense. First, we hear throughout the saga about the two sides of the Force, and how a Jedi must resist the temptation of going to the Dark Side. The Sith, it is made abundantly clear, revel in the Dark Side, using it to gain their particular powers. If there are two sides to the Force, then, what else can be meant by the balancing of the Force but the balancing of the two sides of the Force? How can we believe that the balancing of the Force comes about by eliminating the exemplar of one of the Force’s two sides? Indeed, this seems to be the very opposite of balancing the Force. Even Obi-Wan’s own quote above suggests this by saying that tilting the Force to one extreme fails to bring balance. Surely, the same must hold true on the other side of the scale.

Further, even on their own terms of what is meant by imbalance, the prophecy doesn’t hold water. In the early events of The Phantom Menace, the Jedi express disbelief that the Sith could be operating without their knowledge. They believe that the Sith have been extinct for a thousand years and are certain that, if the Sith had returned, they would have detected it. They soon find out that they were wrong. More that just being wrong, though, their ignorance of the reappearance of the Sith makes nonsense of their prophecy. The prophecy itself tells us that the Force is out of balance. Yet how can the Jedi believe that the Force needs to be balanced while simultaneously believing that the cause of imbalance, the Sith, have not existed for the last thousand years?

I submit, then, that the Force cannot be balanced at the end of the saga. Yet it is clear that many very terrible things happened over the course of the saga — and, we are to glean, for quite a long time prior to the events of the saga, given that the Jedi and Sith obviously have quite a long history. The upshot of balance wouldn’t be altogether different from what Lucas seems to have intended — the appearance of lasting harmony, an end to the chronic occurrence of terrible things — it just doesn’t seem that this could really be brought about by the events of Return of the Jedi. What, then, could balance be, if it isn’t the elimination of the Sith and if it also can’t be the permanent ascendancy of the Jedi, or at least of the Jedi’s values?

In Lucas’ eyes, and he has said as much in many interviews, the Star Wars saga is fundamentally about the fragility of democracy. Living through Vietnam and seeing how its pattern repeats throughout history, most notably in the rise of Nazi Germany, he became interested in telling a story that depicts the slippery slope that can lead democracy-lovers with good intentions down the path to empire and fascism. Certainly, this plays out between the Jedi and the Sith. The Jedi are very vocal in the new trilogy about being the guardians of democracy, and the Sith’s rise to power is one and the same with the morphing of the democratic Federation into the totalitarian Empire.

Significantly, Lucas never really resolves this issue. Like many others throughout history, he cautions us about how democracy can contain the seeds of fascism, but he doesn’t give us a way out, because he doesn’t have one. Indeed, if the Sith could go on in silence for those thousand years, what’s to say that the Dark Side couldn’t rise again after the events of Return of the Jedi? And if the political machinations of Palpatine that led to his declaring himself Emperor didn’t directly require his Sith powers with the Dark Side of the Force, what’s to stop fascism from appearing again in a rebuilt democratic Senate? Of course, the answer is that nothing could stop these things from happening. This underscores the lack of lasting balance at the end of the saga. Whence, then, balance?

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Daniel Quinn or other related thinkers probably knows the answer already, and it is this connection that made me compelled to write the essay in the first place. The Quinnian view of things, simply put, is that civilization, by its very design, creates terrible things for people along with all the good that it also creates. The tribal way of life that humans led for millions of years, however, is the way of life to which we as a species are well adapted. It lasted for so long because it did well by us. Necessarily, it means life on a smaller scale than that of the practices and institutions so common to civilization, but along with that smaller scale comes a beneficial and meaningful way of life.

This is the path out of the chronic conflict between Jedi and Sith, between so-called democracy and fascism. We imagine that if we try hard enough, we might one day help our side of so many political and social conflicts win out over the other. What we don’t see, though, is the fact that these conflicts are inherent in the very structure of our social, economic and political systems. The path out is to move to another system entirely, one that worked for eons because it was, by design, in balance with the world. Indeed, only that which is balanced with the world can last.

The Star Wars films seem to acknowledge this on some level. In Return of the Jedi, the saga’s final chapter, the Ewoks were a tribal culture, unlike most or all the other creatures we meet in the series. Despite this modesty, they play a crucial role in helping the massive Rebellion achieve what it had not yet been able to achieve on its own, victory over the Empire. In Clone Wars, an animated television series depicting the events that take place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin only completes his own Jedi training when he undergoes a spiritual test assisting a tribal culture.

Most significantly, relationships are affirmed in the saga’s last chapter — Anakin and Luke as father and son, Luke and Leia as siblings, Leia and Han Solo as lovers. In a tribal setting, unlike many other social structures, the very purpose of the structure is to foster mutually beneficial relationships. It was always clear enough what we are supposed to dislike about the Sith, but we can now acknowledge something abhorrent about the Jedi — their ideal of non-attachment. Balancing the Force means embracing our humanity and our emotions and rejecting our pretensions to power, whether it be power over others as the Sith would have or power over our inherent humanity as the Jedi idealize.

In Quinn, one also finds in-depth discussions linking the very concepts of good and evil with our civilized way of life. In contrast, the tribal lifestyle isn’t concerned with good and evil in any absolute sense. There simply is no set of values which all people will agree on, no set of values which, when enacted in life, will produce positive results for all people in all circumstances. The best we can hope is to do what works for us and those with whom we share our lives. These concepts relate strongly to the tension between the two sides of the Force and the need to transcend the good/evil dichotomy altogether in order to achieve balance.

These kinds of ideas, however, don’t sell popcorn. They are complex, sophisticated, nuanced, even radical. George Lucas was smart to start producing his saga with the fourth chapter, where he could tell a rousing story and do so simply with a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys. When it came time to do the new trilogy, though, he had no choice but to honor the larger story he himself had created, the story of Anakin Skywalker and the complexities that led to his downfall. While the public, rightly so, criticized the new trilogy for lacking much of the quality storytelling of the original trilogy, I submit that at least some portion of the general disappointment with the new trilogy is due to audiences’ inability to appreciate the very story Lucas was now telling, regardless of how well or poorly it was told. Not only is the entire new trilogy fundamentally depressing, but it is full of philosophical ideas that are, quite simply, hard for our culture to swallow.

Of course, Lucas himself subverted those ideas, as I’ve described here. Perhaps things would have been different if the saga were allowed to go on past six chapters, as Lucas has said he originally intended. But for now, it appears to me that Anakin never balanced the Force. With the story now framed so strongly in the context of a prophecy that someone would bring balance, the significance of Anakin’s entire life story is diminished. In the end, it appears that Lucas was forcing the idea of balance into a story that, by his own design, could not hold it.

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