James O'Brien

"The dark side" is a notion that has been part of philosophy and theology for centuries. It bum-rushed the pop lexicon in 1977 with the debut of the original Star Wars, and has come to mean anything that smacks of sellout or self-ignorance. "Crossed over to the dark side" has become synonymous with a soul that ignores the heart and listens only to the head, or the directives of others.

The dark side is tempting these days. The avalanche of crises, opinions, and moral edicts we encounter every day is daunting, so we become malleable and tend to describe ourselves in terms of what groups we belong to rather than who we are. Given the various political, religious, and social dark sides vying for our membership--and, hey, the final Star Wars is set to hit screens in a couple of weeks--it's worth revisiting what inspired George Lucas in the first place: The work of writer, psychologist, and spiritualist Joseph Campbell, whose philosophy has largely been reduced to "follow your bliss," but whose many writings have inspired artists and theologians for over 50 years.

Campbell was one of the world's foremost authorities on mythology and storytelling, and his work (most influentially 1949's The Hero with a Thousand Faces) is a meditation on the undiluted human spirit, the same essence that has given birth to all great rock 'n' roll, be it the Animals' "It's My Life," Stevie Wonder's "What the Fuss?," the Jam's "Away from the Numbers," Patti Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," or Giant Sand's "Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle."

Campbell died in 1987 at the age of 83. In the last two summers of his life, he taped a series of interviews with Bill Moyers, whose excellent essay "Welcome to Doomsday" in the March 24 edition of the New York Review of Books nicely unpacks the modern apocalypse we're enduring at the moment. The Campbell-Moyers interview has become an oft-telecast PBS series, and one exchange in particular speaks to the impact this country's current manufactured culture wars are having on the human animal.

"You see, this thing up here," says Campbell, drumming his finger on his temple, "this consciousness thinks it's running the shop, [but] it's a secondary organ of a total human being. And it must not put itself in control--it must submit and serve the humanity of the body."

At this point, the interview gives way to footage from the climactic scene of the first Star Wars. Darth Vader is lording over Luke Skywalker, who finds himself suspended over a life-or-death abyss. "Join me, Luke, and I will complete your training," seethes Vader. Campbell's voice-over: "When (the mind) does put itself in control, you get this father, the man who has gone over to the intellectual side." Luke: "I'll never join you!" Vader: "If you only knew the power of the dark side."

Campbell: "In terms of humanity, and living in terms of a system, this is the threat to our lives. We all face it; we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?"

Moyers: "But I can hear someone out in the audience saying, 'Well, that's all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that isn't what happens in my life.'"

Campbell: "You bet it does. If the person doesn't listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you're going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life, and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. I mean, the world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves."

That conversation took place 20 years ago. At the moment, this country is undergoing what can only be described as a schizophrenic crack-up. It doesn't take a sociologist or political scientist to recognize that its citizens have stopped listening to, and feeling for, themselves. Group-think and skimming is the way to go: We are no longer carbon-based bipeds on individual journeys of self-discovery, we are liberals, conservatives, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, patriots, anti-patriots, church-goers, atheists, red staters, blue staters. "May the Force be with you," once a geek-call for gleaning strength from the inside, is now an old, bad joke.

In 1977, the first Star Wars came with a happy ending. The strong and brave Luke successfully protected his chi, and vanquished his father's advances. All was right with the world, but that world doesn't exist anymore--a point that is played out nightly on the evening news, rarely so poignantly as a few weeks ago.

The night after Congress stayed up to the wee hours meddling in the case of Terri Schiavo (the Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma," anyone?), her husband was being interviewed by Larry King. "Will there be a happy ending to this?" King asked the man, who stared dead-eyed into the camera and, before he could think or mention God, said, "No." Similar answers were given by Jesse Jackson when asked about Michael Jackson's fate, and by a tribal leader in Red Lake: No. No happy endings here.

Nor, apparently, will there be one in the final Star Wars. For his last gasp, Lucas's hero stops listening to himself and succumbs to the dark side, and we see what can happen: The epic ends in a fiery pit, which Lucas characterized as "hell" in a recent interview. Fundamentalists will no doubt interpret the conclusion as more Rapture validation, but Lucas's allegory is based on the here and now--as a culture, technology has replaced flesh and feeling, and religion and government have replaced the individual's heart life: We are not going to hell in a handbasket, we are there.

Still, Campbell insisted on the idea of the human spirit's resiliency--which has been the coda to every story on Red Lake, Michael Jackson, the Atlanta murders, Terri Schiavo, or what-have-you, despite evidence to the contrary. Why?

"The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation," wrote Campbell 44 years ago. "For the world as we know it yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart and the passing of the forms that we have loved. The happy ending of a fairy tale--a myth in the divine comedy of the soul--is to be read not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man."

That is what we want, whether we admit it or not. Transcendence. Something to keep us going. Some song, relationship, drug, or piece of art that both takes us away from, and makes sense of, it all for us. Something puny, or powerful. Something like "the force" (Star Wars) or "la force" (I Huckabees). Something that gives us the freedom to listen to ourselves, make our own rapture, and write our own happy endings.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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