Monday, December 21, 2009

An Assault on Avatar

Knowing my enthusiasm for the film Avatar, my friend Tim sent me an opinion piece from yesterday's New York Times, arguing that the religion of the fictitious Na'Vi people is pantheistic.


I would have thought that anyone watching the film would have picked up on this and perhaps been perceptive enough to read a vaguely political subtext criticizing the West's historic exploitation of native people, most of whom, like aborigines in Australia and the Ainu in Japan, believed, like the Na'Vi, in a god or gods who are immanent in the natural world.

The article lumps Avatar with other films like Dances with Wolves and Disney's Pocahontas in its supposed promotion of pantheism (and around Christmastime, no less!), failing to mention that these films were, to the extent that Hollywood ever is, historically accurate representations of the old beliefs of certain Native American tribes.

The article's author is Ross Douthat, whose book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class [another exploited population] and Save the American Dream hit bookstores earlier this year.  In the past year, Douthout has written a number of opinion pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the Times, including one in defense of the Teabaggers (if not of their independence from the Republican Party) and another in which he daydreamed aloud about a run for the White House by Dick Cheney.

I suspect that Douthat is pissed that Avatar has (unlike 85% [I estimate] of action-adventure movies Hollywood has manufactured over the past thirty years or so) a progressive point of view and offers a critique (however superficial) of capitalism, corporate control of the military, and exploitation of people for the energy resources they happen to live over.  Perhaps even more aggravating to conservative moviegoers is the film's positive treatment of diplomacy, cooperation, and environmental preservation.

Besides representing yet another worldly encroachment on the sanctity of Christmas (which, for the record, the Christians appropriated from pantheistic pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule, including both the December 25th date and the decoration of trees), the offense that Avatar poses for Douthat and perhaps others is that it considers the possibility that life and death are natural cycles, not circumventable by Christ's blood or prayers to saints.

"Religion exists, in part," he states, "precisely because humans aren't at home amid these cruel rhythms.  We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it.  We're beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality."

At least Douthat seems to perceive religion as a human construct and humans as kin to other animals, but he can't seem to fathom a "faith" that might simply accept the natural facts of life (and death) for what they are.

(Aside:  The supposed "need" that human beings have for belief in a god or an after-life is most eloquently answered in the lovely poem "With Mercy for the Greedy":  "Need is not quite belief."  [Anne Sexton, the poet, who suffered from a complex form of depression, likewise had difficulty feeling "at home" with the irrevocable fact of death, perhaps contributing to her suicide in 1974.])

Perhaps the part of Douthat's piece that riles me up the most is his equation of pantheism and atheism.  In pointing out, quite rightly, that both respect nature, its beauties, and its complex processes, he makes the mistake of confusing the two.  In doing so, he pulls quotations from books by atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and uses them out of context to suggest that atheism and pantheism are thus generally equivalent.

Sure, modern atheism grew out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's celebration of nature and reason, derived in large part from the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose pantheon of gods represented a variety of natural forces observably at work in the material universe.

The deists in "enlightened" Europe and America (Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, possibly Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) attempted to see in nature the workings of an eminent (not immanent) god, which nevertheless was not likely a person and, if so, not particularly interested in the prayers and struggles of individual human beings.

When a character "prays" to the female deity the Na'Vi of the planet Pandora worship, he is told, that she looks over creation in general, not the individual interests of the creatures.  This principle is conducive to deism and some forms of pantheism.  The principle that natural laws (such as life and death) operate regardless of human wishes or needs is similarly one that most atheists would agree to.  Such a confluence hardly makes the three viewpoints the same, though.

It looks to me like Douthat is carving a niche for himself as a conservative cultural warrior, a somewhat more articulate Glenn Beck, to fool pseudo-intellectuals (i.e. Libertarians), and his attack on Avatar is perhaps a sortie on behalf of American Christians who, despite constituting a majority and having their say in virtually every aspect of American daily life, including which holidays are "officially" sanctioned by the state, persist in perceiving themselves as a persecuted minority.

Avatar is entertainment, a fantasy adventure in which fictitious characters engage in fictitious conflicts that remotely resemble real history (sort of like Murphy Brown and Harry Potter).  That Avatar dares to have faith that "humanity" (if not humans) has a future, despite the best efforts of the military-industrial-state complex, is cause for rejoicing ... a belief, in keeping with the old pagan myths of Saturnalia and Yule, that in the usual course of nature the darkest hour comes before dawn.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...