Brad Holden on The Rise of Skywalker
Early in The Rise of Skywalker Kylo Ren’s helmet is reforged. In the previous movie, The Last Jedi, Ren had removed his headpiece, a frightening, Vader-esque mask. In that film, director Rian Johnson has Ren smash the helmet to pieces in one of his many outbursts. The broken helmet might serve as a metaphor for J. J. Abram’s creative plight. He had to take the broken, disjointed narrative of Episode VIII and make of it what he could. Most fans hated the prior movie. The Last Jedi tarnished the legacy of Luke Skywalker, turning him from hero of the Republic into a withdrawn hermit; it decreed Rey, the newest protagonist, to be merely the child of “filthy junk traders who sold [her] off for drinking money”; and it killed off the trilogy’s villain, Lord Snoke, without ceremony. The film has many other flaws, and by the time Rian Johnson was done with the series it was as broken as Ren’s helmet. Johnson destroys among other things the sacred Jedi texts, but Abrams does his best in the saga’s conclusion to repair the damage. The destruction has left its mark, like the red fissures that line Ren’s mask, but Abrams returns to the series what we expect from it.
The problem with expectations is that they generate cliché. We eschew novelty when what we most want is the comfort of the known, and Star Wars is cinematic comfort food. Thus it is no surprise when Rey learns early in the final film that she is the daughter of Emperor Palpitine. The discovery is Abrams’s attempt to salvage the mystery that surrounded the heroine’s origin. Like Luke, Rey comes from a planetary desert, a barren world of sand. Han Solo refers to it as a “junkyard” in Episode VII. Abrams stresses Rey’s obscurity once again towards the beginning of Episode IX. At a celebration on a distant world, a young girl, an alien of some kind, asks for Rey’s name and follows up her request, somewhat absurdly, with a desire to learn her “family name,” as if every culture shared this convention. Rey isn’t able to answer her, and we realize from this ham-fisted exchange that her origin will receive further explanation. Rey is far too powerful, at least in the logic of the Star Wars universe, to come from nowhere. Fans have guessed at her parentage since Episode VII, and the diehards know the truth as soon as she shoots lightning from her fingertips. Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor, the most powerful Sith Lord in the galaxy. Her parents hid her away, much as Luke and Leia were hidden, to protect her from this connection. So in a trilogy that echoes and repeats the originals, we encounter another structural repetition.
Luke learns he is the son of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, and a generation or two later Rey discovers she is the granddaughter of an even more powerful villain. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up in familiarity, like an old pair of comfortable shoes. But the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are myths, and we should consider the deeper meaning of this particular pattern. Star Wars presents in a secularized, largely unconscious manner the grammar of Christian anthropology. Theologians call the doctrine Original Sin, but what they mean by that is very simple. We are somehow born guilty. For Christians, this idea is expressed mythically in the Fall. Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and rebelled from God. As a consequence, this divine trespass, Original Sin, corrupted our nature. We are, as Calvinists would say, totally depraved. Something is wrong with our very being. Whatever we are, it is not good, and a true recognition of our identity—self-knowledge—requires the awareness of our inherited guilt. Luke’s discovery (his anagnorisis, to use an old-fashioned literary term) powerfully expresses this idea. He has inherited an evil nature, a connection to the Dark Side. Myths depict this connection as parentage, as blood. The name “Vader” is just the Dutch word for “father.” And “Darth” seems to conflate “dark” and “death.”
Luke’s discovery then is our discovery. It’s what it means to be human. All of us have a “dark father,” not in some bizarre Freudian sense, but in the deepest part of our souls. We come from evil. We are not innocent, and we cannot know ourselves until we recognize this aspect of our nature. The film dramatically depicts this when Luke enters the Cave of Evil on Dagobah. There he confronts Darth Vader, who is revealed, beneath his mask, merely to be himself. The evil we strive against is always, ultimately, our own.
This mythic depiction has an American flavor to me. The saga’s heroes come from planetary backwaters, Tatooine or Jakku. Luke and Rey identify themselves with the light side of the Force, and are forced to confront, as the condition of self-knowledge, their own connection to evil. They are initially blind to this reality, perhaps as a consequence of the Fall, but at last they recognize the truth. As Vader says, “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” Obscurity and innocence, perhaps ignorance, are the defining conditions of the hero, and what better descriptors of Americans could one find? They also characterize Cal and Aron in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and by a comparison with this work we can measure Abrams’ achievement.
Steinbeck’s novel, that mainstay of high school curriculums, is especially relevant because it retells the story of Genesis. It thus offers a modern, secular iteration of this doctrinal concern. In the novel, Adam, a character seeking in California his own Garden of Eden, raises twins; and his sons, Cal and Aron, act out the Cain and Abel story. Adam initially tells his boys that their mother is dead, but they learn later that Adam’s wife, Kate, is alive and well. She runs a whorehouse in Salinas, and she is also, the reader knows, a murderous prostitute. She killed her parents and shot Adam in the shoulder when abandoning the boys. Cal and Aron are quite literally the children of a whore, and that is something worth considering. We insult someone even now by calling him a “son of a bitch.” The phrase seems to retain an odd linguistic vestige of this idea, the belief that one’s disagreeable behavior is the result of paternity. A son of a bitch—and we’ve all known some—acts the way he does, presumably, because of his mother. German expresses the same concept with the term Hurensohn, son of a whore, and this idea—not its misogynistic manifestations—lies at the heart of Steinbeck’s myth. Cal, the Cain figure, is the child of Adam, as are we all. In fact, in Hebrew ben Adam, son of Adam, is just another way to say “human.” But Cal is also the inheritor of great evil, something he recognizes about himself. In one scene he speaks to his father about his brother’s virtue, saying:
“He’s good. He doesn’t do bad things. He doesn’t think bad things.”
“Now you’re telling about yourself.”
“You’re saying you do and think bad things.”
Cal’s cheeks reddened. “Well, I do.”
“Very bad things?”
“Yes, sir. Do you want me to tell?”
He doesn’t tell here, but towards the very end of the novel Cal confesses some of these “bad things.” His romantic interest is a girl named Abra, and he tries to warn her away with an account of his actions.
Cal said, “I’ve killed my brother and my father is paralyzed because of me.”
She took his arm and clung to it with both hands.
Cal said, “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you.”
“Abra, my mother was a whore.”
“I know. You told me. My father is a thief.”
“I’ve got her blood, Abra. Don’t you understand?”
“I’ve got his,” she said.
They are both the children of corrupt parents; their blood is tainted, and they consequently recognize that they are not pure. Earlier in the novel, Abra comforts Cal: “I’m not good either.”
Cal’s brother Aron, coequal in this inheritance, nevertheless denies his nature or remains ignorant of it. Steinbeck presents this character as someone incapable of accepting his humanity and thus his true identity. Aron lives only for his ideals, or tries to, and he aspires to become an Episcopal priest. Despite his Protestantism, he even devotes himself to celibacy, much to the annoyance of his long-term girlfriend. Aron’s purity is too good to be true; he suppresses his humanity, his carnal nature, and imagines his unknown mother as a kind of saint. At one point the brothers quarrel like their mythic counterparts, and in anger Cal reveals to Aron the truth about their mother. The knowledge destroys him. In shocked revulsion Aron enlists in the army and dies in the first World War. Self-knowledge is a destructive force. In its most famous literary example, it leads Oedipus to blind himself (and something similar may be happening to Paul on the road to Damascus).
To discover the truth about yourself, to learn your real identity, is to confront what Jung called “the shadow.” It is to remove the illusion that you are somehow good, a straightforward hero in the battle against evil (think of every WWII movie you’ve seen). Self-knowledge forces us to recognize that this struggle is only and always within, and this is clearly Steinbeck’s message in East of Eden. Cal’s internal division is met with his father’s final blessing, the Hebrew word “Timshel.” This term comes from God’s initial rebuke to Cain in the Bible, and Steinbeck renders it “thou mayest,” as in “thou mayest master sin.” In the novel it crystalizes for the reader the idea of human freedom. For Adam—for Steinbeck—we have a choice. Yes, evil lies within us, but we can conquer it if we choose. We are the children of Kate or Vader or the Emperor, but although we are not innocent, we still have within us the power to be good.
We can see Steinbeck’s psychological acuity in Cal’s struggle. His battle lies within. He might articulate it in terms of his “blood,” but we understand the metaphor. We are not good; we are born guilty, and our inheritance, what seems to be our destiny, is to be like our parents. “Luke, it is your destiny,” Vader taunts. But this is our temptation. Only through a deep internal struggle, only by exercising free will, can we overcome what is so much a part of us that we must represent it mythically as parentage, or mystically as Original Sin. Steinbeck understands that the right response to self-knowledge is the moral battle we wage our whole lives. That’s why enlisting in the army is a mistake for Aron. The real enemy isn’t out there; it’s inside him.
Luke Skywalker turns this insight on its head, however. If what we are, each of us, is some compound of good and evil, then it follows of course that even Darth Vader must have something worth redeeming. So the struggle of Return of the Jedi is entirely outward. Luke’s mission, undertaken with the maniacal certainty of the righteous, is to redeem Anakin Skywalker, to prove to the galaxy that even Vader is still capable of goodness. In other words, anyone can be redeemed. And while that is no doubt a valuable message, it is psychologically discordant with the discovery Luke makes in the previous film, which is why, I think, many people dislike Return of the Jedi. It strikes the wrong note to the story so far. What Luke confronts is not just an external foe, a bad guy, but a threat to the core of his identity. If his father is evil, then why not he? (Hence the cave in Dagobah.) But this conflict is absent from Episode VI.
Abrams doesn’t make that mistake. He understands that the real drama, the human drama, is for Rey to come to terms with her identity. It’s not an external battle, but an internal war. Episode IX then not only fixes the bunglings of The Last Jedi; it repeats the dramatic structure of Return of the Jedi, but with the correct psychological emphasis. That in itself is an achievement. Abrams has managed in one movie to undo the greatest flaws of two. He has no line as memorable as “Timshel,” but he understands intuitively that our greatest foe is not the emperor reborn, but our self. The Rise of Skywalker is for this reason a successful conclusion to the saga. Even more, in an odd self-reflexive way, the film illustrates its theme by inheriting the plot of Episode VIII and still, somehow, managing to be good.
The latest installment to the franchise isn’t perfect. I have been disappointed by the trilogy’s imaginative failures (another Death Star?), but while it’s easy to be critical of certain characters or subplots, the CGI or Skywalker’s fate, this version of the story offers the deepest, most penetrating analysis of human identity. Myths are a culture’s dreams; so far from criticizing the film’s structural repetition, I think we should ask why we keep telling ourselves this story, a story ultimately about Original Sin, especially in a secular age. Canadian writer Robertson Davies has one of his characters say: “Oh, this Christianity! Even when people don’t believe it, the fifteen hundred years of Christianity that has made our world is in their bones, and they want to show they can be Christians without Christ. Those are the worst; they have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth.” Whatever our beliefs, today we certainly have “the cruelty of doctrine” in our bones. We may not call it Original Sin, but we know we are born guilty. We are the children and grandchildren of slaveholders and racists, the descendants of colonial settlers who plundered the land, the offspring of Nazis and Vichy informants, and if you don’t fit one of these categories, you are still—let me assure you—the child of Darth Vader or the son of a whore. We are born guilty both as individuals and as a culture. We may, in a secular age, have no consolation for this shock, and self-knowledge is always shocking. But the stories we tell, the myths we need, may offer us that “poetic grace.” They remind us, again and again, that we can still be good.
R. Bradley Holden is the Director of Communications for the Marginalia Review of Books. He completed his Ph.D. at Yale University and teaches English at the Ranney School in New Jersey.