Flavin's Corner

Forcing the 'Force'

     This Wednesday the 19th, five days after George Lucas's 55th birthday,
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace will make its official debut.  It's
been a long wait since 1983's Return of The Jedi and many millions will soon
line up to experience the 'Force' once more.  I'm sure it'll be a great movie, but
I'm more than a little tired of folks treating this series of silly sci-fi films as if
the secrets of the Universe (or, in this case, "a galaxy far, far away....") may be
found therein.  They're just movies!

     In 1977's Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope)
Lucas introduced us to the 'Force', a mystical (read: imaginary) "energy field"
which may be manipulated by those who know how, i.e., the Jedi.  Lucas later
admitted his inspiration for Star Wars was Universal's 1936 Flash Gordon
serial and its two later sequels, and that his goal was to produce a "space
opera."  And how did we get from "space opera" to near-religionism?  Lucas
also mentioned he was inspired by the works of Joseph Campbell, the
failed-writer turned literature professor, who is best known for his books on
comparative mythology.  All of a sudden, Star Wars was an intellectual thing...
Yeah, right!

     That Campbell wrote many books about mythology is a given; that he
understood the various myths that he wrote about is another matter.  His
award-winning 1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been in print for
fifty years and will probably remain so for another fifty or maybe even five
hundred years.  The heady, four volume set The Masks of God (1959-1968),
became an instant reference-source for a generation of non-academics and
general readers.  Campbell's overly ambitious, and ultimately unfinished, The
Historical Atlas of World Mythology series only made it to the second volume,
which was released posthumously the year after his 1987 passing.

     Though Campbell had achieved tremendous popularity in print, it was the
1988 PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers, "Joseph Campbell and The Power of
Myth," which aired shortly after his passing, that brought Campbell the
celebrity status few attain (and even fewer deserve).  Campbell's advice to
"follow your bliss" deeply touched the television audience and has been one of
PBS's most popular series to-date.

     No other author of the later half of the twentieth century is associated with
mythology the way Joe Campbell is and there are probably hundreds of
thousands of readers who owe most of their knowledge about myth to his
works.  Unfortunately, many academics believe that's not necessarily a good

     Reviewing a biography of Campbell, The Fire In The Mind by Steven and
Robin Larson, U. of Chicago Divinity School professor and author of books on
mythology as well, Wendy Doniger (sometimes O'Flaherty), compared the
book to an "authorized biography of a member of the royal family or a
hollywood star." [Note: see "A Very Strange Enchanted Boy," by Wendy
Doniger, The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 2, 1992, pp. 7-8.]  If you
think that's negative ...you should read what she has to say about Joe and his
work.  Ouch!

     Doniger says of Campbell that "He wasn't a scholar."  She later adds "...he
was a hippie hero..."  Questioning Campbell's accomplishments, she asks:
"When thousands of people are walking around happy in their understanding of
Hinduism or the Navajos because of Joseph Campbell, who am I to point out
that they don't understand Hinduism or the Navajos, because Campbell didn't
understand them?"  Apparently Doniger believes Campbell, the literature
professor, should not have spent half of his life writing books outside of his

     Around 1989 I had occasion to meet Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty at a
booksigning a few blocks away from her U. of Chicago Divinity School office.
She had a flirtatious, middle-aged smile, and pointed at me and said: "I know
you!  You're on one of those day-time soaps, aren't you?"  Ouch!  I denied the
accusation and spoke of my being familiar with her first published work when
(while a Sanskrit and Indian Studies Ph.D. candidate at Harvard) she helped R.
Gordon Wasson translate some Vedic material for his 1968 Soma: Divine
Mushroom of Immortality.  Wendy lowered her eyes and said, "Right, ...I
know what you are..."  Way ouch!  Not "who," mind you, but "what" I am...
I've regarded her as an ...unkind woman since that meeting and her review of
Campbell's biography certainly did nothing to change my original assessment.
Joe was naturally a nice guy; Wendy is ...not that nice of a person.

     Campbell was always a voracious reader and collected the research of
others, rather than being involved in any actual studies or personally doing any
fieldwork.  In his later years he became attracted to radical ideas involving
hyper-diffusion, ancient mariners, and with an association with Prof. Marija
Gimbutas (the "Goddess" archaeologist), he transferred his early suspicions of
a mythogenic center in Sumer to Gimbutas, her work with Ice Age and
Neolithic Old Europe, and her theories of an early matriarchal society.  Such
associations involved Joe becoming open to new ideas (and surely increased his
popularity), but seems to have attracted much criticism from academics.

     An interesting, though ridiculously biased, criticism of Campbell is in print
and online from a Dr. Tom Synder.  Synder (allegedly) achieved salvation and
became a Christian after receiving his Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
The title of his dissertation?  Would you believe "Sacred Encounters: The
Myth of the Hero in the Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy Films of George
Lucas and Steven Spielberg"?  And Northwestern, in my hometown of
Chicago, is handing out doctorates in 'film-studies' about ...Star Wars?  Gee,
maybe there is an intellectual side to this silly sci-fi series after all.  There may
well be, but not with dogmatic Christians like Synder. [Click  here  to check out
Synder's web-page on Campbell.]

     Time devoted its April 26, 1999 cover to Star Wars Episode One: The
Phantom Menace and the issue featured a long article about the making and
background of the new film, as well as an interview by Bill Moyers with
George Lucas.  Yup, ...that Moyers guy again.  Moyers mentions Wendy
Doniger, drops the name of Kierkegaard, and generally tries to lend some
credence to the popular view that Lucas is doing something different than
"space opera" films.  Lucas says in the interview that he wants young people to
think for a second (though it's unclear whether this thought should take place
before, during, or after the kids have spent their nine bucks) ...about God ...and
the Force ...and the mystery.  Once more...  They're just movies!

     Personally, I'm just going to sit back, eat my popcorn and Raisinettes, and
enjoy the film this Wednesday.  I'll save any deep thoughts for the fourth
Indiana Jones film (purportedly about Atlantis).

[Note: For some critical comments about Gimbutas, click  here.  And for more
on Joe Campbell, his life, and works, click  here.]

trying to remember where I put my bliss,

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