Tuesday, March 17, 2009

False versus True Quests

The March 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes a piece by Jon Mooallem titled “Raiders of the Lost R2” (available here). Mooallem’s article chronicles a small expedition of Star Wars fans to the Imperial Sand Dunes desert preserve, located near the junction of the borders of California, Arizona, and Mexico. The fans’ objective was to locate artifacts of the opening of the 1982 film, Return of the Jedi. You’ll remember the scene: Jabba the Hutt on his flying barge, intent on feeding Han Solo and Chewbacca to the ‘almight Sarlacc,’ a giant worm-like creature embedded in the sand. The sets were simply abandoned after filming was completed, and for years fans have picked over the area for pieces of the barge, the Sarlacc, and so forth. The expeditioners in Mooallem’s article—a 32-year-old male with a masters degree in paleontology, a 34-year-old female forensic psychology student, and a 42-year-old male worker at an arts-and-crafts store—worked in over-100-degree heat, for which they were rewarded with the discovery of several pieces of Jabba’s barge.

As it happens, the Imperial Sand Dunes site is only one of many stops on an international Star Wars itinerary that includes locations in Tunisia, Italy, Finland, Guatemala, and elsewhere, where scenes from the six Star Wars features were filmed. Fans of the films have been touring these sites at least since David West Reynolds (then a 27-year-old archaeology doctoral student) published his seminal 1995 article, “Return to Tatooine,” in Star Wars Insider magazine, documenting his travel to Tunisia to find sites filmed in the first Star Wars film.

Moallem’s article evoked three reactions from me. First, these expeditioners were using the vehicle of their Star Wars expedition to act out mythic themes in their real lives. Second, going further, these fans were using the films themselves as an expression of their search for self-transcendence. But, third, this whole enterprise ultimately strikes me as something very sad.

Moallem himself points out how fans were using their Star Wars expeditions to act out mythic, Jungian heroic quests. As he put it:

I eventually heard the stories of numerous Star Wars travelers, and I noticed a common theme. Their tales often dipped from the ecstasy of departure to moments of adversity or despondency, only to be redeemed by some instant when the searchers were aided by forces beyond their understanding—an uncanny feeling that a certain obscure site was just around a corner, or the fateful appearance of a kindly old Berber man who happened to have worked on the original production in the late Seventies. It was as though Star Wars had propelled these people onto real-life heroes’ journeys, with their own trials, and that the feat of reaching those sites ended up overshadowing whatever vague rewards they actually found. … One traveler, a thirty-three-year-old southern Californian …, later told me, “As a kid, you can only go so far playing with action figures. As an adult, you don’t play with action figures anymore. You become the action figure.” (p. 69, emphases in original)
It would be hard to find a better description in contemporary journalism of the hero’s quest, complete with the archetype of the Wise Old Man. (See Note 1, below.) Another way of looking at this is to note that these fans are using these expeditions as a vehicle for self-transcendence: they are devoting their energies to something greater than themselves. As the noted psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote towards the end of his life, the search for self-transcendence is a motivation that is developmentally more advanced even than the search for self-actualization (the bringing of one’s inner potentials to fruition). (My own article on Maslow and self-transcendence is available here.)

I am all for the hero’s journey, and the quest for self-transcendence—and yet, it strikes me as something cosmically sad for people to work out their personal quests in ways like expeditions to uncover Star Wars memorabilia, or other such acts of super-dedicated fandom.

I was deeply moved by Star Wars when I first saw it as a college student, during the film’s initial theatrical release in 1977. Not long afterwards, I noted a phenomenon that is now taken for granted, a kind of engagement with this film that took fandom to a new level. Some people went on to see this film in theatres, not once, not twice, but dozens of times. For some, the Star Wars mythology seemed to become almost (?) something like a religion, with ‘the Force’ as a metaphor for Divinity, and the Jedi as a sort of priesthood. Not for nothing were the personal guards of the evil Emperor dressed in blood/‘satanic’ red in Return of the Jedi. Years later, with the release of The Phantom Menace, the Darth Maul character, complete with devil’s horns, seemed to make the mythology that much more clearly religious.

I have come to understand that what we see in the more devoted forms of Star Wars fandom is a kind of incompletely developed religion. It is not defined as such by its adherents (many of whom would doubtless describe themselves as belonging to other, more accepted religions), but the more devoted forms of the Star Wars fan movement does have many of the trappings of a conventional religion, with its own mythology, doctrine, and scriptures (defined in the films and the large literature surrounding them), its own gatherings (ComicCon and so forth), and even its own pilgrimages (as documented by Jon Mooallem). Through devotion to the films and their mythology, these more devoted of the Star Wars fans seem to be reaching for something beyond themselves, trying to take ‘the Force’ off the screen and put it into their lives. This, too, is the search for self-transcendence, expressed through devotion to the mythology of the films, rather than through a search for the physical artifacts of the creation of the film itself.

This is all very benign, of course. It is also a great waste of human spiritual potential.

The classic hero’s quest is always for something important, something that has real consequences for the inner life of the hero, the outer life of the hero’s community, or both. In the oldest hero’s quest of which we have record, the Epic of Gilgamesh, almost 3,000 years old, what is at stake is immortality itself. In the Grail Quest cycle, the objective is spiritual enlightenment and a vision of Divinity.

Even in modern cinematic expressions of the hero’s quest, there are important things at stake. Within the fictional reality of the Star Wars films, the fate of worlds is at stake, with struggles for civic freedom and personal redemption. In the Indiana Jones movies, the stakes range from the survival of a village and its people (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) to knowledge of the mysteries surrounding what is purportedly the greatest archaeological find of all time (Raiders of the Lost Ark). In the book series and films of The Lord of the Rings, the quest of Frodo is for inner strength (as the Ring he is carrying to destruction attempts to corrupt him) and for the survival of the peoples of Middle-Earth in freedom. In short, quests are about important things, where the outcome of the quest may mean the difference between life and death, achievement or catastrophe, enlightenment or destruction, on a scale ranging from the individual life to all of creation.

Much of what passes for the hero’s quest and self-transcendence in our society is ultimately empty. We have seen how the language of quest and self-transcendence have been applied to the Star Wars expeditioners. The same sort of language is applied in the media to entertainment competitions (like television's “American Idol”) and sports. (How many times have we heard sports commentators use some phrase like “the quest for victory,” as if the fate of humanity hung in the balance?) In each of these cases—the movie artifact expeditions, entertainment competitions, spectator sports—the ‘quests’ involved are, in the final analysis, unimportant and meaningless.

Certainly nothing important hinges on a search for movie memorabilia, no matter how significant the motion picture. In our entertainment-obsessed culture, our latest ‘American idol’ is just that—a false idol, with no real power to help anyone to enlightenment or inner growth. We devote hours of time and billions of dollars to viewing sports events, the outcomes of which make not one whit of difference to the well-being of the world at large. (Sure, it's entertainment. But, ultimately, how important should entertainment be in one's life?)

People should seek to make some positive difference in the world. The world is absolutely full of problems needing to be addressed, from illiteracy to the neighbor who is without food to global warming. There are also spiritual mysteries to be pondered and spiritual struggles to be engaged in, found in many spiritual and philosophical traditions. I was delighted to see that, in the very depths of the current national economic crisis, large numbers of people are swelling the ranks of volunteers in many not-for-profit agencies, as reported in an article in yesterday’s New York Times by Julie Bosman (available here and here). We grow through service in the world and struggle in the soul. That service and those struggles need to be about things that matter, in either the inner world, the outer world, or both.

So much of what our society is focused upon is ultimately meaningless. We should devote ourselves to things that have real and lasting meaning. Such a development would be a sea change in recent Western culture, which, over the last century, increasingly has come to celebrate the self-centered and egotistical. If we could combine meaningful quests with a respect for differences—cultural, religious, political, and personal differences—we could make significant progress, individually, socially, and globally. That would be a quest worth pursuing.

Note #1: Readers may be interested in reading more about the archetypal hero’s quest. The most popular work on this topic is probably the late Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The journey of the hero is described for writers of novels and screenplays in a book by Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions; 2nd ed., 1998). For those interested in reading the psychological theory of the archetypes, I would recommend a book that Carl Jung edited for a general audience: Man and His Symbols. More technical works include Edward C. Whitmont’s The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology, and Volume 9-I of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung, titled, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.


  1. Mark,

    Bravo on your timely and astute commentary, which offers ripe avenues for further study. I agree that it is disheartening to observe (albeit anecdotally) so many Americans lulled into believing that the cookie-cutter vanities presented through the medium of television and cinema offer a pathway to transcendence/enlightenment. I believe that this phenomenon is due, in part, to the breakdown of the nuclear family, the prevalence of television as the sole avenue for entertainment and (sadly) spiritual and personal growth for most of society, and the decline of religious study as a cornerstone for moral and spiritual instruction.

    Writings such as yours are critically important because they serve as a "wake-up call" and gentle agent for positive societal change. I look forward to reading more of your blog in the future.

  2. Simonides, I regret that I've been out of town and unable to comment on your remarks in a timely way. Thank you for your kind words. The spiritual emptiness of American society and so many modern lives, and ways to address these issues, will be an important focus of this blog. --Mark

  3. Do you write professionally? I mean, for any particular magazines or papers? I love your style, and more than that, I generally completely agree with your points. Looking forward to reading more!

  4. Jessica,

    Funny you should ask.

    As it happens, I do not now write for any particular magazines or papers. However, in addition to using my blogs to reconnect with people after a really bad patch in my life (caring for sick parent, dealing with that parent's death, etc. etc.), it is also my hope to build a portfolio that would allow, say, book publishers to see how I come across on the page. We'll see how that all goes.

    Thank you for your encouraging words.


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