Thursday, January 11, 2018

Materi-Chlorians-Part One

Since writing a very long entry the other day, I have been thinking about midi-chlorians in the Star Wars universe. According to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace (1999):
Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life-form that reside within all living cells. [. . .] And we are symbionts with them. [. . .] Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you.
It's clear that George Lucas based his concept of midi-chlorians on the very real organelles called mitochondria. One hypothesis as to the origins of mitochondria is that they were once separate organisms that became symbionts in the cells of eukaryotes. In fact, mitochondria have their own DNA, just as all organisms do (or most do, depending on your opinion of viruses). The existence of mitochondrial DNA allows geneticists to trace maternal lineage into the distant past.

Qui-Gon Jinn's explanation of the Force to the moppet version of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace differs from that provided by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (1977):
Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.
Note that Obi-Wan says that the Force is "created by all living things" (emphasis added), the implication being that it does not exist independently of them. Qui-Gon Jinn, on the other hand, describes a Force that would seemingly exist even if there were no life in the universe. Additionally, Obi-Wan's Force has nothing to do with "a microscopic life-form that reside within all living cells." His Force is within us, all of us. A second implication is that anyone who believes in the Force and trains properly can learn to use it. Contrast that with the more exclusive Force in The Phantom Menace and its sequels, a Force that can be used only by a select few who have sufficiently high midi-chlorian counts in their blood. That problem of exclusivity seems to have been corrected only with The Last Jedi, released last month.

Note also that Qui-Gon Jinn says that the Force has "will," while Obi-Wan Kenobi calls it "an energy field." I take that to mean that the Force in the original, unadulterated Star Wars is inanimate, thus incapable of possessing or exercising will. In The Phantom Menace and its sequels, on the other hand, the Force would seem a kind of material, though scattered, god or god-like force, with midi-chlorians seemingly functioning as intermediaries between it and human beings. Are midi-chlorians, then, roughly equivalent to the Holy Spirit? (Or to saints and angels?) Remember, Qui-Gon Jinn says, "When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you." Is that the voice of the god called the Force, whispering in a person's ear through its intermediaries? Do the Jedi (and the Sith for that matter) hear voices in the way that Joan of Arc and other Christian devotees throughout history have? And might the activated light saber of the Jedi (and the Sith) be something like the tongue of flame that symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or, alternatively, is the light saber a sword of flame wielded by agents of the Force as in this verse from Genesis:
After he [Yahweh] drove the man out, he placed on the east side [or in front] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (3:24)
Following this new thread of the tree of life leads to the online Encyclopedia Britannica and its entry on the term World tree (here):
Two main forms [of the world tree] are known and both employ the notion of the world tree as centre. In the one, the tree is the vertical centre binding together heaven and earth; in the other, the tree is the source of life at the horizontal centre of the earth. Adopting biblical terminology, the former may be called the tree of knowledge; the latter, the tree of life. [Emphasis added.]
And further:
In the horizontal, tree-of-life tradition, the tree is planted at the centre of the world and is protected by supernatural guardians. It is the source of terrestrial fertility and life. Human life is descended from it; its fruit confers everlasting life; and if it were cut down, all fecundity would cease. The tree of life occurs most commonly in quest romances in which the hero seeks the tree and must overcome a variety of obstacles on his way. [Again, emphasis added.]
There are echoes of Obi-Wan Kenobi's and Qui-Gon Jinn's words in these two quotes. First, both Obi-Wan and the Encyclopedia Britannica use the verb to bind to describe the modes, respectively, of the Force and the tree of knowledge. Both allow people on earth (or Tatooine) to come in contact with the transcendent or immanent. In the second quote, the Encyclopedia Britannica approximates Qui-Gon Jinn's idea that life would not be possible without the midi-chlorians coursing through our veins. I have added the emphasis in the last sentence of the second quote because it begs a question, for what else are Luke Skywalker's adventures in Star Wars but a quest romance in which he seeks mastery of the Force (perhaps roughly equivalent to the tree of life) while overcoming "a variety of obstacles on his way"?

It seems to me that the Force in its original formulation in Star Wars (1977) is a life force, or, in terms of psychology, perhaps a life energy or eros. (Or, in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "
the source of terrestrial fertility and life.") It is created (not generated or produced) by all living things, permeates all living things, and binds all things in the galaxy together. By Obi-Wan Kenobi's explanation, the Force also seems to be a mystical or quasi-religious concept. Qui-Gon Jinn is more vague. The Force he describes has will and would seem to exist independently of life or humanity, yet it expresses itself and makes itself known only through a biological, i.e., material, intermediary. The midi-chlorians may be intelligent, but they appear to be like idiot-savants: knowing in the ways of the Force, yet ignorant of any moral or spiritual implications of the fact that this great, god-like thing exists above them and acts through the men who live below them, men who are unable on their own to come in contact with or experience the Force. Are midi-chlorians, then, George Lucas' idea of the soul or spirit (rather than the Holy Spirit, saints, or angels, as I suggested above)? If so, does that mean that the people in the Star Wars universe lack souls of their own? And if the midi-chlorians are merely biological vectors through which the Force makes its will known, then don't they, the midi-chlorians, also lack a spiritual existence?

The difference between these two concepts--Obi-Wan Kenobi's mystic or quasi-religious Force versus Qui-Gon Jinn's biological or materialist version--might be explained by the times, for the first movie was made in the 1970s, a New or Aquarian Age, while the second came along in the much more jaded and cynical 1990s. On the other hand, George Lucas supposedly developed the idea of the midi-chlorians in 1977. He was at the time an admirer of Joseph Campbell and revised his screenplay to align more closely with Campbell's interpretation of the hero in literature and myth. Coincidentally or not, Campbell was not religious in any conventional sense. Some people consider him to have been an atheist or materialist, even though he seems to have believed in something non-material, even if it was only some vague idea of transcendence or immanence, a thing so vague that he seems never to have explained it very well. (Does that sound familiar?) Here are two quotes by Campbell, though, from the television program The Power of Myth (1988). These are from the website Answers in Action and an article called "Myth Perceptions, Joseph Campbell's Power of Deceit" by Dr. Tom Snyder (here), an admittedly unfriendly critic, as you can tell by the title. The ellipses and the words in brackets are in Dr. Snyder's article:
I have a feeling that consciousness and energy are the same thing somehow. Where you really see life energy, there's consciousness.
There's a transcendent energy source . . . . That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that. That old man up there has been blown away. You've got to find the Force inside you. [Your life comes] from the ultimate energy that is the life of the universe. And then do you say, "Well, there must be somebody generating that energy?" Why do you have to say that? Why can't the ultimate mystery be impersonal?
Note the phrase--and the capitalization--"the Force." Remember, this was in 1988, more than a decade after Star Wars was released. I have to ask myself, when Campbell gave this interview in 1988, who was the master and who was the student (or padawan)? Were they Campbell and Lucas? Or were their roles reversed? Either way, a personal God is here swept away in favor of an impersonal and scattered energy, consciousness, or Force which may or may not be merely material. The idea doesn't seem to be very well developed, and I doubt that any one person on his own could well develop a complete and satisfying system of belief, yet Joseph Campbell seems to have tried it for himself, while George Lucas seems to have followed his lead in creating the Star Wars saga. Maybe that's why the Force and all of its penumbrae are so vague, inconsistent, and ill-defined. Maybe Mr. Lucas should have done what other creators of fantasy have done by leaving his system of belief on the periphery of his creation instead of placing it at its center.

In any case, C.S. Lewis will now make his entrance, speaking in the voice of the demon Screwtape, who is advising his nephew Wormwood on how to win human souls. From The Screwtape Letters (1942):
I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their [humanity's] science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy [God]. [. . .] If once we can produce our perfect work--the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls "Forces" while denying the existence of "spirits"--then the end of the war will be in sight. [Ch. VII]
So is that what the Jedi (and the Sith) are? Are they just Materialist Magicians? Is their very vaguely defined "Force" a way for George Lucas and his fans and followers to duck belief in God or to deny the existence of the human soul or spirit? If so, were they always that way? From a scene in Star Wars, on board the Millennium Falcon:
Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
Obi-Wan: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.
[Luke is zapped by the practice drone.]
Han Solo: (Laughs.) Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
Luke: You don't believe in the Force, do you?
Han Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
So is Han Solo a materialist? Or is he merely a skeptic or a cynic? The best explanation might be that he is practical-minded and not a deep thinker. He gets to a point, though, one that I'll address in my closing. Before that, though, I should say that it's clear we're supposed to sympathize with Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi when it comes to a belief in the Force. Han Solo is their very mild antagonist. But if Star Wars is the story of Luke's quest and coming of age, it's also the story of Han Solo's conversion from hard, cynical, ruthless rogue to true and selfless hero. Near the end of the movie, he says to Luke, "May the Force be with you." And in the end, he saves Luke from the wrath of Darth Vader . . .

But that doesn't mean everything is nicely-nicely when it comes to Obi-Wan Kenobi's version of the Force, for if Han Solo's phrase "mystical energy field" is accurate--and there is reason to think that he has gotten to the heart of the matter--then the Force in the original Star Wars is still only vaguely mystical, more nearly concrete and materialist, in other words not very much different from Qui-Gon Jinn's even more vague, even more materialist interpretation expressed in The Phantom Menace.

To be continued . . .

The Angel with the Flaming Sword (1893) by the American artist Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936).

Saying Grace (1951) by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). The figures at the table are, from left to right, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Note the light saber on the floor.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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