Cameron’s Avatar: The emerging zeitgeist?-Come Carpentier de Gourdon-10 January 2010
Come Carpentier de Gourdon
10 January 2010
published on Vijayvaani.com, January 10th, 2010.
Every now and then, a book, a play, or film, marks a watershed in the landscape of culture when it represents most eloquently a growing and world-changing (or “epoch making” as Marxists used to say) awareness.
James Cameron’s Avatar may well be one of those symbolic milestones. As the hitherto most sophisticated result of the technologies of virtual reality and computerized design, it takes place in an already long line of wondrous special effects extravaganzas which include George Lucas’ Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters, Cameron’s own Terminator and sequels, the Harry Potter series, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and so many others.
Yet, the message of Avatar synthesizes some of the most powerful calls that mankind is hearing nowadays: the appeal for a new communion with nature on the cosmic scale, the yearning for disclosure about the reality of other life forms from outside our planet, and the eternal nostalgia for legends and mythology which formed civilization from its origins.
Cameron situates himself in the sphere of mythology when he creates his heroic saga on the imaginary planet Pandora -“all gifts” in Greek, but also the name of the Goddess (Mohini) who brought them to Prometheus. The name hints at the pantheistic worldview that prevails on it and that the author advocates – inhabited by the peaceful and empathic Na’vi, cat-like, slender, blue-skinned humanoids who live in symbiotic communion with the magnificent but dangerous ecosystem of a primeval forest.
It is this ecstatic communion that the film’s hero, a paraplegic former Marine called Jake Sully, sent by the RDA corporation to help explore Pandora through the bio-engineered Avatar created for his late brother, learns from them and gradually becomes one of them. Though the story is set in 2154, Cameron seems to assume that little will change in America or on Earth by then. Our planet has been presumably turned into a biological wasteland by our industry, the economy is still in very bad shape, the US is still fighting wars in many poor and hostile lands on behalf of giant corporations dedicated to exploiting natural resources, but wounded US soldiers are still neglected and financially unable to undergo reconstructive surgery for the injuries incurred in the line of duty.
The contrast between the penniless, paralyzed and depressive discarded mercenary of the earth’s richest nation and the boundlessly free and luminous Na’vi is one of the many ontological antitheses presented in the film.
In building Pandora’s fictional world, the author borrows from the legends and traditions of many “primitive” cultures, as most myth-makers have from the dawn of humanity, to create monuments as diverse as the Book of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Iliad and Beowulf or Cuchulain. The Na’vi remind us of all bow and arrow wielding tribal peoples of warm climes, but they particularly evoke images of the blue-green divine heroes of ancient India, Rama and Krishna, whose wisdom and omniscience reflected their profound union with the Cosmic Whole which Cameron calls Eywa, the universal mother who embraces and comprises all creation, according to a concept embedded in Tantric philosophy.
Those people of the Pandoran forest will also remind people familiar with Indic culture, from Mongolia to Indonesia, of the Monkey people or Vanaras met by Rama and his companions in the deep woods of Central India, and who became his allies under the leadership of their king Sugriva and their champion Hanuman. However, the alien people created by Cameron are not modelled on a single historic or mythical race, but are inspired by many diverse shamanistic and pantheistic cultures.
The fact that in order to roam on Pandora freely and meet the Na’vi on their own terms, humans have to go into a state of conscious dream through the medium of a biological Avatar identical to the natives (contrary to the homonymous Internet creation, Cameron’s Avatar, like its Indic archetype is physical and alive) reminds us of the Dreamtime described by Australian aborigines or of the parallel worlds evoked by South American tribals and to which one can accede in sleep, with the help of hallucinogenic drugs such as the Ayahuasca just as Vedic Hindus and Avestan Iranians used the Soma or Haoma plant.
Like the Vedic peoples, but also like many other ancient races on all continents, the Na’vi are said to go through a ritual process of second birth (samsrkt dvija) which ushers them in as full members of the social and universal community of life and soul.
The metaphysical question raised by the cosmology of the Invisible has occupied much of Buddhist and Hindu thought over millennia since there is reason to question the “rational” assumption that only the facts experienced in our waking state are real. Many ancient religious systems relied on the opposite conclusion, which the Spanish writer Calderon de la Barca expressed in five words: “La vida es un sueno”: life is a dream! Other traditions teach that the other worlds we sometimes visit in trance or sleep are as material and actual as our sphere of familiar awareness.
Until we accept and integrate fully the parallel universes that we can visit only in the various subtle and psychic dimensions of our selves, we are doomed to living tragic lives in blindness and “quiet desperation”. For the Na’vi, becoming aware of this transcendent reality is “seeing” the truth of another person’s being. The reference to the symbolism of darsana in Indian psychology and philosophy is transparent.
Avatar dares to proclaim defiantly what many people in the West, and especially in the USA, are still afraid to admit. Cameron squarely points to the American military forces and the associated “private security companies” as the major agents in today’s world of uncontrolled corporate greed in all its brutal destructiveness. The film builds towards a cathartic massacre of the Pentagon’s robotic mercenaries and the utter annihilation (history repeats itself many a time!) of its space age war machine, personified by a Colonel whose face and gait mirror those of the many warlords who regularly appear in the news, from Odierno and Petraeus to McChrystal, just as his corporate army represents Blackwater, Triple Canopy and other such outfits created to privatise war and occupation. The polar opposition between the gracefulness of the native people of the Planet Pandora, the luminous and willowy Na’vi and the mechanical ugliness of the human killing machines is as striking as it is expected to be in a myth which is made up of allegories and signs.
The humanoid natives of Pandora look more than a bit like some of the Aliens described by several witnesses from the 1947 Roswell incident until recent times. Their four-fingered hands seem modelled after the tetradactyle extremities that at least some of the Greys or Zetas are reported to have. Such evocations are hardly surprising in ET-aware Hollywood, all the more from a director who authored the film Aliens in 1986.
The sort of intuitive intelligence that the Na’vi demonstrate in their collective, beehive-like harmony, reminded me of a striking observation made by Whitley Strieber once about the “visitors” who have appeared to him at various occasions in his life: “animals far more intelligent than us”. The Na’vi’s fusional connection with the horse-like quadruped and the flying dragons they ride – as the bluish God Vishnu flies on the giant bird Garuda – through the merger of the tips of their respective capillary appendices is at once technologically inspired (fiber-optics and hints of David Cronenberg’s Existenz) and related to the Indian and Chinese belief that the brain is rooted in the cosmic oversoul through the pituitary seventh cakra at the crown of the head and also through the Kundalini coiled at the base of the spine as a vestigial tail.
As the polar opposite those fluid, intuitive lifeforms, Colonel Miles Quaritch, commander of the Company’s private army, the SecFor, is a mixture of Nietzsche’s “beast” and of a ruthless, calculating and emotionally deaf and dumb weapon of mass destruction. He uses the well worn Pentagon jargon which has become so recognizable during the last decade of “pre-emptive” wars: “killing the hostiles”, “minimizing casualties”, “winning hearts and minds”. He is unquestioningly committed to carrying out his mission, which is to allow “free market access” to the corporation to extract the precious mineral Unobtainium (a metaphor for oil or any other coveted mineral) from Pandora’s soil, and he regards all unfamiliar lifeforms as dangerous nuisances that must be “domesticated” or eliminated at any cost if and when they cannot be simply ignored.
That very attitude is made manifest in the policies enforced by the US and many other governments which consist in systematically ignoring and denying the presence of “Alien” life, especially that which strikes us as being far more evolutionarily advanced than our own. Those who are minimally aware of the Ufological reality realize that Cameron, like most in Hollywood, is not duped by the current political-scientific-military consensus and is making in his film an appeal for disclosure.
Quaritch reports to a wimpish, self-absorbed and infantile corporate boss of RDA, Parker Selfridge – a George W Bush to Quaritch’s Cheney or Rumsfeld – and they both have a conflictual rapport with the scientist, Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver, who serves the operatives of the military-industrial complex in her research on Pandora in spite of her moral reservations. Yet, they finance her work so that she needs them to carry out her investigations. The ambiguous role of scientists as handmaidens of their corporate paymasters (somewhat like the missionaries of the colonial ages) is illustrated quite tellingly.
Another parallel is drawn between the wondrously strange and intensely alive but somewhat ethereal world of Pandora and the high tech, ugly and depressing artificial habitat in which the earthly invaders are imprisoned. Where is reality? In the scientifically controlled, drably military environment of the occupiers (where the only entertainment available is the mini-golf used by the corporate boss) or in the fantastic wilderness of Pandora, inaccessible to humans outside their heavily insulated and armoured aircraft and “exoskeletons” (dubbed AMP for “Amplified Motion Platforms”).
The reference to the US bases set up in many countries and thoroughly cut off from the outside world, making the American soldiers and administrators the real aliens for the rest of mankind, is obvious, and the Na’vi are virtual icons of all the native peoples subjugated and massacred by colonizers, from the Aztecs, Incas and Patagonians to the Bantus, the Red Indians, and the aboriginal Australians.
The analogy with the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans is not so transparent because those martyred people are not “pristine” children of Nature, though the attitude of the US occupiers towards them is similar to that of most conquistadors of yore, but as the hero of the film points out, those alien people cannot be won over with baubles or “light beer” or even by giving them American education and teaching them English. The endeavour of the conquerors is tragically flawed and is bound to fail, but not without causing immense destruction.
Predictably, the target of Colonel Queritch after he has destroyed the “tree of voices” (“first, cut off the target people from their source of traditional wisdom” seems to be the rule followed by colonialists and missionaries) and the “hometree” of the Na’vi (which disintegrates in a manner intentionally reminiscent of the World Trade Centre’s destruction in 2001 and happens to stand on the largest deposit of Unobtainium), is to “preemptively” take out the soul tree, Cameron’s allusion to the Aswattha of Indian mythology (and to the Nordic Yggdrasil) which, as Augustine tries to explain to the dismissive colonel and the bemused corporate executive, lies at the core of the planet’s bio-botanical neural network. She provides thereby a graphic image of the phenomenon of non-locality explained by quantum entanglement in contemporary physics as it applies to the eco-sphere, but such a holistic perspective is predictably beyond the grasp of her mentally autistic listeners, bent on quick territorial conquest and financial profit.
Cameron makes it clear that the only option for survival and for the preservation of our environment is to overthrow the tyranny of finance and technology enforced by the warlords of the Pentagon and their soldiers of fortune and misfortune. His film is a rousing call for defiance and rebellion that many in the US civilian and military sectors may eventually heed, and it is symbolically enlightening and also inevitable that he should conceive an iconography reminiscent of the Hindu sacred epics in order to convey this radical and apocalyptic message. What splendid depictions of the Indian myths and legends could be made nowadays by using the stereoscopic and virtual camera “motion capture” techniques, aptly called “3D Fusion Camera System”, pioneered in Avatar!
The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal