The Clone Wars have been raging for three years. The Separatists have boldly assaulted Coruscant and abducted the Chancellor. Anakin and Obi-Wan engage in a daring rescue that will set into motion the end of the Clone Wars, the rise of the Galactic Empire, and change the Jedi Order forever.
It’s hard to know if this movie would be as good without the context of episodes 1 and 2. I almost wonder if I could do my own “machete” order that starts with The Clone Wars animated series and continues with Revenge of the Sith. Context aside, this movie tells a clear story of Anakin’s manipulation and fall. Palpatine preys on Anakin and works to drive a wedge between him and the Jedi Order. And while this is the culmination of Palpatine’s conspiring, I think the fall of the Jedi Order and the Republic are clearly communicated in this story. I would love to tweak some things, but of all the prequel films so far, this one works the best with minimal (though still occasional) bad dialogue.
This is Anakin’s story, and with the Spanish dub, it really works. The dialogue and the performance align better than they did in Attack of the Clones. There are a few missed opportunities to drive home Anakin’s mental and emotional struggle (and it would have been nice to see more wedges placed between Anakin and the Order in the last film), but overall, this story works.
Padme, unfortunately, has very little to do but be the pregnant wife and victim. The strength and drive of the character from previous films is missing. Her character beats fall flat, and Portman’s performance seems weaker than anything we’ve seen of her up to this point. Maybe she saw that the end of her contract was near.
Ewan McGregor is great, as always. Ian McDiarmid turns in a memorable performance, and while he goes often goes over-the-top, it at least works for the dialogue he had to quote. But, British over-the-top can still be fun. And I think this is where the characters largely succeed in this movie: they are fun where before, they weren’t.
While the rise of tyranny is a strong theme in this movie, I was actually more engaged in the tension between the Jedi and the Sith. While the Sith are still somewhat enigmatic, mainly being characterized as “virtually identical to the Jedi,” the Sith don’t seem to have the detachment of the Jedi. The Jedi and Sith seem to be opposite extremes. And while there is truth in Yoda’s advice that death comes to all and Anakin should learn to let go, not recognizing the pain in Anakin pushed him further toward the Sith. This was a grievous struggle for Anakin. Palpatine effectively maneuvered him into a place where his idealism came into conflict with Jedi teaching. Dooku was a Sith Lord, and so he should die because Jedi kill Sith. But Anakin regretted this action. In an attempt to redeem himself, he urged Mace Windu to take Palpatine prisoner so he could be put on trial. Mace refused, revealing to Anakin that his idealism may have been misplaced.
I still think, however, that the believability and tragedy of Anakin’s fall would have benefited from more information about the Sith and their disagreement with the Jedi about the nature of Force.
There is a level of passion and excitement on the screen, which makes me think Lucas’s heart was more fully in this film, that this was the movie he wanted to make, but felt the others needed to provide context. This movie has great action choreography, a tighter pace for the storytelling, and more gorgeous cinematography.
Personal Enjoyment: 8
After the disappointment of Attack of the Clones, I was worried about Revenge of the Sith. These concerns were unfounded. Apart from the occasional off line and some over-the-top performances by Natalie Portman and Ian McDiarmid, this movie was far stronger that the previous two. However, being so close made these occasional moments stand out. They left me wishing for one more script draft and one more take on a few scenes. That said, I was eager to continue the saga after finishing this film. If I had more time, I probably would have jumped right in to A New Hope. George Lucas left me wanting more, and that is certainly a great way to end this trilogy.
Having confronted the Man in Black, Roland continues his journey to the Dark Tower. After being brutally attacked by lobster-like creatures from the sea, Roland is mortally wounded. He must now face the prophecy left to him by the Man in Black: he must draw three companions. But these companions are from different time periods in another world—our world. A mysterious door appears on the beach, beckoning a dying Roland to enter.
The Gunslinger was essentially a collection of related short stories. The Drawing of the Three wasn’t originally written as short stories, but it achieves a similar effect, though each drawing becomes more and more interconnected with Roland’s world. It’s an interesting effect, as though King transitions us from the format of The Gunslinger to the format of The Waste Lands.The Drawing of the Three, then, is that middle story, that moves us collection to novel. This transition also stalls the story progression. As we move from “Roland” to “Roland and crew,” we spend extended time just getting to know these new characters (and we have one more character to get to know in book three). So, the entirety of the movement in Roland’s world is a few miles on a beach. There is progress as Roland meets and recruits his companions, but we feel no closer to finding the Dark Tower and discovering what evil is destroying Roland’s world.
The Prisoner: Eddie Dean – A drug addict, Eddie makes a great foil for Roland. Where Roland is grim, serious, and humorless, Eddie is laid-back and a bit sarcastic. Roland quickly recognizes that Eddie has a strong mind, but he is a prisoner to both his addiction and his devotion to his brother.
The Lady of Shadows: Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker – An African-American woman with a split personality. Living during the Civil Rights era, Odetta Holmes has seen great injustice. Due to two violent assaults, she has manifested a second personality, the evil and cunning Detta Walker. Neither personality is aware of the other.
The Pusher: Jack Mort – A greater evil than Detta Walker, Jack Mort is an accountant whose hobby is stalking people and pushing them to their deaths.
While I thought the characters in The Gunslinger were not up to Stephen King’s normal standards, the characters in The Drawing of the Three were stronger. In fact, Eddie’s section was hard for me to put down. He has a great interplay with Roland. They become comrades who, while not quite understanding one another nor always agreeing, learn to work well together.
(O)detta is harder to like because the Detta persona is difficult to read. I didn’t enjoy being in her head. She is an extreme caricature, a stereotype. I could never quite decide if this was interesting or in poor taste. It is an interesting concept, however, that the two personalities must be brought in to balance. It is actually through Jack Mort that this happens. My only disappointment is that we don’t get to see much of the new (O)detta, now dubbed Susannah. That has to wait until The Waste Lands.
Overall, I have few complaints about the characters introduced, though I still miss some of King’s supernatural characters. I loved when Roland and the Man in Black had their meeting. I enjoy the otherness of these supernatural, though malicious, characters. When King digs in to human evil, it cuts too close to reality for my taste.
Roland needs companions. It is too long since he has had peers who could challenge him and question his single-mindedness. Roland learns quickly that he cannot journey to the Tower without these comrades. Eddie challenges Roland in interesting ways, not least of which is calling Roland out as a “Tower junkie.” But I can’t help but wonder why the Man in Black prophesied the Drawing. As a reader, I want Eddie and Susannah to be able to trust Roland. But I also have to keep in mind that he willingly let Jake die. Eddie and Susannah may help Roland find redemption for things he has done in the past, but I don’t think the Man in Black intends this.
I thought a lot about King’s portrayal of Detta Walker. What I have come to realize is that King often shows hatred as caricature. This is seen in Detta Walker’s personality, which Eddie himself calls out as a cliche. But I’ve seen King use similar cliches in other books, and they always seem connected to people who have given themselves over to hate. (Margaret White in Carrie and Sylvia Pittston in The Gunslinger come to mind. Both justify their hate with religion.) With this, King seems to say that we become the worst version of ourselves when we hate. In fact, we become a cartoon, something that isn’t real. To paraphrase how Roland puts it, they become “what is always said or believed by people who think only a little or not at all.” There are may portrayals of evil in King’s novels, but he seems to consistently show the evil of hate as something that makes a person less human and less real. They become a cliche.
King’s style is more confident and natural. His characters are presented clearly. The division of the book into “shuffle” and “drawing” sections was an interesting way to tell shorter stories in our world and connect them with Roland’s world. However, I think Detta can be off-putting. I like the idea of exploring the rage caused by racism and this was certainly a striking, memorable way to do it. I just don’t enjoy being in that head space.
Personal Enjoyment: 6
One thing that I always loved about the concept of The Gunslinger is the promise of Western-as-fantasy. While I have yet to finish The Dark Tower series, it is moving quickly to fantasy and hardly any Western tropes to justify the Western classification. The first book had endless deserts. It felt like Leone with a dash of Lovecraft. Roland pursued a man in black who wronged him. It was a story of revenge, a full-on Western trope. But this book felt more like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and vague memories that at one time, this was a Western. Roland pursues a magic Tower. This is more of a fantasy trope than a Western one. Perhaps this changes in books 4-7.
While there’s nothing wrong with this change, the difference is so striking that it is entirely possible to love one and not the other. There are thematic and tonal promises in The Gunslinger that are not continued here. And while I preferred the style and characters in this book, I prefer the tone and dark, Western tropes of The Gunslinger. Neither book completely delivers what I think this concept—and King’s talent—are capable of.
This is part two of my experiment to see if the Spanish Language dub of the Star Wars prequels make these movie more enjoyable. In the previous post, I evaluated The Phantom Menace, and found that I liked the movie better. My problem with the prequels rests more on the dialogue and performances, so I theorized that the Spanish voice actors might do a better job delivering the lines. However, since I don’t speak Spanish, I have to watch the movies with English subtitles. Sometimes bad dialogue is easier to swallow if performed well or read.
So, how did Attack of the Clones hold up?
After Senator Amidala narrowly escapes assassination, Obi-Wan and Anakin are assigned protection duty. While Obi-Wan investigates the source of the hit, Anakin guards Amidala as she returns to Naboo for safety. However, Anakin is at the mercy of a growing obsession with Amidala. The two soon fall in love—causing Anakin and Amidala to compromise their professional duties. But before these two can fully sort out their feelings, Obi-Wan’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy that threatens both the Republic and the Jedi Order, and plants the seeds to change both institutions forever.
Let’s start positive. Ewan McGregor is good, and the Obi-Wan plot is interesting. Maybe this is my preference for investigations, but it was fun trying to put the pieces together with Obi-Wan. Unfortunately, he comes across as a bit of an idiot when trying to find Kamino in the Jedi archives. These scenes were a bit of a misstep, but Obi-Wan tracking Jango Fett and discovering the Clone Army propel this movie along. As a long-time Star Wars fan, it was fun to finally learn what the Clone Wars were after their tantalizing mention in A New Hope, something I had wondered about for years. (Along with the Journal of the Whills, which had an interesting name drop in Rogue One).
Now for the bad . . . . The love story does not work. The Spanish language dub cannot save it. By using the English language dialogue, the film fails to salvage this story. The disconnect between the dialogue and the music made this excruciating. The love story between Amidala and Anakin is essential to the prequel story, and it just does not work. I never once believed these characters liked each other, let alone fell in love. In fact, the line delivery in the Spanish dub, when combined with Christiansen and Portman’s performances, almost changed the way I perceived these two characters.
Anakin is written with no subtlety. The voice actors playing Anakin and Amidala do the best they can, and while their deliver is much better, they are working with horrible dialogue. To make matters worse, Hayden Christiansen chose to play Anakin as obsessive and frustrated while Natalie Portman played Amidala as uncertain and confused. The obsession and frustration combined with his frequent outbursts makes Anakin feel like a sexual predator who is manipulating the woman he is supposed to protect. Amidala never really seems to be in love with him, and so her growing acceptance of their relationship seems almost psychologically abusive. At times, I wondered if Anakin was using the Force to manipulate her. I don’t think this is what George Lucas was going for, and it was incredibly disturbing. For this reason alone, I don’t think I can watch the Spanish dub again. With the lines spoken in English, they come across as bad performances, which is much easier to take.
I enjoy the recurring conflicts between Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians in Star Wars. This played out again and again in the Legends stories, and thematically appears here with Jedi, Sith (Sidious and Dooku), and Mandalorians (the clones based of Jango Fett). This is a millennia-long conflict, and the Clone Wars mark the long-sought victory of the Sith and Mandalorians over the Jedi. Although, again, it isn’t quite as simple as the Mandalorians have split into factions, most for peace but one in particular for war. But that isn’t in this movie, and I don’t know how much of these ideas were in Lucas’s mind.
Beyond these themes, I don’t know that there is much to work with here. This movie seems less interested in saying something than paying homage to some of George Lucas’s film influences. Sometimes identifying these influences helps pass the time when the story drags. There is an interesting story underneath all this, a story about the rise of tyranny in times of threat and uncertainty. There is something brilliant about storytelling deep, deep beneath this. Unfortunately, I sometimes think this is more fan theory and wishful thinking than something that is actually on the screen. As with The Phantom Menace, I appreciate this film more and more as I think about it. And I will continue to do so as long as watch it as little as possible.
The cinemagraphy in this movie is good. Just look at these shots.
Additionally, Lucas pays homage to a lot of influences in this movie. First up is Christopher Lee, which makes a nice bookend with fellow Hammer Horror alum Peter Cushing.
Then, of course, there is Jango (Django) Fett, which brings in a bit of the Western vibe (which The Clone Wars explores further in “Death Trap” episode.
The Geonosian arena feels very Edgar Rice Burroughs.
We get a bit of a Blade Runner tinged Noir with the neon lights of Coruscant.
And some of the battle scenes at the end of the film have a war documentary feel.
Certainly, few films look like this. Few films look this diverse. Lucas is really flexing his visual presentation muscles here. It’s just a shame that the character moments and pacing aren’t as developed in this film. Maybe that’s not fair. I’ve definitely seen worse, but it feels bad because I think he was close to making it work.
Personal Enjoyment: 4
The Spanish dub of The Phantom Menace went from annoying to watchable. The Spanish dub of Attack of the Clones didn’t provide much in way of improvements. This romance in this movie still doesn’t work, not because of the performances, but because of the script. The love story is essential to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, but at no point did I believe these two characters fell in love.
The movie also felt too long. The imprisonment and showdown on Geonosis takes over an hour! Often, pacing issues and length are more a consequence of not engaging with the movie, and that was definitely present here. I wanted to give up when I saw I still had an hour left and this was after having to slog through every scene with Anakin and Amidala, watching poorly written dialogue be delivered as best possible by two actors who had no chemistry or experience delivering lines this bad. It is because of this movie that the Machete Order doesn’t work for me. The movie looks good, there are interesting homages with the camera work, and Obi-Wan’s investigation is interesting. Everything else falls flat. I want to be positive. I want to say the Spanish language dub covers a multitude of problems. But I can’t. Maybe with a different script, something could be salvaged. With the current script, though, it just doesn’t work.
Perhaps one day I will see what R. A. Salvatore did with the novelization. Until then, Attack of the Clones goes on the Rifftrax shelf.
I want to like the Star Wars prequels. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are great. John Williams continued to compose good scores. The cinematography and the location designs are beautiful. But two things continually trip me up: the dialogue and the performances of Anakin Skywalker, Jar-Jar Binks, and Padme Amidala. (Natalie Portman is hit-and-miss throughout the trilogy) Even the Machete Order doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t matter what order I watch the films in, the dialogue and bad performances don’t change. I’ve tried a few fan re-cuts, and those don’t work for me either because, while they may reduce some of the performance and dialogue issues, they introduce awkward cuts or pacing. Like it or not, as-is the movies are edited well.
I wouldn’t have spent so much time evaluating alternate versions of the film if I didn’t care. Again, I want to like these movies.
But recently, I took inspiration from foreign films and anime. What if I treated the Star Wars prequels like they are foreign films? What if I changed the audio track to another language, and turned on the English subtitles. Would that create enough distance between me and the dialogue to enjoy it? Would the voice dubbing provide different performances? A foreign language dub would also preserve the sound effects and the music. So I picked up The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, both of which have Spanish language tracks. I’m going to try each of the prequel films to see how they hold up. If they don’t, there’s still Rifftrax.
Here is part one: Spanish Phantom Menace.
I’ll touch on this in the story section, but this movie tries to do too much, and with that, gives us too many characters to keep track of and connect with. And I don’t think we really connect with any of them. This movie essentially introduces a new world. It is a new era of Star Wars, and it looks different from anything we have seen before. We need a character to ground us, and that would obviously be Obi-Wan. But, if I had to pick a character that seems to be the focus of this movie, it is Qui-Gon. We see his journey. But we don’t get much indication of who Qui-Gon is. We need more moments to get his backstory, to connect with him emotionally. None of the characters really have a moment where we get to see who they are or what motivates them until very late in the movie. The biggest character moments are when Anakin goes back to hug his mother, when Qui-Gon defies the Jedi Council to take on Anakin as an apprentice, and when Amidala kneels before Boss Nass. And all of these happen very late in the movie. There are hints of antagonism between Qui-Gon and the Council. Why? What did Qui-Gon do in the past? Sidious and Maul talk about a plan that has been long in the making. How long? What is the plan? And, for that matter, what, exactly, are the Sith? Why do the Sith and Jedi fight each other? None of this is established in this film. We don’t get clear motivations for any of the characters, good or bad.
Now, I had difficulty watching The Phantom Menace in the past because of performance and dialogue. The Spanish performances are better. Much better. Spanish Anakin provides a good amount of emotion that wasn’t present in Jake Lloyd’s performance. I thought I would miss Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor’s performances, but I quickly got over it. And Jar-Jar is tolerable. There’s something about not having to HEAR the bad dialogue. In fact, the subtitles attempted to recreate Jar-Jar’s dialogue as much as possible, which looks like gibberish when you have to read it. In fact, it was easy for me to just not read it. I could easily skip over or skim his dialogue. I could even pretend that Jar-Jar was attempting to speak English (Basic, if we want to use the in-universe term), but frequently slipped into his original language, a type of Gunglish, if you will. The Spanish actor does attempt a Jar-Jar imitation, but not hearing the English dialogue made me able to tolerate it better.
What amazed me about watching the dubbed version is that it actually engaged the analytical side of my mind. Previously, I was too distracted by the bad performances and dialogue to be able to think about the movie beyond my emotional reaction. With the Spanish actors providing good performances, I could engage with the story in a new way. And, honestly, the story doesn’t quite work. I think it was an ambitious one, but this movie tries to do way too much. I think George Lucas made a mistake by starting this new trilogy with a highly political story. There isn’t adequate context for what he is trying to do in this movie. Everything is new. Despite this being the fourth Star Wars movie, we really don’t have a context for the Jedi Order, the Republic, the Sith, the Trade Federation, and pretty much every other thing in this movie. The only familiar things are Yoda, Obi-Wan, the Droids, and Tatooine. And it would make perfect sense to make Obi-Wan the focus of this film since he has the most reason to be on an adventure, and we are already familiar with him. As stated before, the main character, the character that we connect with as Lucas builds his world, is not evident in this movie. And honestly, in world building, it is better to move from simplicity to complexity. The Star Wars prequels should have started simple and become more complex as they went along. Oddly, despite not liking the derivative nature of The Force Awakens, by rehashing many plot points from previous Star Wars films, the movie actually becomes simpler. We’ve seen this before, which grounds us in this new paradigm. Now that we know the characters, we are ready to move into new, more complex territory.
But The Phantom Menace tries to do too much, and in doing so, it confuses the viewer, creates emotional distance between viewers and characters, and muddles the stakes. Since we have no context, we have difficulty caring about the stakes. I think this is why people find this movie so boring. Political maneuvering can be entertaining. We have a movie about Facebook and litigation that is extremely engaging and tense, so don’t tell me we can’t have an exciting Star Wars movie that is both political thriller and sci-fi action. The movie is boring because the stakes aren’t clear. I think Lucas should have started this trilogy with a different story, one that introduced us to this Star Wars era and these characters first, a simpler story that held hints of the complexity to come.
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is the idea that victory comes from unlikely places. Power and might lead to overconfidence. This is why a group of seven (and then two) had to destroy the Ring rather than send an army. It was an unlikely plan, a foolish plan, but one that Sauron would not have expected. The same thing lurks deep underneath The Hobbit, the idea that a group of 14 destroying a dragon and restoring the dwarf kingdom of Erebor would be inconceivable to the Necromancer, that this action would smash his influence in the North.
The idea of the arrogance of power and victory through unlikely sources appears in multiple Star Wars movies. A single exhaust port can destroy a battle station. A group of teddy bears can take on a trained military. A young boy can destroy a droid control ship. A bumbling klutz can accidentally be a good fighter. Victory from the unlikely. It is obviously an idea that resonates with George Lucas. In following the Force Qui-Gon recognizes that we cannot see how actions will play out, how an unlikely hope can turn the tide of war and re-shape the universe. Put another way, the Force works in mysterious ways.
Not being distracted by the characters let me see how rushed this story was. Again, the movie tries to do too much. It still looks good, the effects are great, the music is good, and the final lightsaber battle is fun. George Lucas can still direct a great space battle. But the stakes are confused. It is hard to keep up with what is going on and why I should care. Better performances by the Spanish actors made it more evident that the characterization was unclear. Sadly, the very fact that I had to listen to the Spanish dub to enjoy this movie is a huge strike against it, though huge praise to the Spanish actors and actresses. There is a good story underneath this movie, but it just wasn’t told well. At one time we had the Legends novels and comics to fill in the context, but now those are gone and this movie currently has to stand on its own as an introduction to the prequel era.
Personal Enjoyment: 7
With The Phantom Menace, I felt like I came in to a movie that was already in progress. Even though Disney and Lucasfilm have currently shown no interest in fleshing out this era, I would love to see them do something to provide context for The Phantom Menace. Okay, ideally, I would love for them to do a complete prequel-era reboot. In fact, I’m writing a three-film outline that I will post here soon. I want to re-imagine the prequels and try to tell the story that George Lucas was trying to tell. I don’t want to give my ideal version of the prequels. I want to find a way to tell Lucas’s story in a way that would be engaging, clear, and not contradict the rest of the canon. (I love The Clone Wars animated series, so I want to preserve that as much as possible.) But as it stands, TPM tries to do too much. It doesn’t do good world building. It doesn’t give us characters we can connect with who have clear motivations. That said, I enjoyed watching The Phantom Menace for the first time. I have never enjoyed this movie, but the Spanish dub works for me, and I can actually see myself revisiting it in the future.
Final Rating: 6.4/10
I hope to update next Friday with Spanish Attack of the Clones, then the Friday after that finish up with Spanish Revenge of the Sith. I’ll round off my Spanish Prequels experiment with my pitch for a Star Wars Prequel revision.
In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your thoughts. I’d encourage you to try out a dubbed version of TPM. Let me know if you do. Also, there have been a lot of negative words written about TPM. So, let me know what, if anything, you like about the movie.
On Thursday, a three-week long depression broke. It was at the end of a day when I missed work due to a particularly bad headache. The headache broke after a few hours. The depression didn’t, though I felt that I could read. Sometimes, during the depression, I can’t. Everything feels flavorless.
I got a massage. It had been scheduled to help with some TMJ issues. After the massage, I felt something I hadn’t felt in three weeks: hope. Hope that life could be happy. Hope that I could fight for happiness. Hope that I could find happiness. Hope stopped feeling like something I had read in a book, something as fantastic and mythical as dragons and elves. Hope was something that I could have. It was a magic spell that could propel me forward, sustaining me as I tried to improve myself. The hope felt good. But it also scared me.
As I write this, I am a bit nervous because I don’t know how long the hope will last. The depression of the last three weeks wasn’t the first time I have felt this way, and it wasn’t the longest bought either. It wasn’t the darkest, though it does rank as a darker one. But as wonderful as these feelings of hope are, these feelings that make me think I can move forward and find happiness, I am nervous about when they break and the depression returns. I say “when” because, based on experience, I don’t feel confident saying “if.” I told my wife that it is like living with a roommate, and you never know what mood that roommate will be in come morning. You don’t know what mood he will be in an hour from now. Only, the apartment is your mind, and the roommate is you. And when the depression returns, you are the same person, though different. You are a different flavor of yourself. That which seemed clear and attainable before now seems distant. You fear that maybe it isn’t there at all. You are re-drawn, once solid lines and vibrant colors, now hazy and indistinct.
Right now, I have confidence that things will get better. That things can change. But I am nervous because I don’t feel in control of these emotions. I don’t know what triggers the change. But right now, I am searching, and I hope the confidence and momentum I have now will push me forward, through whatever is next.
For my birthday, my wife got me Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German philosopher who lived from 1907 to 1994, according to Wikipedia. This particular book contains meditations on art, work, and leisure. I love this book and I think I will revisit it often. I have found many passages that resonate with me, many that cause me to pause and contemplate my life.
In his essay, “Thoughts on Music”, Pieper states that
Man is never just “there.” Man “is” insofar as he “becomes”—not only in his physical reality, in growing, maturing, and eventually diminishing toward the end. In his spiritual reality, too, man is constantly moving on—he is existentially “becoming”; he is “on the way.” For man, to “be” means to “be on the way”—he cannot be in any other form; man is intrinsically a pilgrim, “not yet arrived,” regardless of whether he is aware of this or not, whether he accepts it or not.
This resonated with me because I have been feeling stuck for quite some time. But just as our physical bodies continue to progress or diminish with each action or inaction we take, so do our minds and spiritual existence progress or diminish. There are no empty actions; no free actions. All action is movement toward something. If I feel stuck, I am still moving toward something. And perhaps, in this state, the greatest act of autonomy I have is to choose what I move toward.
I don’t always know how to do this, though. I have many dreams, but often feel like I lack a clear path. Many times in the past, I have hesitated or lingered as I wait for a path to become clear. Recently, however, I have started thinking that I am at my worst in these moments. I think I often face more depression and angst when I am not working toward something, clear path or not. I sometimes think I need to constantly strive for something; to not strive is to despair. I can always choose to change, to re-align the path, but if I linger, I become rooted to a location. I can suffer through inaction or suffer through uncertain action. But only in one of these do I exert control over an outcome.
Put another way, it’s easier to steer a moving boat or car.
This realization is sometimes hard to hold. In my despair, I become frozen or paralyzed. I sometimes don’t see the point of moving. I forget that I am supposed to move or forget that I am trying to move. And so, I am grateful to Pieper for the reminder that even in paralysis, I am still becoming.
A few months ago I became fascinated by alchemy because of an episode (three episodes, actually) of Astonishing Legends. The episodes were about the Count of St. Germain. Now, to be clear, I do not think the Count is immortal. I do not think he had discovered the elixir of life. I think it is far more likely that he was a type of showman that moved in influential and powerful circles. For fun, I like to think he was the Doctor, and that Stephen Moffat missed an opportunity when he wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace.”
I’m already getting off topic.
The Count was actually my gateway to Western alchemy, and I became interested in the history alchemy. I was similarly interested in discussions of Chinese alchemy when I took a class on Religions of China and Japan while completing a religious studies degree. And while I think alchemy is interesting from a history-of-science-and-medicine standpoint, I think the symbolic language and concepts in alchemy are very powerful. Alchemy can be a useful metaphor for personal and spiritual growth.
In my religious studies class, we learned that Chinese alchemy started favoring spiritual refinement and development because, in a very practical sense, many early alchemists ended up poisoning themselves. But from that came theories of herbs and energy in Chinese medicine—and many blends of tea! In the West, alchemy led to early chemistry and medicine. It flourished in the early Muslim world. Indeed, the word alchemy is derived from Arabic: al-kīmiyā. One major difference between alchemy and modern chemistry, however, is the spiritual component. Chinese alchemy went on to refer to the refinement of the soul with the possibility of immortality. Western alchemy focused more on material goals of immortality and wealth—though prayer was still a strong component of Western alchemy.
I find the spiritual side of alchemy very intriguing: the idea that our bodies (or the self) are a container into which we put elements (ideas, concepts, theories) with the intention of refining ourselves, to reach greater understanding, enlightenment, or further discerning truth and reality. Granted, this includes the a priori assumption that an objective truth or reality exists outside of us—something that I think we must actually assume in order to move forward in any type of work. Science itself assumes that natural laws are knowable and stable; if they are not, we have no ability to measure and observe because they can shift or change. Likewise, if we want to refine ourselves and our understanding of life and reality, we have to assume such refinement is possible, which means there must be something outside the self to measure against. For some, that is the natural sciences, for others, God or spirituality. It can be ideals, dogma, or a code, but self-improvement is predicated on a rubric.
The interesting thing is that we often refine our rubric as we go . . . or at least, this INTP does. It’s kind of an INTP thing. I have come to refer to this attempt to understand reality and refine myself as The Great Work. In alchemical terms, the great work (or magnum opus) is the search for the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is something you create (or another has created). The philosopher’s stone can lead one to immortality. Or, in the hermetic (and more metaphorical traditions), it is the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual transformation. It is individuation.
For my purposes, The Great Work is my attempt to understand reality and refine myself toward that understanding. It is the attempt to figure out if God is really there. It is the attempt to find that which brings me to life . . . that inspires me to move . . . that brings purpose and meaning. I struggle with all of these things. I joke that on my worst days, I’m a Nihilist; on my best, I’m an Existentialist.
This may not actually be a joke.
In my life, I have consumed many things that actually poisoned my attempt to refine myself. At times, these were consumed without much choice in the matter. But how we continue to refine ourselves is the key. I believe we can continue to move forward, though sometimes it may be hard.
And so, I may from time to time write about this journey, this Great Work. I will continue to research alchemy, to mine it for useful and essential elements to help bring together this artistic metaphor. I may try out theories as I develop them. This search may take years, and I may abandon the alchemy metaphor at some point. But, for now, this metaphor helps me create a framework for my search. It helps me organize thoughts, and allows me to embody them in a way that has previously been a struggle.
But the most important thing, at the moment, is that it is helping me to keep moving, to keep searching, and to keep hoping.