I’VE GOT THE POWER: THE PROBLEM OF EMPOWERMENT

It’s funny how memory deceives us. I positively know that in the thrilling opening credits of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989), Rosie Perez box-dances to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”, a call to Afro-American political action which Lee commissioned for the film. Yet, I associate Rosie’s punches not to Public Enemy’s tough male voices but, rather, to Pennie Ford’s black female voice shouting with glee “I’ve got the power!” in the chorus of German band Snap’s 1990 dance hit “The Power”. Perhaps because, after all, Lee’s vision of Perez’s sexy dancing is in itself patriarchal.

This rallying cry, “I’ve got the power!”, has popped up in my brain many times this past week, as I read Naomi Alderman’s controversial novel The Power (2016). I do not wish to write a full review nor to help this appalling fiction attract more readers. However, I do wish to discuss how dangerous the idea of empowerment is becoming, using Alderman as a prop for my arguments.

Just consider: in this multi-awarded novel we are told the story of how a genetic mutation originating in WWII gives all women a skein, located under the collarbone, capable of generating electrical discharges. First, only teen girls have the ability to unleash this mortal power but soon they manage to awake the dormant skein in all women. The author was apparently inspired by what eels can do and they even appear in her novel, in case we miss the allusion.

How do women use this startling bodily ability? They learn to control it, so that electricity can be used, for instance, for erotic play, which sounds fun (some men do develop a strong taste for that). Soon enough, though, female power is applied to more violent pursuits, from playground harassment of girls and boys to… the establishment of an androcidal all-women republic in Moldova (Romania). The victimized women revolt there against intensive sex trafficking as they also revolt against other political patriarchies in the world, such as Saudi Arabia, which leads to the threat of (all-male) war against the newly born state. I won’t go on, but just will mention that the anti-patriarchal backlash and sudden, literal empowerment turns women into feral beasts, quick to rape, torture and kill men. Even children.

Naomi Alderman jokes in her public presentations that The Power is only dystopian if you are a man. She has defended herself from criticism (mostly coming from women) claiming that nothing happens to the men in her novel that does not happen to women in real life. Readers who support her bleak vision of femininity invoke the classic (misogynistic) argument that a civilization dominated by women need not be better than a civilization run by men. And, as you can see in GoodReads, to the question of what would happen if a man had written The Power many readers reply that then we would be reading a history book. Curiously, Alderman presents her fiction as non-fiction written by a male historian about the events and then sent to her, which is, to say the least, an odd framing device. My personal opinion, if you care for it, is that Alderman’s novel is both a misogynistic and an androphobic ugly rant. I am specially scandalized not only because The Power has received any awards but also because it has been endorsed by Margaret Atwood.

Women’s power in Alderman’s novel is the approximate equivalent of men’s muscular strength. You might read The Power as a thesis novel in which the author answers the question of how would it feel for women to know that they are the stronger sex. The problem is that the author bases her thesis on the assumption that men’s average superior strength is applied all the time and against all the women. This is simply not true. I have no doubt that in ancient prehistoric times some men developed patriarchy when they realized that the violence used against animals when hunting could be applied to fellow human beings. In this way, the death race towards total empowerment began. However, despite the staggering amount of violence the world still sees on a daily basis, this is exceptional enough for its acts to be media news and recorded with increasing disgust in the History books. We do speak about violence, that is to say, about the abuse of the personal ability to hurt others, because we see it as anomalous, even in the regions of Earth were it is part of daily routine. And I would insist that most men never dream of using their muscles in the way most women use their (electric) power in Alderman’s novel.

This leads me back to my classroom last Wednesday. I was introducing my students to Masculinities Studies and explaining that one of the greatest challenges this discipline faces is the development of arguments to convince men privileged by patriarchal societies that it is in their interest to surrender (part of) their power. Power, so to speak, is a limited quantity and if minorities need to be empowered, then majorities need to accept disempowerment (think African Americans and American whites, if you want an example not about gender).

One of my male students asked the key question: why are we always talking about empowerment and isn’t the very idea of power suspect? I acknowledged that this is the limit of my own theorisation and that I want to believe that there is a difference between accruing power to abuse others (to use them as your own resources) and to help others (from a position which commands respect and gets positive things done). How about anarchism, then, he asked, and how does it fit our current discourse on power? Badly, I should say… Although there is the question of whether an absolutely equally empowered society would result in a form of (workable?) anarchy.

What my student suggested very intelligently is that the very idea of empowerment is a poisonous legacy of patriarchy, and I believe that Alderman’s novel proves this point. Personal experience suggests that nobody is empowered for good, and history has countless examples of extremely powerful patriarchal men who have lost everything overnight (think mafia). Current Western democracies are based on the peculiar principle that someone, usually a man, can be empowered for limited periods of time. At our current crossroads it looks as if WWIII might be triggered by opposite, yet complementary, examples of patriarchal empowerment in North Korea (a tyranny) and the USA (allegedly a democracy). Countless dictatorships and revolutions have seen people who felt secure in their power, from dictators to democratic judges, just to name opposite positions, be radically disempowered and even deprived of their lives. The road to empowerment is by no means safe.

As minorities struggle for empowerment and agency, these two keywords of our time, they are tempted by the patriarchal style of (ab)using power, or so it seems. I told my students how in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, about the first openly gay man voted into political office in the USA, there is a very scary moment. San Francisco town councillor Harvey Milk wants to get rid of his political enemy, conservative councillor Dan White (who would eventually kill him), and threatens Mayor George Moscone–the very man who empowered Milk to be elected–with withdrawing his support. Moscone, taken aback, jokes that Milk sounds like a mafia boss and Milk quips “I like that, a gay man with power”. I was dismayed by this scene, as it suggested that in the end minorities are after what hegemonic masculinity has: the power to disempower.

Within hegemonic masculinity, an entangled concept which already two generations of Masculinities Studies scholars are failing to make sense of, things are by no means simple. The core of patriarchy is doing all it can to keep minorities at bay but sooner or later we will see white men mix with (or even be replaced by) other kinds of powerful human beings, not excluding at all women or non-whites. My dystopian future is not about women lashing out like eels but about the opposite of the Star Trek World Federation: an Earth dominated by a power-hungry elite, always vying for positions at the top, and combining the most ambitious individuals in our world. This elite will no longer be strictly patriarchal in the sense of being an exclusive male patriarchs’ club but, rather, a rainbow oligarchy. The rest of us, the ones who do not yearn for power, will be ruled (as we are), while those who do ambition power but have no means to access it will go on causing random violence, as private or public terrorists.

This is why I think that dealing with power along separatists lines in feminist dystopia or utopia makes little sense. There must be a middle-ground between the equally absurd propositions that women are all adorable, moral persons or evil wanna-be patriarchs, and we need to find it. I marvel at how 27 years after the publication of Judith Butler’s indispensable Gender Trouble (1990), which famously declared that gender is performative, the gender binary is still alive.

The question to ask in 2017 is not, most emphatically, how women would handle a sudden gift of power but whether power will be eventually degendered, particularly in the gender-fluid society that the young, in the West and elsewhere, so often promote as an ideal. Also, why disempowered minorities are not building tools for better agency, or why they are not being taught to do so. Reading about the women in Alderman’s novel, and in particular the politician who wants to run for USA President, a thought that often occurred to me is that some avenues for empowerment are already open–without the need for the electric skein. Hillary may have failed this time around but look at Angela Merkel. Or, more worryingly, at Marine Le Pen.

Most importantly, as my student suggested, we need to consider why power and empowerment occupy such central position in the ideology and agendas of the minorities seeking to gain more agency. And whether in the end even a gender-fluid society would be ruled by a hierarchy, rather than be a power-fluid civilization, that is to say, perhaps an anarchy. A word I believed to be until this week not part of my ideological vocabulary…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE LOVING GAZE: FIFTY YEARS OF LEGAL INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IN THE USA

[I’m celebrating today the seventh anniversary of The Joys of Teaching Literature!!! Thank you for reading the blog. Please, find all seven yearly volumes in .pdf here http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328]

It is one of those beautiful coincidences in life that the surname of the couple whose union ended state legislation in the USA against interracial marriages was Loving. The love story between Richard and Mildred was narrated last year in a quite successful film, simply called Loving, directed and written by Jeff Nichols http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4669986/. This was based on the 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1759682/). Curiously, and this is more and more frequent in US cinema, neither actor playing the Lovings is American: Joel Edgerton is Australian and Ruth Negga–who received an Oscar nomination for the role–though born in Ethiopia to a Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, was raised in Ireland. This constant use of foreign actors deserves perhaps another post but before I start rambling, just let me say why the film Loving, whose title plays so nicely with the surname, is so fine: it’s because how Mildred and Richard look at each other with a loving gaze, hardly ever seen in contemporary cinema.

Nichols took his inspiration for his presentation of the Lovings from Grey Villet’s photos of the couple in the intimacy of their very modest Virginia home, published in 1965 by Life magazine, and now gathered together in a book, with an obvious title, The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait. Take a look at some of the pictures for instance here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2017/mar/29/the-lovings-in-pictures. What you see is a white man and a non-white woman (Mildred was of mixed African-American and Native-American descent) happily enjoying their home life with their three children. Since the Lovings were working-class (Richard worked as a builder, she was a housewife), the photos have nothing to do with the middle and upper-middle class idealized families with whom we tend to connect a happy home life, quite stereotypically. What the photos plainly transmit, as this is Villet’s merit, is that these five persons, specially husband and wife, love each other very much. Believably and credibly, as you don’t often see in our jaded times.

Nichols’ film eventually reaches the tipping point when this mixed-race couple, initially the victims of racist Virginia legislation like others, become a fundamental case in the annals of the US Supreme Court. This is in the second half of the film. The first five minutes are, however, the most challenging ones. Why? Because before the legal arguments are built and presented, you simply see how deeply Richard and Mildred love each other, and how happy he is made by her announcement that she is pregnant. Indeed, the naturality of this opening segment is such that uninformed spectators might initially believe that this is a romantic fantasy and not a real-life story, for we’re not used to the very simple idea that love does happen between individuals of different races. And we hardly ever see this kind of couple portrayed. It’s about time we wonder why.

I have the legal details of the Lovings’ struggle to earn their right to live freely as a married couple from the film, and, so, they might be incorrect or limited. Basically, since as residents of Virginia they could not marry in this state, due to its cynically named ‘Racial Integrity Act’ of 1924, in 1958 the couple travelled to Washington D.C. to get married there. They, however, returned home. Soon, they were arrested (at this point Mildred was heavily pregnant) and given a sort of exile sentence, which prevented them from being in Virginia together for the following 25 years.

They moved back to Washington D.C., visiting family separately for a few years. Tired of city life and missing the country, Mildred decided in 1964 that they should go home, where they faced a harsh prison sentence and risked losing custody of their children. She sent then a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Volunteer attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop started then the journey that would eventually lead the Lovings’ case to be heard three years later by the Supreme Court. The film explains that the Lovings kept themselves apart from the process to avoid hearing the Virginia legal team referring to their children as bastards.

The Supreme Court judges reached on 12 June 1967 a decision on ‘Loving v. Virginia’. They ruled, in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, that: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival (….). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law”. This put an end to anti-miscegenation legislation, still applied then in 15 American states. 12 June is now National Loving Day in celebration of interracial love. By the way, Warren’s argumentation was also recently invoked by defenders of lesbian and gay marriage.

Many issues overlap, then, in Nichols’ subtle film and in the story of the Lovings. One is how come that their names are not better known? Is it because the USA are somehow hiding their embarrassing anti-miscegenation legislation that there is an interested silence about the heroes who resisted it? Reading about the Nazi Nuremberg Race Laws (1935) banning Jews from marrying ‘Aryan’ Germans as an absolute horror, I was dismayed to read that many American states in the Union had their own one-drop rule. That is to say, they passed legislation to prevent whites from marrying blacks, thus preventing racial mixing or miscegenation. The one-drop rule determined that, regardless of whether a person appeared to be racially white, if this person had a black ancestor, then s/he was regarded as black, and, hence, banned from marrying a white individual. Laws defending this principle were passed in the southern States from the 1890s onwards, peaking in the 1920s with, for instance, Virginia’s 1924 infamous act. This was, you see?, before the Nazi anti-miscegenation laws. And, as Loving narrates, this kind of detestable legislation stayed put until the late 1960s.

Let me go back to the film’s narrative style and its focus on the loving/Loving gaze. Just by coincidence, I was reading this morning a paper by Darko Suvin in which he wonders whether scopophilia is somehow connected with the Freudian death wish. Let me explain: ‘scopophilia’, or ‘pleasure in looking’ is a central piece in Laura Mulvey’s feminist attack against classical cinema, famously expressed in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). As Mulvey argued, invoking Freud, cinema was (and still is) aimed at eliciting the scopophilia of the male spectator by using the female body as an erotic object. I think that Mulvey, like Freud, forgot about how important women’s erotic gaze is (whether lesbian or heterosexual) but I don’t want to pursue this argument now. What I want to stress is that whether diagetic or extradiagetic–that is to say, whether this is actors looking at each other, or spectators looking at actors–the contemporary male and female gaze has been so sexualized that it is actually excluding love. I think this impression underlies Suvin’s claim that scopophilia is today fundamentally cannibalistic and destructive.

This is why I was stunned, this is the word, by Loving. You may have seen thousands of actors avidly staring at each other, trying to transmit some kind of electric feeling growing between them, but this is not love–it’s passion, or lust. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga look at each other and, as the spectator gazing at them, you understand that Richard and Mildred love each other, a feeling that goes far beyond in depth than the sexual desire currently dominating the human gaze in audio-visual production (both cinema and series). Perhaps this is so because the actors and the film director are copying what is documented in Villet’s photos, presenting for once love as it is in reality, not as it is fantasized about. Since Nichols is making a moving picture, and not a still picture like Villet, his problem is how to avoid the intense melodrama of the Lovings’ life. The result is a slap in the face of all those films that fail to represent love, convinced instead that–excuse me for sounding so prudish–love is best portrayed by showing the couple in question having sex. It turns out that love is most lovingly shown by the simple touch of a (white) hand on a (black) hand.

Racism is one of the most absurd aberrations produced by the human mind and it would be nice to see it over, the sooner the better. Loving helps us very much to understand the nature of the aberration (as another beautiful film, Hidden Figures, does). Yet, we must recall that although one-drop rule legislation is, happily, a thing of the past, the racist misgivings against miscegenation might not be. I wonder, for instance, whether Barack Obama would have been elected President if Michelle had been white and their girls mixed-race. Not to mention the fact that even though Obama’s mother is white, he is labelled (and self-identifies) as black…

Not there yet, then. In the meantime, enjoy loving/Loving.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A WEALTH OF ALLUSIONS: WEAVING THE WEB OF CULTURE

I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

JEDIS AND TEMPLARS: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND OBI-WAN KENOBI

I am using this first post of the new academic year to process ideas I’m considering for my plenary talk on Obi-Wan Kenobi, to be given at the conference on ‘Star Wars and Ideology’ (April 2018, Universidad Complutense in Madrid, http://eventos.ucm.es/10096/detail/congreso-internacional_-star-wars-e-ideologia.html). I asked specifically to focus on Kenobi because there is one image in Lucas’s saga that still bothers me after many years: that of the burnt, mutilated body of Anakin Skywalker, fallen at the feet of Obi-Wan on planet Mustafar’s volcanic landscape.

This is how the relationship between master and padawan ends: with Kenobi using sickening violence to smash the body of his former pupil. Inexplicably, despite the appalling way in which Obi-Wan punishes Anakin for his first crimes as Darth Vader, the Jedi Master still remains a favourite with many Star Wars fans. True, Skywalker/Vader’s crimes include the near murder of his pregnant wife Amidala and the extermination of all the children apprenticed to the Jedi Temple. Kenobi is himself the only survivor of Order 66, evil Palpatine’s decree to annihilate all the Jedis and, besides, Anakin is trying to kill him. Even so, when Obi-Wan coolly uses his lightsaber to cut off both of Anakin’s legs and his remaining arm (the other was lost to Count Dooku), and when he abandons his former apprentice to be burnt to death by lava, he is not acting as a Jedi, whether knight or master. He is acting in anger, fury and resentment, exactly the emotions that the Jedi code tries to suppress because they lead to the dark side.

Palpatine, or Darth Sidious if you wish, rescues the disfigured, half-dead Vader to imprison him in the iconic cyborg black suit. Meanwhile, Kenobi sees Amidala die in childbirth and organizes the adoption of her newly born twins, Luke and Leia. He hides for nineteen years on planet Tatooine, keeping an eye on the boy, fostered by farmers Owen and Beru Lars (Leia is left in the aristocratic hands of Bail Organa, a member of Alderaan’s royal family). Apparently a new film, scheduled for 2019 and still to be written, will narrate Obi-Wan’s Tatooine exile, which he starts looking like Ewan McGregor and from which he emerges looking like Alec Guinness.

I’m convinced that Guinness’ English avuncular looks in the 1977 film, Episode IV: A New Hope, and McGregor’s Scottish good looks in Episodes I-III have played a major role in convincing audiences that Kenobi is a good man always acting right, no matter the circumstances. We first met him as teen Luke’s new mentor: a clever, serene old man, at all times one step ahead of the malevolent Empire thanks to his proficient use of the Force. Who could have thought back in 1977 that when he meets Darth Vader to let himself be killed by him in strange circumstances both were sharing the memory of the Mustafar horror? Well, nobody, not even George Lucas, who must have came up with that grisly moment only about 2000. By the time Kenobi wins the awful combat with Anakin in Revenge of the Sith (2005), at the end of the trilogy, McGregor has convinced us that Obi-Wan has been an extremely patient father-figure for the unruly, testy, irritating Anakin. And let’s be clear about this: because we find McGregor not only handsome but also a very good actor, we even cheer when dreadfully bad actor Hayden Christensen (playing Anakin) starts losing his limbs, lopped off by Obi-Wan’s blue laser saber. It’s just a case of the villain getting his comeuppance from the hero.

Yet, it is not at all. Anakin’s fall is the result of a serious flaw in the Jedi code: the rule preventing knights from having personal attachments. This is the point at which I need to explain the role of the Knights Templar in Star Wars.

As you know, the Knights Templar where a medieval religious military order. They were founded by Hugues de Payens (1070-1136), a French minor aristocrat who convinced the Christian king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, to let him form with eight more men a guard devoted to protecting pilgrims. This happened in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1095-99); the Order of Solomon’s Temple was established in 1119. From its humble beginnings, the brotherhood of the Knights Templar blossomed into a rich emporium with houses all over Europe and the Middle East, specializing in international banking (they invented the equivalent of modern travellers’ cheques). The order grew so powerful that by 1312 Pope Clement V and King Philippe IV decided to disband it, killing most of its members. Their arrest was decreed for a fated Friday 13, apparently the origin of our superstitions about that date. Remember Palpatine’s Order 66?

Proof that George Lucas knows about the Knights Templar is very easy to find: he proposed the story on which the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is based. All kinds of legends are attached to the Knights Templar, who spent their initial years in Jerusalem apparently digging the remains of Solomon’s Temple for treasure and who found, among other objects, the Ark of Alliance and the Holy Grail, both chased by Indiana Jones.

Anyone minimally interested in the charismatic Templars knows that Hugo de Payens introduced a singular innovation in medieval warfare by merging the monk and the warrior in a single figure. Lucas, who initially though of calling his own monkish soldiers Jedi Templars must have been also aware of their code, developed by Payens together with his relative and founder of the Benedictine Order, Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153). The text of this code, called the Latin Rule (1128) defines in 72 articles how Knights Templar should behave down to the last detail.

Here are the articles that apply to Star Wars and that make it impossible for Obi-Wan Kenobi to successfully guide Anakin Skywalker. Article 14 states that, although children were often accepted as novices in monasteries, they should not enter the order. The code advises parents to raise their sons until they can “bear arms with vigour” and warns that “it is much better” for a candidate “if he does not take the vow when he is a child, but when he is older, and it is better if he does not regret it than if he regrets it”. In contrast, the Jedi train children from a very early age: Qui-Gon Jinn takes Anakin when he is only nine. Let’s add to this glaring mistake the fact that Qui-Gon frees the child from slavery, but not his mother Shmi, forcing the poor boy to abandon her to her sad fate for ever.

Why for ever? Because, allow me to speculate about this, Lucas also borrowed from the Latin Rule article 71, which forbids brother knights from kissing, embracing and even looking at women “be it widow, young girl, mother, sister, aunt or any other”. Contact with women must be avoided so that order members “may remain eternally before the face of God with a pure conscience and sure life”, which also means that “the flower of chastity” (article 70) must be always maintained. This article serves both to prevent women from joining the Knights Templar but also to keep “the brothers” celibate, and always married first and foremost to the order. By the way: married men could join in provided they should stay chaste after admission. The imposition of chastity on religious orders, interestingly, was only made final, after warnings scattered through the centuries, by the Lateran Council in 1123, celebrated only five years before the writing of the Latin Rule. Pope Calixtus II denied the sacrament of marriage to anyone in orders and even annulled perfectly valid unions signed before the Council.

The Jedis are very similar to the Knights Templar in the management of their personal relationships, though not as strict as to forbid looking. Also, there are females among them, though the use of the word Knight for them suggests that non-male Jedis were a politically correct addition rather than part of Lucas’s plans from the beginning. Pope Calixtus II made celibacy compulsory for very pragmatic reasons: whereas many, including the Templars, invoked the purity of the body (which is funny because they only bathed once a year…), the actual purpose of celibacy was preventing the riches of the Church from being scattered among the priests’ and nuns’ families. For the Jedis the key matter was preventing the forming of uncontrollable dynasties (see the Wookipedia for a discussion of this point).

Even though the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-15) invented for Obi-Wan an impossible romance with Duchess Satine Kryze, Kenobi is a stickler for the Jedi rule and, seeing that Anakin is falling for Amidala, can think of nothing except tell the young man that they should remain friends. As he did with Satyne, to their mutual insatisfaction. Please, remember that Anakin has not chosen to be a Jedi, has lost his mother and has not been allowed in any way to buy her freedom, much less to stay in touch with her. Perhaps now we understand why he falls in love with a kind woman five years his senior, precisely during the time when Obi-Wan allows him to go on his first solo mission, as Senator Amidala’s protector. Since the Jedi code determines that Anakin, then 20, will be expelled if the romance is discovered, the couple embark on a secret marriage, never trusting Kenobi and for good reason. Anakin’s anguish and his fear of losing Amidala make him extremely vulnerable to Palpatine’s manipulations and so he falls on the dark side. Only to be burned to a crisp by the man who was supposed to be for him brother, father, friend and master in one–Kenobi.

I have no idea why Lucas decided to keep this rule from the remote medieval past alive in the 21st century of Episodes I-III, although we must recall that a) all love stories need an obstacle, b) celibacy is still today a major problem for Catholics priests and possibly the root of rampant child abuse. The question is that although Anakin Skywalker is not exactly a sweet guy, he is a man deeply troubled by the loss of his mother, who regains some sort of balance thanks to Amidala. The secrecy of their love and the actual death of Shmi in terrible circumstances call for a thoughtful, compassionate reaction from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet the fact that he sides with the absurd Jedi code rather than with Anakin’s very human passions is what brings disaster onto the heads of all Jedis, almost ending the order for good. A wise mentor would have convinced the Jedi Council to allow Anakin and Amidala to live openly as husband and wife, thus putting an end to Palpatine’s hold on the young man. If, in addition, Anakin certainly is the most powerful Jedi ever, then it seems in the Jedis’ best interests to keep him happy and on their side, firmly bound to Kenobi and Yoda’s wise counsel. Instead, we get the ghastly scene on Mustafar when Darth Vader has already taken Anakin over.

Even if you hate Star Wars with all your might, you might perhaps draw a lesson from Anakin’s fall, and that of any young man, to the dark side: any code of masculinity that calls for the suppression of feeling and of personal attachment is monstrous. Far from being a wise man, Obi-Wan Kenobi unwisely enforces that revolting rule because he is himself a limited man, incapable of truly empathizing with his troubled padawan. Unwittingly, then, Lucas sends with his underrated second trilogy a most important message: if men fail to understand what other men feel, and how to guide and help them, then we are all in trouble.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/