Posts Tagged ‘stories’

Black, White, & Gray

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Feb 01 2017

Since its release, Rogue One has been proclaimed – and not only by Disney – to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. In various elaborations on this theme, all the usual suspects line up: gritty, realistic, Ambiguitycomplex, ambiguous. Rogue One mostly lives up to its billing, though in less than exemplary fashion. I would like to examine this, not for the sake of the movie itself so much as for the larger points of complexity and ambiguity in stories.

In the moral compromises of its heroes and a gut-wrenching shot of a little girl terrified in the crossfire of battle, Rogue One finds an ugly side of war that the earlier Star Wars movies do not (though this is somewhat undermined by the relentless battles, which leave the impression that war is endlessly diverting and explosions are more desirable in a story than, say, dialogue). It even gets its hands on a genuine moral dilemma that is latent in technologically advanced warfare. In the course of the movie, the Rebel Alliance plots to assassinate the Death Star’s chief scientist.

By the way: Spoilers.

The idea of assassinating a scientist has a moral queasiness about it, but a case can be made for it. A scientist can have just as much blood on his hands as a soldier, and no one who is dedicated to creating a weapon of crushing, unheard-of power can be considered a noncombatant. Such scientists, as paid employees of a government’s war machine, are civilians only on a technicality; some of them are not even that, being formal members of the military. Why should scientists be entitled to safety while they facilitate the slaughter of millions?

And yet assassination is always a dirty business, cold, cold killing.

Rogue One raises a thorny moral question but never reflects on it. It offers the briefest, blandest justification for the assassination (basically he’s a weapons scientist who builds weapons and those kill people) and then just sort of assumes that it’s wrong. I’m not sure the filmmakers even knew they had a complex moral question. This is why Rogue One, despite reports, is no more thoughtful than the supposedly “unreflective” classic Star Wars trilogy. It is not enough that stories raise a difficult question, nor is it necessary that they answer one; to be reflective you have to, well, reflect.

Just as Rogue One is not a particularly thoughtful movie, neither is it really a complex one. Oh, there’s plenty of ambiguity, which is interesting and, yes, realistic. But ambiguity is not the same as complexity. complexityIt may even be the opposite of it, to the extent that it is simply a muddying of the waters. True complexity requires greater clarity and more distinction, and it doesn’t discard simplicity.

The plot of Rogue One carries the potential for certain moral complexities – that being on the right side does not ensure righteousness, that victims are not necessarily innocent, that war is so terrible it can degrade even heroes. That potential is never developed, partially because the movie is devoted to rushing action and not fine moral points, but also because heroes and the right side are lost in the gray. There’s too much moral ambiguity for moral complexity. Good and evil mix in strange and tragic ways, but to see that requires a distinction between white and black where they do not simply swamp together into gray.

Rogue One is a new kind of Star Wars movie, less of a space opera and more of a war film, and above all a (very competent) action movie. But it’s a mistake to assume that any story will be more reflective because it is gritter, or more complex because it is ambiguous.

We Are (Not) the Hollow Men

Culture, History | Posted by Shannon
May 30 2016

In the last year of the Civil War, Confederate leaders in Charleston, South Carolina turned the city’s horse-racing track (the Race Course, they called it) into a prisoner-of-war camp. They herded Union soldiers into the track’s interior, forcing them to live there without any shelter. In these miserable conditions, 257 Union soldiers died. The Confederates buried them in unmarked graves at the Race Course.

On February 18, 1865, the mayor of Charleston surrendered to Union forces. A mass exodus of white citizens surrounded the fall of Charleston, but thousands of blacks remained in the city, most of them newly freed slaves. And they remembered the suffering of the soldiers at the Race Course.

In April of 1865, twenty-eight black men from one of Charleston’s churches re-buried the dead, turning the hasty graves into neat rows. They erected a fence around the gravesite, ten feet high, and whitewashed it; over the gate they built an arch and inscribed on it: “Martyrs of the Race Course”.

On May 1, a procession of 10,000 people marched to the graveyard and dedicated it with prayers, Bible readings, and songs. They laid spring blossoms on the graves until “the holy mounds – the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them – were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” (a newspaperman who witnessed the event, quoted by David W. Blight)

There were other ceremonies, other commemorations of the Civil War dead, and in 1868 Major General John Logan established Decoration Day. In his order to his posts to decorate the graves of the fallen, he wrote, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

Like the freed slaves of Charleston, he not only gave recognition to the soldiers’ suffering; he gave it meaning.

An effective, if grim, teacher of how vitally that matters is the special bitterness of those wars regarded as pointless – the Vietnam War, for example, or the First World War. Rightly or wrongly, but undeniably painfully, the dead in such wars are felt to be not only lost but “wasted” (as one Vietnam veteran put it).

Paul Johnson captured the bitterness of apparently meaningless suffering in his essay on T.S. Eliot:

It [WWI] was a war without hope or heroic adventure – just a dull misery of loss and pain – which induced in the participants, serving in the trenches or suffering vicariously at home, an overwhelming sense of heartache. The times seemed to have no redeeming feature; mankind appeared to be undergoing the agony of the war with no compensating gain in virtue but merely the additional degradation that the infliction of death and cruelty brings. It was unmitigated waste. So, equally, was Eliot’s marriage, both parties to it enduring suffering without a mitigating sense of redemption, just two wasted lives joined in sorrow. [Paul Johnson, Creators]

Which I bring up not to make a historical statement on the meaning or consequences of any war, let alone to make valuations of suffering; I only want to show how the human heart recoils from suffering without meaning.

Conflict is vital to stories. So, in a way, is suffering, however slight it may sometimes be. The very nature of the story pulls to give it meaning – by giving the root and final end of the suffering, by weaving it into a much greater whole.

This is one of the great satisfactions of fiction. All too often, in the real world, suffering has no point anyone can see and struggles are barren, yielding no fruit. But we hope – sometimes we can even believe – that if the whole story of the universe were told, if the tapestry of the million threads could be unrolled, then maybe we could find some redemption for the things that have none.

Decoration DayOf course, that story isn’t told; it isn’t even over yet. But in the finished stories of fiction, we see the ultimate ends and, with them, the ultimate meaning.

Not, of course, that all stories do end with redemption of suffering, or hope; some storytellers prefer the poetry of World War I, the mood caught by T.S. Eliot. (“We are the hollow men …”) But the greatest beauty is found in, well, the freed slaves’ memorial to the Union soldiers – where suffering has meaning and tears are iridescent.