I finally got to see Avatar--we were holding out for 3-D and had missed the 3-D showings the first time around--and though I could spend days picking holes in the film there was a lot to enjoy and admire in it, too. Cameron always has something to say, and he's enough of an intuitive artist that his work survives the Boy's Own Adventure plotting, the stock characters, and even the imperialism implicit in his theme of human-marine-becomes-savior-of-the blueskins. And he knows how to ramp up the emotions, too, and tap into some pretty deep feelings.
Surely one reason for the film's success is that it expresses one of those nagging suspicions that some of us take seriously and others try to suppress. That's the sense that the way we live is false, corrupting, and ultimately murderous.It doesn't meet our deepest longings and both individually and collectively we can't stop ourselves from doing terrible things to each other and to the rest of the world.
Pandora isn't just physically entrancing, though with his typical lack of subtlety Cameron loads the dice and makes it all but paradisaical. Pretty or not, the most appealing thing about it is that its people are deeply enmeshed with each other and with all other life. And don't we wish that this was our reality instead of a dream? Doesn't our helplessness in the face of our own rapacity, environmental and otherwise, seem to stem from a lack of just that kind of connection?
These ideas crop up in a lot of religious thought, especially in the Indian tradition and among indigenous peoples. Cameron knows this, of course; the Pandoran way of life has strong, obvious references to the way people in hunting societies live. What he's done is take some central insights of non-Western spiritual life and imagine a place where those don't conflict with twenty-first century science.
But he leaves us thinking that we're out in the cold. The Pandoran reality can never be ours.This is partly because his guiding metaphor is the computer, and he takes that metaphor literally. Pandora's trees are all linked at the root, thus forming a giant network, and Pandorans both humanoid and non-humanoid have helpfully evolved patch cords at the back of their heads so they can plug into the network as well as to each other.
Alas, we have self-enclosed human bodies with no interface card. Jake Scully gets to inhabit a real Pandoran body with full network capabilities, but the rest of us were born without those nifty tendrils that can link us with the totality of things. We're stuck.
Or are we? I'm not so sure. In one respect the Pandorans are so--so nineties. Their spiritual life is modeled on a biological Ethernet system, and to get or give information they have to be hard-wired to Eywa. But what if the real connections, here on Earth at least, aren't hard-wired but wireless?
Before you brace yourself for stuff about mystical flows of energy and all the rest you ought to know that scientists have found any number of ways in which people communicate unconsciously. Only a tiny fraction of our lives is ever available to consciousness. We rely almost entirely on embodied knowledge, and in the flesh we are deeply connected with one another. (This is the premise of my first book, The fiction of a thinkable world, and the starting point for my current writing on religion and science.) I'm hardly the only one saying this. The environmental theorist Timothy Morton has made very similar arguments, and he's been way more successful in getting the word out than I've been.
We've got good reason to think that Pandora isn't so bad an image of what our life is really like--and our particular planet is beautiful enough, thank you, even without luminous forests and floating mountains. This isn't how we experience it, though, especially not in the modern world, and there's the difference. Eywa and the Pandorans' built-in plugs make things simpler. We humans, on the other hand, are always going to have to learn how to listen to those connections.
Our big difference isn't biological, though. It's in our history and culture. And one sign of that difference is just how strange it sounds to talk about temple rituals and about figures of deities as something other than symbolic. Eywa isn't a symbol to the Pandorans, nor is the tree of souls a metaphor. They're really there and they're really active, just as Sri Rajarajeshwari--who both is and isn't the interconnected activity that we experience as the world--is really supposed to be there at my temple.
What would it really be like to live not just with an uplink to Eywa but within the very web of connections that is Eywa? That's a question that Cameron never gets to. But it's exactly the challenge that other spiritual traditions pose to us today, in a world where everything is turned into symbols and knowledge is nothing more than their proper creation and use.
(To be continued.)