Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar and the ego-Self axis

I just returned from the movie Avatar. I have to admit that I went knowing very little about the plot, save the little bits of trailers I had seen. I expect Jungians and Joseph Campbell fans all over will be writing about this movie in coming weeks (I'm sure many have already started), but I'm throwing in my two cents here.

Albeit fantastical in every way, and likely too corny for some or too violent for others, this movie remarkably illustrates the worlds in which we can live connected, or disconnected, from Self. This argument could be seriously misunderstood though, if I'm not careful. Let me start here.

Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), outlines the "monomyth", a singular theme, that he saw depicted in myth after myth throughout world cultures. The monomyth is what he called the hero's journey, an archetypal theme that George Lucas, a friend of Campbell's, built on in the making of Star Wars-- a key element in its appeal to viewers and overwhelming success. James Cameron has undoubtedly borrowed from this same theme in Avatar, a film about a young, crippled Marine who steadily moves into another world and another body and is personally transformed as a result.

What the hero's journey also depicts in the language of analytic psychology, is the path of individuation. It is a story of the ego's journey from a position of presumed dominance in psyche to a position of conscious relationship with Self, a place of recognition that it is only one aspect of psyche, and certainly not the one ultimately in charge. So Avatar, while clearly a political film indicating the mess of the world we've made and the disaster that comes when militarism and capitalism are in bed together, also of course has a strong mythical layer. And beyond the mythical, the hero's journey, there is the psychological. A well-illustrated, fantastical depiction of what life is like when ego is fully in charge, and what it is like when ego is in relationship with Self, the archetype of wholeness, the great mother, the tree of life, the interconnected web.

When I try to explain the ego-Self axis, I forget the importance of the feeling tone of life with or without it. In this film, the bad guy is ego disconnected from Self. He is the militant, bull-headed soldier who is determined, no matter what, to achieve the goal he set out to accomplish. This is an individual who lives his or her life with a goal that they must achieve, no matter what illness, tragedy or pain comes in their way -- no matter what other components of life are right in front of their eyes to indicate that the path they're on is the wrong one. (I am not speaking of the people who are often referred to as "the fighters", who rise out of tragedy, but those who are typically after money or a title that is a purely ego-centered goal).

The person who is connected to Self, truly connected, is the princess character from "the people." The literal connection point that she shows the film's hero how to use is a perfect image of the ego-Self axis. The connection, which you'll have to watch the film to see, allows the individual human to tap into the larger web of interconnected life and intelligence for guidance, transportation, or life-giving support. By respecting that connection, their people are protected and thrive on what could be an extremely threatening planet.

Of course, like all hero's journey myths, this film provides a sense of how to save the world. One ventures out of a dying land, journeys into tragedy, battles against all odds, and as a result of his (or her) battles, brings life back to his people. In this case, the twist was that the hero, through a kind of dream world, found his true people and fought against the old.

Through our total disconnection from Self in our current world, we are successfully going about destroying the planet, not understanding viscerally that we are destroying ourselves. If this connection were strong, as it is with "the people" in Avatar, we would know immediately the effect of the destruction of our world and seek to stop it. We would individually, personally, feel the pain.

Finally, just as those who listen to the animals in fairy tales succeed in the end (while those who do not, do not), there is a lesson in this film for what happens when you respect and listen to the web of life. She gives back and supports you in the end. Despite how much it kicks and screams about it, in the end, the relationship with Self is for ego's own good.

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