I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, in Timequake (1997), Ch. 1, p. 1; courtesy of Wikiquote.
I’ve always been interested in the Mother Goddess. Not long ago, a young person, whom I don’t know very well, sent a message to a mutual friend that said: “I’m an addict of Mary Poppins, and I want you to ask P. L. Travers if Mary Poppins is not really the Mother Goddess.” So, I sent back a message: “Well, I’ve only recently come to see that. She is either the Mother Goddess or one of her creatures — that is, if we’re going to look for mythological or fairy-tale origins of Mary Poppins.”
I’ve spent years thinking about it because the questions I’ve been asked, very perceptive questions by readers, have led me to examine what I wrote. The book was entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out. I never said, “Well, I’ll write a story about Mother Goddess and call it Mary Poppins.” It didn’t happen like that. I cannot summon up inspiration; I myself am summoned.
–P. L. Travers, in The Paris Review No. 86 (Winter 1982); courtesy of Wikiquote.
COINCIDENCE??!! I think NOT!!!
In all seriousness, I think there is a logic here, but of a more subtle sort. I touched on just the barest aspects of this similarity (though without mentioning angels) back here. Today I want to go into greater detail on this topic, and in a slightly different direction. In all seriousness, I think there are some striking similarities, and that’s what we’re going to look at.
I’ve written about angels before, so I will just give a brief rundown of the characteristics traditionally attributed to angels in the Western (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) tradition (though I will emphasize the Christian, since the Christian theology of angels is the one with which I’m most familiar):
- Angels are immortal by nature. Not only do they not die, they cannot die nor be killed or destroyed in any way (except by God, who could annihilate anything if He so wished).
- Angels are pure spirit, or pure mind (which is another way of saying the same thing). They thus lack bodies and are not composed of matter in any way (but see here and here for dissenting views). As a corollary to this, angels do not need to eat, drink, or breathe. The general interpretation is that they refuse to do these things (see Judges 13:15-16) or that when they appear to do so (see Tobit 12:17-19), it is an illusion.
- Angels are not all-knowing (omniscient)–only God is–but what they do know they know perfectly and without confusion. This is because, not having bodies, they are not subject to the frailties inherent in brains and physiological phenomena, and also because they know directly through the ideas (in the Platonic sense) infused into them at their creation by God. Thus angels are, as noted above, more intelligent than humans and less prone (if at all) to error.*
- Angels are not usually asserted to be able to read human minds; but since they are more intelligent and understand human behavior perfectly, they can often infer what a human is thinking. They can telepathically send suggestions to humans, though, thus being able to send thoughts, though they can’t receive them.
- Angels can travel instantaneously anywhere in the cosmos. This is symbolically represented as “flying”, but being immaterial, angels do not fly, walk, or move in any way we understand. They just pop up wherever they want to be.
- Angels are immensely more powerful than humans. Though they are not made of matter, they are capable of interacting with matter. They are thus able to perform acts (technically referred to in theology as “preternatural” acts) that are far beyond what humans can do, and which appear to humans to be miraculous.
That summarizes the properties of angels. Let us now move on to aliens.
This is the very much belated first installment in my series on sequels and repetition in pop culture. In the brief essay on the index page for this series, I said:
My basic thesis, which I’ll be examining in posts to come is this: Repetition, in the form of series, serials, remakes, and quotation of various tropes is at one and the same time the most characteristic feature of modern pop culture (all genres) and also the sign of its decadence and creative decline.
In order to do that, I’ll need to lay a bit of background, starting with this post.
In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton makes this interesting observation:
The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.
This rings true. As humans, we love repetition. As Chesterton notes, “Do it again!” is indeed the refrain, the battle cry of the young child. We adults, having “sinned and grown old”, are not nearly as capable of infinite repetition without being wearied. Still, even adults like things that are familiar and reliable. Few enough things in life are, so it is small wonder that we cling to those things the we perceive as being so. I think this is a big factor in human material and intellectual culture. Nature is as it is, and is all too mutable for our taste. When we build a building or paint a picture or sculpt statues or spin tales, we are trying, by our art, to make something permanent out of the impermanence of the cosmos we find ourselves in. Aristotle noted that poetry (by which he could be taken as meaning more or less what we call “fiction”) is more philosophical than history (“nonfiction”) because while history tells us only what happened, poetry tells us what could happen or might happen or ought to happen. In short, it gives us lasting structure in an ephemeral world.
After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back. I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post. This is that post.
I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school. It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father. Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first. I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow. She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show. This was definitely the case with me and Empire.
Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college. To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.
The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones was the great “This or That” of the 60’s. Despite the unsurpassed creativity and variety of pop music in those days, it sometimes seemed as if the Beatles and the Stones divided the world between them, with there being no third. Certainly, they appeared to be the yin and yang of the rock world. There were the smiling, relatively clean-cut, boyish Beatles, who managed not only to make music for the kids, but to put out what John Lennon later disparagingly referred to as “granny music”, and who even made cartoons for kids (see below). On the other hand, there were the more brooding and snarly Stones, who were definitely not granny or kid-friendly, and who put out such anthems as “Sympathy for the Devil”. Of course, in the real world, the dichotomy was less stark–the Beatles had their dark side, and Charlie Watts, the drummer of the Rolling Stones, was and is into Big Band music. Still, the images and the public perception was there. I was too young to be aware of all this at the time, of course; so I’m going to approach this from another direction.
There has never been a time in my life that the Beatles weren’t in the cultural atmosphere. Their first album, Please Please Me, was released in March 1963, four months before I was born. Beatlemania ensued in the United Kingdom. They came to America and played on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964. Beatlemania ensued in the United States. Thus, throughout my earliest years, there was always something by the Beatles on the air.
My first clear memory of them is of the cartoon TV series, The Beatles, which aired in first run and then in reruns from 1965 to 1969. I watched it regularly and could still remember bits and pieces of it by my forties, at which time I showed episodes to my then-young daughter on YouTube. As far as 60’s cartoons aimed at kids go, it still held up. And what a soundtrack! Going back to my youth, I was vaguely aware when the movie Yellow Submarine came out in 1968, but I never had the opportunity to watch it until it played on network television sometime in the early 70’s. It was very different, to say the least, from the TV series; but I found it oddly fascinating. Several years ago, I bought it on DVD for my daughter, around eight at the time; and she, too liked it.
As I said, the Beatles were always there. I listened to relatively little pop music as a kid, though. The records (yes, it was pre-CD and MP3) I bought were all classical. I heard what was on the airwaves, of course; and there was always Beatles, and later, Paul McCartney, and to a lesser extent, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, as solo acts, on the radio. Still, it was more background music than anything else.
Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that? Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….
Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old. Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade. I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well. I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another. Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it. For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired. I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once. I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did. In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.