Stunning visuals, tired old plot. With one sneaky twist.
By now this cartoon plot should be as familiar to everyone as, say, the roadrunner and the coyote. It is becoming the cultural air we breathe. This Dances With Wolves myth, (in Avatar the indians are tall and blue) is the new founding myth of America, and indeed of the whole world. Evil Western imperialists, out to rape the land, attack indigenous innocents who are noble and peaceful and in tune with the Great Mother’s vibe. That protuberant male hardness pokes that soft dreamy woman-ness. Paradise is the original state, within Her embrace, and would continue forever if we were just nice to the Mom. She is the planet. We came from Her, She is the Oneness under our feet, and we someday return to her Herness. But our aboriginal dream is spoiled by the phallic symbol of — well, take your choice, because there are lots of stand-ins for the phallus to fill out this gender dualism: machines, metal, engines, guns, buildings, whiteness, masculinity, military culture, knowledge, and on and on. Take your pick.
That’s the American flavor. It comes in a universal version: sometime after the beginning the Sky God, Yahweh, conquered by brute force the Earth Mother, Gaia. All spirituality in the beginning was simple unity with Her, until He raped Her, and created a bloody, structured, law-filled religion. She is so nice and undemanding. He demands obediance and sacrifice. Mom is sweet. Dad is mean. For millenia we were captives of the wicked step-father, until recently. We are finally free; we have awakened backwards into the Dreamtime.
It is good that it is being stated so clearly and so often, because that makes the choice between this myth and rival stories clearer. This mother-earth myth is weak; it is less then explanatory.
Gaia, essentially a huge womb, explains personhood poorly because she is less than a full person, being alone. She brings forth life in a perpetual virgin birth, but she not only has no husband, she indeed is hostile to husbands. She is alone, except for her children, so her only identity is mother. It is easier to have children than to have a spouse.
She is slave forever to her own fructive cycle, which does not depend on any outside lover, but arises from within her over and over and over. Since there are no companions, there is no other plot, such as, for example, any story YOU might find yourself in. You can’t become her if you are male, and if you are female you wouldn’t want to replicate her cycle. After your birth she can feed you but can do little else. In particular, she does not answer prayer. She is what She is; what She is on the day of your birth is exactly what She is on the day of your death, and all the events in between are up to you. She offers comforts, but little help in fighting bullies. All She asks is that you walk softly on Her, because She sickens easily. It’s really a pallid plot.
I don’t mean to sound so sarcastic. You see, She cannot do more, because her writers didn’t want Her to, and like all characters She is avatar to her writers. A God who is a Person must of necessity be quite a complex character in quite a complex plot. A Person would have to take some attitude toward evil, while respecting human choice. A Person would be capable of anger as well as warmth, and would exude structure as well as fauna. A Person with full-blooded love would be conflicted, and tempted to impose a plot on tragic creation. A plot with a creator-person would contain the ultimate dramatic questions, and the ultimate dramatic tensions: is the human an avatar, or is the god? How can I deliver the avatars from death as long as I am separate from them? And so on.
The cosmic mom story doesn’t really rise to this level. It is simple. It is inadequate. Those who love the Mother-myth and tell Her down through the ages don’t actually want a personal God. They want a womb.
There is so much to say at this point about how the Genesis narrative is superior by Occam’s standard…it accounts for more of the data. And it is not just a Father myth, as opposed to this Mother-myth, but is in fact the Father-myth which cherishes the feminine. Indeed, it is the one myth where the Father starts a plot He has never been in Himself: the marriage, in true companionship, of man and woman. But no time for all that now. Back to the movie…
In the movie, the character of Mother-planet (“Pandora”) is true to the myth at first. When the male protagonist needs a savior from the evil imperialist army he prays to the planet-force. The lady protagonist informs him that “She does not take sides”. At this point, James Cameron (the writer and director), is faithful to the archetype. Later, under assualt from his own narrative pressure, he cheats.
The problem with a God who does not take sides is that there are sides, and we empirically can’t just get along. This does not mean the Father-myth is true and the Mother-myth is not, of course, just that the Father-myth is more ambitious. It tries harder to account for the data.
Cameron cheats: at the last minute, when all seems lost, this Mother answers the prayer. The animals — the agents of nature — who earlier were wild dangerous beasts, turn into allies, fight off the evil army, and the happy couple live happily ever after. The world is saved by a miracle.
The entire victory of good over evil hinges on the worst sin of a dramatist, which used to be called “deus ex machina”, a god who drops from the machinery — the rigging over the stage — to intervene and finish the story. But that sounds so masculine now…let’s re-name this ancient sin “dea ex silva”: a goddess from the grove. She may be mom, but She is as much an artistic and logical atrocity as Zeus was.
In the end, in this particular fiction, we needed a God who actually interacts with us. So the archetype of the birthing but non-interventional Mother had to give way, under the force of dramatic necessity, and take on all the characteristics of a traditional deity. I suspect Cameron would usher Her back into the closet, in his worldview, before the whole business takes off on a life of its own, replete with temples and sybils.
You may have surmised by now I’m one of the Male religion people. Quite, if that’s what you want to call vanilla Christianity. But actually this debate between Dad and Mom is not what interests me just now. I supose you could argue that God could be a girl who answers prayer just as well as he could be a guy in a robe and a beard. I suppose. But she never seems to become that in the logic of her own mythology. I’d invite her adherents to wonder why.
What fascinates me in Avatar the movie is that the plot in the structure of the world implies a personal warrior God, and the “world-as-deity” complex just won’t give us that. Cameron, you imperialist, you mined the Gaia myth for all her resources, then, when she was exhausted, you just got dressed and went home. You ravaged her, then didn’t know what to do with her. You ended up with the Father myth at the end of the evening.
Writers, like all religionists, should decide if they want to have their cake or eat it.