The Great Books and The Last Jedi
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
So begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 Nature, oft lauded as a founding text of Transcendentalism, a movement which helped to eclipse traditional Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, among New England elites in the mid-nineteenth century. Departing from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition of revering (and living one’s life based on) the wisdom found in great books and holy texts, the Transcendentalists embraced a doctrine that rejected all texts – indeed, all forms of art – as inherently inferior to each individual’s direct experience of the spiritual truths found in nature.
Tradition, whether passed down orally or textually, was for the Transcendentalists to be rejected as the experience of someone else—usually someone long dead—and thus of little relevance to the living individual. All that one needed in order to learn the greatest truths in life, they urged, is one’s soul and nature.
This concept was not entirely new in 1836, of course; there has always been a doctrine of God’s General Revelation through nature in Christian theology. And Emerson’s predecessors in the English Romantic movement were the first in the modern era to call for an abandonment of the Special Revelation of God’s word (and indeed, all written words), in favor of an exclusive attention to Nature as the revealer of all truth. In 1798, the arch-Romantic William Wordsworth wrote:
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
Now, my job title here at The Saint Constantine School is Assistant Professor of Great Texts and Writing.
I love Great Texts – Homer, Dante, Basho, Dickinson, Dostoevsky – and have chosen them as my career focus. Day in, day out the books that Emerson called “the sepulchers of the fathers” are my companions. But if Emerson and his Transcendentalists had it their way, there would be no need for such a specialty. For texts themselves – and the traditions that surround them – hold us back from the whole truth.
Luckily, the Transcendentalists were not wholly successful, and their movement went the way of the dodo before the nineteenth century was out. Further, we now read Emerson’s and Wordsworth’s writings in our Great Texts 4 College class, which I think an ironic and fitting tribute to men who told us to stop reading old tomes. For all their call for us to have an original relationship to the universe unmediated by the words of other humans, it is their words we fell in love with.
Still, Emerson’s ideas about self-reliance and the didactic nature of, well, Nature, have hung around, and often show up in American art. In 1980, they showed up in Irving Kirschner’s popular space fantasy The Empire Strikes Back, sequel to George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars. Viewers had already learned in Star Wars that one can “use the Force” by “letting go” of mechanized living and “feeling” instead of “thinking”. Instead of using a targeting computer to blow up the Death Star, the hero Luke Skywalker “feels” his way to victory.
In 1980’s Empire, the Jedi Master Yoda takes Luke further into the lore of the Force by showing him that the Force he feels within him is also in “the rock, the tree, the ship… it surrounds us, and binds us.” Just as Emerson and Wordsworth call their readers to “Let Nature be your teacher,” it is through attention to and connection with nature that Jedi learn and grow.
The latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi is a film full of tricks, twists, and sleights of hand, both narrative and aesthetic. Also central are the same old Transcendentalist themes: under the gruff tutelage of the now elderly Luke, the young, optimistic Rey communes with nature, learning from it that the same force in her is in all of nature, binding it together and balancing opposites.
But whereas Yoda had taught Luke about the Jedi-nature connection in the context of training in the Jedi religion, Luke is very open with Rey about his desire for the Jedi tradition to end with him. He has many reasons for this, but the primary one is that he is acutely aware of the continual failure of the Jedi from generation to generation, including, especially, his own failure. Rey finds a small library in a hollow tree of “the original Jedi texts” and Luke explains that both they and he himself are “the last of the Jedi religion.”
Rey, and likely much of the audience with her, disagrees with Luke, arguing that he, and his religion by extension, are needed to save the galaxy from evil. When Luke and Rey come to a final impasse, Rey leaves to help save the galaxy on her own, and Luke, in despair, trudges to the tree library, intent on burning it down.
Luke is stopped by Yoda himself, who appears in ghostly form to have a heart to heart with his old apprentice. To Luke’s surprise, Yoda’s first act is to call down lighting and burn the tree. When a panicked Luke tries to rush in to get the books, a wall of flame throws him backward. The ensuing conversation between Luke and Yoda is worth examining in detail.
“The sacred texts!”
“Read them, have you?”
“Page-turners they were not,” quips Yoda. “Wisdom they had,” he admits, but insists that the library contained “nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.”
This is almost pure Transcendentalism: the sacred texts, the last of the Jedi religion, are said to contain nothing Rey does not already have. The viewer is led to believe that Yoda is the ultimate Emersonian, burning the sacred books to reveal that all we ever needed was ourselves, and that the illusory attachments that the older generation has to old texts must be quashed to make way for the progress of the new.
I must admit that after my first viewing of The Last Jedi, I was disquieted by this scene. As great as it was to see Yoda again, this was a Yoda who seemed dangerously cavalier about the traditions that he himself passed on for dozens of generations. Moreover, critics and fans alike have expressed their displeasure over what they see as at least a disrespect of the previous Star Wars films, and at most a direct challenge to the relevance of traditional religion in the twenty-first century. Moreover, in the twentieth century book burning has not been an activity of the admired.
After watching the film two more times, I’ve come to believe that though The Last Jedi appears at face value Transcendentalist, it is, in fact, slyly traditionalist, and even champions the Great Texts in an odd way.
First, it’s helpful to remember that written texts have never been a very big part of the Star Wars universe. Aside from Lucas’s abandoned early idea to frame the story as being taken from fanciful texts called “The Books of the Whills,” we hardly ever see a character reading a book in any of the canon material, from the films to the TV shows.
Instead, the preferred way to store and access information is as sound and hologram files, often on “holocron” devices that can play back stored holo-texts to the possessor. Two of the most important of these holo-texts in the films have been Obi-Wan’s message warning Jedi to flee from the purge of Palpatine and Princess Leia’s message asking Obi-Wan for help in Episodes III and IV respectively.
In the 2013 series premiere of the TV show Star Wars: Rebels, the Obi-Wan holo-text is used to great effect. A orphaned teen steals the holocron of a Jedi in hiding and stumbles upon Obi-Wan’s message. The boy is enchanted by the message – it’s the first time he’s heard of the Force – and he asks the wary Jedi to teach him to train him in the Force.
Obi-Wan’s message here acts as a holy text: it preaches the gospel of the Force years after it was made, and begins to convert a new generation to the old Jedi religion. As hokey and clunky as this episode is (the target audience is older elementary and junior high boys primarily), it has been for me a standard for treatment of the theme of the Jedi as a forgotten, marginalized religion that is rediscovered, almost like the story of Josiah’s discovery of the forgotten holy texts in 2 Kings.
Thus, when the ancient Jedi texts were teased in The Last Jedi trailers, I was excited to see them used in a similar way. (Some hardcore fans speculated that they would be referred to as the Books of the Whills.) Instead, we seem to see them get incinerated by Yoda, it turns out Luke never really got around to reading them in the first place, and Rey doesn’t need them anyway.
Except only one of those things – Luke’s not reading them – turns out to be true. The careful watcher will notice that we never see the books burn, and at the very end of the film, Finn, looking for a blanket, opens a drawer on board the Millennium Falcon which contains the whole library of Jedi texts safe and secure. That’s right, Yoda tricked Luke (and us)!
In a film full of sleights of hand, perhaps the most deft is that Yoda wasn’t being a Transcendentalist at all when he said that “Rey possesses” all that is contained in the books. What he really meant was, Rey possesses the books themselves! This point is almost too subtle, as Luke seems to never get it, and many professional critics themselves have missed it, confidently either praising or bemoaning the apparent anti-traditionalism and anti-textualism of the film according to their intellectual persuasions.
But all of this is secondary to what is the most significant Great Texts moment in The Last Jedi, a moment that has gone relatively undiscussed in relation to the rest of the film. After his initial refusal to train Rey or help the Resistance, Luke sneaks aboard the Millennium Falcon and in a moment of solitary reminiscence is surprised to find his old droid, R2D2.
After Luke again refuses R2’s entreaties to help, the crafty Droid projects perhaps the greatest holo-text in all of Star Wars: a young lady in a white dress stands with clasped hands and says:
“General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
I haven’t been able to watch this scene without tearing up, and as I write, the tears return. For this is the first Great Text of the Star Wars Saga. It is the funeral oration of Pericles, the Declaration of Independence, and The Gettysburg Address all in one. And Luke experiences it like we experience the Great Books: as words of a previous generation written to an audience long dead, that, by the skill of the speaker and the grace of the Force, still strike us with ripe and fervent meaning, and will go on so speaking long after we are gone.
It is after R2’s Great Text tutorial that Luke begins to change: he begins to train Rey, though he’s still convinced the Jedi need to end. But then he reaches out to Leia, is admonished by Yoda, and finally returns to face and ask forgiveness of Ben Solo and save his friends – and the galaxy – one last time. In his final defiance of the First Order, he fully rejects the anti-traditionalism toward which he was tempted: “I will not be the last Jedi!”
It’s also significant that while Luke in anger does consider burning the sacred Jedi texts – which he and we as an audience have little familiarity with or attachment to – he doesn’t ever consider destroying Leia’s holo-text, so powerful a thing it is, changing hearts and inspiring new heroes long after Obi-Wan’s passing. It – like Obi-Wan’s message of warning – has become a galactic, timeless cry for aid and call to arms.
This is what the Great Books are for us. Despite Emerson’s insistence that all we need is our present selves and the natural world, we find ourselves, age after age, drawn to texts, to their strange universality-in-specificity, to their ability to address someone obscure or forgotten in history, but at the same time to be speaking to us in the instant. Emerson gets it wrong; revelation to our forefathers IS revelation to us. It is not gone when our forefathers are gone. Great poetry, Auden quipped, is “news that stays news.”
From time to time cultures have become so enamored of the events and stories of the past that they paid too little attention to the present. Let Emerson address them. But not us: we are the Luke Skywalkers of the world: so jaded, so cranky, so sure that the age of miracles and heroes is long past, or never was, and good riddance to it.
We have libraries where the classics and the sacred texts still sit, but we don’t bother to read them.
Deeper down, we Lukes are scared, because we know failure, we know, even if no one else does, the passing shadows of fear and anger and hate within us that prove, it seems, that we can’t be brave, or good, or hopeful, or that we don’t deserve another chance to try. And when we look at the past, we see the same weakness, the same failure.
Because we are Luke in exile; because we are Dante in the dark wood, we need a story to save us. We need the company of the poets and texts of the past because we are not strong enough for Emerson’s “original relation to the universe.”
I hope that in the next movie, episode IX, we get to see what wisdom and guidance Rey finds in the sacred texts she “stole” from Luke. But even if we don’t see this, Star Wars has shown us, in The Last Jedi, the power of Great Texts: in the place of fear, they can kindle bravery, in the place of a rejected past, a remembered one, and in the place of despair at continual failure, a new hope.