Published in Avatar and Nature Religion (Aug. 2013)
Indigenous narratives like those of the Greek nature goddess Artemis have suggested the awareness of a divine presence throughout the cosmos that seemed to foster environmentally ethical attitudes. Such nature mysticism was evident in the 2009 film Avatar, which told the story of an Earth alien, who through his initiation into the native Omaticaya clan became ‘indigenized’ to the mythical planet, Pandora, and ultimately led the fight to defend their sacred Tree of Souls. Avatar and Artemis thus demonstrate the potential for narratives with embedded environmentally ethical worldviews to inspire ecoethical behavior in individuals who intuit what is right as opposed to being told what is right.
Since its origins during the past quarter century, environmental ethics has morphed into a multidisciplinary field, largely due to an increased awareness of our planetary ecocrisis combined with what many perceive as the failure of unitary disciplines such as theology, philosophy, and the sciences to engage and adequately address these concerns. Clearly, a new discourse is needed: one that is informed not only by multidisciplinary approaches, but that unifies the collective as well as points toward a more responsible treatment of nature and each other. Environmental author Thomas Berry is among those who believe
It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. … The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. (1988: 123)
The ‘old story’ of which Berry speaks is that of the Bible, which served its followers well until the so-called ‘enlightenment’ that caused many to question the validity of religious claims about the cosmos.
On the other hand, many indigenous ‘old’ stories continue to retain their cultural influence and to attract nonnatives. Berry suggested this is because native myths, unlike those of nonindigenous groups, articulate an innate connection to a sanctified environment that stipulates each natural entity’s place in the cosmos: ‘Awareness of a numinous presence throughout the entire cosmic order establishes among [native] peoples one of the most integral forms of spirituality known’ (1988: 184). This is because in many indigenous traditions, the ‘cosmic, human, and divine are present to one another in a way that is unique [and] might simply be called a nature mysticism’ (1988: 184, emph. added). It is precisely this ‘nature mysticism’ that is readily apparent in the 2009 film, Avatar, whose indigenous characters (the Na’vi) inhabit a setting replete with archetypal motifs such as inversion, personification, and transmorphism. On the aptly named Pandora, mountains float in space seemingly of their own accord, and luminous tentacled particles resembling dancing jellyfish (Atoglina, the seeds of Eywa, the sacred tree-Earth Mother goddess) display the ‘energy that flows through all living things’, all of which is further enhanced by 3D technology that allows the viewer, in effect, to become not only part of the story but part of the landscape. Yet, Avatar’s ‘nature mysticism’ did not arise in a vacuum: such an ethos has been present in one form or another of indigenous traditions, including that of ancient Greece, for millennia. In particular, a prototypical environmental ethic may be recognized in myths about nature goddess Artemis.
The Emergence of Artemis
One of the earliest records of Artemis in classical Greek myth is found in Hesiod’s Theogony from the eighth century B. C. E., in which she was identified as the ‘archeress Artemis’, a daughter of Zeus and Leto and Apollo’s twin (1987: 30). Hesiod’s scant mention of Artemis suggested that she was originally an outsider among the Olympians, according to Robert P. Harrison (1993: 21). Artemis apparently originated as
…the noumenal spirit of the forests which gives birth to a multiplicity of species (forms) that preserve their originary kinship within the forests’ network of material interdependence. In her wild woodlands there are no irreducible distinctions—no noise that does not sound like a response to some other noise, no tree that does not fuse into the arboreal confusion. (1993: 29-30)
This concept of ‘originary kinship’ within the forests that is associated with Artemis speaks to a primal, cosmic unity experienced by pagan Greeks. Such a ‘network of material interdependence’ bears an intriguing likeness to the interconnecting dynamic among all living things on Pandora, the mythical planet of Avatar. Her marginal status within the Olympic pantheon therefore supports the theory that Artemis represented a prehistoric nature religion.
According to J. Donald Hughes, Artemis came from the transformation of a universal form that had existed for thousands of years: the goddess of the hunt, who was thought to protect wild animals and to exact retribution from hunters for disrespect, improper injury, or needless killing (1990: 191). Such a characterization seems logical given hunting’s primacy as a means of sustenance for Paleolithic peoples, who developed oral traditions, myths, and rituals that survived in folk culture, influenced art and literature, and actively inhibited exploitation of wildlife. From these may be deduced an unwritten Artemisian ‘hunters’ code’ that demanded respect for animals and plants and allowed the slaying of game only for human nourishment (1990: 194).
As an indigenous hunters’ religion, Artemis’s cult thus preserved beliefs and practices of the Greeks’ early forebears. In addition to her prowess as a hunter, the two Homeric Hymns invoking Artemis identify her as a ‘virgin archer’ and ‘the sacred virgin’ (Boer 2006: 4, 5). Apparently, it was Artemis’s function to encourage the Greeks to value their ‘un-erotic’, or virginal, sides, as well as their hunting ability (Boer 2006: xi). Possibly because of the archaic associations between Artemis and virginity, her domain came to be defined as chaste as well. Indeed, the description of nature in Euripides’ Hippolytus works as a metaphor for Hippolytus’s own virtuous life of dedication to Artemis, making this Greek tragedy the first narrative to equate virginal nature with chastity (Parry 1964: 281). The environmental relevance of Artemis’s virginity was that everything within her domain—animals, forests, mountains, rivers, and the sea—was sacred to her. As virgin of the woodlands, Artemis inhabited a numinous realm: sacred places where human beings were forbidden access except to worship her, and where her presence could be invoked. In this way, sacred groves with at first undefined borders became dedicated to her, and experience of the divine, metaphorized as rituals, sanctified the settings where these experiences took place. By staying the hunter’s hand and preserving wilderness areas from habitat destruction, the worship of Artemis thus saved a sizable portion of the Greek landscape from desecration for centuries (Hughes 1990: 196).
Artemis’s virginal aspect cannot be underestimated, for, as many have pointed out, the ancient forests were not always protected. Neolithic humans exploited and harvested their forests extensively, which is perhaps why Artemis became associated with ‘those dark and inaccessible regions where wild animals enjoyed sanctuary’ (Harrison 1993: 23). In this way, Artemis became associated with sacred groves—at least until she was stripped of her divine stature by the Greek philosophers, allowing the ‘mindless deforestation of the Mediterranean’ (1993: 55). Indeed, by the fourth century B. C. E. Plato was recalling nostalgically a time when much of Attica was still covered by forests. In Critias he observed about the hills surrounding Athens:
In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body … for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roots of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees. (3.75)
What Plato never acknowledged, however, was his role, along with the other early philosophers, in contributing to the ‘bones of the wasted body’, which may be read as a double entendre of sorts in that Plato seemingly imagined the decapitated, leafless trees as ‘bones’; but the phrase also may be understood as a metaphor for the death of Artemis and all her mythic cohorts. For, in deracinating myths of their spirituality and significance, as Homer did in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Plato in The Republic, the sacred groves dedicated to Artemis and the other pagan deities became desanctified. Once the myths were rendered virtually meaningless, the established taboos and protective legislation became so as well, resulting in the collective abandonment of formerly ingrained moral and ethical truths.
The desanctification of myths combined with the formerly virginal but now denuded Athenian hillsides for Plato metaphorized Artemis’s similar fate as she slowly morphed into a formless anima mundi, the all-encompassing World Soul envisioned in his Timaeus. Indeed, her temple at Ephesus, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, now lies in ruins, as does the city, formerly one of the most prosperous of the ancient world. Ephesus’s ruin came about not because of wars or other violence but by the inexorable defilement of its surrounding environment. Although pollen analysis from Ephesus indicates that its hills were covered with oak forests four thousand years ago, persistent animal grazing and later agriculture contributed to its despoliation (Harrison 1993: 57). Unable to retain rainwater because of deforestation, the hills poured their runoff into the valley and great harbor of Ephesus, causing it to fill with so much silt from soil erosion that by the ninth century C. E. ‘it was too shallow to receive the Byzantine fleet. The city of Artemis declined into oblivion’ (Harrison 1993: 57). Clearly, deforestation was a problem in ancient Greece, although it had not yet achieved the calamitous proportions from 2500 further years of environmental exploitation evident in contemporary Greece (Dillon 1997: 127). The demise of Artemisian spirituality and with it, her inherent environmental ethic, ultimately came about when her faithful followers stopped believing her stories. The bared ‘bones’ of Athens and naked Ephesus thus are tantamount to Artemis’s visual and perhaps imaginal denuding by Actaeon, both resulting in inestimable losses for the Mediterranean environment.
Artemisian Spirituality and Avatar
When understood as a form of environmentalism, Artemisian spirituality conveys a cultural, political, and religious stance similar to the one exemplified by the indigenous Na’vi in Avatar. Just as there seemed to have been specific rules and rituals enjoined upon hunters by tradition and custom, so did the Na’vi demonstrate a reverence for life and a desire to heal the breach provoked by its taking. For instance, when alien-cum-native Jake Sully thanked Neytiri, an Omaticaya clan princess of the Na’vi, for saving his life by killing the ferocious creature that attacked him, she scoffed, ‘Do not thank!’ for she was not pleased to have taken the beast’s life for a reason other than food procurement. It thus became apparent that, as with Artemis’s cults, needless killing and injury were forbidden on Pandora, the mythical planetary setting for Avatar.
Like the Greeks, whose ancient rite associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering embodied an implicit ethic of respect for other forms of life, the Na’vi performed a ritual following animal and plant life-taking in which they ‘blessed’ the dead and prayed: ‘Your spirit goes with Eywa’. In this way, the Na’vi affirmed their reverence for Eywa, their ‘Great Mother’, an archetypal Gaia figure of whom Artemis was an aspect. Accordingly, all animals belonged to the Great Mother, said psychologist C. G. Jung, ‘and the killing of any wild animal [was] a transgression against the mother’ (1990: par. 503). Because animal products were necessary for sustenance, primal hunting societies saw animals ‘not as game, nor as enemies to be slain, but as powerful beings whose spiritual protectors must be propitiated’ (1980: par. 427). Such respect for ‘mother’ wisdom contrasted sharply with the apparently masculinist, nonindigenous, ‘sullied’ society of Sully’s before he was ‘reborn’ as a member of the Na’vi.
In their essay, ‘Opening Pandora’s Film’, Bron Taylor and Adrian Ivakhiv noted this implicit ethic of respect for others that the Na’vi revealed throughout Avatar, calling this sensibility a ‘holistic ecological spirituality’ (2010: 386). As with Artemisian spirituality, this ecological ethos may be seen in the Na’vi obligatory respect toward prey, as well as in the close relationship the clans believed was possible with other species. That such an environmental ethic is critical for earth and human survival was the message that Avatar director James Cameron seemed to be implying, for when the environment is sanctified, people feel more compelled to defend it, just as the Na’vi acted to save Pandora. Indeed, belief in sacred nature seems integral for an ecoethical attitude, as several studies have shown (Bloch 1998, Tarakeshwar et al. 2001).
Their sanctification of nature indicated another parallel between Na’vi beliefs and practices and those of other indigenous cults, including Artemis’s. For the former, their ‘most sacred place’ was the Tree of Souls, where outsiders were forbidden but where clan members believed they could make contact with and might hear the voices of their ancestors. The Tree of Souls appeared in an Artemisian-like grove bearing luminous, undulating tentacle-like branches resembling gigantic versions of the Atoglina. Clearly, it was the Na’vi Cosmic Tree. According to Mircea Eliade, the Cosmic Tree symbolized an ancient fascination with natural rhythms, which led many cultures to imagine the cosmos as a living organism (1987: 148). The Cosmic Tree thus expressed all that archaic humankind regarded as ‘pre-eminently real and sacred’ (1987: 149, emph. orig.). Those privileged individuals—shamans and, in some cases, shamanesses—who accessed the real and sacred were apparently transformed by events which took place ‘in an ecstatic state’ during which the novices made connection with the ‘other world’ and returned ‘as initiated and enlightened people’ (von Franz 1993: 148). As a variation on the Cosmic Tree, the ‘tree of life’ was a common mother symbol that represented a kind of ‘tribal mother’, according to Jung, who noted that the worshipping of female deities in tree form ‘led to the cult of sacred groves and trees’ (1990: par. 321). This reverence for the feminine may be seen in the Tree of Souls’ connection to Eywa, the ‘Great Mother’ of the Na’vi.
Like other indigenous mythologies, the Na’vi belief system thus may be seen as a repository of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, or TEK, as Fikret Berkes called such wisdom (1999). Indeed, Cameron has acknowledged the ‘“specific indigenous knowledge’” that contemporary society can benefit from (qtd. in Suozzi). Such knowledge, like TEK, inspires a ‘sacred ecology’ (Berkes 1999: 163, emph. orig.). In Avatar, TEK was recognized in the scenes depicting Neytiri teaching Sully the Na’vi language and way of life along with showing him how to hunt and to make a ‘queue’—the bonding that occurred between hunters and their ikran, the flying pterodactyl-like beasts they tamed and rode by linking their hair braids to tails extending from the creatures’ ears. Neytiri also explained to Sully how to use his queue to bond with the branch-ends of the Tree of Souls, enabling communication with Eywa and thus to Pandora’s ‘network of energy’, as the film’s ethnobiologist anthropologist, Grace Augustine, called it.
This focus on indigenous knowledge was apparently intentional, as Cameron has asserted during interviews:
‘The main point is that there is a value-system that [indigenes] naturally have that has allowed them to live in harmony with nature for a long time and those principles, that wisdom, that spiritual connection to the world, that sense of responsibility to each other, that’s the thing that we need to learn. It’s a complete reboot of how we see things. I’m not even sure we can do it, but if there is hope, it lies in our ability to have a sea change in our consciousness—to not take more than we give’. (qtd. in Suozzi 2010)
Here Cameron iterated the place attachment he saw in indigenous cultures that is generally lacking in nonnatives and without which the latter may be powerless to alter their attitudes toward the environment. Thus, although contemporary ecological problems may be derived from human estrangement from nature that has enabled its mistreatment, as postulated by many theorists, indigenous epistemologies like those portrayed in Avatar may inform new narratives that cohere with more pro-environmental attitudes.
In fact, such a transformation in attitude seemed to be precisely what happened to Sully in his avatar form during his initiation into the Omaticaya clan, in which he ostensibly left behind his former human self and assumed his Na’vi identity. Sully’s ‘rebirth’, as he called it, ultimately led him to visit the Tree of Souls and to invoke Eywa’s aid in the Na’vi defense of Hometree, the gigantic, multi-branching tree where they lived, against Sully’s own Sky People, who closely resembled and sounded like Americans, and who were attacking Hometree in order to gain access to ‘unobtainium’, the mineral they wanted that existed nowhere else. In this way, Avatar became a polysemic allegory of rainforest destruction, industrial neo-colonialism, the Gaia hypothesis, and other variants associated with environmental ethics.
Neytiri, however, advised Sully that Eywa was unlikely to respond to his prayers, for ‘our Great Mother does not take sides. She protects only the Balance of Life’. Like Artemis, Eywa thus represented not a personal figure but an archetypal concept of relationship: ‘a network of energy that flows through all living things’, as Augustine explained to the disbelieving invaders, who mocked instead the Na’vi belief system in order to justify their own reprehensible actions: ‘Ya throw a stick around here and it’ll land on a sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!’ snorted Parker Selfridge, the corporate sycophant in the film. ‘What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees’. The use of expletives here indicated that, in case there was any doubt, for the alien Sky People, the forest was profane, not sacred. Augustine persisted, however, pointing out that an ‘electrochemical communication between the roots like synapses’ existed on Pandora, giving the trees ‘more connections than the human brain’, providing a means of cultural rootedness and identity—an Artemisian perspective, if you will—among the Na’vi that the invaders decidedly lacked.
Not surprisingly, the above notions of place, sanctity, and interconnectedness have drawn comparisons to traditional tribal peoples, who, like the Na’vi, demonstrated what today would be called an ‘ecological perspective’, according to Catherine L. Albanese, who observed that ‘the well-being of Amerindian peoples depended in large measure on a correspondence between themselves and what they held sacred. The material world was a holy place; and so harmony with nature beings and natural forms was the controlling ethic, reciprocity the recognized mode of interaction’ (1991: 23). Intertwined with this cosmic sacredness were rituals which ‘functioned to restore a lost harmony, like a great balancing act bringing the people back to right relation with the world’ (1991: 23). Indeed, “Nature religion, if it lived in America at all, lived among Amerindians’ (1991: 25). Albanese iterated here what many have noticed: the collective sense of spirituality and rootedness within nature among indigenous American traditions.
Blue Saviors and Ignoble Sophisticates
The suggestion that nonindigenous Americans might look to their native predecessors as potential guides for ecoethical re-indigenization has been addressed by Dakota Sioux Vine Deloria, Jr.: ‘“Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas western people—especially scientists—reduce all things, living or not, to objects”’ (qtd. in Bernstein 2003: 121). This objectification has allowed westerners to manipulate and exploit their environment, making it easier for them to ‘“destroy the world while attempting to control it”’ (qtd. in Bernstein 2003: 121). Deloria saw westerners through the eyes of one whose people’s culture was manipulated, exploited, and destroyed by them, which enabled him to understand well the meanings of displacement and alienation. It also enabled him to comprehend the paradoxical quality of western culture, which has succeeded on the ability of its collective consciousness to achieve masterfully while at the same time has failed generally to comprehend ‘nature as a source of spiritual and psychological life. Sioux culture—and the cultures of other indigenous peoples—contain certain understandings that can help us rethink and redress this lack’ (Deloria, Jr. 2009: 2). Integral to the Sioux worldview was its holism, meaning that unlike westerners, ‘the Sioux did not separate their thoughts into categories and disciplines. Everything was practical, economic, political and religious all at once’, according to Deloria (2009: 7). Additionally central to their ethos was the concept of sacred space, which ‘was defined by the memory of a unique experience that had occurred there’, frequently invoking ‘a sense of sacredness’ for people visiting the place for the first time (2003: 88).
This concept of sanctification was readily apparent in Avatar as well. So sacred were the Tree of Souls and Hometree for the Na’vi they were ultimately moved to ecoethical action to defend them. Avatar thus exemplified cinematically an essential feature of ethopoietic narratives of place: the celebration of natural environments with spiritual value in and of themselves that motivate activism for their protection. Sully’s initiation, or indigenization, therefore reflected his transformed ethos that blended the feminine with the heretofore masculinist perspective of the West into an androgynous, Artemisian spirituality. Sully further demonstrated his indigenization with his speech: ‘Look at the world they [Sky People] come from. There is no green there. They killed their mother [Earth]’. Sully’s choice of pronouns demonstrated clearly his dissociation from the invaders and indicated his indigenous ‘rebirth’. As the nefarious Marine sergeant in the film said, Sully had ‘gone native’.
Sully’s altruistic actions to save the Na’vi, however, are neither universally accepted nor appreciated. Indeed, much controversy has erupted over the meaning of the violent resistance by them and Sully’s role inciting it. Some critics have suggested that by organizing the Na’vi to defend themselves against the would-be imperialist Sky People, Sully actually fed into the ‘white messiah’ stereotype. As such, he represented the Eurocentric attitude that colonizers are not so much exploiting the indigenes and their natural environment as helping ‘primitives’ to become more ‘civilized’. Viewed this way, Sully was the ‘white messiah’ or ‘savior’ of the Na’vi, who otherwise were believed incapable of saving themselves. Cameron denied this analysis, however, pointing out that the general response to the film by indigenous people has ‘“been overwhelmingly positive”’, despite the fact that many become wary whenever nonnative filmmakers portray natives (qtd. in Suozzi 2010). Such circumspection stems from the perception that past films have not always depicted the native experience realistically, and thus can be harmful to Native American identity formation, according to Philip J. Deloria in Playing Indian (1998).
Because of concerns about the portrayal of native people in films, Cherokee Daniel Heath Justice acknowledged that he and his cohorts viewed Avatar with low expectations, but their actual ‘responses ranged from guarded optimism … to thoughtful frustration’ (2010: par. 2). This is not to say Justice found no problems with the film; in fact, he was critical of Avatar particularly for its ‘missed opportunities’: ‘The film didn’t annoy me so much as make me sad, largely because it promised to be much more substantial than it actually was’ (2010: par. 4). Justice especially found fault with the selection of Sully—‘the least interesting and most consistently obtuse figure’—as the ‘point-of-view character’, leading Justice to conclude that ‘for all its visual sophistication, the story suffers from low narrative expectations, and it regretfully fulfils them’ (2010: par. 4). Here Justice was spot-on: Avatar’s narrative was its weakest element. In fact, the story-line was a shameless pilfering of several previous films, including Ferngully (1992) and Pocahontas (1995), as many have noted in online essays and blogs. Even so, those who characterize Sully as a ‘white messiah’ are mistaken, for it was not the white Sully who ‘saved’ the Na’vi homeland: it was the blue Sully in his avatar body and Na’vi spirit who galvanized them into saving themselves. Only after Sully was ‘reborn’ as an Omaticaya clan member did he become impassioned sufficiently to rally the Na’vi to defend Pandora. In this way his ‘rebirth’—his indigenization—resembled a religious conversion, which in many ways it was.
Linked to complaints about Sully’s ‘white messiah’ stereotyping are claims that Avatar also represented a ‘noble savage’ narrative which is distinguished by a main character from an advanced civilization (Sully) who ‘goes native’ after immersion in a pre-technological tribe—an action, according to Adam Frank, that allowed Sully to see that ‘only in the more natural state of the hunter-gathering tribe [is a] pure connection with the world’ retained (2010: par. 2). Avatar was different, however, from previous ‘noble savage’ stories in that it added ‘a significant ecological theme’ (2010: par. 3). In this way, Cameron related ‘a newer story about the way science can [lead to] pantheistic spiritual sensibilities’ (Frank 2010: par. 7). By asking his audience to attend to the world in all its forms and patterns, Cameron suggested that science can help to forge stronger cosmic connections, allowing ‘a means of seeing more deeply and responding more authentically’ to the world (Frank 2010: par. 8).
More troublesome, however, than the ‘white messiah’ and ‘noble savage’ references are the persistent accusations of romanticism made whenever nonnative people are perceived to be promulgating native cultures as ideal and therefore symbolizing impossible yearnings of a return to Eden, Arcadia, or the Golden Age. The implication is that such nostalgia is immature and even pathological. As a result, many skeptics have emerged to discredit the idea of westerners turning to Native American traditions looking for a prototypical environmental ethic. These commentators disparage such idealization of indigenous traditions as disingenuous, ‘neo-romantic hog wash, just … noble-savage nonsense with a new environmental spin’, according to J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson (1994: 132-33).
Callicott and Nelson have responded to the romanticism critique by noting that while proponents of indigenous ecoethics stress attitude, ‘skeptics offer behavioral evidence. They focus on what American Indian peoples did (and do) in and to nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole’ (1994: 134, emph. orig.). As a result, much space has been devoted to citing the anti-environmental activities perpetrated by indigenous peoples. For example, Daniel Guthrie (1971) listed midden heaps, buffalo driven off cliffs and only partially butchered, the extinction of large animals following human arrival from Siberia, and litter on reservations as proof of Native American lack of environmental ethics. Shepard Krech III (1999) identified Pleistocene extinctions; bad hydraulic farming; over-exploitation of resources—forests for fuel and resources, animals and plants for food—among pre-Columbian woodland peoples; deliberately set fires in both forests and grasslands; indiscriminate, wasteful slaughtering of bison; and the fur trade extirpating beaver as examples of indigenous anti-environmental activities. Guthrie and Krech offer these lists as substantiation for their claims, ‘as if such “evidence” were relevant to the existence of traditional American Indian environmental ethics’, retorted Callicott and Nelson (1994: 135). For, these are lists of behaviors, and behaviors do not always evince attitudes. In fact, the existence of unethical behavior does not necessarily preclude ethical attitudes.
Yes, Native American groups have committed what might be considered anti-environmental actions, but many of the behaviors described above by Krech and Guthrie occurred following the mass invasion of Europeans and reflect the resulting disintegration of native cultures, not necessarily their attitudes. Moreover, ‘In any culture, actual human behavior will never measure up to the moral norms or ideals envisioned by its worldview and ethos, but in striving toward them, … some overall movement in the direction of those norms and ideals will have been achieved’ (Callicott and Nelson 1994: 134-35). This is why, when all is said and done, Amerindians on the whole ‘probably treated nature better because of their environmental ethics than otherwise they might have’ (1994: 135). With this in mind, might it not behoove those attempting to address the ecocrisis at least to consult, if not plumb, indigenous narratives?
Avatar and the Romantic Polemic
Avatar has been criticized for its romanticism as well. For Renee A. Lertzman, the film demonstrated how ‘green fantasy lends itself to a splitting up of the world—and arguably our psyche—in our desire to return to a more primitive, innocent mode of existence’ (2010: 41). She argued that through this infantilizing, watching Avatar allowed a ‘safe and culturally sanctioned [experience] of the deepest longings we have for the return to the Mother’ (2010: 41). In this way Eden and Mother—which, as discussed above, symbolizes Earth—are equated with and idealized into an ‘image of nature before the Fall itself: the fantasy of returning to the Garden that continues to plague most of us with any form of environmental consciousness’ (2010: 42). Had she left out the word ‘environmental’, there would be little fault with the previous sentence. For it would then coincide with the archetypal psychological view propounded herein and expressed by Edward F. Edinger in Ego and Archetype: ‘In the paradise age, the people [were] still in union with the gods’ (1992: 8). This period represented ‘the state of the ego that [was] as yet unborn, not yet separated from the womb of the unconscious and hence still partaking of the divine fullness and totality’ (1992: 8). While Lertzman’s linking of Eden, Earth, and Mother as metaphors of loss and longing are consistent with archetypal theory, she presumed erroneously that ‘most of us’ who are environmentally conscious share this intense nostalgia for a perfect, pristine nature. On the contrary, many who profess ‘environmental consciousness’ do not claim to be ‘plagued’ by ‘the fantasy of returning to the Garden’. Rather, they appear more interested in preventing what environment there remains from being further destroyed.
In addition, while longing for Paradise does represent an archetypal condition of humanity, Lertzman’s contention that such yearning is unrealizable and hence, pathological ignored the potential for healing afforded by such feelings. For, as ecopoet Gary Snyder wrote,
…there is no ‘original condition’ that once altered can never be redeemed. Original nature can be understood in terms of the myth of the ‘pool of Artemis’—the pool hidden in the forest that Artemis, goddess of wild things, visits to renew her virginity. The wild has—nay, is—a kind of hip, renewable virginity. (1995: 240)
Snyder spoke to the uniquely human ability to travel anywhere that pleases, if only in imagination—something that seemed not to occur to Lertzman. Even if her premise that ‘most’ environmentalists ‘share this intense nostalgia’ for primal return were accurate, Lertzman’s argument that to reach ‘psychic maturity’ one must eschew such edenic longing seems ill-founded. In fact, such longings represent a universal mytheme: humans desire to ‘return’ to primordial unity because ‘going back’ is part of the archetypal journey of individuation, or self-realization, undertaken throughout the course of life and over which humans have no conscious control.
Rather than pathological, as Lertzman would have us believe, the awareness of such longings may be experienced as psychologically healing, or as psychotherapist James Hillman has said, ‘soul-making’ (2006). Indeed, pathology is necessary for healing. Without wounding there can be no healing. For these reasons, Hillman argued for romanticism as soul-making self-realization, for ‘ensouling the world was a crucial part of [the romantic] program’ (2006: 73, emph. orig.). The romantics ‘recognized the traps of narcissistic subjectivity in their vision. Hence, they sought the spirit in physical nature … and a return to the classic Gods and Goddesses, attempting to revivify the soul of the world with pantheism’ (2006: 73-74). Instead of disdaining romanticism as many postmodern theorists do, might it rather be cultivated as a response to the global ecocrisis?
Despite its derogation, the romantic longing for return endures. Deloria, Jr. believed such persistence is because the ‘western ego is being pushed into that reconnection with nature by an evolutionary process in the name of species preservation—if not the preservation of all of life as we know it’ (2009: 101). He made it clear that this
…‘reconnection’ is not a regression. Rather it is a reconnection to nature as a dimension of existence, as a life form, as a reality principle, different from that to which we have accustomed ourselves, integrating with it. The major impact of this reconnection on the western ego is psychological and spiritual (2009: 101, emph. orig.)
Above Deloria disputed the anti-romantic contention that the environmentalist impulse to reconnect with nature indicated a psychologically regressive movement. In fact, this impulse is healing, as Deloria and the Sioux believe, as it reflects psyche’s recursiveness: her ongoing movement to return, to regain, and to restore what already enjoys a certain familiar place in memory.
The key to a postmodern ecoethic that reconnects people with nature is narrative. Linguists Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps concurred with many in saying, ‘Narrative is crucial to recognizing and integrating repressed and alienated selves’ (1996: 30). This observation has merit because the functions of stories—to provide worldview, to reinforce the social order, to share in the human condition, to provide a metaphorical hero journey-creation myth—all work together to establish self identity. Oral storytelling in particular seems to facilitate communion with the ‘other, [which] constitutes the greatest potentiality of narrative’ (1996: 31). In storytelling, voices of the past become incorporated into the present, and listeners ‘contribute to one’s life history by co-telling the evolving story through verbal comments and questions, gestures, eye gaze, facial expression, and other modes of body comportment’ (1996: 30-31). Therefore, ‘If we develop our selves through the stories we tell and if we tell them with others, then we are a complex, fluid matrix of coauthored selves’ (1996: 32). In other words, storytelling is therapeutic—what Hillman would call healing fiction—for both individual and community.
Hillman understood that ‘the entire narrative of a human life, the characters that we are and the dreams we enter, are structured by the selective logic of a profound mythos in the psyche. … Plots are myths. The basic answers to why in a story are to be discovered in myths’ (2005: 11, emph. orig.). On the other hand, Hillman observed that ‘a simple narrative, just a story, is not enough to make soul’ (2005: 26). Here is where mythos meets poiesis, which means simply ‘making’, and which Hillman took as ‘making by imagination into words’ (2005: 4). Mythopoiesis thus means ‘the persuasive power of imagining in words, and artfulness in speaking and hearing, writing and reading’—in other words, it means mythmaking (1983: 4). Reading is important, Hillman pointed out, because it ‘does not depend solely on the ordering of words or the ordering of letters in the words’ (2006: 92). Reading rather ‘depends on the psyche’s capacity to enter imagination [and] is more like dreaming, which, too, goes on in silence’ (2006: 92). Just as dreaming, speaking, hearing, writing, and reading stories can be healing, so can watching them, as with the film Avatar. In this way, film—particularly 3-D, as was Avatar—may be experienced like the Greeks did their tragedies. For, according to Hillman,
Healing begins when we move out of the audience and onto the stage of the psyche, become characters in a fiction … and as the drama intensifies, the catharsis occurs; we are purged from attachments to literal destinies, find freedom in playing parts, partial, dismembered, Dionysian, never being whole but participating in the whole of the play (1992: 38, emph. orig.)
Here Hillman alluded to the participation mystique that occurs during gatherings perceived as sacred, an experience felt to be collectively healing.
Through stories people connect with others not only on an interpersonal level, as they identify with the teller-protagonist, but on an intrapersonal level, i.e. psychically, which Hillman said is ‘soul-making’. Such a feeling of ‘uniting’ and ‘convincing’ through myth suggests that the coming together for a common cause like environmentalism can only take place when there exists an embedded ethos within a guiding narrative that is recognized and internalized within a community, as the uprising of the Na’vi to defend Hometree in Avatar clearly demonstrated.
Mythic narratives are essential to cultures because they help humans to make sense of life, as philosopher Charles Taylor attested in Sources of the Self (1989). Self-identity requires ‘an orientation to the good’ which has to be woven into an understanding of ‘life as an unfolding story’ (1989: 47). Accordingly, a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves [is] that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ (1989: 47, emph. orig.). In other words, ethics—‘an orientation to the good’—must be embedded in stories. Making sense of life as a story is absolutely obligatory, because in order to have a sense of self, one must have a notion of how she or he has become and of where she or he is going. The problem for environmental ethics ‘is how to bring about an experiential realization of the validity of such ideas [as narratives] on the part of the large numbers of inhabitants of postindustrial societies whose lives are fairly well insulated from nature’, according to ecocritic Graham Parkes (1997: 124). He concluded that imparting environmental ethics through literacy education is critical, but because ‘the people whose perspectives need to be changed (the politicians and general populace) do not read much anymore, … an optimal medium for the dissemination of these ideas would be film’ (1997: 124-25). Parkes’s advocacy for cinematic narratives as environmental ethics makes sense given the screen-addicted quality of contemporary life.
Psychologist Jerome S. Bernstein extended this notion by saying,
Whereas the arts, poetry, drama, the troubadour, and various forms of literature have been primary carriers of archetypal awareness over the centuries, beginning in the 20th century, film has become a primary mode of incarnating and communicating collective consciousness and evolution. (2003: xviii)
Film’s emergence as ‘a major vehicle and harbinger of society’s psychic evolution’ has made it possible to see ‘mythological and archetypal themes and changes happening in our midst; thus, [film] often presents a graphic confrontation with emerging positive and negative social consciousness as well as new psychic realities’ (2003: xviii). Because of its mass accessibility, film promotes the mythopoietic revisioning of narratives, thereby facilitating changes in the collective consciousness.
In the above articulation of the significance of stories, Avatar’s narrative deficiencies become more glaring. Nevertheless, the film illustrated that by embodying cultural worldviews cinematically, indigenous myths may inspire ethical attitudes toward nature by individuals who intuit what is right as opposed to being lectured about what is right. No one forced or even advised the formerly apathetic Sully to defend Hometree; he simply did it, as if in response to an inner directive. As psychologist Lionel Corbett posited, ‘When the myth in which we live is unconscious, we are like … fish in water’ (2001:84). The myth ‘creates the atmosphere in which we live and is taken for granted. Our fundamental attitudes are then derived from it’ (2001: 84). Articulated here is the innate sense of ‘doing the right thing’ when one is guided by an ethopoietic narrative. In other words, ethics is located within a ‘cognitive context’, as Callicott suggested (1994: 26). Avatar thus may be seen to epitomize what Callicott has called for: an ‘evolutionary-ecological environmental ethic’ that is complemented by indigenous ecoethics providing images, metaphors, and myths to advance the ‘process of worldview poiesis’ (1994: 192). Admittedly, however, it will take more than one film to effect the monumental attitudinal changes needed to avert our ecocrisis. This is because the ‘process of worldview poiêsis is gradual, cumulative, and ongoing’ (1994: 192). Perhaps the best for which we can hope is to ‘dream the myth onwards,’ as Jung suggested (1980: par. 271). Like the ancient stories that once communicated moral behavior and values, the discourse of environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is returned to science, and mythology is restored to its archaic function of providing individuals with narratives that help them make sense of their lives, that enable indigenization to their environments, thereby instilling the desire to care for it. As Berry said, ‘It’s all a question of story’.
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