Monday, January 25, 2010

Avatar, or Superman in Reverse

Avatar just pounded its philosophical opposite The Dark Knight into the box office dust, so James Cameron now has the top two grossing movies of all time under his belt.

As with any hugely successful film, the writs against Avatar have started flying from various authors claiming infringement. Strangely enough, the Frank Herbert estate seems to be holding fire, though we've seen that Herbert's 'Pandora' books might seem to have as strong as case as any for creative borrowing. As we've discussed, the film also borrows liberally from Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars stories, themselves influenced by Hindu concepts - by way of Theosophy.

This is an important point, since the incorporation of occult ideas into pop culture (specifically the weird mix of Hindu and Western mysticism popularized by Theosophy) was most certainly a conscious process in Burroughs' time, but has become so ingrained the DNA of our culture that many- if not most- of the people playing with these memes today have no idea where they spring from.

In fact, far too many geeks openly sneer at esotericism and the occult, completely oblivious to the fact that sci-fi and superheroes are a direct outgrowth of it. Indeed, it's in pop culture- that is to say, the mythic realm- where all of those weird esoteric ideas would ultimately triumph.

There was a fascinating yet disastrous attempt to develop 'spiritual sciences' (now labeled as 'pseudosciences') after the collapse of the Theosophical/Spiritualist movements, as well as the rise of the proto-New Age movement, but all of the spiritual striving of those old Victorians would take a major detour- first into 'junk culture' (crappy pulps, crappy comics, crappy movie serials) and then into the mainstream as computer technology won the day for 'geek culture' (itself a pseudo-religious outgrowth of the old 'junk culture' paradigm) by allowing the uninitiated to truly step into all of these alternate realities that heretofore only existed in the geek imagination.

An ongoing economic upheaval roughly similar to the Industrial Revolution is creating a compelling psychological demand for these realities, this time in the form of high-tech entertainment and not religion, as it did in the Victorian Era. Despite the various cults and sects constantly popping up, it's increasingly unlikely that a mass movement like Spiritualism or Theosophy could fill the void left by the erosion of traditional religion in the West.

It's all the more than ironic then that the two big Christmas season genre blockbusters- Avatar and Sherlock Holmes- are both the direct result of the influence of esotericism on pop culture that I traced in Our Gods Wear Spandex. Arthur Conan Doyle was a lifelong adherent of Spiritualism and Edgar Rice Burroughs took concepts lock, stock and barrel from Theosophy.

From Spandex*:

Carthoris and Thuvia of Mars, illustrated by Frank Frazetta
Burroughs’ Mars stories are alternately known as the 'John Carter, Warlord of Mars' series or among hardcore fans, the 'Barsoom' series. What is most remarkable about the Mars stories is that Carter reached the Red Planet not by rocket, but by using the occult art of astral projection. Writing from Carter ‘s point of view, Burroughs describes how this occurred:
"My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon... As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void... I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.”
Writer Fritz Leiber later weighed in on the esoteric roots of Burroughs' space-faring hero in an article entitled "John Carter -- Sword of Theosophy," which ran in the fanzine Amra in 1959. Leiber noted that a pamphlet on Theosophy's alternative history "sounded to me very much like good old Barsoom with its green men, white priests, levitating battleships, egg-laying princesses, and all the rest. In short, I got the impression that Edgar Rice Burroughs had found in Theosophy a rich source of background materials for his Mars books..."
Leiber also noted the other themes in the Mars stories that were initially popularized in Theosophist literature, including "instantaneous interplanetary travel by thought power...airships held aloft by tanks of these rays... creation of phantom and living matter by thought power... and finally the oppression and persecution of wise freethinkers by an evil priesthood."
Sword-and sorcery legend L. Sprague De Camp added that "(a)ltogether life in the Theosophical Atlantis resembles nothing so much as life on Mars as pictured in the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs."

More importantly, Burroughs claimed that all of the Martian races descended from the 'Tree of Life', a term borrowed from the Kabbalah.
Not only can John Carter astral project himself into space, he is also immortal. And because of the lighter gravity of Mars, he is a superman there. He becomes a Martian warlord when he marries the Martian princess Dejah Thoris. It's hardly surprising in this context that the John Carter stories were such an influence on occultist/rocket scientist Jack Parsons.
But not only do we see traces of the Barsoom stories in Avatar, but also from other Burroughs' stories:
Following the success of Tarzan and John Carter, Burroughs introduced the Pellucidar novels, starting with with At the Earth's Core in 1922. In this tale, a group of scientists discover another world inside the Earth's crust. This world, Pellucidar, is inhabited by dinosaurs and - believe it or not - psychic pterodactyls.
Now, do you remember those Pandoran pterodactyls, with whom the natives psychically link up to via their bioorganic USB hubs?

Later Burroughs would introduce the 'Carson of Venus' books, starting with The Pirates of Venus, first serialized in Argosy in 1932. This series detailed the adventures of astronaut Carson Napier, who crash lands on Venus. Like Carter, Carson has occult powers, in this case telepathy.

All of the these psychic supermen seem to reflect Burroughs straining towards a new race, one that was not only physically powerful and morally upright, but possessed extrasensory, occult powers that would act to truly separate them from the benighted masses of humanity.
Burroughs is one of the founding fathers of the modern superhero (and superhero merchandising), and his work directly inspired comics creators like Lee & Kirby and Siegel & Shuster. Cameron's Jake Sully is not only a future-tech reincarnation (or 'avatar') of Burroughs' heroes like John Carter and Tarzan, he's as much of an evolution away from Siegel and Shuster's Superman as Superman was from characters like Tarzan. In many ways, Sully is Superman in reverse:
• Superman was the powerful alien who came to Earth from his dying planet and takes on the identity of a meek and mild mannered reporter (a geek in other words).

• But Jake Sully is the disabled Earthman who travels to a planet filled with powerful aliens and takes on the identity of a fierce alien warrior.

• His Lois Lane is a fierce alien warrior princess and his Jimmy Olsen is an excitable Earth-geek in Pandoran drag. His Jor-El mentor figure is Sigourney Weaver, who herself is playing the reverse of her Ripley character from the Aliens films.

Avatar's Lex Luthor (Colonel Quaritch) is similar in motivation to Grant Morrison's take - world domination is his right and privilege and Sully/Superman is an alien interloper (or worse, a race traitor) standing in his way. Like Luthor and Superman they start off as allies.

• As a bonus, maybe you can toss in Selfridge (pronounced "self-rich") as Sully's Perry White (or better yet, his J. Jonah Jameson).
But there's a more important twist- reversal- that is making Avatar such a huge hit. Superman is a god, and his power comes by birthright. He did nothing to earn it, and he can't give any his of his power to you. In the real world, Superman would be the most hated man on the planet, and no one would rest comfortably until he was destroyed or sent back into space.

But Jake Sully could be you.

In fact, for almost three hours, he was you. And that's exactly why so many people are lining up to see this film.

Maybe one day, you could trade your crappy human body for an alien upgrade via the sorcery of genetic engineering. Maybe you could be redesigned to fit seamlessly into your environment without need of air conditioners, automobiles and antibiotics. Maybe your great-grandchildren will one day live on a planet that isn't constantly trying to kill them with typhoons, tornadoes and typhus.

Cameron has become the most successful filmmaker in history by pressing people's buttons. He knows who we hate- the rich, the powerful, the bullies, the back-stabbers, the ass-kissers- and he makes them suffer horribly. And he also usually makes sure that the character you most identify with is given the extraordinary power to do so. Whether it's a pet killer robot or a cybernetic shell or a giant alien body, his films empower the viewer to take revenge on symbols of our daily oppression.

So it isn't just the stunning virtual reality-level cinematography, or the lush, verdant world so meticulously displayed onscreen that's pulling in the crowds. It's the intimation- almost certainly intentional on Cameron's part- that one day we will have the technology to make you a god, or at least an avatar of one.

Maybe watching a future memory is enough for now. But kids especially are becoming increasingly acclimated not only to superpower memes but also to virtual environments, whether through 3D film or games like World of Warcraft. And sooner rather than later, someone is going to take Cameron's ball and run with it, and create a Pandora-like environment for a game or VR installation in which the viewer controls the avatar.

Which itself could be a dress rehearsal for something even more compelling. Or dangerous, even.

UPDATE: I almost forgot about 'Augmented Reality'.

* These passages are from an earlier draft of the book.


  1. Something you might want to watch on this meme is how popular playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - online among friends - is becoming among teenage boys. This technology is already making them 'gods' on virtual battlefields. My gut tells me this has something to do with the power they feel in this mode of playing, as compared to their emasculated realities.

  2. Oh, yes. To expand on that, the whole Transhumanist movement of fiction and philosophy derives from the Human Potential movement, which in turn comes straight out of the occult underground. It's interesting to see how much occultism has been incorporated into the Orion's Arm fictional setting, based in Transhumanist concepts.

  3. yeah, dangerous is the word. Theosophy and its ilk were immensely damaging to the collective psyche, splintering off into hybrid forms that were even more misguided. I think it's essentially the stealth continuation of the enlightenment-era thought mode. Consciousness expansion and self-evolution require a degree of maturity, discipline and hard work. There is no buddha button to push, and if there were it would be the worst pandora's box the human race had ever conceived of. Hmmm. Good article.

  4. "Cameron has become the most successful filmmaker in history by pressing people's buttons."

    Financially successful, yes. That's about it though. His dialogue is beyond embarrassing, and his stories/plots aren't much better.

  5. Again with the reversal. Good stuff, me likey. The current Time magazine is about DNA, the cover story no less. I didn't read the whole article but it talks about how what I do can affect my dna and what i may be able to pass on. Also, they said thanks to Darwin, cuz they know it takes generations to change it. Turning on/off certain DNA.

  6. this was one of the press soundbites when the big homo evolutus thing was announced last year : we will likely see glimpses of this long-lived, partly mechanical, partly regrown creature that continues to rapidly drive its own evolution. As the branches of the tree of life, and of hominids, continue to grow and spread, many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities, a homo evolutis.

  7. This is very much an "it is what it is" article. My take on this film's success is that it offers the viewer a compelling escapist fantasy and then immerses the viewer in it. And what we're seeing with this and the RPG/FPS games is a kind of replacement transcendence. Will someone offer a compelling alternative that doesn't trade in violence and will-to-power?

    The future is unwritten...

  8. Again - the science fiction paperback covers from the 1970's are simply astounding. A genre I deeply miss.

  9. I haven't seen the movie but from what you describe its seems the very embodiment of what the movie/tv industry is meant to be:
    As is any entertainment really, and the core of entertainment seems to be slight of hand, dragging you out of the mundane into someone elses imagined world without all of your everyday problems.
    But what is increasingly disturbing about the invasion of technology into life is the inablity to distinguish between the two and the dependency it creates. Case in point a teenager who can't add $6.50 and $6.50 without a calculator. Also with the prolific use of cell phones it isn't difficult to imagine masses lining up to have digital implants or avatar supermen to fulfill the whole between reality and virtual reality.
    I don't think that your point about the reality of avatars becoming real could be more salient. The point is even made in Surrogates. But if we combine the two, with the understanding that mankind always seems to screw things up, I think that the current timeline undisturbed would lead more to a Terminator Salvation type future than a bio-robotic utopia.
    Great article BTW.

  10. Hey Chris, I really enjoyed that post. I've been irked no end by the amount of people yammering on about Dances with Wolves in relation to Avatar, without showing any awareness of how deftly the movie borrows from the classic pulp tradition. Mike - couldn't agree more about 70's sci-fi covers. Weirdly enough, the more respectable the genre becames, the less insanely imaginative the covers are. I have a Dune Messiah from 72 with a cover by Bruce Pennington that's a bloody psychedelic masterpiece!

  11. Chris,

    This is an absolutely brilliant post! You amaze more and more everyday! You are definitely making the leap with this scattered field of "synchs" on the web and cement it as completely legitimate, necessary and relevant.

    I enjoy going back to your archives and then to recent material and I am so thrilled to see your evolution. Perhaps you've always known this information that you graciously share with us and have been spoon feeding us until today's giant bolus!

    I saw Avatar again just last night, for the second time, and was enchanted to see this post this afternoon.

    I thought to myself last night exactly as you wrote: "But Jake Sully could be you.

    In fact, for almost three hours, he was you...

    ...Maybe one day, you could trade your crappy human body for an alien upgrade via the sorcery of genetic engineering. Maybe you could be redesigned to fit seamlessly into your environment..."

    In fact, I was so THERE as Sully soared on his pterodactyl that I CAUGHT myself smiling and feeling like a child riding my bike for the first time with the air in my face, feeling free!

    Thanks so much, Chris, for sharing this wonderful information with us.


  12. Sword-and sorcery legend L. Sprague De Camp added that "(a)ltogether life in the Theosophical Atlantis resembles nothing so much as life on Mars as pictured in the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs."

    Of course! Atlantis was Mars—or, at least, very significantly connected with it. Thus the Cydonian parallels with Washington DC.

  13. Today from the Telegraph:

    "The conference will also discuss how humans might respond to the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
    Albert Harrison, the from University of California, said: "It is easy to imagine scenarios resulting in widespread psychological disintegration and social chaos. but historical prototypes, reactions to false alarms and survey results suggest that the predominant response to the discover of a microwave transmission from light years away is likely to be equanimity, perhaps even delight.""

  14. Chris,

    Great work, you continue to make some amazing connections. Everyone else here have said what I wanted to say about this.

  15. I apologize if you or someone else has covered this before, but I was reading about the proposed brown-dwarf known as "G1.9" and two things struck me in regard to SecretSun.
    g=7 so G+1+9=17
    That, and it was discovered 23 years ago.

  16. Controlling your own avatar sounds exactly like the premise of Surrogate, a movie that appears to be bogged-down in a boring, earthly murder mystery. I haven't seen either film yet, but the similarities must mean something.

  17. Avatar is resonating with millions who flock to see it as you note. Seeing your post-humanism tag for this post, I had the following realization. Bear with the method, please! The outcome is amazing.
    Listening to Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman and a search on Wikipedia noting that there's Morse Code in the song after the line: " still on the line." Then on to Wikipedia's Featured content and an anagram for lineman = Nile man- I read a featured article on The Battle of the Nile (French v. British)and noted a schematic of the ships' positions, particularly The Bellerophon. On to Wiki's Bellerophon article and the slaying of the Chimera- noting that a chimera can also be the pursuit of folly. But most notably remembering volunteer genetic testing undergone not for a symptom but in the interest of science and a scientist's research grant money; said scientist smiled with joy as he told me I was a genetic chimera with all 4 blastocysts (zygotes/eggs)the same sex luckily. But very rare in the utmost scientific terms and being able to universally donate tissue or organs. Wiki noted that in the face of opposition to stem-cell research, chimera research was the next best thing. I ignored the findings since I was perfectly healthy barring the knowledge that I possessed the characteristics/organs/etc. of four separate human beings in my body (thus the term -mosaic- also) But Wiki revealed more: Chimera in fiction from CSI episode -Bloodlines- to House episode -Cane and Able- Movie: I Am My Own Twin- to Dark Angel... all about/discussed chimeras. Chimera in sci-fi literature- Futars in Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse Dune.

    Wiki went beyond chimeras to para-humans (disgusting image there. And I made the leap for them with Scully, oops- Sully at the end of Avatar making the truest chimera since the one Bellerophon w/Pegasus, slayed. Wondrous post, BTW.

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  19. "Theosophy and its ilk were immensely damaging to the collective psyche, splintering off into hybrid forms that were even more misguided."

    Unlike Christianity, which has done amazingly wonderful things for humanity, right?

    At least Blavatsky & crew weren't immolating anyone who disagreed with them on big fleshy bonfires.

    Chris, I'm surprised you missed the most infamous "avatar," at least according to Savitri Devi, who was ol' Uncle Adolph Of Nazi fame.

  20. Thanks to everyone for another round of very tasty comments. I'll dig into these a bit later- busy right now with some excitement I'll share later.

    But seriously- you guys always come through with intelligent, cogent feedback. When I see the kind of maniacal droolings in comments sections all across the web I really appreciate what we've got going here.

  21. To see the nightmare world of commercial avatars,that is when they become commercially available from the likes of a Bill Gates (WinDOORS of perception)
    or a Steve Jobs ( iVATAR.-) entrepreneur.
    Watch the movie "Surrogates"