I am my own avatar

Tony took me to the movies last week. We saw Avatar. Being at the movies and other “crowd” situations always gives me the feeling of having stepped into 1984 or some such pessimistic future where the faceless masses surrender their emotions and opinions to be manipulated by the Powers That Be. The effect was vastly heightened by the whole crowd wearing identical yellow glasses.

And the movie? I’d describe both the storyline and feel of it as Star Wars: Episode 2 meets Princess Mononoke. Yes, the digital animation is amazing, and I feel obligated to mention it, as I am told it was terribly expensive. In fact, I couldn’t tell which parts were digital, and soon forgot that there was any animation at all. I confess also that I greatly enjoyed the political commentary, which was transparent, passionate, and utterly satisfying. The best line by far (from the war hungry ex-Marine on the payroll of the soulless corporation): “We’re going to fight terror with terror.” I felt like I was back in Portland during the Bush regime, collecting subversive bumper stickers. On a political level, the movie reads beautifully. On a social level, however, I have some twinges of doubt. Hopefully nobody in our modern cyber-world takes too seriously the main character’s decision to forsake his flawed body and “dying planet” for the perfect physique and social status his avatar has achieved in a pristine fantasy world. But then, I’m a hopeless fanatic for the real world. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud I don’t even play Farmville.

What’s that? You say I’m the pot calling the kettle black? You say that you know I compulsively read novels, and worse, mythology, and (heaven forbid) even fairytales? Well yes, I do. I’ll even admit that I’m reading The Lord of the Rings to my four-year-old. But here’s the key: I disagree with the esteemed Peter Beagle’s celebrated forward to so many paperback editions of this jewel of fantasy literature, in which he describes Middle Earth as “a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.” His essay is patent glorification of escapism. And nothing could be farther from the truth. Literature should never be an “alternative” to life. Rather, it is a place to learn, to discover, to dream–but always with the intent of eventually waking up. And not just waking up to the deadly humdrum of a “poisoned” world, but awakening with the intent to apply what we have learned, discover more, and live our dreams in the waking world.

One might well apply here the observation of T.E. Lawrence in his preface to Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” Trouble is, many now simply find a way dream their lives endlessly away “in the dusty recesses of their minds” — or somebody else’s mind.

With all due respect, this is why I am shake my head at those who read The Lord of the Rings and then promptly turn it into a card game, or a video game, or an online role-playing game. Aside from the ethics of subverting art to profit, all those games retain the form (in an impoverished state) while tossing away the substance. I use The Lord of the Rings as an example because it has been subjected to more than its share of this sort of desecration. But the same has happened to fairytales, mythology, and even ordinary life. In appreciation of literature our culture has made a subtle but disastrous shift. When we read of great deeds in a fantasy world, we ought to be inspired to perform great deeds in the real world. That is why Greek children spent their school days memorizing the Iliad, and then went on to create the civilization that shaped the world. Our modern cyber-pop-culture turns this philosophy upside down. The modern take-away is that anything worth doing is worth doing in some fantasy world or other. Time, passion, and creativity get endlessly poured into a black hole of cyber-nothing.

So when does it cross the line from harmless twaddle to a dangerous fake reality that will overrun your life? Well, there are those of us who think “harmless twaddle” is oxymoronic code for something that first numbs your mind and then eats it. But as a general rule, when virtual-something trumps the wind in your hair or the sand beneath your toes or the color in your lover’s eyes, you’re probably in trouble.

Sorry if I sound alarmist. It’s O.K. You can get an avatar. Just get a life too!