And now, at long last, we have come to the White Whale.
The night before Ahab has his final reckoning with Moby Dick, he is in a contemplatively punishing mood. Nostalgia drives him, as the “clear steel-blue day” causes the captain of the Pequod to open up to his first mate: “On such a day,” he tells Starbuck, “very much such a sweetness as this – I struck my first whale – a boy harpooneer of eighteen! Forty – forty – forty years ago! – ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep!” (590).
For forty years I have been breathing on this Earth and for nearly all of them, STAR WARS has been a part of who I am. It is more integral to who I was as kid than even Tolkien and Scooby-Doo and Spider-Man. STAR WARS is the genesis of why I write, the drop of water that caused the acorn to realize its purpose; it wasn’t just the characters, but the spectacle, too. I can remember going to the drive-in in 1977 and seeing it on a massive screen from the back seat of my dad’s blue, Ford Granada. I remember not just the movie, but the experience – the playground, the popcorn, hanging the speaker on the rolled-down window.
Christmas is a naturally nostalgic time, of course, and for the past decade I have failed to go home for Christmas more than I have made it back. I haven’t been to Massachusetts for Christmas in at least seven years, so maybe I am more open to the creeping entreaties of nostalgia. This year seems to have left me particularly vulnerable – my contract is up in June and it almost certainly won’t be renewed because of my English Department’s bylaws on the Lecturer position. I have yet to get an interview for a tenure-track position this job cycle, which means while the bulk of the professions is trudging to Chicago in two weeks, I almost certainly won’t be. Like Ahab, forty years of living has led me to this point, where it feels as if a turning of some kind is in the air.
Ahab knew his final battle with Moby Dick was at hand. During the nightly mid-watch, Ahab “suddenly thrust out his face fiercely, snuffing up the sea air as a sagacious ship’s dog will, in drawing nigh to some barbarous isle. He declared that a whale must be near” (594).
And so I, too, feel as if the whale is near and some kind of change is at hand. Not tomorrow morning, I imagine, but certainly by June 30, the final day of my current contract. I do not know where I’ll be on July 1. I do not know what I’ll be doing. For the first time since I started back to college on this roundabout trip to become a college professor, I don’t know if this is the profession I even want. I like books, you see. And movies. And short stories. I like engaging them and thinking about them and reading about them and writing about them. (The 800 or so reviews here probably clued you in to that.) What people outside the academy do not know is that English Departments are a terrible place to be in 2013 if you like engaging, thinking, and writing about stories. I should have known something was amiss back during my first semester as a grad student at Purdue when, during a class in the Introduction to American Studies course, the professor had everyone in the room say why they were in graduate school. There were maybe 25 or so students in the class, and only two of us said it was because we liked books.
Now, that’s neither entirely surprising or even disheartening given that it was an interdisciplinary course and not solely a literature course, but the revelation that day still hit me pretty hard. Most of the people in that room were either English majors or minors, and only two of us were open about our love of books.
Recently, the American Studies Association (of which I would still be a member if I remembered to pay my dues …) voted to boycott Israel, because the organization has been overtaken by politically-motivated academics who have somehow convinced themselves that the best solution to the Israeli/Palestinian situation is an academic boycott. Yes, academics of purported intelligence have decided that an academic boycott is a good thing to do. This isn’t a matter of the simple jumping of a shark. This is a matter of the jumping of all the sharks.
I completely agree with the statement released by the Association of American Universities on the matter: “Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general. Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint. It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.
Efforts to address political issues, or to address restrictions on academic freedom, should not themselves infringe upon academic freedom.”
Thus, as the profession is in the early stages of telling me I’m no longer wanted, I am also wondering if I even want them to want me. What I want is to find a place where I can sit and read and think and write and bring that knowledge of literature to students through teaching. Because Literature. Because making a career out of what you love is a better choice than making a career out of something you don’t. Those jobs are still there. Every department has them, even if the numbers are dwindling. As American universities have sought to complete the final stages of their transformation into trade schools, English departments have reacted by attempting to become more like the Life Sciences (thus, the rise of Rhetoric and Composition) and championing a new master (Theory and Cultural Studies), abandoning the book as a thing of the past. Rather, abandoning the idea of literature as a thing of the past – books still have value to this crowd insomuch as they can be mined to suit a predetermined political agenda. My favorite professors have alwas been those who helped me understand a book, a movie, a poem better, and my least favorite professors are those that showed me how to treat a book like a Walmart where you pull one item out that you need and ignore the rest. It’s a purposeful ignorance of the whole.
There are plenty of fine Rhet/Comp and TCS scholars out there, and the modern academy needs to have room for them, but there is also a clear disdain in contemporary English Departments for Melville, for Faulkner, for Hemingway, for Howard, for Lovecraft, for anyone that doesn’t allow the politically-driven scholar an easy selection of take out items that fit their agenda.
Universities also rely so heavily on adjuncts they can’t function without them. Well, they could, but they’d have to increase their budget and universities are not in the business of not being a business. There’s such a glut in the profession that a recent rejection letter I received stated the school had received over 600 applications for the position. With numbers like that, even if you get the job there’s no guarantee you’re going to be paid what you’re worth because there’s so many qualified people standing behind you willing to do it for even less. I didn’t pursue this profession to get rich, but I am also not willing to let a university take advantage of my skills at 50 cents on the dollar, which is what they do with adjuncts. I’m good at what I do. My student and faculty evaluations state that with undeniable clarity, but there are plenty of others out there who can do what the university requires.
Which brings me back to STAR WARS. I started Atomic Anxiety nearly four years ago and since Day One, I knew I’d eventually get to reviewing all six films. I bought the Blu-ray boxed seat as a Christmas present to myself this year, so I knew the time to start examining those movies in detail was getting closer. I’ve thought long and hard about how I wanted to do these reviews over these past four years, whether I wanted to start with Episode IV or Episode I. Whether I wanted to write straight-up reviews or dig deeper, as I did with the Avengers movie, and write individual reactions to supplement the review of the main film.
There’s also the question of whether there’s anything left to say about these six movies. There’s a metric ton of great STAR WARS analysis spread across the Internet. I can’t promise I’m going to make anyone see Jar Jar Binks or Han Solo or Admiral Ackbar any differently than they already do, but I can promise I can let you know how I see them, and maybe you’ll agree, and maybe you’ll disagree, and maybe we can chat about it down in the comments. What it will be is me looking at literature the way I like to look at literature – by digging deep and pulling things apart and looking at the clock works and never forgetting that whether one loves literature or hates literature or loves or hates a particular story, the telling of stories is a good thing that not even the worst English professor can ruin.
So. STAR WARS. Like so many who grew up on the original trilogy, I never thought we’d get more films, and then when we did … they say you should never meet your heroes because they can’t help but disappoint you, and that’s what THE PHANTOM MENACE did. How could something that was so good become something that was so bad. What the fuck was a midi-chlorian, anyway, and why did anyone think it was remotely a good idea to turn Jedi into the X-Men?
Why review STAR WARS now when you can’t even have a conversation about STAR WARS on the internet in 2013 without the malcontents yammering about George Lucas raping their childhood? (Which, no. Just no. Even if you think PHANTOM MENACE is the biggest cinematic piece of shit, nobody raped your childhood.) I think, in some way, engaging the STAR WARS chorus is another way of engaging the people ruining English Departments. We’re getting EVEN MORE STAR WARS now that Lucas has sold the franchise to Disney, and every time an Episode VII story hits the web, there’s this automatic huge wave of negativity.
I can’t stand people who go out of their way to be negative about something, especially when that something is two years away.
But as we all know by now, that’s sci-fi/fantasy fandom. We celebrate something just so it tastes better when we tear it apart. There’s a rush to be the first to label something cool, and a rush to change that label to uncool. Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS went from being the Greatest Thing Ever to Oh My God, Three Hobbit Movies? STAR WARS went from a secular religion to George Lucas being put on mock trial. AGENTS OF SHIELD went from the most anticipated show of the season to people dropping it after two episodes.
I am not saying you’re about to get six overwhelmingly positive reviews. I am not saying you can’t dislike something. I am saying I’m going to watch these movies with fresh eyes, starting with THE PHANTOM MENACE, and writing about how I find them right now. Maybe I won’t hate PHANTOM with my 1999 passion, but maybe I won’t love JEDI with my 1983 adoration, either. All I can promise is that I’ll give an honest account of what I see.
I think, after four years and something like 800 reviews (I should really count them, at some point), I’ve proven I can do that.
I think I’m going to go the Avengers Reaction route, too. Probably not for every single character because there really is a lot of characters in this universe, but certainly the ones that move me. Unlike with Avengers, I’ll almost certainly review other movies as I go. There’s lots of films out right now that I want to see and maybe I’ll talk about them or maybe I won’t. (I finally saw The World’s End. Liked it. Not moved to write about it.) I do know that my next two books (Adventures of the Five: The Christmas Engine and Gunfighter Gothic Volume 1: Under Zeppelin Skies) are done save for the final round of editing and cover-making, and I do know that I’m going to launch a kids imprint to separate my all ages and adult work, so it’s time to turn back to reviews for a bit, and I’ve decided that mostly means STAR WARS. I welcome any and all comments, be they positive, negative, or even your own reminisces about the films or characters or that time you hung out in a swamp with a creepy old dude.
I’ve taken the rare tack of posting this article at both Atomic Anxiety and my personal blog because it turned in such a personal direction, so if you’re reading this at the Anxiety, stay right here over the following weeks, and if you’re reading this at themarkbousquet.com, the reviews will be over at the Anxiety, and not here.
I’ll be your Ahab, baby, if you’ll be my Fedallah:
“The white birds were now flying towards Ahab’s boat; and when within a few yards began fluttering over the water there, wheeling round and round, with joyous expectant cries. Their vision was keener than man’s; Ahab could discover no sign in the sea. But suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw; his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea. The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb; and giving one sidelong sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled the craft aside from this tremendous apparition. Then, calling upon Fedallah to change places with him, went forward to the bows, and seizing Perth’s harpoon, commanded his crew to grasp their oars and stand by to stern” (598).
Let’s do this.