Desirae Matherly is a Harper Fellow at The University of Chicago where she teaches in the Humanities Collegiate Division. Her most recent essays appear in Pleiades, Southern Humanities Review, and Lake Effect. Desirae finished her PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University in 2004, and is a contributing editor for Quotidiana, the online anthology of the essay found at http://essays.quotidiana.org/
The Maze and the Machine
If I cannot fight it, I flee it; and by my flight I made a diversion and use craft.
—-Montaigne, “On Diversion”
Though I have grading to do, and despite my messy kitchen, I have spent over an hour on a video game, fighting my way past cute blue monsters that deduct points from my life meter each time I am hit by them. My digital characters appear to have less work to do, slashing at the glimmering forms blocking their paths. I have enjoyed video games for as long as I can remember, prior to responsibilities like housework and bills. Pong (Pinball Breakaway version put out by Sears) was my first game, and because we lived in the brick house in Mountain City, Tennessee then, I must have been around five years old. It was 1979, and my Mom, a kid herself at only twenty-four, sat on the floor of our bedroom, sliding the glowing bar to the right and left, directing the ball to bounce into the wall at the top of the screen, and causing the bricks to break apart. It was a little like throwing a ball against a wall and sending it back again, the immortal game for all lonely children.
When the Tandy Corporation sold their first 64K computer, we bought one, and plugged it into our old orange television. I could play games in color, and we even had a program that allowed us to type in words and hear the computer “speak.” I remember having to type a long list of commands in order to activate the cartridge (each and every time), but it was the absolute coolest experience to type in words like “shit” and “damn” just in order to hear the computer pronounce obscenities. Making something else “say” words that I myself was forbidden to say aloud was a new sort of power I couldn't seem to get enough of.
After the Tandy, I remember working on a Sperry Computer (we were given it for free when the company folded), and despite my monochromatic green screen, I did the most entertaining of the things I did on every computer: I played games and wrote stories. The games I played on the Sperry (we called her “Auntie Em”) had no visual element. They were completely text driven. Games like Zork and Infidel began with a sentence or two of information, and the player typed in a command, like “Go North” or “Pick up the rock.” I was amazed by the ability of the programmers, stunned that they could be prepared for all of the actions I wanted my character to perform. My experience of these games was quite literary, as the descriptions made me see the space around me: “You are standing in a large, cold room. The light from your torch barely cuts the darkness, and you hear something stir in front of you, disturbing the black interior, watching your every move.” I felt inspired when I read sentences like these, and no matter if dinner was ready, or if I had homework to do, I found a few hours to devote to these games. I wonder now what happened to games like these that seemed like rough analogies of books in a time when movies had virtually replaced them in the minds of most preadolescents. (But then, I do some research and find that these games are available for free download because they are so obsolete.)
Auntie Em eventually expired, a death caused by my unfortunate attempt to format a floppy. (A real floppy disk, mind you.) The pathname was wrong and I ended up reformatting the hard drive itself, thereby lobotomizing poor Em. She was left in that condition, as we were utterly without the knowledge needed to revive her operations. No DOS, no anything. Those were the days when the fear began for most people untutored in programming. Perhaps the thought that one mistake could completely disable a computer kept many people from ever experimenting with them. I had learned my lesson too, and had met the limits of personal computing, pre-Windows OS.
But there is something left lingering here, and though I have been trying to justify my love of games and computers, I have not hit it just yet. I am evading something with every sentence, turning another corner that looks as if it will lead somewhere new, and finding myself on a tangential circuit that skates just under what I have written. It is as if I am in one of my games, moving dumbly through a passage that feels straight but also seems west instead of east. Should I go back until I have found the right turn somewhere in the beginning? Or should I just continue re-crossing my mistaken threads, until my troubles track me down unaided?
Typical for most tech enthusiasts, science fiction—specifically Star Wars—has always been a part of my life. The very first movie, Episode IV: A New Hope, released in 1977, was the first movie I ever saw, and my parents (both of them only twenty-two years old) took me to see it. My mom says that I did not move from my seat, but watched in absolute fascination as the story developed. That was probably 1978 or so, and by that time I could not have been more than four years old. But I learned much from that one exposure, knew all the characters, and received the entire set of action figures for Christmas from my grandparents, along with the Millennium Falcon. On top of my fifth birthday cake, my grandmother planted Darth Vader, my favorite character, and raised his arm so that his red light saber forbade us from cutting into his space. When there were unexplained colored lights in the woods behind our house one night, my family drew the curtains and peered fearfully at the spectacle, and I remember feeling certain that Darth Vader was out there and I knew that he had come for me. We never found out what those lights were, though there was a large, circular burn on the forest floor the next morning, and no sign of footprints. Sometimes there are no explanations for what troubles us.
The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 and I know that my father took me to see it, by this time divorced from my mother, and within a month or two of his puzzling death. I recall that later my mom and I wept every time trailers for the movie came on TV, so wrapped up were we in the knowledge that this dark volume of the epic most mirrored how we both felt. There was so much uncertainty in the draft that followed my father's leaving (accident, murder, suicide?), that nearly any narrative could have provided the theo-forensic tools for putting my parent back together in a way that made sense to me psychologically.
Episode V (the second Star Wars film in terms of release) opened on the ice planet of Hoth, with Han Solo's grueling disembowelment of his tauntaun and gigantic imperial AT-AT walkers that strode over the running rebels like ants. The swampy hell of Dagobah, the capture of Han, his entombment, and the worry over whether he was dead or not also made for a somber setting. Finally, we close on the horrible meeting between Vader and Luke, when Luke learns what he thinks is a lie, that Vader is his father. (Was my father really dead or just frozen, sleeping? Were people telling me the truth?) Luke clings on a light wire antenna under Cloud City, hand lopped off, struggling to hang on, carrying this tragic mystery of the father he never knew, unsure of what the truth is anymore. By the time Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, my mother was engaged to my stepfather, and it was with them that I saw the third installment. But it was always the second movie that meant the most to me, and I would watch it over and over again when we bought our first VCR, savoring the tragedy and almost forgetting why I needed it so badly.
Throughout the trilogy, it seemed as if Luke's torment was my own. What could I have known about a father who was already dead long before I was given the chance to understand him, what made him happy or sad, what preoccupied his mind, what he regretted? (Was my father mentally ill?) Luke depended on Yoda and Obi Wan to tell him everything about his history, and they lied to him, to protect him they said. And perhaps they did, for a while. But the only one who was truly honest was Vader himself, and though Obi Wan did explain that Vader was merely a shell of the person who was once Anakin Skywalker, and that the man who had fathered Luke was, by all accounts a dead man, I trusted Vader more. He was present and the dead Anakin wasn't, he was powerful, and the aging Jedi Masters weren't, but finally, he was evidence of his own self-betrayal, having once been alive enough to trade himself for the power that he wielded, and that was good enough for me.
When I first saw the Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, and heard them speak of Star Wars as the new mythology for our time, I understood. When I listened to Campbell's explanation, that technology threatened us psychically, made us question ourselves even more deeply, and caused us to doubt our own humanity, I may have been hearing what he did not say, and I cannot remember what is mine and what is his. I remember thinking that it was Campbell who commented on the deep under-girding of myth and dramatic irony already present in the tale, that fathers are destroyed by what surpasses them, what lives beyond them, and what unravels their own origins, or maybe I misremember him even further. Though I never saw the exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, I bought the 1997 companion book for the exhibit: Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. I found on one page an uncanny correspondence to this essay, which I had begun long before reading: “the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path . . . where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence.” This quote is taken from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and by now we know the liturgy that Jungian psychology initially provided us with, the collective unconscious, and the dreams we populate our lives by. I'm saying nothing new. Even my sense of the maze as my own original experience of Star Wars turns out to be the cultural capital we all play with until it falls apart, fast and loose. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth compares the Death Star to a labyrinth, the comlink to Ariadne's thread in a chapter titled “The Labyrinth and the Rescue of the Princess.” I feel duped by my own associative mind. Are there no original stories to be had? (Even that thought is a repetition.)
Darth Vader, as the representative of both absent fathers and technology, was a powerful icon of my childhood, both evil and sad, a transformed, and twisted soul without feeling. For if he felt anything at all, it was filtered through layers of machinery and leather. He showed no pain and no weakness until the very end, when we finally saw that he was nothing inside but a pale, near-infantile mass. If anything at all stands out in my memory of his naked face, it was perhaps his eyes. They seemed to belong to him. But until the unmasking, I loved Darth Vader because he was what I unconsciously desired to become: all-powerful, fearless, and effective. (A response to my own perceived frailty?) I liked his boots and the way everyone got out of his way. I especially enjoyed his theme, composed by John Williams, the bom, bom, bom-bom BOM, bom-bom, BOM, bom-bom that echoed his imperial stride, and I closed my eyes in ecstasy when I heard the climbing French horns that immediately followed the heavy timpani, swirling into the upper reaches of symphonic pitch, revealing a transcendent (yet rapidly descending) phrase of conquest and perfect intelligence. He was my idol.
But then, I was a young sadist after my father died, and my childhood memories pain me now, my own shame that almost prevents me from describing what I did during that year of the divorce and his death—my attempt to hang one of my cats, my beloved Rosie Cottontail, just to see whether she would actually die, if she would really stop breathing. I panicked as soon as I saw her suffering. I was afraid and quickly released her, but I never forgot what I did and the taste of what it felt like to almost kill something, what frantic seconds pass after one begins a terrible thing, and how hard it is to quit; undone, there will always be evidence of some secret, internalized evil, every time you look at that creature you hurt. To complete the kill appears to be the more rational action at the time; at least it seems that it would erase a cruelty already begun.
One reason I do not go for video games that kill or maim “real” looking characters is because the deaths are too quick and utterly false. The programmers of these games miss one important element of violent death when they create these virtual experiences. I do not mean a grunt or a spurt of blood, or even the gushing of blood and the screams of spectators. I mean suffering, the type of experience wherein a living entity curls in agony and ceases to be aware of anything else but pain and terror. Our socially endorsed detachment from actual death seems pandemic. This, I think, is because warfare has become sanitized as technology has progressed. Real death has become more remote from our experience. The “surgical” air strike seems to excise the sick part of humanity from the healthy, in denial of the fact that these “parts” have faces. The ultimate technology of warfare, the nuclear bomb, is like bug spray for human beings; the annihilation of whole populations of people and animals, and not once do we have to see their isolated deaths, the moments when they convulse, throw up, piss or shit on themselves and scream, becoming aware of themselves as living things, and suddenly too, as dying things, impossible to catch in a memorable way other than the cold result.
I could return to my video game now, the convenience of not thinking about these things right here at my fingertips. It occurs to me that all technologies free us up from the burdens of being human, or at least replace our pained bodies with something less tortured. But no—more than this—technology allows us a psychological escape from what troubles us, whether it is our feelings for other people or our knowledge about them. We can postpone our ruminations indefinitely, for there are always films and games, or even books, which are medieval technology, no less effective. We seek out these mazes and lose ourselves, only later aware that at center there is a Minotaur, and at the beginning, if we dare to attempt return, our imminent execution as a reward for cowardice. What do we do? Sometimes we face the beast.
A recent night found me reading Montaigne's “On Diversion,” an essay that traces his own failed attempt to divert himself from grief, suffering—the basic human condition. Montaigne describes the gaze of Socrates locked with death: “He justly fixes his gaze upon it and, without looking elsewhere, is resolved to accept it.” Could it be that there are things I can't accept as true, simply because I want to believe the very best to the end? Is there a reason for what, at one time, manifested as my inability to watch the news or to read anything more than an accidental headline? I know we are always at war, I know people die every day, I know gas prices fluctuate. But for many years I could not bear the breadth of world news, of national news, even local news. So I would read philosophy, or the digressive thoughts of a Renaissance-era Frenchman on this same subject, saying, “the arguments of philosophy are constantly skirting the matter and dodging it, scarcely grazing the outer surface with its fingertips.” Montaigne writes further on, “Those who have to cross over some terrifyingly deep abyss are told to close their eyes or to avert them.” I think I have usually chosen to look away more often than not. There is a reason the consciousness is layered; there is a reason for our duplicitous dreams. Montaigne ends his essay with an openness I once characterized as uncertainty, until I reconsidered my reading years later: “Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth.” (And life is but a dream.)
How does little arrogant Skywalker become the foreboding Darth Vader? I might as well have been a Greek on the way to the play, asking how it was that Oedipus found himself the killer of his father and the lover of his mother. How? How does the great one fall from a high place, and who knows but us, the audience, how it will turn out? Yoda becomes the blind Tiresius, always marking the future, but often stumped by the Dark Side's opacity. “Difficult to see,” he says. Instead, the audience becomes the Cyclopean mass, seeing all of the future events embedded in the present film, but unable to see how our own selves will be transmogrified by its development. My most persistent fear was: Will I believe it?
Suspension of disbelief is what permits the Jedi to consistently violate what we understand to be the laws of physics. It is also what allows our sympathy for comic characters like Leia's hardy and enduring druids who always seem to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time yet still survive. But what really concerned me before the final film was whether or not I would be able to believe that Anakin became evil through his desire for absolute power alone. I imagined that there would be a critical event in the wings which would utterly release his vengeful nature, as we see gestures toward it in the first two films, intimating anger to come. My disappointment with Episode III should not have come as such a surprise. I was bitter toward the shoddy art aside from the effects, the lack of concern for actors and dialogue. The rumor suggesting that Tom Stoppard cleaned up the dialogue in this script seems impossible. It just didn't hang together anymore—not Padme's pregnancy-induced frailty or her pathetic faith in Anakin till the end, the bloodless labor or the surprise of twins. We can get from one side of the galaxy to the other but we have no ultrasound? “There's still good in him?” Even after he slaughters Jedi children and chokes his wife unconscious? The simpler logic of the theater, of whether or not we are invited to believe in what we see, eventually overcame my ability to connect with the myth and to actually believe in what could not be seen.
I saw far more troubling shadows in the second episode, in the character development of the child Boba Fett, who, amidst the chaos of the coliseum spectacle, holds his father's decapitated head in his hands, quietly staring into the mirrored visor of the helmet. Trying to see what? Only a reflection. I recall melancholy Hamlet, pausing a moment on his way back to Elsinore, holding Yorick's skull and remarking that this was once a laughing, living face that he loved, but also quietly recognizing himself as the dead thing, as sharing its fate, ultimately, to die. No suspension lasts forever, not even that belief in immortality we derive from games or art, from story—we will find our true belief in the face of our own deaths. No myth, however well-crafted, can entertain us past that long disconnection; we will be newly initiated, in the same manner as those who went before. The fact that Boba Fett is a perfect clone of his father is not lost on us, for what he holds in his hands is his own head, absent of body, suspended in both time and air—staring everywhere and nowhere just as fast—another diversion from the main. But who can bear it for very long?