Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Just a Little Higher!" On The Return of the Jedi

This post is a series of thoughts on Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. 

I. Sarlacc Ethics.

C-3PO explains in Jabba’s palace that the sarlacc digests its victims over a thousand-year period of unimaginable suffering. If this is true, then Luke and Han act reprehensibly when they glibly allow bounty hunters to roll into its maw instead of shooting them. On the other hand, the sarlacc probably enjoys eating bounty hunters more than they dislike it. So from a utilitarian perspective, it’s actually fine. (There are other considerations to take into account—Tatooinians, for example, might not like living on a planet where sarlacci can devour people with impunity. The sarlacc, though, gets such intense pleasure from eating that we don’t need worry about this objection.)

II. Racism.

Jabba’s palace is Orientalist and the Ewoks are insulting to indigenous people of the Amazon. My Art History class has made me too sick of critical theory to go into this further.

III. Yoda Will Always Be with You.

One of my favorite moments in any movie, almost an par with this, is this moment, when Obi Wan first appears to Luke on Dagobah after Yoda dies. The orchestra’s crescendo that suddenly cuts off as Obi Wan approaches is tingle-inducing.

IV. The Forest Moon of Endor.
One of the most well known grammatical disputes in Star Wars is this: is “the Forest Moon of Endor” a partitive or possessive genitive?
There are two possibilities for the identity of the home of the Ewoks.

  1. (Partitive genitive.) It’s a forested moon called Endor. Thus, “the Forest Moon of Endor” is the same construction as “the great state of Maine” or “the frigid, godforsaken city of Iqaluit.”
  2. (Possessive genitive.) It’s a forested satellite of the planet Endor, and not itself named Endor. This reading understands “the forest moon of Endor” to be akin to “the two moons of Mars” or “the blood-spattered armor of Mars.”
Personally, I’m sympathetic to the first reading, because I think it would be bizarre for George Lucas to have left the central stage of the movie’s action unnamed. Nevertheless, there are good, honest people on both sides of the debate, so let’s pause before we haul out the fire, wood, and oil.

V. Darth Vader’s Redemption

One of the most commonly repeated lines about the movie is that Darth Vader “redeems himself” when he saves Luke by hurling the Emperor into a conveniently placed molten pit. I used to believe this too, until I realized that it it’s a facile platitude. Redemption is impossible for Darth Vader. If billions of murdered Alderaanians had risen from the dead and offered their sincere pardon, then it might have been possible for Vader to die with a clean conscience. Saving one man’s life who happens to be his son isn’t enough to cut it. The only people who could have redeemed Vader—if human beings can redeem other human beings at all, which is debatable—are dead by the time of Episode VI.

This speaks to a general moral point: I don’t think that redemption is something that we can have any knowledge about in the first place. How is it possible for us tell whether or not someone receives the pardon of the universe? God knows, not us.

This isn’t to say that Vader’s saving Luke isn’t significant. Luke is right, in spite of Leia’s insistence to the contrary, that there is some good in him. The operative word, of course, is some. At the very end of the movie, Luke consciously lays his father on his pyre with his mask back on. Despite his heroism, in the end Vader’s still a murderer.

VI. The Remastered Version.

I  don’t have too much nostalgia for the old VHS version of Star Wars. That said, I have a couple qualms with the revisions from the original. First of all, turning the Ewok’s simple chant at the end of the movie into a tremendous intergalactic celebration is like cutting out the Song at the Sea from Exodus and replacing it with this. Also, as my friend pointed out, giving the sarlacc digital tentacles and a beak puts a damper on its Freudian symbolism. That might be a good thing—the sarlacc scene alone is probably responsible for a host of lifelong male bachelors who saw it as kids.

VII. Is Luke tempted?

It’s hard to tell whether Luke is actually tempted by the Emperor to go over to the Dark Side. He attacks Vader in a rage, but it’s left unclear whether that’s just a lapse of self-possession or an ominous sign of weakness. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on Luke’s character, so it’s a bit frustrating that the movie leaves it ambiguous. We don’t know, after all, whether to cheer or to nod understandingly when Luke tosses away his lightsaber in front of the Emperor.

That’s not all, but I’m done for now. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, and its sound effects and dialogue are firmly embedded into my mind. It’s a fresh movie every time, though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For Grammars Sake: Abolish the Possessive Apostrophe

Possessive nouns are declined free, and everywhere they are in apostrophes. How did this happen? I do not know. Why does it need to be corrected? I think I can answer this question.

English has three cases, or forms that nouns can take depending on their role in a sentence: subjective, objective, and possessive. There’s almost no difference in form between the subjective and objective cases: what difference there is is mostly restricted to pronouns. Hence: he (subjective) tasted his tongue sandwich, but not before it tasted him (objective). But Mary milked the cow and the cow licked Mary: for most nouns, the English case system has regrettably withered away almost entirely.
Not so, thankfully, for the possessive case. Almost all nouns in English still take an s when they refer to objects or people that possess others: consider the king’s taster, Plato’s lunacy, and my brother’s keeper. But as these examples make clear, the s isn’t just appended to its noun, as we might expect. An apostrophe inexplicably intervenes. I say inexplicably, because this use of the apostrophe is by any standard unwarranted. In almost all of its other uses, the apostrophe is a stand-in for a letters that have been omitted: I can’t come to the club because my dog’s decided to chew my checker’d coat. In the case of possessive nouns, there is no letter to leave out, and hence no need for an apostrophe. There’s no logical reason that François Hollande is France’s president and not Frances; that Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and not Lou Gehrigs.

Perhaps we English speakers are so squeamish about our ancient Germanic case system that we’ve decided to sanitize it. Rather than let our nouns go forth with naked esses, proclaiming joyfully and innocently their full-hearted allegiance to the possessive case, we nervously separate them from their rightful endings out of pale timidity. Better, after all, to give the impression that the s is an unnatural addition to the noun-stem, that it’s an innocuous result of schoolroom pedantry. But our prudery has a cost: in our refusal to face the unbearable, irresistible pleasure of the unsullied cases, we’ve doused the blazing furnaces of our souls with a shower of tiny drops of ink. The stout-hearted followers of King Harold, by contrast, surely went to their doom at Hastings shouting their genitive battle-cries in terrible grammatical purity. Weop eal gesceaft, cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Cyninges!

As for the factual, historical origin of the apostrophe, a bumbling though well-meaning printer probably decided it would be a good idea around the year 1750, and no one bothered to correct his mistake.

There are, I concede, some useful functions of the possessive apostrophe. For one, it helps distinguish the schoolboy’s chair from the schoolboys’; the hart’s longing for the stream from the harts’ extermination during hunting season. This, though, is a trivial advantage. If it’s not clear from context that the writer intends the plural form of the noun, the writer wrote a bad sentence.

In any case, the Germans, who also mark their possessive case with an s, have got along without the possessive apostrophe for at least a century. They do fine. More than fine—the Germans enjoy just as much of the old pleasure of the Proto-Germanic case system as the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes did. Granted, German doesn’t pluralize its nouns with an s as much as we do, so there’s less room for ambiguity. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the vault of heaven would not collapse if we followed suit.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, in an inspiring display of stern courage, has already gotten the message: in 1894, it forbade the use of the possessive apostrophe in all domestic place names, with a few regrettable exceptions. (See chapter V of this list of guidelines.)

Abolition, then, is both desirable and possible. The last remnant of our stark and strangely beautiful case system is drowning in a pit of black, writhing maggots. Who is on orthographys side? let him come unto me.