February 24, 2023
Reviews of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water are sometimes critical of its rather schematic plot and characterization, and also its rather bland dialogue. True enough, and yet it does not matter. What almost every review agrees upon is the extraordinary vividness of its water world. There is plenty of suspenseful action, especially in the last hour, but what makes the film memorable is the experience—the reviews regularly use that term—of an underwater way of life. For that is what the subtitle means: the way of water is not just living by the water, not just sailing upon it, though the Metkayina clan of the Na’vi, indigenous people of the planet Pandora, do both. No, the Metkayina clan live under the water for as much of their lives as unaided human beings possibly can. They are adepts at what is called freediving, developing their ability to go for long periods holding their breath. Hence the entire cast had to be trained in freediving, the prize going to Kate Winslet, who held her breath for 7 minutes, which astonishes me. Was she training ever since Titanic, on the grounds that you never know when you might run into a rogue iceberg?
But actually the film’s climate is tropical, and the way of life as close to paradisal as the human condition allows. The Metkayina are not entirely idealized as “noble savages.” They mobilize as ferocious warriors the minute the alarm is sounded, which implies the existence of inter-clan warfare. Yet they are not warlike: they are civilized and peaceable, and generously take in the self-exiled Omatikaya, who are, or were, the forest dwellers who dominated the first Avatar movie. Trees and water: the two symbols of paradise in the Bible, as Northrop Frye says in The Great Code. Both clans symbolize the same thing: a mode of consciousness and a way of life in which everything is in union, ultimately one. Both worship a goddess figure with whom they are connected by what mythologists would call a world tree. That of the forest people is called the Tree of Souls, that of the marine people an underwater Spirit Tree. The clans can establish a direct neurological link to their respective trees, and, when someone does so, they seem to access something resembling the Jungian unconscious, a realm in which time and space are relative, and in which the dead therefore maintain a mysterious existence.
Even when not in mystical union on a level in which everything is somehow one,
the Na’vi live in a harmonious, interconnected relationship with their environment. Forests are enveloping, and the Omatikaya are at home in their green surroundings. There is an unexpected resemblance between the Avatar films and Terence Malick’s The New World, despite the fact that the former are genre films and the latter an art film. The New World is a revisionist treatment of the story of Pocahontas, but the plot is the same: a harmonious way of life is invaded and destroyed by white outsiders possessed by mad desires for wealth, for power, even for immortality. Like the Cameron films, Malick’s The New World is very long, partly because its camera eye spends long periods gliding wordlessly through the virgin forest in a series of breathtakingly beautiful scenes. The Way of Water wanders in the same way underwater. The film was shot at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24, which has the effect of making things seem hyper-real because it captures more precise detail, which some viewers do not like—the same complaint was made of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit—but which in this case works to capture a kind of mythical experience that is indeed an intensification of ordinary reality. There are no cities, those symbols of “higher civilization.” In another curious parallel, both directors hired linguists to create an entire language for their native peoples, as if mindful of the Tolkien principle that a people are real to the extent that they have their own language.
Certain artists across the popular genres seem to have a faculty of intuition that taps into the deeper levels of the unconscious, into what Freud called “primary process.” Sometimes they are lacking in the area of “secondary process,” the conscious elaboration that shapes their intuitions to conform to standards of realism and aesthetic sophistication, so that stylistically their works may be naïve, even crude. But the primary material out of the deep unconscious may grip audiences with a power that baffles and irritates reviewers and academics. Cameron may not be a good artist, let alone a great one, by ordinary standards. But all of his movies, despite their deficiencies—the Terminator films, Titanic, the Avatar films—hit audiences where they live. And where we live is in the depths. The Way of Water is a film about the depths.
The dazzling special effects of the Avatar films are not just entertaining spectacle but are in the service of a mythical plot shape that grips Cameron with surprisingly visceral intensity. That plot is laid out along a vertical axis mundi, an up-down cosmology, of a sort that appears in many traditional mythologies—yet with a reversal of valuation that makes it distinctively modern. In a traditional axis mundi cosmology, such as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, up is good and down is demonic. Heaven is the apex and hell is the nadir. The devil may temporarily usurp the upper level and become “prince of the power of the air,” but eventually he will be overthrown and cast down into the depths, while the good rise into the upward spiritual realm. But, as Northrop Frye showed in a seminal essay, “New Directions from Old,” modern mythology, beginning in the Romantic period, often reverses the poles of the axis and their values. Romantic mythology is full of evil sky-gods like Blake’s frozen, white-bearded Urizen and Shelley’s tyrannical Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound. Such figures represent both social and psychological repressiveness. They masquerade as advocates of order and control, but in actuality they exemplify what Jung called inflation, possessed by a fanatical will to power that begins as tyranny and ends as nihilism. In the Avatar films, evil descends from the sky, as it does in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, but the human beings who embark on a brutal campaign of colonialist domination, subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples, and plundering of natural resources are far more alien and “other” than Wells’s Martians, who are cooly rational and driven to survive. Cameron’s invaders more closely resemble Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, not to mention Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While their initial motivation may have been capitalist greed and imperialistic will to power, they have been taken over by something far less rational, a sadistic destructiveness that is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself, and that is driving them into increasing frenzies of senseless cruelty and violence. Vladimir Putin is presently hagridden by the same dark impulse.
Indeed, it is noteworthy how often Cameron’s basic plot pattern appears in modern literature: tyranny above deposed by a nemesis coming from below. The first Avatar film has a striking resemblance to Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972), whose imperialistic aggressors are Amazon-style loggers despoiling a peaceful alien planet of its wood. In her introduction to the Library of America volume of Hainish Novels and Stories, LeGuin herself has noticed the resemblance and expressed dislike for the film, which she claims sees violence as a solution rather than a problem. But she also criticizes the intense anger of her own story, inspired by the Vietnam War, calling it “strident.” Yes, it lacks the Taoistic balance that LeGuin usually seeks in her work. But there are other virtues than balance. The Word for World originally appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, and in his own fiction (and his life), Ellison did not go gentle, but rather raged against against every injustice in sight with the fury of a Biblical prophet. Parallels to The Way of Water go at least as far back as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in which Captain Nemo is a nemesis that strikes from below against the imperialists who killed his family. Spoiler alert, but it is a tour de force reversal of expectations that, to use the inevitable metaphor, the tide is turned in favor of the beleaguered Metkayina by a member of a huge whale-like species called the Tulkun, who erupts from below, a transvaluation of Leviathan, the Biblical symbol of demonic evil, into a rescuing cavalry. Similarly, the tyrant Jupiter is swept off his throne in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound by an enigmatic figure called Demogorgon, although he comes from oracular caves rather than water. Just a few years ago, in 2017, to my surprise, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture for the same mythical plot pattern, though small scale and lyrical where Cameron is epic and spectacular. An intelligent sea creature clearly resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the comic book character Swamp Thing is rescued by a woman from the clutches of a psychotic Colonel, who shoots both of them as they escape. But the creature heals, and when he applies his healing powers to the woman, she grows gills where her wounds were, and the two swim away in the transforming waters.
Interestingly, in an essay called “The Search for Acceptable Words,” Northrop Frye makes his own comparison between “serious” and popular storytelling by comparing two works, one of which is about a shipwreck. The “serious” work is Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, of which he says, “It is not a favourite novel of mine, but it struggles had to be a serious one, and it seeks its seriousness through allegory, like the Sebastian Brant poem from which it derives its name” (324). But, he goes on to say,
Later, when stranded at an airport, I pulled another ship story off the paperback shelves, Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure . This was a thriller about a ship that turned upside down in a wreck, leaving the surviving passengers to climb upwards towards the bottom of the ship. This story being designed for entertainment, it concentrated on the shape of the story, and the shape of the story derives from what I call an archetype, a story type that has been used thousands of times before, for which the Biblical model is the Exodus. The author being a professional and intelligent writer, I knew that he would indicate some awareness of this fact before long, and two-thirds of the way through he did so. He explained that the passengers were making this desperate and apparently futile climb because up had always been good and down bad, that damnation went down, the resurrection up, that mythology puts monsters underground and graceful fantasies of light in the upper air.” (325)
Except that this ascent journey is metaphorically down, towards the engine room, the place of heat and fire that the crew nickname “hell.” They have to climb through stairwells that are upside down, and at one point climb up a Christmas tree.
The novel was made into a hugely popular film in 1973, with a star-studded cast. And of course it brings to mind James Cameron’s earlier film, Titanic (1995), about another shipwreck, in which the most stunning scene is the moment the entire ship turns on end before it goes down, with people small as ants plunging to their deaths from a vertiginous height. Titanic is in fact a tragic version of the same mythic plot, mythic even though it is based on carefully researched actual history. Here the waters are frigid and the hero dies of hypothermia. It is another story of hubris brought down by a nemesis from below—instead of a Leviathan, an iceberg. The vertical axis here is a social class axis, starting with the rich capitalists who built a ship they arrogantly declared to be unsinkable and foolishly named it Titanic, forgetting what happened to the Greek Titans, hurled into the underworld by the Olympian gods. Then there are the rich, decadent elite on the upper decks, where Kate Winslet is a young woman being forced into marriage to a rich villain in order to repair the family fortunes, a plot right out of an Edith Wharton novel—in fact, out of a specific Edith Wharton novel, The House of Mirth (1905). I almost wonder whether Cameron intended the resemblance, because the suicidal heroine of The House of Mirth is named Lily Bart, while Cameron’s character is named Rose. Rose herself is contemplating suicide by jumping overboard but is stopped by Jack, the working-class artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio, leading to the famous scene at the prow of the ship. Instead, Rose lives to be the 100-year-old woman who remembers when she danced Irish dances below decks with the working class artist who would later sketch her naked, wearing a necklace called The Heart of the Ocean.
There are many ways to commit suicide, but drowning is a particularly symbolic one, a return to the heart of the ocean. The most famous suicide by drowning is that of Ophelia, who went down singing, her mind already drowned by intolerable knowledge. There is a ritual aspect to some suicides by drowning, caught by Theodore Sturgeon in the opening of his famous science fiction story “Saucer of Loneliness”:
If she’s dead, I thought, I’ll never find her in this white flood of moonlight on the white sea, with the surf seething in and over the pale, pale sand like a great shampoo. Almost always, suicides who stab themselves or shoot themselves in the heart bare their chests; the same strange impulse generally makes the sea-suicide go naked. (1)
I do not know if that is literally true, but there is an imaginative truth at the heart of it. Certainly personal style extends to style of suicide. Virginia Woolf went Ophelia-like, weighting her overcoat with stones and walking into the River Ouse. Hart Crane flung himself over the rail of a ship, his mind already drowned by alcohol. Fear death by water, says Madame Sosostris in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but Hart Crane’s poetry makes clear that he was fated to die by water. In the sequence “Voyages,” he says:
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog, Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached By time and the elements; but there is a line You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast. The bottom of the sea is cruel.
Jumping off a ship is a modulation of the ritual death of jumping from a height: the vertical axis again. I lived in Buffalo, New York for ten years, and there was not a year without attempts at suicide by jumping off the Peace Bridge into the Niagara River. I have stood on that bridge: it is a very long way down.
Whole societies may go under the waves, which is of course the archetype of Atlantis and the Deluge. The Deluge is in fact plural, repeated in various cultures, along with the pattern of one character who builds a boat or chest: Noah, of course, but also Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic and Deucalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The flood is the end of a cultural cycle, the return to the Chaos out of which that cycle arose. In The Drowned World (1962), J.G. Ballard imagines a deluge caused by some solar anomaly: an updating of the story would ascribe it to climate change, as Kim Stanley Robinson does in his recent science fiction imaginings of cities like New York inundated by rising sea levels. But in Ballard’s version the physical regression to Chaos is accompanied by a mental regression. As described by Mark Rose in his book Alien Encounters,
The process can be understood as a “uterine odyssey” in reverse….The drowned world of the title, then, refers not merely to the watery world of the exterior landscape, but also to the submarine regions of the psyche, the amniotic oceans of the biological past….In “The Pool of Thanatos”…Kerans descends into the lagoon to explore the sunken London Planetarium….The image of the sunken planetarium in this episode also makes explicit the way the familiar science-fiction icon of the starry infinite has been transferred to a watery world located below and within rather than above and outside. (130-31).
Shakespeare has a whole group of “sea comedies” in which the action goes symbolically underwater, often by the convention of shipwreck, as in the openings of Twelfth Night and The Tempest, only to surface again at the end. What is it to descend into the sea? It is to give oneself up to the process of metamorphosis, of transformation. The most haunting song in all of Shakespeare occurs in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.
Prince Ferdinand hears this song sung by invisible presences. Literally, it is nonsense: his father is not drowned, as he assumes. But the song signals the central theme of the play, which is sea-change.
As the cyclical Deluge imagery suggests, in a tragic context the imagery of sea-change symbolizes the action of time itself. We are all in the destructive element immersed, and time changes all of us. A brilliant literary science fiction short story, “Driftglass,” by Samuel R. Delany, plays off of The Tempest—it even has five parts to suggest the play’s five acts—by way of W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, which also is based on The Tempest. In a future society, an Aquatic Corps sends young people with surgically implanted gills underwater to lay power lines. It is a dangerous job, and the narrator, Cal, was horribly disfigured fifteen years previously by an underwater accident. Cal, a version of Shakespeare’s half-fish Caliban, is the voice of disillusioned experience looking on at the exploits of the next generation, filled with the energy and optimism of the young. But with the death of the young hero, who dies in an accident resembling Cal’s, they learn that they are not immortal. Before that traumatic birth into the consciousness of time, they are figuratively unborn, as suggested by the description of the tragic hero Tork the night before he dies: “Curled below still water, Tork slept, fist loose before his mouth, the gills at the back of his neck pulsing rhythmically. Only his shoulder and hip made islands in the floated boat” (117). There is a passing reference to the Victorian tale The Water Babies, a satire attacking child labor. The place of Prospero in Delany’s revisionist story is filled by the Aquatic Corps—yet another capitalist-exploitative institution symbolizing power, both electrical and social. But the Aquatic Corps is the only game in town, and parents are eager to get their children into it.
When the young girl Ariel meets Cal in the first scene, he is down by the shore looking for driftglass:
“You know all the Coca Cola bottles and cut-crystal punch bowls and industrial slag that goes into the sea?....They break, and the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change the color. Sometimes veins work their way through in patterns like snowflakes, regular and geometric; others, irregular and angled like coral. When the pieces dry, they’re milky. Put them in water and they become transparent again.” (103)
A page later, Cal remarks, “As the sea softens the surface of a piece of glass, so it blurs the souls and sensibilities of the people who toil beneath her” (104). We are driftglass, changed by the tides in ways that may be rich and strange from a detached aesthetic perspective, but which gradually wear us down into something unrecognizable.
It may seem strange that science fiction has revolved so persistently around this theme, but science fiction is a literature about change, daring to imagine metamorphoses that other literary genres cannot, including metamorphoses into what to an ordinary point of view would be alien and other. Stations of the Tide, by another literary science fiction writer, Michael Swanwick, which won the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1991, is yet again a work that plays off of The Tempest, and yet again features a vertical axis in which authority descends from above onto the planet Miranda, which is about to undergo total flooding by the Jubilee Tides that periodically wipe out an entire civilization. Shakespeare’s Prospero says that we are such things as dreams are made on, and the metamorphoses of identity in Stations of the Tide are as weird and disturbing as those of a dream.
Yet at the same time there is a longing to return to the sea. The yearning can be regressive, as in suicide. But that is only one form of a longing that is in all of us, and which may have more positive forms. One of its images is that of the mermaid, woman above but fish below, often seen as dangerous because she may fascinate men and draw them to their deaths. Ah, but that is how we began, as people now generally know in this age of sonograms: we were once a vaguely fishy looking shape with vestigial gills. The absolute delight of a small baby kicking joyously in the pool betokens a memory of a previous state of being. The ironically revisionist treatments of The Tempest are not the full story—and that brings us back again to The Way of Water.
Freud opens Civilization and Its Discontents with an account of what a friend believed to be “the true source of religious sentiments”:
This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of “eternity," a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, “oceanic.” This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone even if one rejects every belief and every illusion. (11)
Why oceanic? Water contains and unites within itself all things that would be separate and isolated in the air. The oceanic, then, is a sense of unity of all things within a “limitless, unbounded” medium. As Freud says, “it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole” (12). Freud rejects the oceanic as an illusion, a vestige of the infant’s lack of distinction between the external world and itself. We cling to it, or to some manifestation of it, because “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks.. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures” (22), which are of three kinds: (1) “powerful deflections,” among which are science and the arts, (2) “substitutive satisfactions,” and (3) “intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.” He flatly asserts that “Something of the kind is indispensable” (22).
Freud knows at what doorstep to lay humanity’s will to illusion: “The region from which these illusions arise is the life of the imagination; at the time when the development of the sense of reality took place, this region was expressly exempted from the demands of reality-testing” (27), and goes on to speak of “the mild narcosis induced in us by art” (28). Still another science fiction story, Greg Egan’s “Oceanic,” is, as its title makes clear, an exemplification of Freud’s thesis, combined with recent suggestions that religious experiences of the mystical sort are actually the result of certain chemicals that affect the brain. In the story, the lead character loses his religion when he discovers that his cult’s foundational ritual, a baptismal immersion in which the acolyte experiences unity with a loving goddess figure, is actually the result of microorganisms in the water of the alien planet on which the story takes place. At the end of the story, he shouts at a group of true believers:
“As long as you’re ready to face the possibility that everything that makes your spirits soar, everything that lifts you up and fills your heart with joy, everything that makes your life worth living…is a lie, is corruption, is meaningless—then you can never be enslaved!” (489)
This is the kind of heroic rational stoicism that Freud himself lived by, but, in that case, why go on? We are back to suicide again. In the final lines of the story, the protagonist encounters the church janitor and asks him if he believes in God, and the janitor says no. The protagonist asks him, “Then life isn’t unbearable?” and the man laughs and answers, “Not all of the time.” In other words, don’t take yourself so seriously and you’ll get by.
It is an appealing stance, and many good people live this way, whether they call themselves secular humanists or merely non-religious. One can imagine a small elite capable of contemplating the bleakness of life ruled by the reality principle, and the larger population anesthetized to life’s pain through religion, the opiate of the masses. But in fact, politically, it does not work that way. The view that we are all locked into our isolated egos, that any positive values, which depend on empathy, compassion, a sense of connection to other human beings and to nature, are mere illusions, leads exactly to the psychotic aggressiveness, greed, and nihilism of Cameron’s villains. If such a view is accurate, the villains think, the only recourse is either to rape the world or to destroy it—or perhaps to rape the world and then destroy it. The only thing new in the modern situation is the mass scale of the rape and destruction. Shakespeare knew this, and in fact shows it in The Tempest, whose villains, Antonio and Sebastian, are exactly rape-pillage-and-plunder imperialists who are driven to “conquer” a desert island in the middle of nowhere and murder anyone who opposes them because, well, that’s what one does. They are paralleled by a couple of drunken idiots, Stephano and Trinculo, who attempt a failed insurrection of the January 6 variety.
There are two agents of positive change. One is Prospero, whose magic, which he significantly calls his “art,” consists largely of creating illusions. He is a melancholic figure who talks of everything disappearing in time in a way that suggests that Civilization and Its Discontents was one of the books he brought with him in his island exile. Students usually dislike Prospero, but he uses his art not as narcosis but as consciousness-raising, and by doing so reforms and recreates his whole society. Prospero is contrasted with his chief counsellor Gonzalo, who is his temperamental opposite. Gonzalo is one of those naturally cheerful people whose hopefulness and courage in adversity helps keep those around him from panic and despair. He always tries to make things a little better rather than worse. He is a paradisal utopian who looks at a desert island and sees it as the site of a possible Golden Age. The villains make merciless fun of him as naïve, as living pathetically in la-la land.
But it is the villains who are trapped in illusion. The one thing Freud, and those like him, never question is the validity of the “reality principle,” that which postulates an ego marooned on the desert island of its own isolated consciousness, alienated both from its environment and from other people (love for Freud is another of the illusions of the oceanic). But how much of the alienation and isolation are of our own making? The Na’vi, both of forest and ocean, are capable of kindness, compassion, and peacefulness because they feel connected to everyone and everything. Yes, in our world such a paradisal frame of mind appears only in occasional Gonzalos, exceptions that might seem to prove the rule. But one of the functions of art is to provide positive illusions of ideals that, no, do not exist, but which could possibly be summoned up, like Atlantis, by the power we call the imagination, in which we live and move and have our being like fish swimming in the sea.
Correction: In last week’s newsletter, ironically on memory, I wrote that Zeus killed the monster Python. That was a slip for Typhon: it was Apollo who killed Python. Credit where credit is due.
Delany, Samuel R. “Driftglass.” In Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories. Vintage, 2003.
Egon, Greg. “Oceanic.” In Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels, edited by Gardner Dozois. Volume 2. St. Martins, 2007.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated and edited by James Strachey. Standard Edition. Norton, 1961.
Frye, Northrop. “The Search for Acceptable Words.” In “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963-1975. Volume 27 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Edited by Jean O’Grady and Eva Kushner. University of Toronto Press, 2009. 310-330.
Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Harvard University Press, 1981.
Sturgeon, Theodore. “A Saucer of Loneliness.” In A Saucer of Loneliness. Volume VII of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Edited by Paul Williams. North Atlantic Books, 2000. 1-14.