Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Avatar and the Myth of Originality

You lie on your back in a cool summer’s grass, staring at the clouds. Familiar shapes begin to emerge, depending on your perspective and imagination: a rabbit here, a human figure there, a turtle further on. Or perhaps, you sit in a comfortable seat and wear odd glasses and stare into the luminescent world of Pandora. Familiar stories begin to emerge, depending on your perspective and imagination: a tale of American colonization, a cheap rip-off of Pocahantas or Russian science fiction, an allegory for the Chinese industrialization process.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Dave Itzkoff outlined the many ways in which James Cameron’s Avatar has been praised and/or condemned, the ways viewers have interpreted the movie as an allegory for this or that, the way it might even serve as a “Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.” Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon. Not unlike staring at the clouds. But, how and why does Avatar evoke such a variety of responses?

Beg. Borrow. Steal.

Avatar does the same things traditional mythologies do: it begs, borrows, and steals from a variety of longstanding human stories, puts them through the grinder, and comes up with something new. In modern parlance, art, movies, and myths are “mashups,” achieving their goals through the same processes that promoted the iPod to ubiquity: rip. mix. burn. All great artworks, all lasting mythologies, even new technologies, operate in the same way: there is nothing new under the sun. Meanwhile, it is up to the viewers to respond, to make meaning out of a mashup. 

The process of reappropriation does not make any of it lesser art; for it is precisely the mixing and merging of influences that interfaces with a larger tradition, knows where it comes from, where it is, and where it is going. The writers of Genesis borrowed from Babylonian and other Ancient Near-East stories of the creation of the cosmos, reusing it for their own emerging monotheistic society. Over a millennium later, the writer of the Gospel of John proclaimed, “In the beginning was the logos/Word,” a phrase appropriated from the ancient Hebrew tradition (“In the beginning God created…”), mixed it with a Greek philosophical understanding of the logos that was crucial for Heraclitus and Plato, and interlaced the older stories with the newly-arisen notion of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ/Messiah. 

Before Avatar’s mythological borrowing there was The Matrix (a pastiche of Christian, Buddhist, and “Hollywood” mythologies), Star Wars (“The Force” is the “Tao,” Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bodhisattva), The Legend of Bagger Vance (a retelling of Krishna and “R. Juna” from the Bhagavad Gita), and nearly every recent Disney and Pixar animated film from The Little Mermaid to Shrek, Cars to Finding Nemo—hero stories all. The birth of the Disney Corporation itself, and of the cartoon mouse later named Mickey, began with the success of Steamboat Willie (1928), a film borrowed wholeheartedly from the great Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill from earlier that year. Likewise, Shakespeare’s King Lear is a retelling of an older Celtic legend, which is then recreated on film in a Japanese setting in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and in the Chinese setting of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. In a further turn, Lee’s film is rearranged into the Latino-oriented Tortilla Soup, and the African-American-centered Soul Food.

On another scale, the television series Lost could easily be renamed “The Lord of the X-Files,” as it is a reinvention of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, mixed with X-Files intrigue (and frustration), a bit of Gilligan’s Island, and populated by a character list of Who’s Who in Philosophy: John Locke, Desmond “David” Hume, Rousseau, and George W. Bush’s favorite philosopher, Jesus (as Jack “Shephard”). Or consider the cast of 30 Rock as a reinvention of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Liz Lemon=Mary Richards; Jack Donaghy=Lou Grant; Pete Hornberger=Murray Slaughter; Tracy Jordan + Jenna Maroney=Ted Baxter.

These cultural products are not only regenerative, re-creative, and imaginative, they have the advantage of using tried and tested stories. Moreover, it’s not simply the tale, it’s the telling, and retelling. The task of the teller of the renewed tales is to demonstrate how relevant these stories continue to be in contemporary settings. For ’70s viewers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had deep social implications as women assumed an increasingly vital role in the US workplace of culture and ideas. 30 Rock picks up the thread forty years later, in a decade continuing to negotiate feminist concerns: Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey, 30 Rock’s creator) is smart, funny, in charge—just as Mary was—but Liz wants a child, with or without a partner, something that barely crossed the mind of MTM’s creators.

Creation out of Nothing

Why do people get so unnerved when they see parallels between Avatar and Pocahontas? Or Fern Gully? Or Dances with Wolves? Or with Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s science fiction? Or even with unbridled capitalist exploitation?

Much of it stems from perhaps the greatest contemporary myth: the myth of the individual human who creates out of his own mind/spirit, unshackled from all tradition, pure genius, even transcending his own body. In the 1970s, literary critic Harold Bloom used the phrase “the anxiety of influence” to account for why modern poets attempted to separate themselves from their own tradition. The modern creator must discredit influence, build up the mythology of originality, the better to sell themselves to an audience that has fully incorporated the idea of “creation out of nothing.” But once these new myths of the individual get told, take hold, and are retold, people recite them as a creed. “We are all individuals!” goes the collective anthem of Brian’s disciples in Monty Python’s astute spoof of Jesus films, The Life of Brian. And once this happens we’ve lost deep creativity.

By denying our own influences, standing up for our individuality (however collectively), and demanding that all artwork (including the creation of our own self) be wholly original, we deny a connection with tradition and with other people. The irony of the “myth of the individual” is that once we collectively agree to the story, we are no longer really the individuals we thought we were, our cultural products not as original as we imagined them. Tradition is not an unchanging static movement, but a record of a series of changes; and the individual is an amalgamation of her own stories and histories. Traditions are always moving, and the stories we tell about ourselves shift in accordance.

Avatar is unoriginal, but it is regenerative and re-creative for many. It reaffirms age-old narrative structures of “heroes” who must come from elsewhere to achieve the task of salvation; of power structures based on race, class, gender, and disability; of the colonized and the colonizers; and of the inspirations that come from glimpses into other worlds. All this is not to say “I” agree with its overall message. I’m simply trying to account for its Rorschach nature, and for the ways such mythologies operate, get retold, and establish themselves within the continuum of tradition. Until we can all get over our modern rejection of myth as a negative, false category, we will not be able to reconfigure structures of power based on race, class, gender, and physical ability. And until we can come to better terms with the contrived mythological nature of our own individuality, we will not be anything more than mimes.