The Physicality of Being

“Avatar” is a fine movie with an excellent message, or two, or three. Watching it months after all of the hype, I was able to drop my guard, suspend my disbelief, and see its high points without resorting to easy cynicism. Though that may come later. The high points, aside from the wonderful images of Pandora, are its antiwar, anti-imperialist themes, along with an underlying critique of capitalism that no doubt has sparked many a conversation around the nation’s water coolers. We need much more of that. But there are other aspects which drew my attention as well, especially the idea of living in harmony with Nature, the interconnectedness of all living things, being physically in each moment, and the high contrast between the native peoples of Pandora and the imperialist forces from Earth trying to exploit or annihilate them.

The early part of the film is especially good, where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a handicapped Marine who has been given the mission of infiltrating the Na’vi to persuade them to relocate, dream-walks with the aid of his avatar into their world. Rescued from imminent death by Neytiri (Zoey Saldana), a Na’vi warrior princess, he soon learns the ways of the natives and how to harmonize with their environment. I was struck almost instantly by the intensity of their physical lives, their active, vital days, the push-pull challenges of fighting with and flowing with Nature. This presented a high contrast to the enervated, almost motionless Earthlings, locked up in their walls, living almost vicariously through technology, separated from the world around them by countless barriers. The Na’vi were all in, flying on their dragon-like creatures, running, leaping from one landscape to the next, always under their own skies, never walled off from their physical being. One couldn’t help but think of Native Americans, living vibrantly in the sun, versus the sons and daughters of Europe, watching their televisions — as I, of course, was doing at that moment.

Many great visionaries from Europe have written about, or created art about, the enervated, near-motionless lives of people living in “civilized” nations. From the ancient Greeks to Rimbaud, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence and beyond, poets, philosophers and artists have long decried our separation from Nature and how that has sapped the life force from us. Our instincts have been tamed, chained, subdued and cowed. Machines allow us to sit on our keisters for hour upon hour, when once we ran free and wild and swam and lifted and leaped like the Na’vi.

Progress? Or death in life? Liberation? Or the road to atrophy and alienation?

The irony of me writing about this on a computer, inside, on a sunny day. The irony of my complaints as I wall myself off from the physical world under blue skies.

If we do not stop taking from Mother Earth without giving back, if we do not stop plundering Her and polluting our air, land and seas, we may soon be forced back to the days of the hunter-gatherers, but without Nature’s plenty to sustain us. And then we may be the ones awaiting some new imperialist force from some distant world seeking the remnants of our inheritance.


The Physicality of Being
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