Thursday, September 02, 2004

A Silhouette of Arrows

I just came back from watching Hero, an exquisitely crafted movie. The music is a bit much in places, but the visuals are stunning. Besides, it has been a while since there's been a good, solid imperialist film.

One of the negative reviews I saw suggested that the high point of the movie was a "discussion of zen brush strokes". It wouldn't be zen, of course; but the brush strokes were certainly the high point of the movie, or, at least, the occasion for it. Hero is a film that's less about external action than about internal struggles. But it receives much of its grandeur precisely because it draws on the idea of Empire (and, more specifically, Imperial Peace). The politics are bound to worry some people [the linked review has spoilers], but a question they do not tend to ask is why Empire is such a powerful notion. I'm not sure I have an answer to that question, but here's something of a start:

Human beings are inevitably drawn to imperial dreams because of something in them that is undeniably good. Everyone is drawn to this something, even those suspicious of the word 'imperial'; I cannot count on one hand the number of people who will in one breath condemn imperialism and colonialism and in the next advocate and justify some scheme of international politics indistinguishable from the sorts of ideas imperialists have had, and in very similar terms, too. They claim to condemn Empire; but what they condemn are means to it other than their own. This can be consistent; but if we were to call a spade a spade, we would have to call them imperialists. Empire draws us. The idea of Empire promises something we genuinely need. The paradox, of course, is that this Empire cannot be built with human hands; the closer we come to doing so, the more our dominions are merely superficially like the Empire that inspired and drove us in the first place. Human beings have a tendency to project their internal life outward, like some vast metaphor; this is a beautiful tendency. It is also dangerous, for human beings have the tendency to treat the external as if it were the real thing. Freedom, for instance, in part becomes something about the external system of government in which you find yourself. As an exterior emblem and protection of something more deeply personal, something at the very heart of what it is to be a person, this is a good thing. But the external can only thrive to the extent that it is kept in its place, and its place is to express, and provide a forum for defending or improving, something internal, some key part of the Dominion of the Heart. Severed from that, it becomes hollow and empty. And this is inevitably what happens to attempts at empire: the closer we come to looking like an Empire, the more we tend to sever it from what was the only point all along. When a person sets himself or herself in order, when they have extended the Empire of their own souls: then politics begins to be set in order. But the more we focus on the external dominion to the exclusion of the internal, the more we lose a grip on both. We are doomed to slip in this way.

Until Kingdom come, of course.

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