X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Momentary Essay on Time Travel and Paradox

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By Shawn StJean

The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever.  The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all.  At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood.  Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field.  Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.

Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright.  No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive.  In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die.  But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.

Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.”  The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly.  It signals our wish and our intention to do better.  A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could.  But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.

Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past.  His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth.  But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.)  Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies.  He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it.  It created its own destroyer.  Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence.  This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake.  We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot.  Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.

Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level.  A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean.  The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back.  On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes.  The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Sacrificial Lambs and Old Goats

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“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”  These words, asked of the American people less than a week ago by President Barack Obama, echo a plea repeated by civilized peoples, and dramatized in literature, at least as far back as the ancient Greek city-states.

You must understand: Literature and film only present extreme manifestations of what regular human beings endure every day.  They amplify everyday experience.  In short, they only exaggerate, but they do not change the basic truths.

Oedipus, in fear of his own inadequacy, called for a scapegoat because a plague had come to Thebes: “Whoever he may be, cast him out!” And his mandate did not stop short of murder.  In the first post from this series, Zombie Apocalypse Now, I alluded briefly to this horrific phenomenon of human sacrifice, which people today foolishly dismiss as a relic of the historical past, or unique to primitive cultures.  No–we do it here, and now.  We did it on December 14, 2012, in Newtown CT.  We?  Yes, every  one of us has a share of that guilt, as long as we remain silent, and await the next event.

WE resist change.  WE fear our own vulnerability.  WE are too selfish to trade personal safety for the good of our society.  You can insist on conjuring a demon of chaos, and calling him Adam Lanza, or Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris, or Dylan Kleybold.  But you still have to answer either one of two questions: Either, What contribution are you making–no matter how small an act–to take his weapons away, OR: What will you call him next year?

Because it was never more truly said than in this case: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

In that earlier post, I made this claim:  “The plot archetype beneath the collective and individual struggle for survival emerges as what Campbell called the Scapegoat Myth, wherein other human beings are sacrificed impulsively for one’s own personal safety/comfort (as in the all-too-human pushing of someone aside to escape the pursuing [Zombie] horde), or ritualistically, for the supposed good of the community at large, as simply told in the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” or most recently convoluted by Joss Whedon in his Cabin in the Woods (2011). In such tales, Man is revealed as the most monstrous Thing of them all, because alone among created beings does he turn on his own kind – zombies, aliens, pirahna, at least, do not eat each other. But a man will slay his brother, or steal his life savings, or repossess his house, or covet his wife. All in slavish worship of his insatiable hunger.”

This archetype is so compelling within the collective unconscious–sustained by guilt–that it resurfaces in a slightly different form of storytelling, every few years.  It has to.  The plague (perceived first as an external threat) takes many forms, such as a monster like the Kraken, or Witches in Salem, or Communists, or the shark from Jaws, or terrorists, or serial killer (as in Stephen King’s televised novel Storm of the Century: “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” demands the murderer, in bloody wall-script.  By the time such a demand–“Price,” to use Obama’s apt word–is actually named, fearful citizens will go to any length to satisfy it.  Not coincidentally, King’s villain wanted children too.  The innocent, the virgin, the young, are so much easier to digest than the corrupt adults.

Like Martin Luther King before him, it has now become clear to our nation’s leader that the plague on U.S. society is violence (guns are simply one of its limbs.)  And if we cannot, all in one day, lop off the head of the beast, then a limb ought to make a good start.

Witness the fearful public reaction, even before U.S. leaders make any concrete decree.  Hiding behind the ambiguity of the Constitution, and mindless sloganeering: “Pry it from my cold, dead hands,” as if they really had that kind of courage.  A true person of courage would not be ready to so easily commit the lives of others he’ll never know, and on a regular basis, to staunch the flow of piss down his own leg, because he can’t imagine life without the power to kill within reach.

I’m the last person to advocate for relinquishing control over my personal affairs to government lawmakers.  If you love your guns–and more likely you love them as anyone loves any material object, simply because its yours and thus has value–and if you believe in the right to keep and bear arms promised in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights–good.  Insist lawmakers make sensible distinctions, and not some fascist, blanket mandate. Trade in your pistols and automatic rifles for a deer rifle, or shotgun, or even a compound bow.  You can still hunt game and bar the door against intruders with those, and they are not likely to ever be hidden under a coat or smuggled into a school.

Are we really going to roll over, as a nation of 300 million people, and say that this plague, this monster, is too tough for all of us combined?  If another nation of millions attacked us, we would not hesitate to rise up in wrath, before we sent a single, innocent child in our stead.  But that is a solution of violence.  Do we dare seek a solution of peace?  Do we dare model for our children the way of courage, and not fear?  Do we have the guts?  Are we willing to pay THAT price?

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