Wednesday, July 23, 2003


The big show in the sky this summer is our near neighbor, the planet Mars. It is now very near---close enough for amateur astronomers with small telescopes to watch a giant sandstorm that began blowing across its surface in early July. To the naked eye it already is the brightest nighttime non-lunar object, and at the end of August Mars will be closer to the earth than it has ever been in human history.

That's a chief reason for all the Terran attention that's about to be focused on the Red Planet. NASA's recently dispatched spacecraft carrying the Opportunity surface rover will join its twin launched in June. Together with spacecraft from Japan and Europe, they are scheduled to converge on Mars in December and January. They will be looking chiefly for evidence of water and other life-supporting elements, and the European probe will search for actual signs of life. Together with the two U.S. satellites already there, there will be four spacecraft in orbit and three more on the surface conducting an unprecedented simultaneous scrutiny of another planet.

That the planet is Mars is especially resonant. Once scientists began to suspect that Mars had the greatest potential for harboring life of the heavenly bodies they could study, the concept of extraterrestrial beings virtually merged with the idea of Martians. So our speculations, our projections of hopes and fears on the figure of the alien, began in earnest with Mars.

By now much of the public is used to the idea of the space alien as a symbolic figure in story, often telling us about aspects of ourselves we might not see or want to see if we looked too directly. But before much of anyone was conscious of this function, the yearnings and terrors that Mars evoked were raw and real.

These proximities themselves had stirred emotions when the eccentric orbit of Mars brought it closer than usual. The eerie colors and shimmering appearance of Mars caused apocalyptic panic during its near approach in the summer of 1719. But it was a peculiar combination of science, emotion, history and literature that placed Mars at center stage in the late 19th century, and kept it there into the second half of the twentieth.

American astronomer Asaph Hall took advantage of advances in optical telescopes to discover the two moons of Mars during the close encounter of 1877, but it was the observations that year by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli that eventually caused a sensation when his work was translated a decade later. Or rather, mistranslated: he believed he saw channels of some kind on the Martian surface (which there certainly are: one canyon runs continuously for some 3,000 miles), but the Italian ""canali'' was rendered into English as ""canal,'' eventually leading to many fanciful illustrations of Martian civilizations and their irrigation techniques.

Europeans were busily exploring and colonizing distant lands at the time, encountering and usually conquering very different cultures. The explosion in geology and biology in the 19th century (including Darwinian evolution), as well as ascendant technological power, may also have contributed to enthusiastic speculations about life on Mars. Percival Lowell, an American who became a prime exponent of the canal theory, built the Lowell Observatory in part to prove that civilizations did or had existed on Mars. When Mars was close again in 1894, the astronomer M. Javelle of Nice reported ""strange lights'' on its surface which might be signals. This inspired eminent inventors, including Edison and Marconi, to try to devise a way to signal back.

By the 1890s, ""Mars mania'' had resulted in more than 50 popular novels about Mars and Martians. But there was also another popular fiction trend: the invasion story. Though World War I was some 40 years in the future, the idea that a highly mechanized war would soon engulf all of Europe was widely discussed as early as the 1870s. A torrent of frightening but not very good novels followed, beginning with one that dramatized a sudden invasion of England by Germany, but eventually extended to other European countries and America, with their respective enemies doing the invading.

These two subjects came together when H.G. Wells, already famous for using the latest and most dramatic scientific speculations in novels of literary quality and great public interest, took a walk with his brother. Among the topics they talked about was Tasmania, an island south of Australia, where British colonial occupation had essentially extinguished the indigenous culture. Frank Wells wondered how the English would react to being invaded by a technologically superior race.

Using Daniel Defoe's Journal of A Plague Year as a narrative model, H.G. Wells combined his brother's insight and the two popular genres of Mars and invasion novels in The War of the Worlds, first serialized during 1897. A lifelong advocate of world peace (he contributed to the United Nations Declaration of Universal Rights), Wells various fictions anticipated tank warfare, the London Blitz and the atomic bomb by decades. The War of the Worlds dramatized the effects of total destruction by overwhelming firepower unleashed on civilian homes, neighborhoods and cities, a phenomenon as yet unknown in western Europe. By depicting Martians as biologically weak beings who depended on their much stronger and more powerful machines, he suggested the direction of the human future.

Arguments abound on Wells' intentions, but the link to behavior on Earth is explicit. "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years,'' one of his narrators observes. "Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?'' (That Mars is the god of war is another built-in resonance.)

There are other references to the genocide of indigenous populations, including American Indians. The novel's end (the Martians are wiped out not by war machines but by common Earth bacteria) is itself a reversal of the fate of American Indian cultures decimated by infectious diseases to which they had no resistance, transmitted by European invaders.

A variation on the invader versus the indigenous occurs in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, (1950) a series of stories about earthlings who colonize the ""final frontier,'' and despoil it with the same unconscious abandon as it destroyed previous new worlds, killing off the last Mayan-like indigenous Martians in the process.The only redemption is the conscious awareness of some settlers that they are the new Martians, capable of combining the best of Earth with the best of the Martian civilization they pushed beyond the brink of extinction.

In Wells' description of the invasion's effects on ordinary people, he evokes empathy for the victims of merciless technology. Yet the portrait is complex, for it is one of those ordinary people-identified only as the Artilleryman---who sounds an ominous and inevitable note when he speaks rapturously of humans acquiring the Martians' death-dealing machines: ""Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat-Ray wide and free!'' Yet Wells complicates the matter further by making the Martians a real threat to destroy humanity, evoking the power of self-preservation.

Except for a few writers like Bradbury, empathy even as an element was seemingly lost in the ensuing decades, as Martians and other space creatures became the potent symbol of the invading alien, the dangerous stranger, a symbolic stand-in for Germans and Japanese in World War II America, the Chinese hordes during the Korean conflict, and the Soviets with their atomic-tipped missiles throughout the Cold War. Pearl Harbor made ""the bolt from the blue'' real to Americans. But the power of the symbolic alien, like the nature of the fear itself, depended on the alien enemy being inaccessible and with unknown power, defined by images of inhuman strangeness and evil.

How powerful this symbol could be was aptly demonstrated by the panic that swept over America during Orson Welles' famous radio dramatization of ""The War of the Worlds'' in 1938, with the Martian invasion transposed from England to recognizable American places, as the real world again teetered on the edge of global war. The classic film version, also centered in the U.S (and this time featuring at atomic bomb that fails to stop the Martians), still had the power to scare audiences in 1953.

For most of the twentieth century scientists concerned with their credibility tended to downplay the possibility of life on other worlds, particularly in the delicate early years of the space program. Believing in "little green men from Mars" became synonymous with hallucination and unemployable madness. But with the popularity of Star Trek and Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on PBS, the idea of extraterrestial life started to become more accepted and appealing. Gene Roddenberry brought empathy back into the idea of aliens, while Sagan revived wonder as a respectable aspect of science.

But "the little green men from Mars" also became a cliché of mockery as well as somewhat nervous laughter. By 1996, when numerous probes had failed to turn up evidence of Martians, the Mars invasion flicks of the 1950s were repeated as parody in Mars Attacks! Thanks to Star Trek, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the movies and TV shows that followed them, fictional extraterrestrials now had more distant homes. So in the 1996 hit movie Independence Day, an unacknowledged remake of "The War of the Worlds," the space invaders' planet of origin was never named, but clearly it was much farther away than Mars. With alien invasion a kind of cliché, ""Independence Day'' thrilled and amused more than it frightened, at least until Sept. 11. Such is the powerful ambiguity of this story that it now assumes another relevance after the American invasion of Iraq.

Mars made its first movie appearance in several decades in two films released in 2000. Though their disappointing box office may mirror how tame Mars now seems, they are interesting updates of its place in our imaginations. "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet" both involved earthlings traveling to Mars, still a believable premise since it is most likely that if humans do travel to other planets, the first destination will be Mars. But these films also involved plausible Martians by today's standards in their inevitable projections of human hopes and fears.

In "Red Planet," the Martians are insect-like life forms that remained dormant until earthlings seeded Mars with algae to begin creating a new home for humanity, since earthlings finally realized they were choking the life out of their own planet. "Mission to Mars" combined speculation that life on Earth might have been delivered by Martian meteorites with a creative nod to a the late 20th century version of Martian canals: the supposed "face" on the Martian surface caught by orbiting cameras. In this story an ancient Martian civilization left the solar system after seeding the earth with human life, and creating a huge monument of a face to greet Terran visitors. One member of the Mars-faring expedition accepts transport to the new Martian home, rapturously reuniting the riven race.

All these fictional forays wrap their tales of two planets in stories of human relationships, and spotlight individual aspirations to explore the unknown, to find the final meaning embedded in the universe. This, too, is part of what Mars reflects back to us. The stars have long symbolized the eternal mysteries, and our yearnings to explore what evokes our awe. Mars is tantalizing as the attainable planet, an unknown yet achingly recognizable other world. Yet we also value our uniqueness and what we know we have, which is each other.

Such tales also suggest we should value our own planet more than we do. By repulsing the overpowering Martians not through the heroics of a relatively helpless humanity but by a feature of the Earth that can injure humans but also protects them, Wells' war is won by one of the worlds because it is the home that bred the victors. Our world is the interrelated web of life.

In this era when fewer of us see a starry sky each night, we look to stories, mental images, and perhaps the photographs and TV pictures from Mars that show us another place to stand, to view what we do from the outside, as a prelude to getting inside the hearts of others and knowing ourselves. As we look at Mars this summer, facing us in closer proximity than it has for some 70,000 years, we can imagine what Martians would see looking back at us. And as those machines from Earth report back from Mars, we may learn things that will again change how we see ourselves and our world ... and maybe even help to save it.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Devil or Angel

For anyone familiar with Kobe Bryant, the Lakers and the NBA, his indictment on the charge of sexual assault is mind-boggling. For those who aren't, or don't really care, the charge and the trial will become something more symbolic, or else the usual perverse form of entertainment these public incidents of private travails become in the tabloid cable TV talk radio universe. The situation is rife with potential candidates for symbols, with race and gender likely to move to the top past the current contrast (both more and less than meets the eye) of world celebrity from the big city and unknown teenager from the smallest of towns.

But one bifurcation is already emerging, thanks in part to Bryant's admission that he committed adultery with the woman in question, and that's: good guy or bad guy, role model or degenerate, hero or villain, devil or angel.

I don't know if Kobe Bryant is guilty of the charge of forcing sex on the woman whose name we do not know. I believe in a person's innocence until proven guilty, and additionally, I would be surprised if he is guilty. The charge is a matter of law, and will be settled in the legal system. Forcing sex on someone is wrong. But as much as is known about the situation so far leads me to believe that the moral responsibilities will never be clear to anyone but the people involved, if indeed it is ever clear to them. Right now it seems likely that Bryant believes the sex was consensual, and right now the alleged victim believes it was forced. The scary possibility is that they each thought the same thing while it was happening.

Bryant has already admitted to error and very bad judgment. Some people profess terrible disappointment in Kobe because he admitted adultery. Some columnists bray about the fallen idol, the Mr. Clean, Mr. Perfect Image now in tatters, oh how the mighty are fallen. (A friend of mine who is a gossip columnist once suggested that there are really only a few stories people want to hear about stars, and they form a neat sort of arc: The Struggle to Succeed, the Mighty Fall, the Comeback.)

We may insist that our mythic figures follow simple two-dimensional story lines, but as Kobe Bryant pointed out in his press conference, he's a human being. Our insistence that celebrities be one thing or the other is part of what we think should constitute our ideal self.

"Devil or angel?" the old song asks; dozens of old songs ask. We can't admit to ourselves that we are both. Sure, in our American Christian culture, we are good but have sin inside us, which must be rooted out when the devil makes us do bad things. It's that attitude that has turned so many psychological insights into the kind of victimization litanies that earn the ire if not the charity of cultural analysts.

Even the Judeo part of our dominant heritage shades this way. There is no actual Devil in the Hebrew Old Testament, says author Amelia Wilson in her book called The Devil, but there is a figure called "ha/satan" who is more of an adversary than a wholly evil entity.

That's a little better, for there's some symbolic sense that we aren't helpless, we can choose, and we contend against "someone" whose position we consciously oppose. Still, there's the sense that Satan is outside us, and that he's an enemy out to destroy us.

A more useful concept, it seems to me, is the Jungian idea of the Shadow. The shadow is everything we are that we reject in our daily life. It includes being too good for our own good, but mostly it's the dark stuff, that has remained unconscious for perhaps any of several reasons. For example, the Shadow holds emotions, energies, actions, that either once had survival value in our genetic history, or it is the impulse and energy itself that had and still has survival value, but it got linked to behavior that is not beneficial to us now. Not to mention harmful to others.

The Shadow has several advantages as a concept. First, it is inside us (though like all aspects of the unconscious it is at least partially shared with our culture, society, our species). Second, in itself it is morally neutral. Third, it is not all bad. The energies of the unconscious are vital to us as functioning, creating, passionate human beings.

Eruptions from the unconscious feel natural; powerful feelings from the Shadow can propel us to commit bad acts. We want to be good, and sometimes we are bad. ("Sin" as James Hillman tells us originated as an archery term, meaning "missing the mark." Or missing the jump shot.) The Jungian remedy is consciousness. You become conscious of exactly what is in your Shadow, how it manifests, and then you choose: you find ways to control and channel those impulses, without denying them and calling them evil.

It's more complicated than that, of course. There are lots of books on the Shadow, but one of the most useful I've found is also one of the shortest: Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson. "Heaven and skid row are separated only by an act of consciousness," Johnson writes. But he also suggests ways of expressing the Shadow, of using Shadow energies, and keeping yourself in balance.

And that's the key, and the key benefit of the concept. One of the most effective ways of inviting the Shadow to suddenly erupt in a really bad act is to deny it, is to tell yourself you've conquered it, you're a really good person now; in fact, you're perfect.

Maybe that's the lesson in that celebrity story, that part of the arc: the mighty is fallen. Kobe Bryant seems like an admirable young man---intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive, emotionally expressive, morally centered, well-mannered and cultured. But he probably also cultivated an image of the perfect hero. He reportedly was insulted when a reporter joked about the opportunities for sexual misbehavior on a trip to Brazil; he would never commit adultery, he said.

Then he did. That doesn't mean he committed rape, or even that he had the impulse to be violent. It also doesn't mean he's a hypocrite, that he has lost all credibility, that he's not a fundamentally good person who has worked hard at it under pressures most of us will never comprehend. But it is an object lesson for all of us. The more we deny Kobe Bryant's humanity, the more we are probably denying our own.

At his press conference, Bryant sounded like he'd learned this. He spoke of being furious with himself, and humiliated. He interjected the statement that "I'm a human being just like everybody else. I mourn. I cry, like everybody else." Mourning would not seem to be at issue, but it's an interesting and suggestive choice. It is in mourning and going through the valleys, our private trips through hell, that we get in touch with our humanity. That the image of Kobe Bryant will never be the same may not be a bad thing, for him or for us.

(I realize this intepretation depends on granting Kobe credibility, that he's being honest. I am assuming he is. He's no Linda Tripp, saying "I'm you." He's saying who he is.)

But it isn't just the mighty who have a mighty fall once in awhile. James Hillman suggests that one reason the infighting in academia, or among poets or environmentalists, is often so vicious and ugly, worse than politicians who vilify each other and then go have dinner together, is that people in these groups are used to believing themselves supremely virtuous, whereas politicians know what they are. But the Shadow won't be denied.

Jung chiseled a motto in stone above his doorway, that said something like : "Invited or not, the gods will be present." The gods he meant weren't just the good gods. They were the very good and very bad gods of India, the mixed blessings (at best) of the Greek and Roman gods. (They include our internal furies, that can make us furious with ourselves.) We have all those gods inside us, just as sure as we're made of atoms. And invited or not, the Shadow will enter.

It seems to me that our societal refusal to admit the presence of good and evil, of devil and angel within each of us, invites criminal behavior as a consequence of our hypocrisy. You can catch a glimpse of that kind of energy working through psychopaths sometimes; they sneer at society for not admitting its evils, because we can't admit we can be good and still do evil. In some ways they express the violence we deny.

We do admit it indirectly. We love the outlaw hero. We root for the Dionysian energy to be expressed in a movie like "The Banger Sisters" or in the Dionysian rock stars that film references, especially Jim Morrison (and there has hardly ever been a more clearly Dionysian movie than Oliver Stone's "The Doors.") But we want to keep it at a safe distance.

That can be part of a healthy approach to the Shadow. But it can't be our whole agenda. Other cultures have had much more respect for the forces of nature, including the forces within us. The words "terrible" and "awesome" express different shades of that respect: each also means the other. Those forces work on us and in us, but we have these tools: consciousness, knowledge, honesty, discernment, courage, responsibility, conscience, respect, sorrow, regret, patience, joy. In this sense, we are neither devil nor angel because we are both.
NBA Update
At the moment, with the charge against Kobe Bryant just officially made, it's a little hard to think about just basketball. But sorting that out will take time. Though it casts a shadow on the upcoming season, and may be felt on the court, there is a great deal that's utterly amazing in almost the opposite way about what's happened with the Lakers in the past month.

The three-time NBA champs (2000, 2001, 2002) entered the free agent market with needs and aspirations and not a lot of money to spend. Not certainly as much as the reigning champs (2003) San Antonio Spurs. Point guard Gary Payton seemed beyond possibility. Nobody much thought it was worth even trying to tempt Karl Malone, since it would take all the money they had, they probably wouldn't get him and if they did, he alone wouldn't be enough.

So what happened? They got them both: Payton and Malone. Malone, a former MVP, is a certain Hall of Fame player. Gary Payton is a fairly likely one. They signed on partly because they wanted to play together, and because they wanted to play on a championship team, with a great coach. They gave up a lot of money (yes-NBA players gave up money!) to play for the Lakers, which of course, was totally unpredictable.

And so far, the Spurs got nada. The team they built last year may jell more firmly next year, but it might just as easily fall apart. Ditto the Sacramento Kings.

The Lakers could start four future Hall of Famers, plus young Deavon George who showed a lot of potential in 2002, had a so-so season last year, but conceivably could have a Hall of Fame caliber career ahead of him. PLUS they still have two more of their key players in those three championships: Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. PLUS they signed two potentially valuable draft picks,who could bring some young energy. And there are still some players out there they might get.

Their only real loss is Robert Horry, who was an indispensable asset in their playoffs runs: smart and skillful on defense and offense. His subpar season last year may mean his knees have finally been played out, so it's hard to say how valuable he would be next year. It's also not clear that either of the two star veterans will quite fulfill the role played by Brian Shaw and Ron Harper; the veteran leader who can come in and settle the team down, get them back in their groove and make a few crucial plays.

It's also not clear whether this group will constitute a team. Some foresee chaos and dissension. Lots of teams complain about Shaq's physical play, but the Lakers never display the kind of on-court thugishness that Malone and Payton have in the past. Of course I'll have to defer to Shaq's friendship with Payton, and Magic Johnson's embrace of Malone, whose comments on Magic and HIV shortened Magic Johnson's comeback as a player. But getting them to all play together and play like a Lakers team will be Phil Jackson's most formidable challenge. If he succeeds, the results could be awesome. The style of the Lakers game will undoubtedly change. With Payton handling the ball, Bryant can fly down the court. With Malone boxing out for rebounds, Shaq can get out on the break, or vice versa: Lakers "showtime" could be back.

But the truly scary thing about this team (for other teams) is its depth. All four of the H of Famers don't have to be on the court at the same time for the Lakers to wreak havoc. They can now sustain an injury or other absense without fatal consequences (their lack of depth last year was obvious in the playoffs.) And Jackson has all year to finetune the particular combination of players he can use for specific situations, match-ups and defenses. Wow.

The NBA brass must be ecstatic. A lackluster season and a barely watched finals are gone. Now the most watched team promises to bring a lot of excitement---and if it all works out, they're gonna score a lot of points.