Yesterday we experienced a cosmic coincidence, as a meteor struck earth on the same day that an unrelated asteroid passed within satellite range of our little planet. Watching the eyewitness footage from Russia, many of us were shocked by how “like the movies” the whole thing was, and as film makers study that footage to tweak their craft, we will all experience a little more blurring of the line between reality and art (Zizek’s “Desert of the Real” and Baudrillard’s “hyper reality” come to mind). For my own part, the event’s similarities with the last decade’s crop of apocalyptic films has got me thinking about the rise and fall of human civilizations and just how enamoured we, as a race, have always been with the contemplation of our own end… and what comes after it.
The End is Not the End
A quick review of any sampling of apocalyptic myths seems, to me, to point to the motif of re-birth as an almost ubiquitous counterpart to death and decline. Whether examining various Indian traditions, the Tantric Buddhist “wheel of time,” or Pythagorean or Stoic ideas as embodied in the tale of Persephone and Demeter (where the gods both depict and provide explanation for agrarian cycles of growth, death, and re-birth), it seems clear that our collective human experience points to a belief (or, to some theorists, a “hope”) that the end is not the end.
The recurring motif of death and re-birth has long been recognized as an important part of the shared human experience. Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915) (and, later, Northrop Frye’s criticism) explored this theme’s recurrence and role in literature, while Carl Jung famously explored its place in the collective human consciousness. Though often explained as arising out of our agrarian past—where the death and re-birth of crops governed our survival and flourishing, older explanations see this motif as rooted in something deeper within us. Despite Augustine’s misgivings (City of God 12.13), many Christian thinkers would suggest that our fascination with this trope is the result of the divine Logos’ purposeful creation of a cosmos that sacramentally embodies the ultimate, one-and-for-all, enactment of divine, cosmic death and re-birth in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. (For a brilliant musical exploration of this theme from a Christian pop-artist’s perspective, take the time to listen to House of Heroes’ 2008 tour de force, The End is not the End).
But all of this territory has been trod before, so allow me to move on.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again –various characters (Battlestar Galactica [2004-9])
In his classic Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams described the human myth of birth and re-birth as represented by a series of circles by which we move from “bad to better to best to worse to worst to better” (34). Though not necessarily exactly the same as Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” the two fit well together, describing a reality in which all that has gone before will come again. This motif was a central theme in 2004-9’s hit sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica (despite the detractions of naysayers, I still claim this to be a high watermark of what television is capable of). BSG depicted a human civilization that constantly teetered on the brink of death and re-birth, while constantly reminding viewers (via the Cylon creed, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”) that this was not the first time humans had come to this place, nor would it be the last.
It is, at least in part, the presence of this theme that leaves me in tense anticipation of March 12, 2013. It is on this day that the first expansion for Blizzard’s juggernaut Sci-fi strategy game, StarCraft II, will be released. While many like to criticize the game for its stock characters and unoriginal narrative, I contend that these elements are actually part of its charm. Backed up with gorgeous production values and tightly directed cinematics, SCII’s stock protagonist, Jim Raynor, is actually elevated to the role of Everyman as he battles his own demons to rise from death (on several levels) to a place of re-birth.
[Spoiler Alert] SCII begins with hero, Jim Raynor, living a hellish human existence. As with so many other male protagonists, Raynor has lost his will to live after losing his lover. Unlike other stock protagonists, however, Raynor’s loss reaches the level of spiritual crisis, for his lover, Sarah Kerrigan, was possessed by the enemy Zerg (undergoing her own death, and fiendish re-birth as a terror) enacting large scale genocide upon the human race. This cycle of death and re-birth was the framing narrative of the first game. Now, Raynor is forced to find a reason to live when robbed of his (almost religious) love for Kerrigan. Early in SCII, this is complicated when a new outbreak of Zerg attacks is reported, and Kerrigan (self-styled in Zerg-terror form as “The Queen of Blades”) is discovered to be alive and leading the onslaught. Raynor finds his reason to go on living by taking up the task of bringing Kerrigan’s new re-birth to its death conclusion—a journey that holds out the promise of giving Raynor himself a new shot at re-birth.
Much soul-searching and general mayhem ensue and, at the game’s conclusion, The Queen of Blades is, indeed, brought to her death (again), only for the game’s final act to showcase Raynor finding an awfully human-looking version of his beloved (naked, as though newly reborn) lying in the rubble. The game closes without further explanation, leaving the gamer with the image of Raynor walking off into the sunrise with Kerrigan in his arms. Go ahead critics, rag on the game all you like, but this unifying thread of death and re-birth is poignantly woven into narrative, making for a dramatically compelling (if unoriginal) gaming experience.
Whether through philosophy, television, StarCraft II, or news footage in Russia, the myth of death and re-birth is a poignant depiction of humanity’s hopes, fears, and collective experience. While it might be a touch melodramatic to describe yesterday’s events as a small brush with a space-induced apocalypse, I believe, nonetheless, that the events reminded many of us that no matter how robust our current place of life may be, the end of the circle is never more than the arrival of an unannounced meteor away.