The Na’vi and the Fremen: What Science Fiction Teaches Us about Tribalism and the Mystic
To begin, I must offer an unqualified spoiler alert. During the course of this article, I’ll be examining the complex and fascinating intersection between tribalism and mysticism, employing for reference points James Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar, and the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. If you’ve missed either of these movies, please remedy this deficiency immediately, for cultural literacy’s sake if nothing else. I’ll endeavor to make this article accessible for everyone, including those who have missed one or both movies, so by the same token, don’t blame me when I ruin the movie for you. You have been warned. Additionally, I should make clear from the outset my intention isn’t to judge whether these movies are “good” — or even entertaining — in any traditional sense. I shall leave proper film criticism to those more educated in the nuances of the medium, or at least those with a somewhat more interesting point of view than my own. I’m much more interested in teasing out the lessons we might derive from science fiction about our own role as scholars and practitioners of the occult.
Regarding the inspiration for this article, I must thank the editor for her recent post regarding the movie Avatar. I had the pleasure of watching James Cameron’s beautifully rendered epic with several friends the weekend before Yule. If you haven’t seen this movie — Yes, the computer animation and the special effects are nothing short of amazing. Yes, the overall story arc proves exceptionally clichéd in places. I’ll stop short of calling it colonialist fetish porn, although other reviewers have leveled exactly this charge. (More of this anon.) Still, Avatar raises some meaningful questions about what being mystical means in relation with the rest of society.
In broad outline, the story arc of Avatar closely resembles that of the science fiction classic Dune. In Avatar, soldier-turned-mercenary Jake Sully finds himself on Pandora, an alien world largely inimical to human life; there the forces of human civilization are busily mining unobtanium, a rare mineral which is fantastically valuable back on Earth. Compare this premise with that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, wherein the young noble Paul Atreides moves to the desert planet Arrakis; Arrakis is a desolate and hostile world notable for being the only source of the spice melange, a mind-altering substance critical for interstellar travel and thus the continuance of civilization. Pandora is populated by the Na’vi, a supposedly primitive people who we learn are actually very much in touch with the rhythms of their world. Upon Dune, we have the Fremen, a deeply spiritual people whose survival skills are nearly as strong as their tenacious belief in prophecy and fate. Jake Sully finds himself among the Na’vi, and he learns not only the skills necessary to thrive within Pandora’s lush biosphere, but also an appreciation for the interconnected web of life upon Pandora. Paul Atreides, cast into the unforgiving wilderness during a coup by a rival noble house, becomes part of Fremen culture and learns the ways of desert survival. Both figures are eventually accepted by their respective adopted cultures. (Interestingly, in each case the protagonist must ride some dangerous beast in order to be recognized fully as an adult!) When human mercenaries arrive to drive off the Na’vi, Jake Sully successfully unites the various tribes of the Na’vi in a heroic campaign against the technologically superior humans. Paul Atreides, taking up the heavy mantle of messiah-figure, becomes leader of the scattered communities of Fremen in order to lay low the rival houses which conspired to bring down his family.
The patterns here mirror each other to no small degree. For our purposes, though, I should like to focus our attention upon the two spiritual cultures at work here — the Na’vi and the Fremen. Looking through critical eyes, we may find a surprisingly jarring contrast. While both peoples are undoubtedly spiritual, and — crucially here — connected with the rhythms of their respective worlds, the real-world analogues are very, very different. In the sky-hued and iridescent countenance of the Na’vi, we see reflected the shamans of Africa, South America, the Pacific Rim. In the wind-scoured and burning gaze of the Fremen, we observe nothing so much as the Islamic militant. By the artist’s design, we find ourselves inspired by the serene pantheism of the Na’vi. Conversely, we most often shudder when confronted with the naked, apocalyptic fanaticism of the Fremen. Whether these portrayals are even-handed or accurate, we will leave for another day. What matters here is this: Both the Na’vi and the Fremen are spiritual cultures which exist largely outside of the broader universes they inhabit.
This quality of apartness echoes the notes sounded by two authors here on Rending the Veil. In the Yule issue, Patrick Dunn observes that in the practice of magic there exists an element of separation, which “amounts to a cutting off not just of society but of the physical world.” (More on the second author — the insightful Ian Vincent — momentarily.) Dunn characterizes this process as “a turning inward” into the world of ideas. This inward focus is crucially important both for the Na’vi and for the Fremen, because both cultures are really defined by their inherent inwardness. When confronted with outsiders, both cultures act with some mixture of caution and hostility, attenuated for the specific encounter. When confronted by the beliefs and practices of outsiders, both the Na’vi and the Fremen instinctively close ranks and look inward, towards their own respective teachings.
In an article appearing in the March 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly, noted political theorist Benjamin Barber described a cultural conflict he termed “Jihad versus McWorld” — in short, the conflict between the forces of tribalism and the forces of universalism. Jihad — speaking strictly in the context of Barber’s article — is the tendency to identify narrowly with one’s cultural, ethnic, or religious community. Jihad, in its extreme manifestation, is parochial tribalism taken to an extreme, coupled with suspicion or even outright hostility towards other cultural identities, whether tribal or universal. Jihad seeks to cut off the broader world, sequestering itself to prevent contamination by the external world. McWorld, on the other hand, is the homogenizing impulse which suggests all people are essentially equal, together with an essential disdain for the unique aspects of local and tribal identities. The universalizing paradigm of McWorld — at its worst — suggests all people are consumers within a world driven by culturally neutral economic forces.
Neither paradigm possesses an exclusive claim upon the moral high ground. While Benjamin Barber’s characterization of Jihad speaks of parochialism and even xenophobia, the impulse towards tribalism also preserves myths, traditions, and cultural artifacts, elements which resonate with older elements of our cultural and biological makeup. Left unchecked, McWorld reduces everyone to consumer trends and dollar signs. Still, the notion we all share an essentially universal identity as people grounds — morally and politically — the notion of universal human rights. We should also take note these two tendencies — the one narrowing our identity, the other broadening it — exist inside every single individual and across every single culture. Because these tendencies — considered philosophically — prove more ambiguous morally than Barber’s political focus, I will employ the terms “tribalism” and “universalism” throughout the rest of this article.
The respective worldviews of the Na’vi and the Fremen are strongly tribal in tone. Both cultures demonstrate elements of siege mentality, more or less justifiably, given the deleterious outcomes of each people’s interactions with the broader universe around them. The Na’vi find their very survival threatened by the arrival of humans, especially when the corporate authorities leading the occupation decides a Na’vi community must move to make way for the company’s mining operations. The Na’vi, however, perceive a broader threat to their way of life. Their fear finds expression in their ambiguous response to the school opened by Dr. Grace Augustine. According to the movie’s backstory, the Na’vi close the school because of its association with the occupation force; still, the tribe demonstrates an obvious and mutually held respect for Dr. Augustine.
Coupled with this tribalism we find a strong spiritual element. The Na’vi demonstrate a profound appreciation for the interconnected web of life around them, which translates into an essentially pantheistic worldview. The Fremen, on the other hand, embrace both fatalistic reverence for the wilderness and zealous devotion to prophecy. The broader universe crafted by Frank Herbert does include other religious expressions, notably the influential sisterhood of witches called the Bene Gesserit; still, the Bene Gesserit are only one player within a much larger complex of institutions. However important they may be for the story of Paul Atreides, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood cannot shape the worldview of the Galactic Empire to the degree the spiritual voices of the Fremen single-handedly define the culture of Arrakis. Indeed, tribalism and religion generally support one another. Spiritual traditions become an identity around which a tribe can find both root and shelter, and the resulting tribe then protects and perpetuates the dogma of the religion.
It’s not surprising that the universal tendency cannot so easily sustain this level of religious fervor. (Quite ironically, Western forms of mysticism — properly understood — exhibit an ineffable quality which precludes, and indeed transcends, the particular; sadly, this impulse seldom permits any real alliance between the broader universal impulse and the community of believers. Oh, and allow me to belatedly wish everyone here “Happy Holidays!” — See what I mean? ) Spiritual pursuits — including mysticism and magic — most often prove intensely idiosyncratic and deeply personal, and what is idiosyncratic and personal forever remains the enemy of homogenous community. The beings and phenomena of the astral realms — however the believer conceives them — become so many impersonal forces of nature of psychology, when cast beneath the relentlessly materialistic gaze of universalism. Tribalism, on the other hand, celebrates the personal myths and traditions which resonate with our primal selves most profoundly. Whether right or wrong, the tribal believer encounters Deity and the spirit world in ways more intuitive — more relevant — than the universal impulse allows.
The charge has been leveled that the story of Avatar amounts to cultural chauvinism, since the story shows an outsider who “out-natives” the natives, surpassing the wildest expectations of the tribal culture, in order to bring the disparate tribes together against their common foe. The damaging subtext, according to this deconstruction, belittles native culture by suggesting the natives could not themselves engage in such daring and heroic efforts in their own defense. We might well make the same inquiry of Dune, an endeavor further complicated by the fact the Fremen are notably guided by the prophecies of Dr. Kynes, another outsider who identifies with — and becomes part of — the religious conversation of the Fremen.
Before we can consider this train of thought, we must return briefly to “Jihad versus McWorld”. Barber himself suggests — in no uncertain terms — that McWorld is heavily favored within the broader culture wars. McWorld has the distinct advantage of looking past every possible division between diverse peoples as something essentially superficial. People are people are people, and when people who would otherwise belong to distinct cultural groups share this belief, then the universal tendency can bring to bear the full weight of the community during its battles with tribalism. A movement which embraces tribal thinking, on the other hand, devalues not only the broad, universal impulse which would homogenize the world, but also the surrounding tribal movements which fail to correspond with that movement’s identity or worldview. McWorld doesn’t need to divide and conquer; Jihad conveniently divides itself.
Herein we observe what I believe is the real reason why basically tribal peoples unite under someone like Jake Sully or Paul Atreides in the stories of science fiction. Their allegiance has little to do with the outsider’s physical or mental prowess, though both individuals are certainly remarkable and talented individuals. Neither the Na’vi nor the Fremen can be considered guilty of any misplaced reverence for the technological superiority of the outside cultures. No, the real strength of both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides lies in their cultural background. Both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides come from cultures which celebrate coming together for some common cause, and both are charismatic enough to communicate the benefits of intertribal cooperation to otherwise disparate tribes. The universal impulse which they champion isn’t superior morally to the tribal mindset. Jake Sully goes to war with the culturally arrogant and environmentally reckless corporate outfit he abandons, yet here we observe nothing so much as moral self-correction emerging from within the homogenizing force of McWorld. While Avatar shows clearly defined lines of good and evil, with Jake Sully representing the “good” aspects of universalism, and the corporation representing the “worse” elements, Dune adopts a more nuanced approach. Paul Atreides is clearly the embodiment of universal impulse among the Fremen, yet Paul frequently works from motives of vengeance and wrath, and his overall character remains morally ambiguous at best.
The defining element here isn’t the “advanced” culture’s psychological or moral superiority — Jake Sully and Paul Atreides are both uniquely talented individuals, yet this fact alone does not enable them to rally the disparate tribes and communities under one banner. No, the real conflict here is between the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, and here both Jake Sully and Paul Atreides claim their decisive advantage, since they emerge from universal cultures. (Of course, pragmatic advantage does not equate with moral worth, yet this is another discussion for another day.) In both science fiction stories, tribal peoples must adopt a more life-affirming version of the universalizing impulse which empowers their enemies, and Jake and Paul give them the tools to effect precisely this change.
What’s the takeaway for us as witches and magicians? Generally speaking, we are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. In the battle for the collective soul of our world, we are born into the universal impulse which suffuses the whole of Western culture. Every time we endorse universal human rights — every single time we look past someone’s skin color or sexual orientation — we affirm the universal impulse. Every single time we suggest in matters of religion there are many roads ascending the same mountain, we affirm the universal impulse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are life-affirming elements within universalism; any time we can tease those out, we add something important towards the health and sanity of our world. Our culture celebrates the universal impulse. We perceive in Jake Sully and in Paul Atreides noble protagonists who speak towards the most life-affirming incarnations of this mindset.
The practice of magic constitutes the crafting of paradigms. The doctrines of chaos magic make this aspect explicit, yet most introspective forms of contemporary magic embrace this notion to one degree or another. Even if the paradigm in question is nothing more than simple acceptance of some spirit world, the magician embraces a worldview apart from the cultural default of scientific materialism. And herein we see the “otherness” of the magician. Earlier within this article, I referenced Patrick Dunn’s treatment of the magician as something apart from the rest of the world. This impulse is tribal in tone. Equally tribal in aspect is the turning inward of the magician. I ran with the notion of inwardness as something defining about tribal societies, yet what this treatment misses (and what I believe Dunn catches) is this: The turning inward practiced by the magician is personal introspection; the magician remains ever the tribe of one. Choices about magical paradigm are made by the individual magician.
This idiosyncratic practice, this personal interpretation of our shared world, runs counter to the overall thrust of the universal impulse. And herein we discover the fundamental tension for those who practice magic within the Western tradition. We are children of the universal impulse which defines our shared culture, and yet we rail against (or subtly subvert) the homogenizing aspects of this same force. We are, to borrow an expression from Ian Vincent’s article in the Samhain issue of Rending the Veil, the “Tribe of the Strange.” We are those who step out of line, who dance with the unique beats of our own hearts. And it’s damnably difficult to step outside what the mainstream considers normal, without feeling a profound tension with this homogenizing force.
Friedrich Nietzsche, with his characteristic wryness, once proposed this tension conspires to prevent the emergence of genuinely great souls across humanity. The common people, bound together by simple and mutually held conceptual ground, are able to communicate with one another easily, facilitating their collective survival efforts. The great mind, upon the other hand, not only thinks “outside the box” of common thought, but also along unique lines distinct from other great minds. Unable to communicate either with the common people or with one another, they struggle in isolation to survive and reproduce. Now we might take issue with the notion that greatness contains some genetic component — Again witness the universal impulse at work! — and in fairness to Nietzsche, I think there’s some tongue in cheek which a surface reading of his work too frequently misses. Still, our own endeavor to preserve our individual uniqueness becomes doubly difficult, since nearly the whole of Western civilization remains indelibly universal in character. We are not the Na’vi, and we are not the Fremen. Simply phrased, we are not an inherently tribal people.
Nevertheless, the line separating the universal impulse and the tribal impulse, much like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous line between good and evil, passes through every human heart. We might favor one mindset or another — we might be born into one world or another — yet the opposing viewpoint remains within us, always there in potential. This latent potential is what gives Jake Sully the capacity to understand, however imperfectly, the pantheistic and animistic worldview of the Na’vi. Likewise, the nascent tribal impulse within Paul Atreides makes possible his tempestuous and fateful connection with the devout Fremen.
As the inheritors of Western culture, we are universal within our thinking. People are people are people, and there are many roads ascending the same mountain. This universal tendency is what inspires virtual homes like Rending the Veil, wherein we find many authors and readers, with many distinct viewpoints, coming together with the common cause of learning from one another. As witches and magicians, as members of the Tribe of the Strange, though, we are tribal within our thinking. We nurture and develop paradigms which oppose or subvert the homogenizing and materialistic tendencies of universalism. And while we may find meaningful spiritual traditions and covens which share broad elements of our individual magical paradigms, our paradigms remain forever individual and unique, for the paths of the mystic and the magician remain forever inward ones. The challenge here becomes one of balance and integration. Taken to their respective extremes, tribalism devalues everyone and everything outside the narrow definition of the tribe, while universalism devalues everything which renders the individual unique and special. How can we champion the life-affirming elements contained in these two impulses, without falling prey to those perilous extremes?
The complete answer — should there be such — rests outside the scope of my article. I can only propose what might be the path towards an answer, since the real solution occurs within genuine introspection and open-minded dialogue. We are the Tribe of the Strange, and we must learn how to embrace both our strangeness and our latent tribal impulse. By our strangeness, I mean those unique paradigms and practices which make us witches and magicians. Our strangeness transcends any particular affiliation; by the very nature of our craft, our personal introspection transcends even spiritual tradition or coven. Still, this strangeness makes all the more urgent our collective efforts to communicate with one another as one singular tribe. We might not — cannot, really — agree upon every issue, and we must be okay with such differences. We must develop a common dialogue, however, should we wish to resist as one tribe the homogenizing elements of universalism which would deny our spiritual birthright. And we develop this common dialogue via the universal impulse which we inherit from our broader culture, just like Jake Sully, and just like Paul Atreides. Science fiction teaches us how to tease out the life-affirming aspects within our cultural makeup, without falling prey to xenophobia or to homogenization. Let’s continue the dialogue of our strange little tribe, here and elsewhere, embracing both our own unique greatness and mutual respect for one another.
©2010 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.