Thursday, April 16, 2009

Great Pan Is Dead, or The BSG Finale WTF

I've been meaning to write something pithy and insightful about last month's final episode of Battlestar Galactica, but instead got caught up in reading Nietzsche's early writings on Tragedy and the Dionysiac spirit. In Nietzshe's world, things are messy and any attempt to make sense of them is false and alienating. To summarize, he tells the story of Silenus, a satyr and teacher of Dionysos. King Midas pursued him and demanded to know what he thought was man's greatest good:
The daemon remained sullen and uncommunicative until finally, forced by the king, he broke into a shrill laugh and spoke: "Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon."
Which is both funny and disturbing in an emo sort of way. The truth of existence is that we are doomed and that we live in denial of that fact. But contrary to what you might think, knowing we are doomed releases us from the burden of existence and allows us to feel delight and joy. Clinging to life as an ideal and an end in itself bottles us up in despair, inauthenticity, and alienation. In this view rationality, mathematical logic and dogma become the Ozymandias of human life (spoken ironically, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!). Or, so says Nietzsche. Truthfully, it's a lot to get your head around.

As for Battlestar Galactica, it ended with a whomping Socratic thump. The whole show was built on playing with dichotomies like human/non-human, individual/society, man/woman, unique/copy, master/servant, imaginary/reality and war/terror to name a few. In the end the show abandoned any resolution of the human/cylon conflict and the possibility of healing by way of the collapse of all those despairing dialectics and instead opted for the false promise of an Edenic prehistoric Earth. It felt pretty left field if you ask me. And so, Apollo decided to abandon technology, Adama built a cabin, and Roslin died during a picturesque tour of the African Savannah. Humans and cylons integrated with the native Homo Erectus population and Starbuck disappeared from this dimensional plane, not with a bang, but a simper. The whole thing gave me a headache.

The best part about the finale was its weird attempts to reach back to the original show, its legacy of naive chessiness and fanciful Mormon/Ancient Astronaut mythology. The sequence where the fleet heads toward its final destination in the heart of the sun while the original theme music played was the highlight. (If BSG lost its grip on the pathos of the moment, at least it didn't shy away from bathos).

Meanwhile, the consolation of a new Earth, a monotheistic god with a plan for Eve!Hera, and the knowledge that Head!Six and Head!Baltar were Angels rang so falsely that it seemed like we needed an entirely new episode (or series) just to unravel all of the bad ideas in this one. But more importantly the inclusion of this deus ex machina returned me to Nietzsche who identified in Euripides and Socrates an odd form of Apollonian cheerfulness:
It opposes Dionysiac wisdom and art; tries to dissolve the power of myth; puts in place of a metaphysical comfort a terrestrial consonance and a special deus ex machina -- the god of engines and crucibles: forces of nature put in the service of a higher form of egotism.
In other words, the "happy ending" provided by God or the gods is inauthentic and mechanical. It throws us back on knowledge and theory, the dialectical arguments of reason, and distances us from the tragic emotions of terror and pity. Everything is frustratingly made to seem OK in a way that negates the deeper meaning of the drama because the egotism of the characters is not overcome, but merely displaced and transferred onto the artificial God.

For Nietzsche, what we call science, knowledge, and secularism is just an illusion we've created (another artificial God) that helps us feel falsely optimistic about life and existence (when all facts point to the contrary). In his view science and knowledge are not progressive but static, rigid, and dogmatic. They do not allow for change, flux, or transformation. Only tragedy "allows us to understand the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual. Each single instance of such annihilation will clarify for us the abiding phenomenon of Dionysiac art, which expresses the omnipotent will behind individuation, eternal life continuing beyond all appearance and in spite of destruction." Greek tragedy is the western analog of those eastern traditions which teach the necessity of overcoming our desires, our egos, and our sense of otherness. It is an attempt to engage with the primal Being, with the spirit that gives us rise, with the eternal silence which bridges the ending of one song before playing something new.

Perhaps the problem for both Nietzsche and a show as ambitious as Battlestar Galactica is that we no longer share Socrates's faith in theoretical man, the man of pure thought and reason and logical problem solving. We accept that our knowledge of the universe is limited and provisional, that science is a process of self-correction rather than a body of undeniable truths, and that problems are solved ad-hoc through ingenuity, expedience, and good luck. We also understand the limits of therapeutic story telling and that a feel bad ending is no better than a happy one if its purpose is to beat us over the head with a self-satisfied sense of its own bleakness. More importantly, viewers of BSG are so well versed in the behind-the-scenes goings on of the show that we don't really see a god in the machine as much as an author in the machine. And there's not much consolation in knowing that this is Ronald D. Moore's notion of a happy ending. We know it's just a show and that its importance is not intrinsic to the show but a result of the fact that we invested ourselves in it, and shared in the imaginative leap of faith.

Yet, we're fickle as viewers. We engage emotionally and then just as quickly disengage. We form theories about the show, we check wikis, and just as quickly cast that knowledge aside. What we crave is, paradoxically, both novelty and consistency, and the sense that we are part of a greater audience who are feeling the same things and thinking the same things that we ourselves are thinking and feeling. When something ends, no matter how trivial, we are thrown back on ourselves and momentarily alone with the horror of our own thoughts.

Until the next thing comes along (e.g. The Sarah Connor Chronicles). And then the next thing after that. As for Nietzsche, I think he would have enjoyed the music. Even the Dylan.