Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender Reflections on Civilization and Ecology

But it’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge. I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. […] But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. (Letter from Franz Kafka to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904)

Who would have known that Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series on Nickelodeon that has nothing to do with James Cameron, was such an axe? I’m not 8-10 years old, but I recently watched all 61 episodes and loved them. Or rather, they made me grieve, they were a disaster, and in their wake I have a longing that I am now trying to work out with these words. But the hollow feeling in my stomach is different from that which fantasy induced in my childhood. I don’t have an overwhelming desire to abandon my life and take up residence in the imagined world for the sake of its novel charms. No, I think this new loss is despair at the representation Avatar offers of a young world, a world in which destiny is conceived as something fulfilled by individuals rather than as the cold trajectory of totalizing political organizations.

How is it to be young in a young world? What the child heroes of Avatar teach is that even when they’re constrained, they have a way out. Kafka knew that “all too often men [sic] are betrayed by the word freedom. And as freedom is counted among the most sublime feelings, so the corresponding disillusionment can be also sublime.” There is nothing in freedom; it is a fleeting feeling, manifest in images that are often produced by violent self-control. A way out, on the other hand, is a line of flight, a definite direction. It is hope.

There is no way out of our society. In the Earth Kingdom, there is a great walled city, Ba Sing Se, which is a map of the territory in which we live, except that the walls of our city are ever-expanding in height and circumference. Toph laments Team Avatar’s arrival in the city, to which Sokka says, “What’s the problem? It’s amazing!” Her reply: “Just a bunch of walls and rules. You wait; you’ll get sick of it in a couple of days.” She who has experience of both worlds begrudgingly enters the one that is nearly impossible to escape. Luckily for Toph, Ba Sing Se is a mere city. Unfortunately for us, civilization is reality.

A reasonable interjection: “Not another Luddite-primitivist-conservationist tirade against modernity.” Yes, that — but follow at least through the next image. Team Avatar spend many of their days traveling and adventuring, many of their nights foraging for dinner and drinking from rivers and sleeping outside. Here’s an exercise. Walk to the nearest body of fresh water. Bend down, cup your hands, and drink your fill. Walk home without keeling over. Already in depicting the simple beauty of ecological habitability, Avatar earns the label given Hoot by an entertainment columnist, Jeanne Wolf, “a little soft-core eco-terrorism.” In fact, it goes beyond that, to hardcore eco-terrorism.

The central plot of the series is that the Avatar must fulfill his destiny and end a 100-years-long war initiated by the imperial Fire Nation. The righteous invaders employ an industrial force that destroys entire cultures. Its progress is all-consuming; its metastatic reproduction expands the national limits to the very edges of the world. Yet the Fire Nation is still too weak as a reflection of postmodern liberal capitalism, which surpasses material insatiability in its inverse movement, the inward infection of the hearts and minds of individuals. The Fire Nation represents incredible mechanical violence against a history of magical beauty. The Industrial Nation enacts the existential violence of constituting individuals out of place in their communities by destroying their heritage. The sense of loss I feel watching Avatar is not misplaced, it is a doubling of my real alienation.

Some of the characters in the show can bend — that is, manipulate psychically or spiritually — one (or in the Avatar’s case, all) of the classical elements. What’s compelling about bending isn’t its art, but rather its symbolic resonance. It’s a playful literalization of a unity with nature, of an as-yet undifferentiated relation between the human and the nonhuman. David Hinton remarks on the Neolithic event of human-nonhuman rupture in his introduction to the Tao Te Ching: “Only in the human realm is the Integrity of wu-wei problematic. Here we encounter the sense of exile that drives much of Lao Tzu’s thought, that rupture dividing human being and natural process. While Western civilization set out headlong into the barrens of that exile, China returned and stayed close to its lost homeland, cultivating the rich borderlands.” Avatar is an imaginary realization of my neurotic desire to have it both ways, to leave the homeland without being exiled. It is a world of borderland.

On January 5, 1910, Kafka wrote in a letter to Max Brod,“[A]s it is rising up anew in its greatness it will dazzle many people, and must therefore depress them.” The ghost of the lost unity rises up anew. As Huu says in “The Swamp,” using words that would roll well off the tongue of an initiate of ritual (or recreational) use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, “You think you’re any different from me, or your friends, or this tree? If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together. You can feel everything growing. We’re all living together, even if most folks don’t act like it. We all have the same roots, and we are all branches of the same tree.” This is a concise expression of the simple philosophy that Peter Kropoktin called in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist the “Poetry of Nature.”

In “The Deserter,” Jeong Jeong depresses us with the blunt truism, “Unfortunately, progress has a way of getting away from us.” Fortunately for the heroes of Avatar, the Herculean strength and circumstance adequate for controlling progress is still available. In “The Painted Lady,” a Fire Nation factory is polluting a river and destroying the livelihood of a nearby village. Sokka jokes, “Without [the Painted Lady] they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves. If she really wanted to help, she would use her spirit magic to blow up that factory.” His sister Katara says in earnest, “Sokka was just kidding, but he was right. Getting rid of this factory is the only way to help these people permanently.” Her conviction is attended by direct action that in our world has become Sisyphean or suicidal; her noble courage has in our times acquired the stain of cowardice, of terrorism.

But how can the destruction of the root of injustice be wrong? As Katara tells the villagers, “Your problems are real. And this river is real.” The property rights of industrial institutions that poison our environment cannot take precedence over our own wellbeing. And our fundamental wellbeing depends not on the size of our national war machine, but on the health of our ecosystem. The lie on which our society is founded is that “[t]hey’re just flowers. […] You do what you must to survive.” We have redefined survival as the maintenance of an unsustainable rate of economic growth; we conceive our survival in terms that necessitate the immediate subordination and ultimate expiration of all other beings.

We do well to heed the admonitions of the old man in “The Village of the Windmills” segment of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams:

People get too used to convenience. They think convenience is better. They throw out what’s truly good. […] Why should night be as bright as day? I wouldn’t like night so bright you couldn’t see the stars. […] We try to live the way man used to. That’s the natural way of life. People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature. Yet, they destroy the nature on which our lives depend. They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists. They may be smart, but most don’t understand the heart of nature. They only invent things that in the end make people unhappy. Yet they’re so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are, too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. They don’t know it, but they’re losing nature. They don’t see that they’re going to perish. The most important things for human beings are clean air and clean water and the trees and grass that produce them. Everything is being dirtied, polluted forever. Dirty air, dirty water, dirtying the hearts of men.

As Dead Prez says in “We Want Freedom,” “I’d go against a tank with a shank for my dreams/ And that’s my fucking word.” If they watched Avatar well enough, maybe today’s children will feel the same way. Maybe there is yet enough strength to restore balance to our world.

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