Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or, Trauma and the Repetition of History
“Forgive me. I feel it again… the call to the light... Show me again, the power of the darkness,
and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”
―Kylo Ren to Darth Vader's mask in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
"It is where you are from. What you are made of. The Dark Side—and the Light."
―Snoke to Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
“[For] the victim of early trauma…disowned material is not psychically represented but has been…relegated to discreet psychical fragments…It must never be allowed to return to consciousness…and the dissociation necessary to insure the patient against this catastrophe, is a deeper, archetypal split in the psyche.”
―Donald Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma (p. 34)
What struck me more than anything in the recent Star Wars release was the amount of repetition that I can only assume was a deliberate artistic statement on the part of the screenwriters. My response was not one of the ‘been there, done that’ sort of feeling, but was more of a profound awareness of the tragic repetition of history, and Sigmund Freud’s (1926) notion of the “repetition compulsion,” an “intra-psychic anti-life force” that Freud referred to as evidence of a “death principle” that he termed Thanatos (Kalsched, 1996, p. 28). Kalsched (1996) remarks that, “Freud was struck by the fact that both inside and outside analysis, many people seemed caught in a compulsive repetition of self-destructive behavior – a kind of undertow which made them seem fated for a negative destiny” (p. 80), and that “Freud was so affected by the self-destructive ‘repetition compulsion’…that he proposed…a ‘death instinct’ (Thanatos) as an equal partner in the unconscious with the…life instinct (Eros)” (p. 82). He continues, “Without the consciousness that can only come in such a process of working through [i.e., in psychotherapy], the inner world of trauma, with its archetypal defensive processes, duplicates itself in the patient’s outer life (repetition compulsion) in a pattern which Freud justly called daimonic” (p. 26).
In the case of The Force Awakens this repetition is both traumatic and tragic, as the heroes and villains of the Star Wars/Skywalker legacy are again embroiled in the eternal “hero’s journey,” the quest for deliverance from the Mother, atonement with the Father, and reception of the “ultimate boom”: mastery of knowledge in two worlds, both the dark side and the light. While each of these aspects of Joseph Campbell’s (1949/1968) “monomyth” of the hero can be considered part of any person’s individuation process, what makes this so unique in the Star Wars series is the origination of this myth and heroic “call to adventure” within the realms of early childhood trauma, and its repetition within an inter-generational setting. This is, in part, I believe, what makes Star Wars so enduring, lasting, and profound.
Here I will trace the Star Wars/Skywalker legacy through its own traumatic repetition of history through the lens of contemporary Jungian and psychoanalytic theory. I believe it is the repetition of trauma that actually drives the plot points forward (or backward) from one episode to the next, and has provided the material not only for the origin story of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) but catapults Luke Skywalker, and later, Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) and Rey into their own unique “call to adventure” in just the way that trauma and its healing does for so many of us.
Trauma and the Dark Side of the Force: From Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader
The Skywalker legacy begins with young Anakin and is found in the “first” trilogy that has already imprinted itself onto the collective consciousness of modern day movie-goers and Star Wars fans internationally. Born into slavery on the remote planet of Tatooine, Anakin is “discovered” by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, and trained from an early age by the legendary Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is predicted that Anakin will be the one to “restore balance to the Force,” and, similar to other archetypal figures such as Moses or Christ, carries the projection of the Divine Child as “chosen one.” As with Christ, Anakin is also not only “fatherless,” but immaculately conceived – in his case, by the power of the Force.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, Anakin’s early trauma can be traced to his tragic separation from his mother when he makes the decision to leave home at a too-late, i.e., not yet securely attached, age to train as a Jedi. Jedi Master Yoda himself warns the Jedi council that Anakin is indeed “too old” to train, which culminates in Yoda’s powerful foretelling, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”
Anakin’s fractured attachment to his mother forms the early splits in his personality that lead to Anakin’s gradual, and tragic, devolution to the Dark Side. This process begins first through the transference of his broken attachment to his mother onto his first love and eventual wife, Senator Padme Amidala. However, due to his traumatic separation from his mother, Anakin is plagued by hostile dreams, first as a premonition of his mother’s sufferings, and later of Padme dying in childbirth. Both of these dreams serve as prophecies that Anakin will later witness or fulfill, and will ultimately lead to his final corruption by the Dark Side.
Anakin’s defensive structures and his path to the Dark Side portray the intimate correlation between personal and archetypal evil. It is through his very human fear of separation and loss that temptation from the Dark Side enters into his psychic space. Anakin’s surrogate (negative) father figure, the Emperor, promises him immortality and tempts him with the abilities to prevent the death and suffering of those whom he loves. However, it is only because Anakin’s attachments – and sense of self – are rooted in a primitive fear of loss that this promise has any seductive power over him. As a direct result of his early trauma, Anakin cannot bear the anxiety of losing those whom he loves (so-called “abandonment fears”). In order to heal these impulses he would need to first face them – consciously in his relationship with Padme – which he could then trace to his early separation anxiety from his mother. However, in defense against these vulnerabilities, he attempts to gain heroic control over them and “save” or “rescue” those he loves – a codependent and fear-based strategy (remember: “fear leads to anger”) that brings Anakin to slaughter the tribal people (including women and children) that have kidnapped his mother; the death at Anakin’s hands of the young Jedi Padawan; his battle with (and defeat by) his former mentor and positive father figure Obi-Wan Kenobi; and eventually the death of his wife Padme who is pregnant with their twins – Luke and Leia – thus fulfilling the prophetic aspect of his tortured dream world, and setting the stage for the repetition of history in the major plot points of the second, or “original” Star Wars trilogy.
Fathers and Sons
It would be too much here to trace the entire legacy of the Skywalker family from a psychoanalytic or archetypal perspective, so I will focus on only one additional thread before tying my points back into The Force Awakens with its own, and much more overt, traumatic repetition of history for the Skywalker clan. While the “first” Star Wars trilogy focuses on the broken attachment and failed relationships of Anakin within his primary relationships, culminating in Anakin’s psyche being co-opted by the Dark Side of the Force (archetypal evil), the “original” trilogy unpacks the relationship between fathers and sons, particularly between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, as Luke first battles with – and then uncovers his own likeness to – his own “Dark Father.” The events of this trilogy also serve as the catalyst for the traumatic repetition of history that we will later see in The Force Awakens.
The opening setting for the original trilogy is much the same as Episode I: Again, we are on Tatooine, the desert planet, where we find a young man, fatherless, only now being raised by a surrogate family. Precocious, inquisitive, he also contains the strong power of the Force. Luke’s “call to adventure” begins with the relayed hologram “call for help” from his (eventually to be discovered) sister, Leia. This relationship invites analysis in itself, but I want to remain within the father-son dynamic between Luke and Vader, as it is this dynamic that is tragically – and almost identically – reenacted in The Force Awakens between Kylo Ren and Han Solo.
In one of the most classic scenes of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker receives training from Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet of Dagobah. During his training Luke is taken to a dark cave. In an extraordinary moment of dialogue, Yoda says to Luke, "That place…is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go." "What's in there?" "Only what you take with you.” In one of the most psychologically astute moments of the Star Wars films, Luke encounters the roots of his own dark history, legacy, and origins of his inter-generational trauma – his own “dark father,” Darth Vader. Luke battles the phantom Vader, decapitates him, and then, as the mask on Vader’s helmet mists away, Luke sees his own face as that which he fears the most. It is through – and because of – this direct, conscious confrontation with his own personal and archetypal darkness, that Luke is able to resist the Dark Side of the Force and defeat Darth Vader.
Luke’s battle and defeat of Vader and the destruction of the Empire does not restore balance to the Force, however. In an ending fit for Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, Luke learns on Vader’s deathbed that he (Vader) is his father. This final scene follows two earlier battle scenes where Luke is not only “wounded” by his father - loosing his hand in the struggle - but also first learns (and initially resists) the truth about his paternity. By the time of Vader’s death, as with so much of the archetypal father-son dynamic, each has taken a part of the other, only here - at Vader's request - Luke takes his father’s life by removing Vader's mask. It is a complex moment, with the final face-to-face: "I am your father.” Does this moment of conscious recognition contain a healing or numinous awareness? Does Vader's sacrificing his own life to save Luke from the Emperor lead to a redempive or reconciling moment? Or are there dark seeds of further cyclical violence yet to be enacted down the road? What is the effect of the discovery of “family secrets,” the guilt/betrayal of a parental imago, or the lingering effect of the death of an aspect of one’s self (Luke’s metaphoric ‘loss of limb,’ for example). Much of the unresolved psychic residue from these questions and events are to be played out in the sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, the recently released, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The Resurgence and Evolutionary Nature of Evil: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
While Luke has “killed” the enemy, and resolved the external drama of the trilogy, there is a lack of resolution to the internal and inter-generational as well as archetypal struggle that only later unfolds in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here, for the third time, an abandoned child carries the archetypal nature of the Divine Child/Hero and is discovered as “the one” capable of bringing restoration and balance to the Force. Only now, it’s a she.
What I want to focus on here, however, is the unresolved father wound from the Luke-Vader genealogy that resurfaces between Kylo Ren and Han Solo. In a brief, but tragic encounter that resembles (intentionally, I would imagine) the meeting of Luke and Vader, we learn that Kylo Ren, a Jedi turned to the Dark Side, is no other than the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Not only this, but in a fashion identical to Anakin Skywalker (his grandfather) and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Kylo Ren also betrays the trust and love of his mentor (Luke Skywalker), kills the remaining few Jedi knights-in-training, and consciously adopts the personality and visage of Darth Vader. Kylo Ren is, in other words, consciously perpetuating the legacy and trauma of his family tree. Additionally, he takes part in re-creating what for all intent and purposes is a glorified version of the Death Star, which is identically destroyed in the same way of the Death Star by the rebel fleet. Additionally, the lighting, acting, effects, props, and dialogue are cast almost entirely with a (conscious) nod toward the “original” trilogy.
It is “retro-throwback” at its best, but it is quintessentially bittersweet, because Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings us face to face with the current historical reality of our own personal and political scene. It “projects” onto a very big screen with a psychological depth often unparalleled in Hollywood the painful and glaring realities of our own personal and social repetitions of trauma. “One of these things is like the other.” And those “others” are eerily similar to those who preceded them. A father unconsciously attempts to kill the spirit of his son because the son won’t follow in his father’s footsteps. So the son unconsciously – or unknowingly – kills his father. And then it happens again. Only this time, consciously, coldly, and with much calculation. The darkness increases as personal trauma transforms – slowly at first – then ever more quickly, into evil. Perpetuated by the insecure and the scared, the traumatized inner child who takes his revenge as the all-powerful Sith Lord, or Darth Vader, or Kylo Ren, or… Who will the shadowy face of the next generation’s Dark Side be? Because it could be you. Or it could be me. As personal trauma bleeds into archetypal evil… As more scared and fearful young men (and women) become radicalized into terrorist religion…the list grows long.
The only way out is to search within. Like Luke Skywalker in the cave of the evil, each of us must begin the slow descent to conscious confrontation of our own inner daimons. Only unlike Luke, may we not miss – or literalize – the point: that just because we see our face in the dark mask of evil, it does not necessitate evil’s ultimate or vengeful slaying. Because as we learn from Star Wars and the repetition trauma of history, evil never – ever – does a “once and for all” stage exit.
Personal Trauma, Archetypal Evil, and the Repetition of History
As I mentioned in my opening reflections, what I believe makes Star Wars such an enduring legacy is its creative portrayal of the inter-penetration and “cross-pollination” surrounding personal trauma, archetypal evil, and the historical repetition of trauma. Personal trauma can be understood as anything from the “trauma of everyday life” (Epstein, 2015) to the kinds of unbearable or “unendurable” experiences that happen to a person typically at a very young developmental age and cause splitting and other defensive structures later in life (e.g., Kalsched, 1996). Anakin’s early separation from his mother is an example of this. Star Wars is rife, however, with examples of archetypal evil, which forms the basic structure of the series’ underlying plot– the battle of good/light over or against evil/darkness. In Jung’s psychology of the unconscious, influenced heavily by early Christian Gnosticism and Chinese Daoism, forces of light and dark inter-play and must be held in check or “balanced” in order to restore order to the psyche (i.e., “The Force”). When one or the other of these forces win out over the other, there will ultimately, or eventually be an enantiodromia – a term Jung borrowed from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which means that if one aspect of the archetypal pairing goes too far to one extreme, it spills over, becoming its opposite.
Star Wars portrays this principle magnificently as the entire crux of the galactic project is a balancing of the forces of good and evil. What it depends on, however, is who is balancing these forces (the Jedi or the Sith/Empire/First Order) and what their intent or purpose is (actual balance/harmony vs. a reign of darkness). The archetypal nature of this monomyth is one part of what gives Star Wars its enduring character and legacy.
Evil is an ever-present part of our political and social discourse these days, and will only become more so as time progresses. “Evil,” a term that was once used in the realm of theologians, has become common political and social parlance. Star Wars shows us over the course of a multi-generational legacy that evil begins in the home through personal trauma that takes on underlying – and eventually insidious – archetypal and daimonic powers as it progresses. What I want to close with here – and what I believe is the yet-to-be-learned lesson from Star Wars – is that evil, like trauma, cannot be conquered or destroyed, it can only be healed through conscious integration, and therapeutic intervention. If traumatic evil, whether personal or collective, is attempted to be forcefully or “heroically” overcome, it will only return the stronger. That is the lesson of contemporary cinema from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Thor, Batman, Superman, X-Men, etc. What we still have yet to learn – collectively and in our cinema – is that the only way to “end” evil is to integrate it. This approach, to act hospitable in the face of our enemies, both within and without, is perhaps one of the most challenging stances a person could take in modern society. And yet it is the only way. To heal collective trauma is to bring it back home to its place of origination and necessitates a primary return to the self. When we project our fear outwards, it turns to anger against another, and anger leads to suffering. Much suffering. This is the as-yet-unlearned lesson that the Star Wars legacy challenges us to reach.
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Epstein, M. (2014). The trauma of everyday life. New York, NY: Penguin.
Freud, S. (1926). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. Standard edition XX. London:
Kalsched, D. (1996). The inner world of trauma: Archetypal defenses of the personal
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