Becoming Darth Vader by Lydia Millet
The year of Star Wars I was eight. It may have been the year I worshipped my classmate Pam Guse, pronounced Goose-y, who wore train tracks on her teeth and large, round glasses with peach-colored plastic frames. I had neither braces nor glasses, but I believed that if I had both I might also have a chance of recapturing, in my own lesser person, the magic that was Pam Guse.
My own large front teeth were unrestrained by orthodontics and therefore crossed over each other to create an impression I will call “chortling rabbit.” I spoke loudly and laughed often, producing a sound that my mother implied, with a measure of disapproval, resembled the bray of a donkey.
Rabbits, donkeys; I was approachable and familiar, the opposite of lovely and serene. I wanted to be liked by everyone. Pam Guse, on the other hand, had a placid, laid-back demeanor. She rarely seemed eager to please. She had her own pantheon, of course, her own personal altar of proud and lofty figures, chief among them, at that time, Farrah Fawcett. Although my long-term memory is poor, I remember clearly one of Pam Guse’s shirts, which was white with red and orange horizontal stripes. It was cotton and had a hood that hung down her back; the drawstring at the collar was red to match the stripes. Come to think of it, the shirt I remember so clearly may have been my shirt, bought to emulate one of Pam Guse’s shirts. My mother says I used to come home from school in tears, sobbing the ragged-voiced refrain: Pam hates me. Pam hates me. There were days, apparently, when that was all I said.
Star Wars may not have been that year. It may have been the year when dimpled Anka Popa from Romania and I went behind the green wooden shed in the copse beside the school to kiss boys. We were entrepreneurs. For each kiss we demanded as payment either a candy necklace or a handful of gum, which to me was contraband, since my father—who at that time, I believe, may have smoked a meerschaum pipe—had outlawed gum-chewing in the house. Or maybe it was the year when I took a swing at Cary Linden, the red-haired boy who I seem to recall was already planning, in fifth grade, to be an architect when he grew up. I hit
Cary Linden thinking I was the boss of him and possibly even swaggering away with a boastful air. Not much later he sauntered up to me on the street and swiftly punched me in the stomach. I ran home crying.
I think I was a crybaby.
Or, then, it also may have been the year I won the long jump, or the year I slipped on the track running the 400 and filled my right knee with deep grooves of black gravel, which it still carries. It may have been the year when Cary Linden and his cronies, with nary a care for cliché, actually did put earthworms in my hair, causing me to emit piercing shrieks. We had what they called a healthy antagonism, Cary Linden and I. It may even have been the year when, at a Brownies meeting—within our Brownies hierarchy there were various bands of fairies, and in my time I had been leader of both the red-and-yellow Kelpies and the emeraldgreen Pixies—I was discovered to be harboring head lice. My mother, a practical, cautious person not given to frivolous embellishment, insists to this day that the lice were the size of cockroaches. The way she tells it they were running around in circles on the top of my head like prize fillies at the Kentucky Derby.
Whether all of these were in fact just one year, and whether that was the year of Star Wars, is lost to me forever. At some point my brother got a lightsaber, I know that much. In previous years, for Halloween, he had been a pirate named Don Dirk of Dowdee, with a plume in his cap. I had always been a fairy-princess-queen, a triple whammy of bet-hedging. Should some insufficiently humble unbeliever say, glancing at the delicate silver-and-gold crown my father had fashioned for me out of a mesh of pipe cleaners and bulbous Christmas ornaments, What are you? A princess? implying, I knew even then, a rank pretender to the throne? I could wave my scepter and scoff: Not just a princess. Also a queen. For obvious reasons, I could not be only a queen; queens were old, and often ugly.
Should the same arrogant unbeliever further say, Oh, you’re just a princess-queen? I could point to my wings, made of white nylons decorated with glued-on glitter and stretched over artfully molded clothes hangers, and say, I am, in addition, a fairy. I ruled over the land and sea, but when the chips were down I could also turn you into a toad. I was a spiritual as well as a secular leader. Let mortals beware. There we were, Josh a pirate, me a fairyprincess- queen, and my little sister Mandy the Frankenstein monster. And then came the loud starry darkness in the theater, the action figures, the lightsabers, and Josh went from pirate to Luke Skywalker. He would go swashbuckling around the house sowing the seeds of fear. The lightsaber wavered and sliced, warbled and swooped precariously near tabletops and shelves, a threat to trinkets everywhere. I wish, for the sake of narrative, that I could say it was the lightsaber that struck my sister in the eye, prompting a panicked run to the Hospital for Sick Children in the family Toyota. In fact, it was a plastic medieval sword that Josh wielded while encased in his plastic knight’s armor, a menacing combination. Half-blinded by the visor of the helmet, he would stagger around stabbing at the air with a poignant desperation. My sister paid the price.
(She was not permanently maimed, though; of the three of us, as I write this, she is the only one who still has 20/20 vision.) I was bored by the lightsabers, being a girl, even though, as a girl, I was also a tomboy: skinny, dirty, stringy-haired. I was the kind of tomboy who threw tantrums when she didn’t win. (As a result she often won.) This was the lesson learned: You can try to strong-arm them, as I did with Cary Linden, and that may be effective as a temporary measure, a brutish demonstration of force. But then what happens is they walk up to you later, when you’ve grown lazy and complacent, and cave in your stomach with a fist. Or you can whine them into submission, a tack taken by many a desperate wife over the centuries. There’s the iron fist and there’s the velvet whine, with its sinister, deadening stamina. The superior efficacy of the whine, over the long term, has yet to be understood by U.S. foreign policy makers.
I was bored by the lightsabers then, and they bore me now, after a quarter-century. Watching the movies as an adult, the lightsaber fights were the only parts through which I fast-forwarded. I like my symbolism more covert.
As a prepubescent it was easy to identify with Princess Leia, so obviously virginal, so obviously disinterested, and always being saved. Object not subject, she was saved right and left; though she did occasionally fire off a gun, she never did much of the saving herself. She did, however, remain calm. No girlish squeals for Princess Leia. Earthworms would have presented no challenge to her composure. She was a better, more seamless tomboy than I was but still, of course, only ornamental, window-dressing in the shining world of the heroes.
It was easy to remain Princess Leia across and beyond the years spanned by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I went from tomboy to jock and gone were childish things like dress up, potions, and singing The Sound of Music; almost overnight the looseness of play vanished and the strictures of competition took its place, the channeled rigor of performance. My high school was determined to make children into pillars of the establishment, determined first and foremost to instill in children the unswerving conviction that they were born to lead. In its defense, it taught Latin and Greek and Beowulf and Chaucer in Middle English, and there were teachers there, some of them gentle fossils, others eager newcomers, who honestly believed they could instill a passion for learning and who, in so believing, themselves became Romantics and were loved.
This was when we first grew familiar with non-food brand names, when clothing was identified with manufacturers, and video games and portable technologies began their triumphant emergence into the mass market and were instantly known by their trademarks: Sony Walkman, JVC, PacMan. Now it happens much earlier, needless to say. Infants formulate their first phrases to include the words Sega and Microsoft, but the early ’80s were only the first glimmer of dawn in the era of personal electronics and universal branding.
Still, despite being told I had been born to lead, which meant, chiefly, growing up to be a banker, a lawyer, or a captain of industry, I remembered what I had learned: there is safety in distance, safety in remove. While it is true that, as a fairy-princess-queen, I had been a world leader, it was an inherited title. Striving for such a position was out of the question. A royal is not a politician. I was perfect and unimpaired as an observer; I left it to the imperfect, the frantic, the boisterous to do the hard, messy work of empire building.
One speaks with unchallenged authority only about oneself. This is why so many writers, seeking authority, write only about familiar things; it is why, contrary to popular opinion, the bravest writers are those who take as their subject matter that about which they know almost nothing. It is why I, in writing about Star Wars, actually write only about myself, why, in fact, I, like many who attempt the so-called personal essay, seize upon any outside stimulus as carte blanche to expose myself to all and sundry, naked, writhing, and, frankly, none too clean. Clearly the personal essay is an ideal venue for the airing of dirty laundry, the foisting of self-indulgent reminiscences upon an unsuspecting, innocent readership. In writing a personal essay I remind myself of a cat, proudly depositing at its owner’s feet a small, pink baby mouse with no head.
If we were not all voyeurs at heart the personal essay would have no home. But luckily our culture’s love of stories is firmly entrenched, and any love of stories is a love of voyeurism, since to read a story is automatically to become a voyeur, to savor the act of seeing from a secret place. If we could, we would watch the whole lives of strangers bundled into two hours—that is, those parts of their lives that would fill us with a mad compulsion to express ourselves, be fulfilled, and seek glory, not those parts that would send us back to bed whimpering.
Quite often when I leave a multiplex after seeing a movie I have the distinct sensation it has taught me nothing I did not already know, shown me nothing I could not have imagined for myself, but has exhorted me, mostly through its soundtrack and cinematography: Express yourself, be fulfilled, and seek glory. By contrast, I seldom leave a multiplex thinking I have been encouraged to Contemplate, empathize, and share all you have. It’s apparent that Hollywood has given itself the job— rhetorical, propagandistic, full of ecstasy— of pressing all citizens into the service of advancement. It is not certain what kind of advancement is generally being urged upon us, the specifics are vague, but I’d hazard a guess it’s something from the American-Dream Family: self-love, self-improvement, the massive personal accumulation of wealth.
Sometimes it’s simpler: I leave the theater with the heartfelt conviction that I should be better groomed.
But it’s noteworthy that Star Wars —with its childish yet prophetic vision of smartaleck boy wonders, monsters both cuddly and ugly but always integrated into daily life, and everlasting, intergalactic, human-race diaspora—emerged at a moment in the late ’70s when Hollywood had, for a time, been turning away from exaltation, setting itself a grittier, more realistic task. Its ebullience subdued by the cultural disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate, Hollywood was suffering from a sort of erectile dysfunction of the urge to propagandize and, as a result, producing subtle and exceptional art on film. For the most part the actors of the ’70s were less immaculate than those of decades before or since; the heroes were less superhuman, the villains less subhuman, the soundtracks less hysterical with grandeur, and the cumulative effect certainly less self congratulatory and patriotic. (Outer space, as a setting for movies, attracts the most grandiose soundtracks— Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example—which is natural since it is, of course, both the final frontier and a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Outer space gets to be both ancient history, lost in the boundless void of the universe, and the prophetic vision of a future of infinite dispersal: tiny we roam across the sands, ten million light-years hence.) So Star Wars came, both through and despite its intended message about virtuous small rebellions, to tell both ’70s Hollywood and the viewing public: No. Let there be an end to this foolishness.
This is no way to prop up an empire.
That the world of Star Wars was also a prepubescent world, where the heroes were clean, earnest, and sexless and the truths about good and evil simple, made it the perfect propaganda for all ages. In the far-distant past and the far-distant future, good American boys with mom-and-pop values, gay English butler robots for companions, and apes for copilots will save the universe from merciless domination by ruthless, impersonal forces. There is hope yet, my friends, for despite what you see outside these cinema walls, in the far-distant past and in the far-distant future we, you, I, all of us, will save America from itself.
Darth Vader, dark Vater, “dark father,” unmistakably, was the most erotic figure in the Star Wars family and the only tragic one, and because of this he had a terrible beauty. To state the obvious, Vader was a faceless man behind a ferocious black mask, protected by his anonymity. Endlessly a cipher, endlessly an intrigue, he was the only question Star Wars posed to its audience, the only mystery presented. We might imagine behind the mask the face of Hitler, the face of a monster, the face of a machine, a skull with gaping eye sockets, or something far, far more horrifying and primeval, beyond words as well as beyond sight, unspeakable. There was no end to what we could imagine, and for that reason the mask was, needless to say, far more compelling than anything that could ever be behind it, as is the way with masks. And, arguably on a more mundane level, Vader was also the ultimate sellout: possessed of all the powers of the Force, holding the key to enlightenment itself, he chose to use his genius for evil. He was, among other things, a lampoon of Adam Smith’s enlightened self-interest: in a preview of ’80s ideology, Vader made selling out look sexy. At the helm of the expansionist Empire, he was untrammeled Id, an embodiment of lust for power and for domination.
But Vader also seemed absurdly trapped in his throatbox and his cloak of gloom. He prowled around self-consciously, almost, it seemed, wearing his mask in public shame, or wearing his shame in the form of a mask. It was as though he was too discreet to show himself, perhaps out of simple reluctance to inspire repulsion. And, as many suspected and was finally confirmed, all he was really hiding was a maimed face. I always had an inkling, watching him stride around in glum determination, that Vader wore the mask because he was vain and chose to inspire fear rather than repel desire. Alternately, I speculated, maybe his face was not awe-inspiring at all. Maybe it was just a plain face with a flattened nose, a weak chin, and rabbit teeth. Maybe Vader needed the mask because without it he was just a man you passed casually on the street.
Lord Vader was an aristocrat, and as such he had poise, elegance, and good manners. Even when inflicting the death grip he was calm and composed. He kept his counsel; a man of few words, he chose them carefully, played his cards close to his chest. His mystique was dependent upon it. A voluble Vader could not have commanded the Empire; a chatty Vader would not have caused military men to quake in their boots. There are those who can smile and smile and be a villain, but Vader was not one of them. His power was the power of silence.
Silence does not come easily to all of us. For me there is only one answer to all social problems and irritants: nervous, trapped, irritated or bored, I talk. In addition, thrilled, overjoyed, pleasantly content among friends, I talk. Confused, ambivalent, hesitant, agitated, I talk; I also talk when scared, angry, hurt, anxious, impatient, restless, morose, despondent, smug, curious, contemplative, playful— in a word, awake. When the back-and-forth of talk is good, I listen, too, and when the talk is shallow or predictable I float, registering the words and idly foreseeing a response but not listening deeply, thinking not about the past but about the future: what will be said next, how it should be said, and more often what will likely not be said. I contemplate whether the difficult things to say and to hear should be said and by whom—and what should never be said at all. Sometimes the daydreams of conversation are not as relevant as this, and talk produces a landscape faraway, a landscape shimmering with the fragments of words, the suggestions of words, the memory of words gone by.
Sometimes it seems I am surrounded by Vaders. The Vaders are the ones who do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, who protect themselves from exposure. They do not display themselves in all their weakness to disarm would-be detractors or adopt a deceptively submissive pose to fool fearsome opponents. They do not broadcast their flaws; do not reach out to others by seeking and embracing a communion of weakness, of understandable frailty. (Many are the friends I have made this way, when we saw, in the turn of an instant, talking, that we knew each other best not through our successes but through our failures and our wry awareness of them.) Vaders do not make inappropriate remarks at dinner parties, let down their guard in drunken moments to reveal the wanting soul within. The Vaders are too smart for that, and they know which side their bread is buttered on. The Vaders know about masks. They use them well. And of course, the strongest of the Vaders rule the world.
If what is sought first and foremost is empathy, it is hard to be Vader. A Vader must seek to obtain, before love and often to the exclusion of love, authority. A Vader is a formalist, who must be persuasive not in content but in form: he doesn’t have to persuade you he’s correct in a matter, but he does have to persuade you to act as though he is. Might does make right, insofar as end effects are concerned, and this is something Vader knows. Quibbling over details is for children; ethics themselves are for children, an elaborate game played by the powerless. The powerful have little use for morality except as it applies to their lackeys, or as a pet aesthetic (a pretty and self-legitimating idea of rectitude). Hence, as cynics know so well, the social compact of the law restricts the actions of all of us, except those who are, neatly, beyond it.
Vader has an erotic charge just because he gets what he wants. Others may protest that when they think of Star Wars and sexy they think of young Harrison Ford, who as Han Solo played the part of a Harlequin-romance hero, a rough-talking mercenary who treats the heroine Leia with gruff, arrogant disrespect before revealing, at the eleventh hour, a heart of gold beneath the leathery macho facade. But for me the Han Solos of the entertainment world are old hat. In the first place they’re predictable; in the second, they want nothing, finally, but a good obedient girl for a wife. Sassy backtalk is only an aphrodisiac.
Vader, on the other hand, does not have any transparent desires, except, one is led to believe, ruthless desire to command, judge, and punish. Vader is opaque save for his menace, his propensity for killing underachievers on the spot and destroying whole planets by remote control. If it weren’t for his genocidal tendencies Vader would be a laughing matter, and, admittedly, I don’t personally believe he blew up that whole planet.
Finally, the silent man breaks our hearts as he dies, as we watch him—bound up in the tragedy of his own silence—leave a world that, after all, barely even knew him. Remember the poignancy of Vader as he lay dying, having sacrificed himself for his son, finally exposed as a father, a human, a mortal, his now-horrible but once-handsome face ravaged and half-eaten up by machine. For Vader, exposure could only mean death.
By my twenties I began to wonder if it was possible to be relentlessly exposed and still command respect. I saw how some of the women and men I encountered would hold themselves in check, how they, unlike me, would not tell everyone everything about themselves at their earliest convenience. These people were cagey about their desires and their foibles, with whole libraries of secrets and aces up their sleeves. Instead of riotous storytelling and rushes of disclosure, they had a style that was deliberate and reserved; they designed the way they presented themselves to others, carefully doling out tidbits of self over time, like PEZ from a collectible dispenser. Their masks were well wrought. And these people could not be taken for granted. As friends, or as acquaintances, they were islands in a chilling sea whose treacherous shoals had to be navigated with care. Intriguing but untouchable, they could be seen and heard but not felt or known; they were perennial strangers with whom one could fall in love again and again but never be intimate. And they tended to be people whose names, in their professional lives, had about them an aura of the sacrosanct, inspiring awe, trepidation, and, sometimes, seven-figure movie deals.
At a certain point it also became clear to me that there are no meritocracies in the world; in the arena of cultural production, as in any industry, power goes very simply to those who demand it.
When I realized that—an easy lesson for many, but apparently a difficult one for me, raised by loving parents and sheltered from threats both large and small—I came to understand that I was not a contender in the action-packed galaxy. I had carved out for myself a comfortable and ultimately passive niche. Although I did not resemble a princess in any particular, did not live like a princess, had no poise or austerity, no subjects, no servants and no white gown, I was still a princess wannabe: I watched from a point outside the field, waiting eternally for the true games to begin, waiting to ascend a private and, of course, imaginary throne.
It is no simple task to become Darth Vader. For one thing, what happens to the people who knew you before you wore the mask? How do you face them in your newly forbidding garb? It takes years to build a house of friends, a house of kindness, warmth, and familiar sympathy. If you become Darth Vader overnight, does the house stay well lit, its welcoming rooms suddenly rendered alien by the presence of a prowling and enigmatic host? What if the friends laugh when you don the black facepiece, when you begin to hold yourself aloof and wander, cloaked in darkness, up and down the house’s shadowy corridors.
Or, you can transform yourself slowly into Vader, acquiring, bit by bit, the habits and accoutrements of mastery and distance. First the cloak, then the boots, next the gloves and lightsaber and finally the helmet; first the pregnant pauses, then the brevity of speech, and finally the heavy breathing. This way your friends have time to adjust to the metamorphosis, and, though increasingly uneasy, even alarmed or outright frightened, they may not resort to ridicule. You will inspire distaste, \ you will receive referrals to mental-health professionals, the house may grow quiet and dim, with dust along the tabletops and sofas, but the laughter that comes of shock at the absurd will be absent.
Some of us are unable to bring ourselves to cultivate distant mystique. Some of us, in the end, hold our friends dearer than cloaks and daggers, hold the houses we live in closer than the sprawling and holy temples we might like to build; some of us stay forever on the brink of being Darth Vader, dreaming of the power we might, in some other galaxy, command but finally, perpetually, forlornly abdicate. Some of us wait eternally for that moment when, inspired by rage or desperation or pride, we will emerge from ourselves like butterflies from cocoons, our colors lit brightly for all to behold in the radiant space of the air. We wait to become something we have never been; we wait, like almost everyone else, for a sudden and redeeming grace.
Needless to say, there is the question Why? Why is it desirable to be Darth Vader instead of a quiet watcher from the balcony or the cheap seats? Are weakness and fear of anonymity at the bottom of it all, at the base of every struggle for power and renown? Or can a poignant idealism light the sacred fire of ego, as Hollywood and free-market capitalism often wish to tell us, and somehow propel us flailing into the realm of greater good? Is the will to leave an imprint on the universe ultimately a shallow and selfish will?
About a mile from my house in the Arizona desert, on the other side of a straight, fast twolane road that rushes with eighteen-wheelers and jacked-up pickups decorated with shotgun racks, there is a towering mound of petroglyphs, pictures of suns and antelope etched on stone by natives now gone for many hundreds of years. When I see them I do not think of the will to power, the clinging, striving individual soul promoting itself beyond its fellows. When I think of the desire to make markings on rocks that will outlast us all, I think of solitude and sadness; I think of those who have gone before and those who will follow. I think of a soft finger touching a rough stone and the stunning light of a star I can see in the night sky, a star that died thousands of human lifetimes ago.
Lydia Millet's newest novel is Mermaids in Paradise. She won the PEN-USA award for fiction for her early novel My Happy Life (2002), and in 2010, her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.