Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean and the Fall of Western Civilization

This coming weekend, the keenly expected third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean films will be released in theatres. It won't be the typical summer release, but rather one of those "special" events where people dress up in costumes and go to the theatres at midnight so that they can see the highly anticipated release as soon as is humanly possible. Even beyond that, the theatres will no doubt be packed this weekend with all manner of swashbucklers and salty dogs. In short, most of western civilization will be going to see this film.

It would do them much good, however, to revisit the first film before doing so. This is not simply for the sake of refreshing their memories of the adventures of the buccaneers, but more importantly because the first film contains a message that most of western civilization is in dire need of hearing, and more importantly, of assimilating.

The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, tells the story of a crew of pirates trying to escape the curse of an eternity existing in between death and life as immortal half-men, unable to experience anything other than their own miserable, half-human existence. They can go through neither pain nor pleasure, a state which leaves them to a numb, meaningless, empty existence far worse than even any suffering might provide. The cause of all of this is a curse which came upon them after taking forbidden treasure, and their sole purpose is now one of trying to steal back all of the treasure so that the curse can be reversed.

Watching the film, one can't help but feel a bit bad for these fellows. They are in a simply pathetic state of affairs. What used to be men, they now simply go through the motions of men, even fighting amongst each other with no possible outcome to be gained, as they cannot be injured. These men have been without any meaning to their existence for so long that they don't even realize just how self-destructive and stupid their behaviors are. Fighting amongst selves causes enough delay in reaching a goal; in their case, the delay may be forever, if they choose to fight that long. Any member of the audience at once realizes just how stupid these cursed men are behaving.

Unfortunately, our society has been caught in an existence without meaning for so long that we, too, are essentially incapable of recognizing just how self-destructive and stupid our behaviors are. The reality is that western civilization is caught in the very same situation that these forsaken pirates were. Just like the pirates, we have sold our souls for various treasures. Sometimes it is money, but, as Captain Jack points out in the film, "not all that glitters is gold." One of our treasures is wealth. Another is fame. Sex is one of our treasures, as is science, and even progress in general. As a society, we have thrown aside what makes us human for the treasure - and in many cases, the unknown treasure. When it comes to progress, for example, we do not need to know the ultimate prize, simply that it is in some way moving forward.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the case of abortion and contraception. Here, we take the very life out of us and destroy it, all for the sake of our treasure. Modern science makes this parallel frightfully complete. Biology identifies life as that which fulfills 7 characteristics, one of which is the ability to produce new organisms. Contraception and abortion are designed to hinder and negate this ability, rendering us as not quite alive, but clearly not dead, either. In fact in western Europe, where we see this problem most prominently, the population is decreasing at a rate faster than it was during the black plague and the birth rate is in such that humanity is well on its way to virtual extinction on the continent. Without children to prepare for the future and a new generation to leave a legacy and bestow our accomplishments on, lives are reduced to an utter meaninglessness of going through the motions.

And these pirates teach us something else about the sins that plague our society, as well. Their first sin was a sin against themselves. They weren't so much hurting anyone; any claimants to the treasure had long since died. The only thing truly wrong with the treasure was that it was forbidden. That's the reality of all sin, in one sense: God said "no." There may be more too it than that (and there most often is), but even if there weren't, all that matters is that god said "no."

Yet even such a "harmless" sin leads the pirates into greater sins, sins against other people. The emptiness which they find in themselves after the first sin leads to a need, a need to fulfill what can only be fulfilled by more sin, and greater sin. Now they must steal, murder, and kidnap to fill the hole inside of them.

This is the reality of sin. Nobody sins to commit evil. Every sin is an effort - a misguided effort - to get some good. The pirates didn't go after this treasure to make their existence a constant, meaningless process of going through the motions: they wanted easy money. The person who has sex outside of marriage is trying to find love, even if without realizing it. The young man who gets high on drugs isn't looking to destroy his body, he's trying to find happiness in a fallen world. The woman who has 3 abortions isn't trying to snuff out 3 innocent lives, she is trying to protect her career.

And yet all sin leads to this emptiness, an emptiness created by trying to fill a need with self. We already have ourselves - adding more of oneself cannot fulfill. Selfish acts - and all sin is, ultimately, selfish - simply try to fill that hole inside of us with self, leading us to feel more empty than before; discovering the powerlessness to fulfill oneself is a very gnawing experience. And so the sinner, not knowing what to do, tries to take from others in the hope that they can provide what is lacking in themselves. Yet taking from others is simply another act of selfishness, another attempt to fill the hole with self. It is a numbing cycle in which the western world is trapped.

Ultimately, there are two possible endings to this cycle, both illustrated in the Curse of the Black Pearl. When the curse is finally - and unexpectedly - lifted, Captain Barbossa, the leader of the cursed pirates, has just been shot. Because of the lifting of the curse, he is finally able to feel. He is finally able to experience life - and yet all he can experience is death. His initial reaction is one of joy. He has gone for so long without feeling, that though all he is able to experience is the pangs of death, he rejoices in it. This is, ironically, what he was seeking: feeling and meaning, at any cost. Like today's western world, Captain Barbossa delved into sin after sin in his drive for meaning. Ultimately, the meaning that he found was death, and it came unexpectedly. He always expected to be in control of his mortality - to hang onto his invincibility until he was ready to surrender it. Yet death came, unexpectedly, and ironically, as the utter and perfect fulfillment of all of his desires. He sought meaning through sin, and he found the only meaning sin holds: death.

His crew, on the other hand, meets a different end: mercy. They, too, find themselves subject to death unexpectedly as the curse is lifted while in battle with superior British forces. However, death does not come to these men. They are granted mercy by the soldiers. The commanding officer did not need to grant these pirates mercy - and they had certainly committed crimes far exceeding the warrant of death - but he did. All they had to do was accept it. Their choice was to go on fighting to the death, or drop their weapons and accept the fate of capture.

Yet this is a deeper choice than it would seem, and one which ultimately our civilization will have to make. The pirates had gone for a great time without any meaning in their lives, without any feeling. Finally, they had found it, and they were left with a choice: life as prisoners, or death. They chose the former. This no doubt meant much suffering for them, especially in light of the allusion from earlier in the film that freedom is the greatest and most valued privilege of pirates. They would seem to heartily agree with the famous statement of Patrick Henry, "give me liberty or give me death!" But these pirates had something greater than that: meaning. They had sought meaning for so long, as their single goal, and though they had sought it in every corrupt, wrong, and evil way, by the grace of mercy, they had an opportunity to experience it. Even surrendering themselves to the British, the pirates could experience meaning. They could taste the sweet bite of an apple, or experience the warm Caribbean breeze on their faces and an infinity of other things which anybody else would take for granted. They must suffer for this, but ultimately, it was life, and it was meaning, and they chose it.

And so, this is where the western world stands. Indulging in an endless cycle of a search for meaning, a cycle leading deeper and deeper into sin and meaninglessness, one of two things will happen. Either death will come, quickly and unexpectedly, or mercy will. If mercy comes, it will be on the condition of suffering. There is much penance to be done for the sins our civilization has committed, and redemption will not come without suffering and hard work. And yet, if mercy is offered, and if it is accepted, we will have the chance to experience something beautiful, something incredible, and something well worth any suffering: meaning. If we are willing to lay down our weapons of vice and selfishness, we will find such infinite meaning that we had forgotten existed that the sacrifices required for it would seem radically insignificant. Let us pray for this; let us pray.

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