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Gravity: Despair and the Rebirth of Innocence

sandra-bullock-gravity-fetal
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

In this post, I’ll discuss how the movie Gravity, if you choose to let it, can go beyond simply being an entertaining movie (or not, for those of you who didn’t like it) and become a tool and vehicle by which you can have a transcendent spiritual experience.

As you might expect, here there be SPOILERS, but even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can safely read the first part of this piece until you reach the heading titled “Hello Despair, My Old Friend.”

TO SUCH BELONGS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Experiencing Gravity, at its best, can have the effect of having undergone a mythical journey, a vision quest of sorts, without actually going anywhere yourself physically. But if you desire such an experience there are a few things you can do to facilitate this.

(1) Watch it in IMAX 3D. I don’t have room here to explain. Just take my word for it.

(2) Temporarily turn off the analytical mind.

The abilities to analyze and intellectualize are tremendous boons to humanity in certain ways. They are certainly what have allowed us to come this far in terms of technological progress and material advancement, space exploration being perhaps the most profound symbol of this. But these skills have also come at a great cost. We are now a species and society addicted to picking every little thing apart ad infinitum. The great, expansive innocence with which we once perceived life and the universe is all but lost and everything becomes reduced to another math problem to solve, another argument to win.

To allow this (or indeed any) mythical narrative to work its miracle on you, you must be willing to approach it not so much as just a work of art to be deconstructed but as a modern, technologically sophisticated vehicle for a very ancient and simple kind of inner journey. At the mythic level, Gravity is not a movie about a woman in space; it is an allegory about despair, transformation and rebirth.

gravity-sandra-bullock-drifting
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

(3) Approach the movie as a child would, with unconditional acceptance of the story and events being presented. Again, consider it just a temporary experiment in tune with the film’s theme of rebirth. It does not mean completely sacrificing your intellect and critical discernment, and if you so desire, you will still have your chance to critique the movie and argue with your friends about it afterwards. But the attitude with which you watch it can determine the difference between simply being distracted for two hours and feeling, by the end, like a newly birthed child of the cosmos weeping at the majesty of humanity’s collective journey. Grandiose as it may sound, if you are interested in such an experience, then surrender to this film, let it enmesh itself around you, pull you into its unrelenting gravitational pull, consume you and then throw you back out, cleansed and purified.

(4) Finally, it helps to identify yourself with the heroine as deeply as you can, and doing this requires, again, a kind of childlike simplicity of mind.

Try thinking of the character of Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity as a symbolic representation and extension of you. Just for now, forget about the more intricate details of the acting, the writing, the scientific accuracy or lack thereof, etc. (again, you’ll have plenty of time for that later). Ryan Stone is your avatar in this mythical region of the psyche where your unconscious and subconscious hopes and fears are being visually played out. Vicariously try to go through everything she is going through: the despair, the confusion, the aloneness, the terror.

HELLO DESPAIR, MY OLD FRIEND

gravity-ryan-stone
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

**Spoilers**

When we first meet Ryan Stone, our heroine in this modern myth, we see an empty shell of a human being. We do not know the reasons for it yet, but we can sense the stagnant presence of despair.

Despair makes fools of us all. It makes us take everything for granted. It makes us forget the unfathomable miracle that is existence itself, of life springing forth on a tiny blue dot amidst an infinite black void inhospitable to life.

This does not mean that the feelings of despair we all periodically experience are stupid or wrong. They are quite natural and simply part of the mythic journey. However, they are intended to be way stations along the path where we stop to refresh and rejuvenate ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us end up holing up in these places indefinitely.

So when Ryan/we get caught in the net of despair, what is it that frees her/us? Something good that happens? A lucky break? No.

The god of pain, suffering and death is what frees her/us.

LET SATURN DEVOUR YOU

Rubens-Saturn
Peter Paul Rubens, “Saturn Devouring His Son” (Prado Museum / Madrid, Spain)

For those seeking a mythical experience while watching Gravity, the archetype of Saturn can be useful to consider as one possible interpretive angle.

I do not believe in astrology as a system of divination, but as a subset of mythology it is an interesting and even useful system of psychological symbols and mythical themes. In both astrology and myth (particularly Vedic astrology and myth), we have the archetype of Saturn who, in the ancient imagination, was a foreboding, menacing deity and force of nature.

Saturn is that which turns your life upside down, brings you to your knees and pulls you down into a personal hell. It sweeps the table clean, strips away the bulls**t and shows you what is truly important. Should you refuse to recognize the truths that it shows you, and to implement the lessons learned, it will continue to show you no mercy until you are stripped to your barest, most naked and vulnerable core. But should you willingly allow it to humble you, this fearful force suddenly transforms into benefactor, ultimately lighting the way to newfound personal revelations and epiphanies.

The heroic journey that Ryan undergoes in Gravity is essentially a Saturnine one, and in every Saturnian myth (and its real life equivalents), Saturn takes on any number of myriad forms. But in Gravity there is an added symbolic profundity in that it takes on the form of space – appropriate given that Saturn is not just a mythical god but also a planet, the planet of consecrated destruction and transformation.

Saturn symbolizes the great crises and Dark Nights of the Soul that eventually find us all, as certain as the law of gravity itself. Neither those floating on the loftiest heights of ecstasy nor those huddled in the deepest pits of despair (as in Ryan’s case) are safe from Saturn’s merciless grasp. Now, it makes easy enough sense why Saturn would be interested in spoiling the fun of those lazing about in palaces of pleasure. But why would it want to bother those poor folks who are in despair? Don’t they have enough to feel miserable about already?

The answer is simple: it is because prolonged ecstasy and despair are both forms of indulgence.

It may seem paradoxical that Saturn would seek to humble someone in despair (a form of pain and suffering) with further pain and suffering, but it is the type of suffering that is the key. Once we can understand this the paradox becomes clear.

gravity-debris
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

In modern society, particularly here in the first world, there are many people struggling with varying degrees of despair, but without ignoring the validity of their pain, the extent of the despair is rarely ever truly warranted. On the other hand, there are many who, for different reasons (the depravity of their living conditions, for instance),  might be considered to have a genuine claim to despair and yet don’t have a sliver of it in their body. Why? Because they are too busy simply surviving.

The body is wiser than the mind. The body – without thought, without language – instinctively knows that life, even with all its pain and suffering, is precious. The body is content when it has everything it needs: food, water, oxygen, warmth, shelter, sex. Being relatively free of pain, illness and discomfort is also nice. In short, the body simply wants to be.

The mind, evolutionarily, was a useful tool in that it helped us figure out how to cleverly secure these basic needs at a time when they were not easily had. But once, through our own ingenuity, these things became easily had, our minds then turned around and betrayed us by inventing reasons to be unhappy. It began bending itself into all sorts of useless, contorted thoughts that do not help this business we call existence.

This is one of the many ways that Saturn can humble you and it is the primary way we see it do so in Gravity: by showing Ryan that what she thought to be problems are not problems; that by virtue of simply being alive and breathing, safe and without too much pain, hunger or discomfort, she was blessed and lucky; that she had forgotten this truth and hence it was time to teach her a refresher course. Yes, life is full of agony and loss, but it is precisely because of this that our journey is heroic. In the same way that no one enjoys a boring movie where everything is peaceful and nothing happens, life would not be the Hero’s Journey that it is without struggle. Pain is not antithetical to life; pain affirms life.

I guarantee you that if you took ten people who expressed a desire to die and suddenly placed them into an actual life-or-death situation, nine of them would suddenly feel a new kind of raw terror they didn’t think they were still capable of and would desperately cling to life with newfound passion just as Ryan does. The moment the first debris shower hits her spacecraft, despite her terror she was already, in a way, free – free of whatever false, phantom problems she thought she had. And her mind was now doing what it was designed to do, solving real problems instead of imagining fake ones.

If you have ever been in a situation in which any one or more of the aforementioned basic needs have been deprived from you, particularly for extended stretches of time, you know that words like “happiness” and “fulfillment” take on entirely new dimensions. Heaven becomes nothing more (nor less) than sinking into bed after having made it through another hard-won day, your body warm, dry, fed and without too much pain. And as you observe the world around you, the chronic unhappiness that you see everywhere, exhibited by those who essentially live in heaven, puzzle you to no end.

This is the double-edged gift of pain that Saturn offers us. I have written about it before in my post on The Dark Knight Rises and I write about it again here for it is a lesson that needs frequent reminding.

What I have been calling “Saturn” here is none other than life itself, and life doesn’t want us to have our heads in the clouds or buried in the ground. Life wants us to be on the ground, grounded.

DEATH AND TRANSFORMATION

gravity-sandra-bullock-cockpit
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

To what ultimate purpose does Saturn make us suffer so? To the purpose that Gravity goes through great (birth) pains to make clear through its striking visual imagery: Ryan floating in fetal position, swimming through vaginal birth canals, crossing symbolic threshold after threshold and finally, at the end, surfacing through water, the medium of birth.

For a new, stronger, happier, wiser and freer self to be born, the old self must die. And there’s just no way around it: death is often an uncomfortable, traumatic process just as birth itself is. The two are heads-and-tails of the same coin.

This, then, is the mythical trajectory of Ryan’s death and rebirth:

Emptily going through the motions of life → Being seized by Saturn/space/life and shown what true emptiness, despair and terror really is → Learning to reconnect, quite literally, with another human being through a Mentor archetype → Moved by the valor of another’s sacrifice → Struggling with every ounce of her strength and will, exhausting every known limit of her inner resources  → Letting go of the old self and “dying” → Being awarded the boon, the “Grail,” by her own unconscious (or, if you prefer, the ghost of George Clooney) → Choosing life → crossing the Final Threshold → Rebirth and redemption

gravity-george-clooney
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

It is possible to initiate and undergo a personal death and rebirth anytime by choice and will, but in most cases it does not happen this way. We are too entrenched in our fear, despair, complacence or inertia. In most cases, we need life (Saturn) to initiate the process for us, just as it does for Ryan, and then from there we can choose to steer which direction to go. Unfortunately, for many of us, even then we aren’t able to get our act together, which is when Saturn then proceeds to take us all the way down the Rabbit Hole. And it is only then, as we struggle with every ounce of our being, to get back to the Ordinary World, that we learn the value of everyday, mundane life. Understand: when you are “reborn” the actual details and circumstances of your life, on the surface, may still appear similar or even the same as before. But your perspective on it has changed radically.

Moreover, even after we have had our revelations and epiphanies, by virtue of simply living in the world we continually accumulate new layers of numbness and despair like so much dirt and grime. And then it is time once again to go on a mythical quest to purge ourselves of these impurities. Fortunately, thanks to the useful illusion that is modern cinema, we can vicariously journey to hell and back in absolute safety. A simple trip to the movies becomes a vision quest if you do it with sincerity and an open mind.

At the end of her mythical journey, as Ryan washes up on the beach and stands with the wobbly legs of a child learning to walk, we do not know what kind of lifestyle she is stumbling towards. It may be a very different one; it may be a very similar one on the surface. That is not the key. The key is whether she can maintain that wide-eyed wonder and awe towards everything, even the most mundane details, of human life: the sand beneath her feet, the warmth of the sun on her face, the taste of the salty air on her tongue. If she/you/we can maintain that, then the proverbial rebirth does not become a one-time event but an ongoing phenomena as fresh and new in every sparkling moment as the intake of your next breath.

Breathe in, breathe out. Rebirth.

Breathe in, breathe out. Rebirth.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.