Christopher Kempf



There is a man—a pilot, a defector—running with an extension cord.
    There is a master switch.
    There is a tower rising from the island, inside it a data file flashing behind a glass panel. At the tower's apex, lashed by the planet's winds, a woman clings to a control console. She is waiting, a voice tells us, for the file to transmit, space-fighters flickering and darting around her like insects. She watches the console's loading bar crawl toward transmission.
    She is, by this point in the film, a woman without a father. She remembers summers at her family's taba farm on Vallt. She remembers blaster fire. A ship. Men in armor lifting off into orbit.
    The woman hails from the very edges of the charted universe, from an "Outer Rim," it is called, where the Hutts reign over ore-rich exoplanets and where, along trade routes far from the Empire's gaze, smugglers broker shipping deals in the dim corners of T'ssolok bars. Like the hero who will succeed her, she has come here reluctantly. To Scarif. Like Skywalker, she has come to save us.
    But she is—before this, on Vallt once, in summer, in sunlight—a farmer's daughter. She is Jyn, the daughter of Galen.
    She is afraid she will die in this place.
    She will die in this place.

The sequence—climax of Gareth Edwards's 2016 Star Wars installment, Rogue One—is not, we have been told, great filmmaking. In a blockbuster in which starships hurtle effortlessly through the vast reaches of space, the plot of Rogue One, such as it is, hinges incredibly on the fact that Jyn's file—containing the plans for the Empire's Death Star—is simply too large to transmit, an attachment, essentially, that the rebellion might have done better to send through Google Drive.
    There's something shameful in the simplicity of this moment.
    And there is, certainly, something embarrassing about Star Wars as a franchise, or embarrassing about discussing it, as I am, in the high seriousness of literary style. As her transmission completes, Jyn and her compatriot gaze out toward a shimmering horizon.
    "Do you think anyone's listening?" Cassian asks.
    "I do," Jyn says. "Someone's out there."
    Maybe the line is overwrought and obvious, as critics have argued, cringe-inducing even. Maybe it strains for profundity. But the moment is pivotal, I think, to understanding Star Wars as—also, admittedly—the great myth of our time, an exhaustive aesthetic project capable of addressing our most enduring existential questions.
    What more, after all, is the sequence with which this essay opens—its close-up of a male extension cord coupling with a female outlet—than our species' most technologically sophisticated fertility myth? What more is the communications tower at Scarif than a giant phallus? Like Rogue One, our oldest forms of literature involve rituals linking sexual fertility to harvest and vegetation cycles, from Eleusinian mysteries associated with Persephone's abduction to Eliot's wasteland, as infertile, Eliot argues, as the Fisher King is impotent. The search for new energy sources, the creation of life in the form of robots—the central tropes of science fiction echo our most primitive of human rites, and all of them, like those rites, express an enduring, if sometimes desperate, hope for the future.
    In adapting these mythologies into mass form, Star Wars has especially centered, of course, on the myth of the father, as borne out in the series' most iconic moment—"No, I am your father." I was ten when I discovered the truth about Vader buried in his name, a discovery that struck me, at the time, with all the majesty of Shakespearean anagnorisis. I owned an action figure of Vader which would, with the push of a button, speak his name in James Earl Jones's thunderous baritone. "Vader," the toy said over and over, looping back on itself until the word "father" emerged as a kind of slurred under-motif, the whole fugue shuttling back and forth between proper and common nouns. "Father," I heard once, then "Vader" again. Then "father, father."
    It was, probably, my first experience with the truth—cryptic but profound—to be heard deep in the music of language, an almost Freudian induction to the mysteries of human spirituality. Here, for the first time, were the myths of fertility and generation; here were the rites of family and tribe, the turning of the seasons, the passing of the dead. Here was transmission.
    "Darth Vader"—for the first time I understood it.
    "Dark father."
    There was nothing cooler, it seemed to me then. There is nothing more mythic.

It was on FaceTime, his image glitching and freezing in my iPhone, that my father first showed me the tumor. The size of a golf ball, it moved beneath his fingers like something alien to his own body, a knot nestled at the jointure of his jaw and neck and which had, in the month since I'd seen him, birthed itself from white blood cells in his lymphatic system. Unbeknownst to my siblings and I, he had already undergone a biopsy and PET scan, and was slated to begin chemotherapy the following Friday, the first of six treatments. The tumor, the tests showed, was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage one, information my father revealed as if it were a weather report or a baseball score. Stage-one lymphoma is not, to be sure, the worst of the cancers, and in retrospect it seems entirely characteristic of my father—laconic, intensely private—that he chose to disclose this news only when it became too conspicuous to ignore. At the time, though, watching him palpate the lump over FaceTime's garbled transmission, it seemed a staggering revelation, a moment of recognition that left me sleepless for days afterward and returning, for the first time in years, to Sunday mass.
    Doctors, when sharing diagnoses like my father's, will tell patients that the worst thing they can do is go online and look for information; it's the same lesson—about the veracity of online sources, about the hive of scum and villainy that is the internet—that we learn in middle-school English, and it's ignored, I suspect, just as frequently. In the days after speaking with my father, I scoured the most reputable websites I could find, clicking from WebMD to the National Institute of Health to the American Cancer Society, devouring vast tables of five- and ten-year survival rates. I scrolled through treatment plans and prognostic factors, poured over all the "key statistics" I could find— deaths per year, metastasis rates, costs, percentages. I ransacked our family's medical history for a precedent, tracking down death certificates, calling up long-estranged aunts and uncles. "Did grandpa ever—" I asked them. "Did you ever hear—". Like some oppressive, 19th-century machine shop, the vast gearworks of rationalization turned, day and night, in my head.
    I had never been, and still am not, particularly close with my father. For as long as I can remember, there has existed between us a kind of semi-permeable barrier—a membrane, a portal—through which easily pass subjects like the ineptitude of the Browns' offensive line, but which holds back, as a cell would rogue bacteria, any more meaningful subject matter. I suspect the same is true for most men, that the love between father and son is most often expressed through some kind of stubborn transference or triangulation; my father will wash my car for me and do my taxes, and I, in turn, am to understand that this is his way of showing love, like animals grooming each other in the wild. In his poem "O My Pa-Pa," Bob Hicok speaks to the commonality of this reticence, describing "whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,/ or those that end, and he was silent as a carp." The poem has meant much to me over the years as I've tried to think through, and to a certain extent amend, my own relationship with my father; but it has also comforted me in its assurance that most fathers do feel profound love for their sons, and that the failure to deal honestly with that love is entirely ordinary. "It turns out they did/ start to say something," Hicok ends the poem:

to form the words hey
or stay, but we'd turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leaves, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.

The ending is a powerful one, a passage that normalizes the difficulty in something as simple, ostensibly, as sharing one's feelings. Since I first read it a decade ago, I have loved the poem for exactly this reason.
    Despite the fact that I have not once talked openly with my father—about my love for him, about my dreams, my politics, my poetry—I have never had reason to doubt his integrity or question his decency; I have never feared my father, though growing up I feared almost every father I knew, from Hannah Henley's—who polished his guns in a back shed—to Preston Miller's to Nick Solinger's to Kyle Smith's, men who came home, when I saw them, in suits and ties, and who smelled of alcohol, and who were liable, it seemed to me, to break into an inexplicable rage at any moment. My father was never the dark father I saw so often around me. He was never the tyrant, displacing his frustration onto his children, or the overworked absentee, or the brooding misanthrope, or drunk, or bully, or letch, or leerer. He was never holed up in some forbidden man-cave, or locked in a wood-paneled office. He was, as I often remember him, standing at the kitchen sink giving my newborn brothers a bath. He was the horsey whose back we rode, the seeker who found us. If the dark father—the villain, the Satan, the Vader—is one of our most enduring archetypal patterns, my own father was the opposite, a father of light, a shy father. Father of Midwestern reticence. Father of redemption.
    As I rifled through site after site after his diagnosis, I did not once, it occurs to me, cry for my father, a failure (if it is) that seems inherited—transmitted, like a disease—from his own inability to fully express his interior life. Indeed I cannot remember a time when I have cried at all out of personal grief, when I wept, even sniffled, out of sadness for myself or for someone close to me. One might, I suppose, chalk this up to my own Midwestern restraint, to the propriety and selflessness which, a long time ago, broke the plains and drove the cattle and buried the children without once bemoaning its own dumb luck.
    I would certainly like to believe in such selflessness.
    The problem, however, is that, more times than I can count, I have wept openly and without shame in front of friends and strangers, not out of personal grief but at the beauty and grandeur of art, at what I think of as moments—in the phrase I use to myself—of "aesthetic justness," moments when myth and execution, idea and form seem perfectly coordinated. I cried for two hours after Titanic—shameful maybe, but a powerful allegory, it seemed to me then, for our species' hubris. I cried at my grandfather's funeral, my father's father, not because I was sad—though I was—or because I missed him—though I did—but because the ceremony itself was, if I'm honest, a strikingly beautiful one, a full military burial, complete with bugler, twenty-one gun salute, and a starched flag complexly folded into a tight triangle and placed in my own father's lap. Here, in aesthetic form—in the soldiers' pleated pants and the long notes of "Taps" rolling out over Ohio cornfields—was the whole vast mythology we have built in this country, like a religion, to celebrate our militarism. Day is done, gone the sun— I stood behind my father and bawled.
    It's for precisely this reason that Plato, in his own foundational myth, banishes poets from the Republic, fearing as he does the power of art, of aesthetic justness, to carry citizens into states of irrational ecstasy. "When the best of us hear Homer or some other tragic poet imitating a hero in mourning," Plato writes, "we give ourselves up to it […] In these circumstances, our best element, not being adequately trained by reason or habituation, relaxes its watch over this element of lamentation." I too, I suppose, would be banned from Plato's utopia. I have cried reading Frost's "Directive" and Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I have cried at Christmas mass. I have cried watching the "Creation sequence" in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. And I cried for fifteen minutes—in the dark, in the middle of a crowded theater while my fiancé consoled me—at the ending of Rogue One, one of the most magnificent and underrated sequences in all of film. In the fleet above Scarif, a shock-helmeted rebel trooper runs to deliver Jyn's transmission, downloaded into disk form, when a door jams and he is plunged with a dozen of his comrades into absolute darkness. We hear the men's frenzied panting. We hear something latching onto the ship—something out there. We hear nothing. We hear the silence of interstellar space. We hear our heartbeats.
    And then Vader appears.
    As he hacks and Force-chokes his way through the rebel soldiers, the violence illuminated in the hellish glow of his lightsaber, they pass the disk onward, from one man to the next, each giving it up before he too is cut down by the terrible presence before them. It is Vader at his most terrifying, a force of absolute evil, made worse by the intimacy of that evil—in the ship's tiny hallway, Vader is massive and everywhere. Like Rilke's archaic torso, there is, in Vader's presence, "no place that does not see you;" we feel ourselves, quite physically, invaded. The men, though, passing the disk toward the sliver of light at the end of the hall, have become, even as they are cut down, a single unstoppable relay, transmission reduced to its simplest form—one man passing an object to another. They have become human civilization itself, that tenuous sequence of inheritance and hope by which we grew from mud and of which, earlier in the film, Jyn speaks—"we'll take the next chance, and then the next," she says, "and on and on until we win or all our chances are spent." The men, it seems to me, are that long, unlikely chain of next chances, of evolution, behind our species. They are all of us.

On our drive home from college my junior year—Thanksgiving 2006, a decade before he'd be diagnosed with lymphoma—my father and I were struck from behind by a semi-truck that had drifted into our lane. All of it happened, I'm sure, in a matter of seconds, but in the moment it seemed to take place in an alternate, slowed-down version of reality, one in which—even as we rode it out, waiting, as I would learn my father was, to die—we could still think and speak as the semi barreled through us.
    I had been asleep in the passenger seat when I heard the back windshield shatter.
    "Jesus, what was that?" my father asked.
    "He fucking hit us," I said, calmly I remember, though it was the first time I had used that word, "fucking," in front of him.
    We had just had time to register we'd been hit—suddenly the wind, the roaring interior—when we began to slide around in front of the semi, the truck pushing us down the highway in a kind of extended T-bone, my father's window, shattered now, pressed against its grille. I remember the truck's engine pounding beside his head, my father a silhouette in the headlights. I remember the slap of its tires on the asphalt. This would seem to us, afterward, one of the moments in which we should have, by all logical odds, been killed; the truck was neither stopping nor slowing down, and there was nothing, beyond the physics of our tires' grip on the road, that should have prevented us from flipping—from "rolling it," my father says—again and again down the highway.
    We did not.
    Instead, we slid off the truck's grille onto its side, scraping and banging against the trailer as its rear tires barreled down on us. I remember, as we caromed down the trailer, thinking over and over, "We're having an accident—please just stop. Please stop."
    "Please stop," I thought to myself as the truck dragged us beneath its trailer.
    "Please stop," as its tires mounted our hood, passing a few inches from my father's head.
    After what felt like hours, the tires kicked us out into the median. We spun through the grass toward the opposite lanes, headlights flashing through the mangled car, the stars wheeling overhead. Instead of spinning into oncoming traffic, we skidded to a halt on the far edge of the median, the engine ticking to a stop, our bodies righting themselves in their belts. I lifted my head and watched the taillights of the semi racing off into the night.
    "He's not stopping," I said.
    In front of us, the hood smoked, bent up and crinkled like tinfoil.
    "Are you okay?" my father asked.
    My head was bleeding from the glass that had been thrown through the car, but as we stepped from the wreckage, feeling our faces for cuts, we realized that we were—"miraculously" is the word I will use—unharmed. I can't remember what, if anything, we said to each other as we stood there, though I'm sure there was no great display of emotion or profound existential reckoning. It was all very practical, Midwestern—a man, passing in the other direction, stopped and called 911; we waited together for the ambulance.
    We would learn from the state trooper that they'd stopped the semi at a toll plaza a few miles down the highway; it had black paint smeared across its grille and its trailer was beat in down the side. We learned, either that night or sometime later, in court maybe, that the driver wasn't aware, allegedly, that he'd hit anything. For months, my father wouldn't drive. For months, I'd find glass everywhere—in my hair, in the luggage I'd had with me, in my shoes. Because there were no medical expenses, we received only a small settlement in court, though I'm not sure why, in retrospect, we didn't claim some exorbitant amount for something like "emotional damages" or "psychological trauma." Maybe, it occurs to me, the trauma is so extensive we can't even notice it. Maybe there is none. I am sometimes amazed, now, how easily we seemed to process the crash, how smoothly it slipped into and out of our lives, like a great cruise-liner passing in the fog. I am sometimes amazed how infrequently we speak of it—how much, almost, the whole thing never happened.

The Sunday after my father's diagnosis, I went to early mass at St. Francis Catholic Church in Gettysburg, where I lived at the time. I hadn't been to a church in years, but I found myself wanting to be around other people for awhile, to sit, if only for an hour, and sing and pray in the church's warmth. As I walked across the town square, still dark at that hour, and swung open the large wooden doors of the church, I was struck with the smell of incense and books, the glow of candlelight falling on my face, the organ playing softly. I sat near the back. I folded my coat beside me in the pew and turned down the cushioned kneeler. I opened one of the songbooks.
    This had always been what I loved, when I loved it, about the Catholic Church, not so much its vast theological architecture—its benevolent God, its afterlife—but the scaffolding of ritual holding up that architecture. I loved shaking hands with strangers during the sign of peace. I loved the taste of the Eucharist, the sure, declarative cadences of the Gospels—"And indeed He is going before you into Galilee." I loved, I think, the aesthetic justness of Catholicism, the way its intricate system of ritual came together, as I saw it, in one of the most magnificent mythological experiences our species has managed to create. This is a literary experience, but it's also a musical and a tactile one, an experience transmitted from generation to generation that seemed, once, to speak to unvarying patterns in the life of our species. Nestled between an elderly couple and a boy racing a Hot Wheels car across the pew, I had come, I understood, not to hear that my father's cancer was part of some inscrutable plan, but to be, for a moment, swept out of my own body into the larger, "mystical body" of the Church.
    It was Saint Paul, in a first-century letter to the Ephesians, who first proposed this foundational principle of Catholic theology, the idea that the Church constitutes a singular mystical body, a material entity held together by a spiritual force. Written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, the letter describes the Church as a supernatural union, neither an entirely physical nor an entirely spiritual phenomenon; "you are one body with a single Spirit," he writes to the Ephesians, a group of rebel Christians living in exile in the shadows of the Roman Empire. I was there that morning to feel a part of that single spirit, to imagine the body—my father's anyway, and its turning against itself—taken up in something larger, something out there, yes, but also something inside us, some kind of embodied essence—a "pneuma" the Greeks called it, a force.
    Such a force—both spiritual and physical, uniting believers in a single body—has long been a staple of the Star Wars universe. While serious thinking about its theological significance has been absent from the films themselves, Edwards's most recent installment dramatizes the myth far more powerfully than its predecessors, linking the phenomenon to the mystical body of which Saint Paul writes. As Jyn struggles to adjust the satellite dish on Scarif, she tasks rebel troopers with activating a pivotal "master switch" that controls the dish's power supply. The switch—ridiculously spotlit, like something in Looney Tunes—is ultimately activated, though, not by one of the dozens of soldiers storming the beachhead, but by a blind spiritual warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, who passes untouched through a hail of explosions and blaster fire while chanting "I am one with the Force; the Force is with me." Not only an "energy field created by all living things"—the phrase is Obi-Wan Kenobi's—the Force, here, is also the physical pressure Îmwe applies to the switch itself, a lowercase force, a human hand on a metal lever. In that close-up, Edwards suggests the similarity of the Force to the mystical body of Catholic theology, a body of lived, physical rituals—standing and kneeling, eating and drinking—animated, as Îmwe professes to be, by a supernatural spirit.
    While all of this is happening on the beachhead, above the planet a massive space battle rages between the rebel fleet and a group of Star Destroyers. TIE fighters and X-wings flare against the darkness. The hulking, wedge-shaped Destroyers drift coolly through the fray. The plot, even to casual Star Wars observers, is a familiar one—there is a shield generator; there is a squid.
    And then something incredible happens.
    As one of the Star Destroyers cants precariously off axis, rebel commander Raddus orders forward something he calls a Hammerhead Corvette, a ship named, we find out, for its distinctive, T-shaped bow. The moment is one of the most powerful in the film, in part for the pull of nostalgia Raddus elicits—he is, like his successor Ackbar, a Mon Calamari—but also because the Corvette literalizes the film's theology, its linking of spiritual and physical, of Force and force. "I have an idea," Raddus says, and the Hammerhead crashes at full speed into the side of the disabled Star Destroyer, sending it—slowly, at first, then gaining momentum—into a second Destroyer which in turn crashes spectacularly into an orbiting shield generator protecting the planet. The shield, a luminous blue curtain, sputters offline—the plans are transmitted. In a battle scene frenzied with digitally-rendered turbolasers, brilliant explosions, and control panels flashing like Christmas lights, the sequence is downright Newtonian in its physics. Drifting far above the planet, Raddus sets in motion a Rube Goldberg machine of mechanical parts, metal on metal, Corvette on Destroyer, all, importantly, animated by a single spiritual act—"I have an idea."

Ten years out from our own miraculous crash—Taurus on semi-truck, Taurus spinning—my father and I rarely discuss it, just as we rarely discuss his lymphoma or his feelings about Rogue One, which we saw together, or the two rounds of chemotherapy he has remaining. One night, a few years ago, we shared a pitcher of beer at a restaurant near my parents' house. I can't remember how the conversation worked its way around to the crash, but it did, and my father seemed to want, this time, to talk about it—seemed to need to. "I thought we were going to die," my father said. "When the wheels came for the A-pillar. I thought you were going to die. I said to God, ‘Jesus, take me. Take me instead, but don't take my son.'"
    It is the most, probably, that he has ever said.
    It is the reason I still believe in God.
    I don't care how this sounds. I know there are children starving in Africa. I know there are men with women locked in their basements, and wedding parties bombed by American drones, and school shootings, and beheadings, and rising oceans, and a hundred nuclear missiles waiting in their mounds in North Dakota. But I was a physics problem—I was mass times acceleration and the hundred small contingencies that might have played out differently and I lived. I walked away untouched.
    I wrote about it.
    Tell me there isn't someone out there.
    This is, I suspect, precisely the reason the Catholic Church, like all religions, exists in the first place. Because we die. Because, a long time ago, we watched our loved ones go to sleep and never wake up. Because we were terrified. Because we still are. And because we refused to accept this.
    And so, in one of the great collective endeavors of our species, we developed together a myth that said this wasn't the end, a myth that said that we are, all of us, transmitted beyond ourselves into another, more spiritual form. That said that we're infinite. That said that we live. There is a neat, almost architectural justness in this theology of salvation; an infinite God, the Church says, transmits Himself into finite, embodied form, so that we, finite forms, might be infinite as He is. "Chiasmus," that grammatical structure is called—Latin for "cross."
    One night, late, I lay in bed weeping beside my fiancé. I had been imagining my death again, imagining the planet turning through its days without me—the wind moving in the trees, traffic flowing. I wasn't, I don't think, weeping for myself, but for the sheer beauty of it all—of course we die; life is too good not to. I know, as Wallace Stevens says in "Sunday Morning," that "death is the mother of beauty," that our planet is charged with dignity and magnificence and loneliness—the stare of a wild animal, the changing of the seasons—mostly because we will one day leave it. I know, as Brad Pitt's Achilles says in Troy, that "everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again." I know this. I know that the rhythms of the human body, on a fundamental level, are wed to the rising and falling of the sun and that our biochemistry is coordinated with the tilting of the planet.
    I know we are born into dying.
    But I am terrified of death. Every night I pray that my parents will live forever.

In comparing Star Wars to one of the oldest and most complicated of faiths, I am, I know, attributing serious rigor to a film that also features a mind-reading slug and, among other pitfalls, a cringe-inducing warning from Vader, as he Force-chokes an Imperial officer, not to "choke on your aspirations," a Dad-joke if ever there was. There is something ridiculous about claiming that Rogue One—the "great myth of our time," I called it—addresses fundamental existential questions with anything like "religious" sophistication. Isn't such a claim, someone like Theodor Adorno would argue, simply capitalist ideology masquerading as a legitimate variety of religious experience? Isn't this the culture industry at its finest, most insidious work?
    Our collective failure in discussing Rogue One as a "serious" film lies, I think, in a perceived miscalibration of tone and subject matter, what looks like a too-intellectual investment in a film with, according to critics, little cultural merit. While NPR's David Edelstein, who snubbed the film on "Fresh Air," and The New Yorker's Richard Brody, who called it a "mythopoetic stew," seem "in" on the joke that is Star Wars, my own faith in Edwards betrays an unhip earnestness not all that dissimilar, I'm loathe to recall, from Hayden Christensen's and Natalie Portman's embarrassing performances in the Star Wars prequels. It displays an uncouthness, Edelstein and Brody suggest, to treat Rogue One as if it should have—as I think it should have—made an Oscars run that year; it evinces a mass cultural philistinism to devote twenty pages to a Disney franchise marketed via everything from roller coasters to ice-cube molds.
    I suspect, though, that the reaction against seemingly "low" cultural forms—by Edelstein and Brody, but also by a literary establishment that relegates genre fiction, like sci-fi, to a shameful periphery—is a displaced reaction against something shameful and embarrassing in all of us.
    Rogue One, I mean, is the high-school Prom I attended as a college sophomore.
    It's the time I shit my pants at a cross-country meet.
    The cringing we feel—watching Christensen bumble through one Star Wars prequel after another, reading the claim that Edwards is a modern Saint Paul—is the same cringing we feel re-reading our undergraduate poetry. "I am beside her on a blanket," I wrote my junior year,

on a page,
writing undressed the tender crops
of freshmen women and young sons
from every shire's end of Ohio."

One can recognize here—in a poem I called, for some reason, "Prologue"—a similar miscalibration of tone and subject matter, aesthetic immaturity betrayed in the form of feeling in excess of craft, idea outpacing ability. It's not bad, per se—here, after all, is our classic fertility myth—it's just uncouth. Ill-mannered. Embarrassing. The contempt of critics toward films like Rogue One is often, I would hazard, contempt for previous versions of ourselves, for the over-emotional poet, the too-earnest lover, and for the writer of fan fiction we all once were. Before the prizes and publications, before the fellowships and residencies and degrees, I suspect we were all, as I was, holed up at our parents' Compaqs writing Han Solo out of another implausible situation. Or, furiously, putting the final touch on Hermione's solution to the Secret of the Summoning Charm. These past selves are shameful, perhaps, but they're also beautiful in their own way—impressive in the vividness of their imagination, touching in their candor.
    Like the critical policing of "shameful" popular media, the Catholic Church has long employed shame as part of the scaffolding propping up its sophisticated theological architecture. As I sat in the back of St. Francis after my father's diagnosis—sunlight falling through the stained glass, the priest rising for the homily—I thought of my more devout days as a young Catholic. How, in college at a Jesuit university in Cleveland, I'd attend mass every day in a small chapel in our dorm. Or how, in high school, I'd confess what seem now like perfectly licit sexual practices—wet dreams, masturbation, what the Church calls "impure thoughts." Once, after a high-school football game, I lay on a couch in my parents' basement watching Romeo + Juliet with my girlfriend. Her name was Mary—I know—and as Leo and Claire plunged into the Capulet swimming pool, we found ourselves running our fingers beneath each other's shirts, the planets of our bodies pulled close in the night's gravity, my palms sweating like faucets. I thought of how it had always worked in the movies, how Leo had held those light-filled sheets above them, how Ben Affleck had run that animal cracker across Liv Tyler's chest.
    I rolled over on top of Mary and slid off her shirt. This is it, I thought, filled, as I imagine most young Catholics are, with a strange mix of excitement and terror and nausea.
    I took off my own shirt.
    Leo held his breath.
    It was then that my father came bounding down the stairs—to grab a beer, he said, and turned the corner, and flipped on the light. Mary vaulted behind the couch. I pulled the blanket to my chin. It was, it occurs to me now, the Freudian primal scene in reverse, my father lowering his head in disappointment, calling upstairs to my mother; in a way, we have never recovered from that moment, never once addressed it afterward, or sex, or love, or affection. I confessed it for weeks.
    If part of what I loved, once, about the Catholic Church was the gravity of its aesthetic system, part of what drove me away, eventually, was its too frequent use of shame as the energy, the force, which bound together its believers in a single body. At some point, that body began to resemble less a vibrant, living presence than a corpse. It is not difficult to notice how the entire belief structure of the Church—from the idea of a "creator" God, to Mary's immaculate conception, to the prohibition on things like masturbation, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—centers obsessively on the act of sexual transmission. This is the most embodied of practices, and it has led, from Genesis on, to a set of regulations absurd in its specificity. In Leviticus, for instance, God delivers unto Moses a list of almost twenty prohibited sex acts, a list less well-known, unfortunately, than the Ten Commandments, but which outlaws everything from incest and bestiality to homosexuality, sex with a woman during her period, and having sex with both a woman and her daughter. Here—striking down one beloved porn category after another—is the root of the Catholic Church's continued opposition to what it views as "unfruitful" sexuality, a term that betrays how ancient harvest myths continue to influence western culture's most institutionalized, probably most widespread, understanding of sexuality.
    While I had come to St. Francis that morning to forget my father's body—its proliferating white blood cells, its fever, its fatigue—I found that I couldn't stop thinking about how my own body was linked, inextricably, in some great historical relay, to his. In the pew beside me, the boy's Hot Wheels car swerved and power-slid in his hands. At the front of the church, the priest arranged the holy appliances on the altar, the shining chalice and patens, the clean white corporal. I thought of how I must have looked to my father in the moments which had, I recognized, most defined our relationship—the truck tires barreling toward me in the passenger seat, Mary flopping around beneath me. I tried to feel, in my deepest being, what I had come there to feel, but I found myself simply going through the motions, missing what I had once experienced as the vital spirit, the almost electric energy of the mass; all that sitting and standing, the singing, the reading—there seemed, now, no life behind it, no force. It had become more and more difficult to square what had seemed, once, like an utterly transcendent aesthetic system with the banal, shame-inducing regulation of the fragile—and wondrous and rebellious and mystical and ineffable—human body. Was this, I had begun to wonder, the Church that had given us Handel's Messiah? Was this the Christ of Raphael's "Transfiguration"? Was this my Father?

Home for Christmas a few weeks ago, I asked my father to look over my car, which had, on the drive out, been making a strange noise I couldn't identify. A former midget-car driver growing up in rural Ohio—who'd once, working the pit crew, caught fire—his life has always in some way revolved around cars. For fifteen years he worked at a test facility where his job was to run new cars into concrete walls, assigning the "five-star" safety ratings we know from television commercials. These days, he works for a truck-manufacturing company, called International, where he ensures compliance with safety and emissions regulations. He has bought every car I have ever owned, by which I mean that he has bid on and researched and test drove and haggled over them because he understands them in a way, shamefully, that I never will. Pulling my car into the garage, he fired up a kerosene heater and turned on the radio to the local country station.
    "Might be the transmission," he said, "but I'll check it out. Why don't you get the wax out while I look at it?"
    This had always been his way of showing love, of expressing, through deed and action, what he couldn't say in language. I got the wax from the shelf and started buffing the car to a shine while my father slid beneath it. A "transmission," I didn't know, is the system of gears—like a bike's, but more complicated—bolted to the back of the engine, the means by which power from the engine reaches the wheels. Located beneath the middle console, between the driver and passenger seats, the transmission provides the torque that spins the driveshaft that turns the axle that rotates the wheels that move the car. It turns fire, in other words, into force. We worked together for a while like that, my father tinkering around with wrenches and flashlights, me polishing the side panels, singing along to Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert.
    It had been about twenty minutes when my brother came out.
    "Dude," he said, "Carrie Fisher just died."
    My father slid out from beneath the car. We had just yesterday seen Rogue One for a second time, and we stood there disbelieving—"I thought she had recovered," my father said—as the DJ came on to confirm the news.
    Fisher was, as many of her eulogists have pointed out, more than Princess Leia. A tireless advocate for mental health, an accomplished memoirist, and a strong witness to the perils of addiction, she was a multifaceted figure whose life, as co-star Adam Driver put it, burned brightly, an apt metaphor for a star of such intensity. When I think of her now though—and, I suspect, as I will think of her well into the future—she is the final shot of Rogue One, the princess, hooded in white, who turns to the camera to receive the transmission around which the entire film has revolved. It is a powerful moment of anagnorisis. She is—impossibly young—the princess we once knew. She is resurrected.
    The moment has drawn significant criticism—everywhere from Forbes to the New York Times to the deepest sub-threads of Star Wars fan forums—for the alleged "lifelessness" of Leia's appearance, a tripartite melding of old footage, CGI technology, and the face of contemporary Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila. And maybe my gaze is an unsophisticated one. Maybe I still don't see it. But the shot seems to me nothing less than a magnificent filmic accomplishment, emotionally resonant, nostalgic, but also a profoundly intelligent gesture to one of western civilization's most central concerns—that mystical union of physical and spiritual, of living and eternal, preserved forever now in the amber of that moment. "What is it they've given us?" a rebel trooper asks as he hands the transmission to Leia. She answers him in a voice from another generation, from a long time ago, sounding like one of the great Hollywood actresses of old—"They've given us hope."
    Hard cut. Credits.
    We worked on the car in silence.
    As we had walked from the theater that day—my father's lymphoma significantly reduced, two chemotherapies remaining—I thought of the film's improbable, utterly un-Hollywood ending. Jyn's transmission safe in Leia's hands, Vader watches the latter punch away into hyperspace toward the rebel base on Yavin, from which, in another film, the rebels will launch their assault on the Empire's superweapon. The rebellion has, for now, succeeded, but in Leia's wake the whole human relay—by which the plans were transmitted, by which hope itself endured—has been destroyed. Every rebel trooper. Jyn and Cassion. Chirrut Îmwe. They have all, every one of them, been killed. Beside us in the theater's lobby, a young boy turned, incredulous, to his father. "But everybody dies," he whispered, tearing up as his father put his arm around him. "Everybody dies, Dad."
    And we do. Isn't that beautiful?




This essay had its genesis as I—a grown man—sat weeping, for fifteen minutes, in the theater at the end of Star Wars: Rogue One. Part film criticism, part spiritual narrative, the essay is rooted in the conviction that not only is Rogue One the greatest of the Star Wars films, but that its [ending sequence] is among the most magisterial in film history, up there, I'd contend, with Malick's "creation sequence" in Tree of Life.  On a broader level, the essay explores the power of myth—from harvest rites to science-fiction—to affect our lives in ways both grand and banal. It may be my Catholic upbringing, but I suspect we are never not narrating our lives into myth, never not understanding our deaths, our loves, our labor as part of some vast, underlying narrative of which our species has been a part this whole time. I hope that conviction—or at least that ending to Rogue One—resonates with DIAGRAM's readers.