Going West to End Up East
Originally published October 26, 2001 for USC Writing 140
In the mid-nineteenth century, researchers came to a realization that would change western humanity’s perspectives on science and religion, they found Earth to be billions of years old. This discovery had great ramifications because, only two centuries earlier, an Irish Bishop, James Ussher, had declared Earth to be only as old as the people for which it was created. The age Ussher suggested, 5,629 years, dated back to the supposed creation of Adam and Eve by a higher deity in the year 4,004 B.C. The notable discrepancy between the presumptions of the church and those of the science community shook the foundation of religious belief in a western world that had grown up associating scientific reason with progressive thought.
The apparent irreconcilability between religion and science had a drastic impact upon American culture and the nation’s future development. As technology took hold in the United States, it became the scientists’ role to develop increasingly modernized methods of business. Scientific knowledge, and the related processes of empirical thought and deductive reasoning, became decisive factors in the commercial world, and thus desirable qualities in potential employees. American schools made it their goal to produce logic enabled alumni who would prosper in a science driven economy. The western world became a society of scientists, academia, and technology in which it seemed, for many, that religion simply got in the way.
The prominence of science in American society rapidly grew, the change being reflected in the environment of the western world, an environment of concrete and fiber optic cable. Metropolises, such as Los Angeles, expanded to span hundreds of square miles, suffocating all natural forms of environment. Even trees and grass present throughout urban landscapes became the product of a technological society. Concurrently, reportings of violent activity, immoral behavior, and scandalous occurrences grew in number. For many, the connection seemed clear, a lack of spirituality, as observed by a lack of natural landscape, had resulted in a chaotic American environment.
The belief that the future of the western world depended upon its reconnection with the spiritual, brought about a desire to regain an understanding of the spirituality once prominent in American society. Unfortunately, the scientists who sought to reclaim their lost sense of being had to rely on the only tools they had with which to approach their quest, the tools of science. The strategy these empiricists followed involved traveling west from California, both literally and metaphorically, to the eastern world. The East was viewed as the home of a very different type of environment, one which had given birth to the major religions of the Earth. The hope of western archaeologists was to discover empirical facts in the East that could be used to reinstitute spiritual understanding in the West.
Although fictional, the endeavors of an archaeologist by the name of Indiana Jones provide an interesting incite into the East the West reported to have encountered during its exploration and the lessons it learned. Present in The Raiders of the Lost Arc, are two polarized approaches to spirituality and the environment, accompanied by a third approach that hovers in between. The film depicts the eastern society of Egypt as undeveloped and at one with the environment. Western society, the polar opposite of the East, is represented by the Nazis who are environmentally destructive and use religion as a tool of control. The development of the film suggests, however, that the ideal solution lies in balance between faith and logic. As Indiana Jones progresses through the adventures encountered in The Raiders of the Lost Arc, his character’s transformation from that of a pure Westerner to a more balanced individual is indicative of the essential balance humanity must achieve between its desire for scientific knowledge and its need to find a link with spirit and the natural world.
The Raiders of the Lost Arc took up its story as the character of Indiana Jones entered an ancient ruin in the Middle East. Jones had discovered a mystical idol contained within the ruin, then proceeded to avoid a barrage of poisonous darts, betrayal of a companion, and the weight of a giant boulder to escape with his new found treasure. Once Jones exited the temple he was confronted with a tribe of eastern aborigines who sought to protect the holy ground he had defiled. The Easterners were accompanied by a Nazi archaeologist who used them to steal the idol Jones had recovered. As the Nazi archaeologist held the mysterious idol into the air, the Easterners bowed down in religious humility. Jones then took advantage of his momentary window of opportunity and escaped off into the sunset, without treasure but with the heroic style typical of a western cowboy. The entire series of events that transpired within the first few minutes of the film, served to define the initial relationships existing between the three parties in question, the Easterners, the Nazis, Jones, and the spiritual eastern environment.
Void of synthetic products, the eastern society presented in the film’s opening sequence is a culture untarnished by empiricism and able to maintain harmony with nature. A pristine environment is often associated with purity, and the lack of scientific intervention in the aboriginal society suggested a form of purity existent within their culture. Purity, in turn, is associated with spirituality and religion, and it is through this link that eastern society gains its spiritual connotation. The relationship between the Easterners and religion was one of servant and master. Upon seeing the image of their god lifted into the air, the Easterners bowed in humility. To them, religion and the mysticism it held were controlling forces and nature, a way of life. In addition, the eastern warriors armed themselves with bow and arrow, a relatively primal form of weaponry. Symbolic of a nature-oriented culture, the basic weaponry of the Easterners has its corollary in the armaments of both the Nazis and Indiana Jones.
As he upheld the sacred idol to which the Easterners humbled, the Nazi archaeologist displayed a different view of spirituality and nature. He ignored the religious caution of the Easterners, believing according to western logic that the idol had no tangible power. Instead, the Nazi scientist claimed power over religion and used it to control the eastern world, a technique that would later lead to the Nazis seeking out the Arc of the covenant in order to either erase or control the various religions which it had spawned. The scientist, like the Easterners, was armed. He, however, had at his disposal a firearm that harnessed the power of technology and introduced a symbol of the West repeated throughout the remaining plot.
The character of Indiana Jones was positioned by the film’s opening scene to be strongly aligned with the ideologies of the West. Yet, Jones did not display the same disregard for nature and spirituality as demonstrated by his Nazi counterpart, indicating that his character represented a struggle between the two worlds. Jones’ garb, that of a western adventurer, contrasted with his cautious step in the temple, expressive of a respect for both eastern religion and environment. Furthermore, Jones utilized a weapon that drew from both societies, choosing a whip for his protection. At the opening stages of the film, however, Jones was drawn to the Western belief structure. As Jones rejected the serpent that occupied the seat of his getaway plane, he rejected nature and spirituality. Snakes are a mystical animal, associated with the spiritualistic eastern practice of snake charming, and Jones’ hatred of snakes symbolized his inability to coincide with a purely natural world.
After returning to the West, Jones was informed that Nazi researchers had begun a quest for the Arc of the covenant, a religious relic of immeasurable significance among the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Jones was asked to seek out the Arc, thus hopefully eliminating the Nazis’ ability to transform religion into a weapon of control. At this stage in the movie, it was inquired of the adventurer whether he feared the sacred power of the Arc and Jones responded that he did not. He considered the Arc simply another treasure to be documented, dismissing its supposed spiritual power as simply superstition which science did not allow. Shortly after receiving his assignment, Jones set out to locate the Arc. During this period of the film Jones began to undergo an evolution from supporter of a polar ideology to believer in a balanced frame of thought, as can be shown by the comparison of Jones’ actions to those of both the eastern and western societies.
The Nazi approach to the Arc quest was strictly sterile in nature. They utilized technology, violence, and destruction to seek out their goals, altering the eastern environment to reflect the needs of an empirical western society. The Nazi method of archaeology consisted of systematic dissection and categorization of the environment. They employed terrorists to uncover the geographic location of the Arc’s burial site and teams of diggers to deconstruct the eastern deserts in an attempt to discover the burial place of the Arc by process of elimination. Through their archaeology, the Nazi distillation of environment into its fundamental parts proceeded toward the goal of an elimination of the natural, at least, that is, any reality that did not conform to the Nazi definition of acceptable.
Jones began his search for the Arc with much the same attitude as the Nazis, however, twice he demonstrated a shift toward the direction of eastern thought. The first glimmer of the East visible within the character of Indiana Jones surfaces during the chase scene that takes place in the city of Cairo. During the chase scene, Jones was faced with numerous sword wielding Egyptians who sought to stop his quest. Jones at first fought off the Egyptian opposition by hand, however, when threatened by a final master swordsman, Jones simply shot his opponent using a revolver. Once again, weapon symbolism played a key role in demonstrating Jones’ evolution. In the chase scene, Jones attempted to restrict himself to a method of fighting, hand to hand combat, traditionally viewed as eastern. In doing so, his goal was to leave a minimal impact upon the environment in which he was a visitor. However, Jones gave in to his inclination to use science over nature, as exemplified by the firing of his gun and, in the process, created a disturbance that aroused the attention of the many passersby.
The second visible piece of evidence showing Jones’ progress toward balance was his ability to use eastern tools to conduct portions of his archaeology. Jones did, of course, rely on numerous western supplements such as survey equipment, maps, and vehicles, to aid in his archaeology, however in the end, he turned to the amulet of the Egyptians. His ability to accept the amulet as a mystic compass demonstrated that Jones came to further respect the eastern culture he encountered in Egypt. Unlike the Nazis, who indiscriminately terrorized the terrain using the Easterners as a tool, Jones allowed the amulet of the East to guide his search, working in tandem with the East rather than taking a position of superiority.
Although Jones made progress toward achieving a balance between science and spirituality, technology and environment, during the search for the Arc science still reigned victorious. Locked in the Arc’s chamber by the Nazis, Jones once again fought off the snakes of the East, rejecting nature. Jones’ advances had not been ignored, however. This time the weapon he used, the torch, was a blend of the spiritual and the technological, fire being both a subject of worship in many cultures and a basic enabling technology for much of western civilization. Jones resorted to western destructive techniques to free himself from entrapment, unable to find any alternative method for escaping to freedom. In his escape, portions of the tomb were pulverized and burial places disturbed, signs that Jones was still in conflict with the eastern spirituality.
The next pivotal series of events in the film’s story line found Indiana Jones atop a hill overlooking a Nazi caravan. The caravan was headed to a sacred location at which the Arc could be opened and Jones, watching from above, stood holding a rocket launcher and the ability to destroy the Arc. This scene is pivotal in the transformation of Jones’ character because it is during his consideration of taking action to destroy the Arc that Jones shifts for the first time to the side of spirituality. The Nazis, representing the purely logical view that the Arc is simply a useless artifact in its most distilled form, step aside and taunt Jones to take action. Jones, however, can’t allow himself to pull the trigger and he places the rocket launcher aside. As he does so, Jones is pushing aside the belief that technology and science answer all questions. Effectively, Jones had, at that stage in the film, entrusted his life to faith for the first time, embracing the ideas of the East.
In the film’s climactic scene, the opening of the Arc, Jones completed his development process, emerging a character of balance. When the Nazis opened the Arc, Jones allowed his faith to take control over his action. He demonstrated respect for the spiritual and closed his eyes to the light of god, an environment too harsh for the human race to survive. The additive effect of his experiences in the East was to provide for Jones a new understanding of the spirituality of the eastern world. Jones no longer considered the East backward and primitive, rather he realized the wisdom of its culture. At the same time, the Nazi archaeologists attempted to control the power of the Arc and the power of nature that came with it. They refused to humble themselves before the presence of god and, thus, their environment decayed, incinerated into ash.
The fate of the Nazi soldiers suggests the fate that awaits any society which ignores spirituality and nature in their entirety. While it is questionable whether the light of god would actually destroy such a society, it is less questionable that ignorance in regard to the spiritual can lead to some form of destruction. As has proven to be the case in western culture, the link between the spiritual and natural implies that the destruction of one brings about the decay of the other. Therefore, an ideal environment would attempt to include a reference to the spiritual within its confines. However, a shift to the opposite extreme, toward the strictly environmental view of the East presented in The Raiders of the Lost Arc would not succeed in alleviating society’s problems either. As demonstrated by the stereotypical Eastern civilizations depicted in the film, a rejection or fear of the technological leads to stagnation. Therefore, the balance achieved by Indiana Jones seems the best solution for which the western world may hope to strive. In the case of an urban western city, this inclusion of the spiritual could be achieved by integrating natural space among artificial constructs. Furthermore, technologies that benefit both nature and humanity can be developed with the goal of both improving the state of the natural world and lessening humanity’s impact upon it. Once such a balance has been achieved, the balance found by Indiana Jones, then humanity will arrive at a state of symbiosis with the organic world which it inhabits.