Luke’s Lightsaber, Han’s Gun and my Grandmother

An heirloom is an object which connects. It links generations. Mother and daughter. Grandfather and grandson. Often even further back and further forward in time. I think most often of a necklace given to me when my grandmother died. She’d worn it every day. I remember it glinting behind blouses, falling onto plates as she leaned over to set a table, resting on the generous chest I would also inherit. I imagine when my grandfather gave it to her, this religious symbol with little diamonds. So when I took up her talisman – I too wear it everyday – it was like having a piece of her, of him and of our greater group. I can conjure her and the things that this little shape conjured for her, or at least, that I imagine it did. In some sense, they’re with me all the time, as this everyday object becomes a part of my person as it did for my grandmother.

A tactile bridge to the abstract and the lost, an heirloom condenses individuals, stories, groups. When the heirloom is also a talisman, it increases the intensity of all this and adds a sense of magic and a feeling of shared secrets. The heirloom-talisman given and accepted also acts as a mutual claiming. That’s what heritage does; it inscribes you in a genealogy, a figurative or literal family line. An heir, according to Misters Merriam, Merriam and Webster (yes, there were two Merriams), is “a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death” or “a person who inherits and continues the work of a predecessor.” It defines a legal relationship and status, an identity, and an activity that really has the quality of a mission rather than a pastime. The definition of loom I might leave alone for now, as that’s a linguistics diatribe that could go on for a while. (Loom as a verb, loom as a noun, loom in Old English). Let’s just say it’s a tool. So an heirloom is a tool of heritage. I think of all objects of emotional significance that pass from old hands to young ones with their affective powers still intact as having functions similar to that of the heirloom.

Here’s the part where I talk about Star Wars. (Admit it, you were worried the whole post was going to be about linguistics and my grandmother). The Star Wars universe is vast – more vast even than I realized – and initially, I thought it would have a number of objects of emotional significance that link or at least traverse its many plotlines. Though, given the number of orphans who populate its stories, perhaps I should have been less surprised to find markedly few. Maybe the Millennium Falcon. Perhaps the Tico sisters’ necklaces which create a material reference for their strong bond. But, these smack more of simple family talismans than objects exemplified for what they do and mean as they pass from one set of hands to another. Luke/Anakin/Rey’s lightsaber is the best example. We see it first (first? Oh Sith Lord, in what order do the kids these days see these movies?) in the OG, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A boy with daddy issues, much in need of a sense of connection to his familial past, is bequeathed his father’s Jedi symbol/tool/talisman and, along with it, a story and a mission. This heirloom gives order to his life at a moment when he’s about to need it most. And, lest you forget to pay attention to it, this light-up sword which has now spawned several generations of children with poked eyes is one of the only physical objects across the Star Wars universe that is significant both emotionally and to the plot – unless you reduce R2D2 pregnant with Death Star plans or Han Solo in carbonite to things, which I don’t. This is one powerful little object, but I’m most interested in how it creates lineage and, in the process, becomes a reference for temporal order. It links Luke to his father and Episodes IV through VI to Episodes I through III. It brings Rey into that Jedi family, readying her to become the last Jedi, and it puts this most recent trio of films after the 1970s classics. It has intra- and extra-diegetic power, forging order in the major genealogical line within, throughout and outside the stories, most importantly helping the viewer to grip and be gripped by the timeline of the films.

A number of the Easter eggs from the new Solo: A Star Wars Story share a lot with these emotionally-charged objects I’ve been describing. They tie together people and story lines across time and do so by being passed from one character to another and possessing secret significance. The Millennium Falcon, again, sort of. A set of gold dice that doesn’t seem to bring Qi’ra much luck but does contain enough emotional significance and presumed magic that Han still has it at least 10 years later in Episode IV. And Han’s blaster. Han’s blaster, for me, is an Easter egg-heirloom. In the OGs, it’s just a gun. (Nobody get their panties in a twist. There’s no shortage of essays and comments against the idea that a gun is just a gun. Not that Han, in either his Harrison Ford or Alden Ehrenreich renditions, needs any more proof of testosterone, proxy or otherwise). In Solo, both the character and his beloved accoutrement get a backstory. He receives it from a replacement father character, Captain Beckett. In fact, it’s a part of this man’s rifle, his character’s weapon/talisman. (Oh my God, please someone write a paper on the weapon-talisman). He disassembles it and gives a portion that somehow is a blaster to Han. This thing which has obsessed fans since the internet was invented basically to talk about who shot first (obviously not Greedo because I imagine trigger pulling is a challenge with those fingers) now symbolizes a narrative that pulls Han into a family of sorts. It gives him a father figure and acts as his official induction into this band and the greater world of smugglers. The genealogy the blaster reinforces is two-fold because it also serves to connect and order the films.

But, the affective power of the blaster is felt not just by Han, but by the spectator as well. Its quality as an Easter egg – a wink to the audience, a conspiratorial congratulations to the canny viewer – redoubles these feelings of connection and significance because it capitalizes on a sense of shared secrets. To me, Easter eggs work a lot like objects of heritage because they condense an emotional tie and signal one’s status as a member of a type of family. You have to be in the group, in the know, to even notice the object at all and furthermore to value it as something of special significance. The viewer astute enough to catch it shares in a secret heritage. It draws us in affectively and makes us feel part of the Star Wars universe and its various genealogies. We sympathize with Han, and, holding one of his secrets, we even empathize with the protagonist to a greater degree. (We always empathize with a protagonist. That’s how movies work).

Of course, there’s a slightly more insidious view on all this which has to do with marketing and merchandise, with getting people to watch more, buy more, grow more obsessed with all of Star Wars’s secret pockets of story, scour the internet for content, and generate their own crackpot theories and overwrought analyses (who would do that?). The Easter egg in general, but particularly this Easter egg which is also blatantly a heritage object for our beloved hero, can simulate depth in the storyline by fomenting a sense of complicity and increased identification in the viewer. Well, I’ve now destroyed my self-congratulatory moment of “clever girl, you noticed the blaster Easter egg” by reclassifying it as a very good marketing ploy, a shallow bid for my money and allegiance masquerading as a sign of narrative complexity.  But, I give in, and honestly, tell me you don’t want one of these.

El Ministerio del Nacionalismo

I’m currently living in Barcelona. I moved here a few weeks before a referendum vote declared illegal by Spain’s central government. The vote was to decide whether Catalonia might secede from the rest of Spain. Part of me viewed this with flippant disdain for what I saw as the narcissism of small differences; part of me knows better, knows the history of Spain, its varied states, their stories of violence and oppression, minor and major in their degree. This post is not about the secession of Catalonia. I still don’t have a definitive opinion on the matter, and being neither an EU citizen nor in a position of power or influence, I feel no need to. (I’m sure my friend Pablo a, has an opinion, b, has an opinion about what my opinion should be, c, has an opinion about my lack of opinion and d, would absolutely never tell me because his ethical principles do not discriminate in size; politics between nations and between friends are equally subject to sticking to your guns. Frankly, that sounds exhausting).

But, I bring this up because it has me thinking quite a lot about Spanish nationalism. Well, this internationally relevant debate and a recent TV binge. Netflix put up all three seasons of El Ministerio del Tiempo, or The Ministry of Time, and feeling that since it was at least in Spanish, I wasn’t merely being a couch potato spending many uninterrupted hours watching it. The much eye-rolling I received from Spanish friends in response to my excited discovery of a Spanish sci-fi show along with the tepid concession that “well, yes, surprisingly they’ve done a show in the American style, and it’s at least decent” nearly wrecked my proud feeling of passive education. But, I was being educated alright, educated in a definition of “Spanishness.”

The premise: The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with their many accomplishments (consolidating Spanish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, supporting the discovery of the Americas, purifying their kingdom through the expulsion of all the Jews and Muslims), found the Ministry of Time, which houses a series of doors that act as portals across the vast time and space of the Spanish Empire. Lest this particular accomplishment remain without blood on their hands, the man who discovered the portals, who worked out and wrote down how they function, is one Rabbi Abraham Leví, condemned in season 1 episode 4 to relive the same day of his burning by the Inquisition behind the only door in the whole Ministry stuck in a time loop. (Applause Isabella. Applause.)

The unremitting goal of the Ministry of Time is to preserve Spanish history. This includes things like ensuring Cervantes gets the Quijote published, Adolfo Suarez’s  ancestor isn’t killed, Lope de Vega doesn’t die and that the Rabbi does. (The Rabbi is based on an actual person, and, curiously, in real life, he was not torched by the Inquisition nor was he the bumbling, wise-man pet of Isabella). There are whole episodes dedicated to making sure a bunch Velázquez paintings are destroyed when a castle burned down and even to preserving the circumstances of Franco’s reign. The Ministry is plagued with people trying to rewrite time, and the show at least gives cursory space to asking why this is so necessary.

So, what does all of this have to do with Spanish nationalism? Though a couple of friends of mine from Madrid tried to shout me out of the belief that a crappy TV show could be telling them what it means to be Spanish, after watching one of the protagonists give a speech from the Siege of Baler about what all these soldiers from “Andalusia, Catalonia, Extremadura and the Basque Country” have in common in an episode that aired in April 2016 (the increased buzz about Catalan independence started in 2014 if not before), my conviction was renewed. We are one Spain, the show seems to say, and this is our history. A mutual history, a mutual time and space along with a shared conception of it, is paramount to citizens’ sharing what Benedict Anderson calls an “Imagined Community.” The necessity of a mutual concept of past, present and future predates this critic’s seminal weigh in on the matter. It probably even predates Ernest Renan’s 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “What is a Nation?,” in which a shared timeline in the form of a shared history is central to nurturing budding nations.

So, El Ministerio del Tiempo is a purveyor of Spanish nationalism. The doors only go to Spanish territories, which, in watching the show, we are reminded were once vast. The cell phones which mysteriously have coverage in time periods long before satellites, only have coverage in Spanish lands (i.e. when the Treaty of Paris is signed, poor Julián loses his life line from one day to the next, and the very sexy, 16th century soldier Alonso has to save him). If the highlight tour of Spanish territory is not enough to convince you, consider this, the entire show/ministry is dedicated to showcasing/preserving Spanish history! Protegemos la patria!

Narratives of citizenship aside (though not totally aside, I still have so many questions: what is the definition of Spanishness being purveyed? How are they rewriting different historical figures? How do they portray other countries and Spain’s relationship to them? For example, the American version of the Ministry is a bunch of bumbling capitalists with great tech and zero scruples. I could keep going), the show is highly enjoyable…if you suspend some of your needs for consistency within a fictional world. But, hey, it’s a Spanish show “done in the American style,” so just enjoy your kitsch and stop whining.