Zen and the Art of Jim Henson

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 10/12/2014 - 10:18

Years ago, I taught an informal class where I gave a quick summary of the plot of Robert M. Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has never been made into a movie) and then made the case that Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal is in fact a movie adaptation of it. Since I know a number of people who have found Z&AMM too difficult to read, here is the breakdown:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance The Dark Crystal
Philosophical Truth, or "Quality," was broken long ago into two worldviews, the Romantic / Platonic view that everything we see is just an imperfect representation of perfect ideas, and the Classical / Aristotelian view that we create ideas based on our perceptions of the world. By the 1950s, these two factions were in opposition, with the Beatniks disdaining modern technology as "square" and the technologists trying to force modern aesthetics on everyone. A thousand years ago on the planet Thra, a magical crystal cracked, and two new races appeared: the Mystics who live at peace with the natural world, and the Skeksis (skeptics), who use the power of the "Dark Crystal" to continually replenish themselves. By the time of the film, the Skeksis are trying to eliminate the Mystics and enslave all the other creatures.
Before he underwent electroshock therapy, the narrator's former personality, whom he now calls Phaedrus, was a Romantic who was shunned by his colleagues for unsuccessfully trying to reconcile the two worldviews. Now the narrator identifies as a Classicist and his own son Chris doesn't recognize him because he acts so different. The narrator and Chris are on a long journey to try to get reunited, but the narrator is determined not to let Phaedrus return. Jen's Mystic master and the Skeksis emperor die simultaneously. the Skeksis Chamberlain is exiled for unsuccessfully trying to seize the throne. Jen goes on a long journey to find the shard and reunite the crystal, and he does not recognize the Chamberlain as a potential ally because he is creepy. The Chamberlain is determined not to let Jen fulfill the prophecy.
The narrator and Chris are accompanied part of the way by the Sutherlands, who represent the Romantic worldview more completely than Phaedrus did. They are concerned for Chris and want to help, but don't understand why he is angry at his father. The narrator says Chris has seen a psychiatrist, and he is concerned Chris is predisposed to follow in his own footsteps, but he also suspects Chris is the key to resolving his own psychiatric problem. Jen is accompanied by Kira and Fizzgig, who are more in tune with the natural world than Jen. They want to help him reach his goal, but they don't really understand what's going on. Jen has visited Aughra, who told him of the prophecy only a Gelfling like himself (or Kira) can fulfill, but it didn't go well for Aughra. The Chamberlain protects the two Gelflings from enslavement, but they don't trust him.
The narrator and Chris visit the university where Phaedrus developed his Metaphysics of Quality in an attempt to resolve the two worldviews. With the flood of memories, Phaedrus begins to reassert himself in the narrator's mind, and he feels himself losing control. He resolves to continue their journey to the Pacific, put Chris on a bus home, and then check himself into a mental institution. Jen and Kira find the ruins of a Gelfling city and figure out how to use the shard to fulfill the prophecy. When they get to the Castle of the Crystal, the Chamberlain regains his position and Skeksis society begins to fall apart, with prisoners breaking free.
As they approach the Pacific, Chris detects that the father he knows is returning and warms to him. The narrator finishes explaining the Metaphysics of Quality. Phaedrus and the narrator are reunited, and he concludes that things are looking up and everything's going to be all right after all. As the three suns reach their Great Conjunction, Jen (with help from Kira) heals the Dark Crystal, and the Mystics and Skeksis merge into the UrSkeks. They finish explaining what happened, and in the light of the healed crystal revive the world.

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