Even before the buzz began building for James Cameron's sci fi blockbuster Avatar, today's "millennial generation," the film's biggest fans, knew what the word meant. Few knew the classical definition of "avatar" as "the incarnation of a Hindu diety" that people my age learned in the 1960s taking comparative religion courses or reading Hermann Hesse. To current-day collegians, the word is the self-definition of a hi-tech kid who manipulates an image of himself projected in a computer game.
Commentators on Cameron's special effects tour-de-force are virtually all enthralled by the 3-D visual pyrotechnics, but are deeply divided along ideological lines. The environment-friendly Left embraces Avatar as a love poem to (extraterrestrial) nature's wonders and a cautionary tale about what will become of our planet and species if we don't reform posthaste.
Enviro-skeptics on the Right deride the film as a misanthropic revenge fantasy in which the soulful planet Pandora and its race of blue, 10-foot-tall noble savages - the Navi - all but annihilate humanity's advance guard, portrayed as a rapacious, futuristic military-industrial complex.
Ultimately in Cameron's film, the only good humans are dead - or rather, resurrected as "good Navi" by projection of their astral selves into alien bodies. They are the "avatars" who have "gone native" -first by taking on an alien persona, then by totally identifying with the Navi even if that means the end of the human project back on Earth.
WHAT UNSETTLED me was not Cameron's Romantic primitivism - which, after all, goes back at least as far as Rousseau - but the uncanny resonances of Avatar with a recurrent theme in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (NYU Press, 2002). A fascinating excavation of the extreme Right's post-World War II literary underworld, this book explores a subject much less well-known than the prewar nexus between the Nazis and the occult.
Goodrick-Clarke catalogues fantastic tales - extraterrestrial Atlanteans who burrowed under Tibet to escape Noah's flood, only to reemerge now as potential architects of a Fourth Reich; and SS "miracle weapons" (including "W-7" flying saucers) based in Antarctica, where the Fuhrer and Eva Braun are said to have taken refuge - but he also analyzes how, in the post-World War II era, myths of Aryan racial superiority found a home in the world of New Age spirituality and environmental consciousness.
The story starts with Savitri Devi (born Maximiani Portas in Lyons), the self-styled priestess of the new Aryan religion, who spent the prewar and wartime years in India seeking a Nordic-Hindu symbiosis and communing with anti-British ultranationalists who shared her notion of Hitler as "an incarnation of Vishnu." In 1945, she returned to Europe to become the jailed heroine of the new Neo-Nazi underground.
Her devotee Claudio Mutti, a supporter of the Italian neo-fascist movement (MSI) responsible for the terrorist campaign culminating in the 1980 Bologna railway station bombing that killed 85, lauded Muslims for honoring Hitler as a haj at the same time as Hindu extremists saw him as a positive manifestation of Vishnu.
Devi's widely translated manifesto, The Lightning and the Sun (1958), begins with Aryan man's reincarnation in "the late-born child of light" in Braunau am Inn, Austria, in 1889. A millennial redeemer, the late-born Hitler is her "Kalki avatar."
IN THE 1960s, Devi (who died in 1982) became a pen pal of Britain's young fascists and met American George Lincoln Rockwell. For her doctrines of Hitler as a divine leader, she was venerated by the next generation of American Neo-Nazi and Christian identity leaders.
Roughly at the same time that youthful hippie "flower power" was blossoming, Wilhelm Landig's German trilogy of Thule novels counterbalanced fears of Europe's racial mongrelization with hope for a resurgent Aryan "Age of Aquarius." Then, after the Arab and Iranian oil embargoes and the energy crisis, neo-Nazism took on an environmentally friendly hue in D. H. Haarman's three-volume Geheime Wonderwaffen ("Secret Miracle Weapons"), which claimed that SS inventors of electromagnetic flying saucers had also achieved an antigravitational power source that would now be an alternative to fossil fuels were it not for a Jewish conspiracy of banks, oil companies and car makers.
Eventually, Holocaust Denier Ernst Zundel and others used the Internet to market a multimedia mÃ©lange of extremist books and music with a New Age flavor featuring time travel, extraterrestrial visitations and fantasies of Nazi revenge and rebirth.
By the late 1990s, fascists on both sides of the Atlantic were brandishing their "green" credentials. The charge made by Louis Farrakhan's followers that "Zionists" were responsible "for the hole in the ozone layer" did not come out of nowhere.
YET WHAT could seem further apart than Hitler the Aryan white supremacist and Cameron's hero, Jake, who loves the wronged Navi enough to be reborn as one?
Unfortunately, youthful members of the rightist underground who avidly read reprints of Devi's deification of the Fuhrer don't look at Hitler with Cameron's loathing - and they may view Avatar as quite compatible with their own extremist faith.
There may not be many such young people today - but there weren't that many more such young people in Europe a century ago, when Mussolini reinterpreted Italian Futurism as a call for fascist revolution and German rightists began experimenting with melding racism and occultist religiosity with ultimately horrific consequences. In the minds of some of today's young extremists, an al-Qaida meditation on the 72 virgins to be had in paradise, and an Odinist vision of a new, antimodern Valhalla to be created on earth are both appealing.
Is it really wise for us to dismiss so confidently the ominous possibility that today's marginal ideologies of hate, rendered palatable for mainstream consumption by hi-tech media evocations of pristine new worlds, may yet be empowered by the 21st century? Just think of what a future Leni Riefenstahl - combining Cameron's imaginative tools with Devi's atavistic vision of apocalypse - might accomplish by unleashing her own Avatar.
The writer, an historian with a PhD from UCLA for a dissertation on the history of Black-Jewish relations, lives in San Diego.