Fighting for Meaning

"Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run."--Mark Twain

I would suppose that sometimes you could feel life and its essential pointlessness bearing down on you like a desert or abusive parent. As surely as Sisyphus1 pushes up that stone it will come down again, and all of his work will be pointless-this absurdity and pointlessness is the feeling that pervades The Bone People, but this is a modern problem. Many people find themselves, once they are put into modern life, wanting something beyond the typical capitalistic lifestyle that "civilized" people are supposed to want. They want something mystical, like new-age mumbo-jumbo, or something from the past like Alex Haley's Roots, or some new religion like Wicca2. Except we, we being Western Civilization, do not have anything like that. Oh, we have the Kabbalah3 and the Roman Catholic Church's exorcisms, but these things are quiet, behind the scenes, so to speak. We may have a few movies to watch about them, like Pi and The Exorcist, but they are not a new way of life, and what we need in the modern, absurd world is not more things to do but a new way of looking at things.

And this is what, I think, The Bone People is about. It's about discovering (or re-discovering) new ways of viewing and interacting with the world. It's about disposing with preconceived notions of how the world is, and rearranging those notions to allow for more happiness and/or fulfillment. But, how do we do that?

Where The Bone People and Once Were Warriors4 (1994) tries to take this on is through the re-discovery of one's ancestors. These ancestors are known as Maori, as Kerewin Holmes, Beth5, and Joe know they are Maori. And while they look at their own life lacking meaning, they see the past, when their parents' life was thought to have meaning, and they embrace that past in an attempt to find meaning, a chance at happiness. All that is a convoluted way to say they have romanticized the past as a chance where happiness is possible; then again, maybe it's not.

There are plenty of people who feel that our modern life is unfulfilling in a more than physical sense. It is not like they don't have enough food, though some still don't, or any of these other palpable things. Even people in free food lines have cable TV, in the United States. Beth and Jake best exemplify this type of poverty in the film Once Were Warriors. They seem very poor, but yet they have enough for Jake to continue his alcohol habit and to rent cars (but they are still too poor to buy one of their own)6. Yet they are unhappy and their lives unfulfilled. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Kerewin, who is not hurting money-wise, but is still unhappy.

There seems to be no correlation between money and happiness7 in these stories, indeed, money seems to make Kerewin stagnant instead of simply impotent against the forces that work against her "true" nature. While Kerewin's character doesn't seem assailed by never-ending ads or media telling her what she should be and how she should look doing it, her comfortable situation helps give her this position. She shouldn't have to do anything, really, but whatever she wants. That freedom to be lazy does come at a cost, though. This inertia causes complacency and a feeling of stagnation, and it will eventually lead to a death of sorts. Let me explain. The definition of a living mind is one that is functioning, a stagnant mind is really not functioning beyond base instinct, and while it could be considered being alive in the biological sense, it makes life nothing more than mere habit or the repetition of muscle memory. This is not just Kerewin's problem; it is one that flows through our entire capitalistic society.

We've witnessed the marketing and commodification of our own lives, and this is especially timely considering what type of season this is. We see the maintenance of the status quo via the media's manipulation of images. We see irrational standards for beauty held up as the minimum, and more people are unhappy than ever before. The 1950's may have had it's white, middle-class, Protestant heroin-addicted wife problems, but today, depression has expanded out into the rest of our society and even into our children. Sylvia Plath would be proud. Eli Lilly & Co., manufacturers of Prozac, the wonder-drug of the 90's and 00's, has sold well over 2 billion dollars worth of that anti-depressant in 1999 alone.8 What causes us to be so upset all the time?

Many believe that it's because we've lost our Roots. This is especially a problem for the majority of Americans who, while they might be European, or even, getting specific here, German, Irish, or something even more specific, we have no real spiritual roots to return to. The Greek and Roman era, while I suppose it would be possible to revert to, has been "proven" not to work. As un-tested as Wicca or Goddess-Worship or looking into so-called "alternative religions," it seems much more plausible and respectable to believe in them than the old Greek or Roman gods/goddesses. Probably because those occurred so long ago, such thoughts are ludicrous9. Wicca's roots are less than a thousand years old. Even more relevant, the Maori culture existed into this (the 21st) century in its pure form.

There is danger here. Time causes things to get fuzzy. The Maori culture's traditions may not be precisely what the ancestors had intended, and so they might be "bad". However, in a subjective way, none of this really matters so long as the participants are happy. But it might matter. It's hard to tell.

However, I think another reason why people may be unhappy is because we're in a transition period. We are not in the past anymore, but we're still trying to keep from advancing too quickly. Although we seem to be able to create something new every day to make our lives easier, we are still unwilling to give over total control to either the machines we've created or to the entities we worshipped. Modern life has again caught up with native peoples, including the Maori and native Hawaiians, except we have brought our problems to them. The existential angst we have is nothing new, to be sure, in Western societies, and it would be romanticizing the native cultures to say it hasn't existed there, but there are still things that are meaningful there. Note the popularity of the Asian martial arts, especially in film. There is something sacred, supposedly, with how these people beat each other up. This happened in Once Were Warriors10, with the youngest son learning the ways of his Maori ancestors. Can we go back to feudalism?

Beth & Family (excepting Jake) "go back" in Once Were Warriors. Both Joe and Kerewin come through after some nasty problems, which both seem rather typical of fiction, but can we all go back? Do we want to, even? Would all native Hawaiians like the tourism industry to go away? Oh, while I'm sure working in a pineapple plant is no picnic, I don't think it's possible to fully go back to the theoretically fulfilling lives that might have existed to help us learn how to be happy. Perhaps it is our lot to be depressed sometimes so we know when we're truly happy. That sounds terribly cliché.

While modern Western societies seem to have more respect for native peoples, we still have a long way to go. Racism is a hard and fast fact--race and religious wars seem common. We're not going to eliminate these until we've eliminated either the differences or the hatred and fear of difference--I don't think either is likely.

Western happiness now is nearly entirely dictated by what we can buy. If I could only buy a Playstation 2, I know I'll be happy. That would bring me closer to happiness. I don't have a culture to fall back on. I suppose, being part Irish, I could fall into drink. Or, being part German, I could fall into their militarism. Or, being part I don't know . . . This is weird, because I don't have that chance to go back to a noble, old culture. Even my American11 side is tarnished. My old, noble culture killed your old, noble culture. What did yours do? Care for a drink?


1. Myth where a man is damned to rolling a boulder up a mountain, only to let it roll back down, and to repeat this process for all eternity.
2 .A recent (~1950s) re-creation of a pre-Christian Pagan European religion.
3. A type of Jewish Mysticism.
4. Both the book and movie have a sequel called What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, which picks up a few years after Once Were Warriors.
5. Portrayed by Rena Owen, who will be again involved with Temuera Morrison (Jake) in Star Wars, Episode II. (There is no real reason for this footnote to be here, I just thought it was 6. interesting, considering the marketing monolith known as Star Wars.)
6. About which I thought was interesting that the Maori village was "closer" (it took less time to get to) than the bar which Jake drank himself into a stupor every night. (Weekends don't mean quite so much when you're unemployed.)
7. And you'd be a fool and communist to try and make one.
8. This fact comes from the Eli Lilly & Co. corporate web site's investor details. (
9. Christianity's long life seems to be the exception that killed off the rules.
10. The differences between the book (written by Alan Duff) and the movie (not written by Alan Duff) are far too numerous to mention in detail here, but I'll be brief and just give a couple. The interaction, or lack of, between Maoris living in government housing and the whites is flushed out better(the house Beth & Family live in are blocks away from rich white folks, which reminds her of her Royal Maori Roots]) and the oldest son dies in a gang-fight.
11. (And I am simply "American," no hyphens, please.)

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