Utopian Virtues

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Editor’s Note

This article was first published in Acculturated: 23 Savvy Writers Find Hidden Virtue in Reality TV, Chick Lit, Video Games, and Other Pillars of Pop Culture (Templeton, 2011). Republished with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.

In the decades just prior to the Civil War, with a large blot spreading on the national conscience and industrialization beginning to show its mechanical face, utopian communes popped up like mushrooms on the American landscape. Shutting out society’s corruption, soullessness, and original sin, Transcendentalists and other visionaries sought purity by reconnecting with the land, as if they could reclaim a state of innocence merely by scratching at the soil.

This impulse to escape and start anew has reappeared throughout American history, from Brook Farm and Fruitlands to New Harmony and Walden Pond. Today, popular culture frequently draws upon this impulse to explore the modern condition, either to criticize it for its excesses or to highlight its peculiar fears and anxieties. In the process, storytellers and filmmakers raise provocative questions about the development of virtues such as perseverance in the face of suffering and death, and challenge us to consider how the technological triumphs of modernity relate to the formation of character.

Such an experiment in pastoral nostalgia is the subject of a haunting movie, The Village, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan is known for making supernatural thrillers with a metaphysical twist, as he did in The Sixth Sense, but in The Village he subsumes the supernatural for drama on a human scale.

The film tells the love story of Ivy Walker, a blind tomboy, and Lucius Hunt, a contemplative young man, who live in a dreamy nineteenth-century hamlet. Their village is cut off from the outside world by Covington Woods, which, the film suggests, contains one kind of menace and separates them from another. Out beyond the woods are “the towns,” reported to be “wicked places where wicked people live,” but no one born in the village has ever left it and seen them.

A more immediate threat lurks just inside the forest — creatures too dreadful to be named that are kept at bay by elaborate security precautions. Yellow flags and watchtowers along the perimeter ratify a provisional truce: we do not disturb them and they will not disturb us. The color red belongs to “Those We Do Not Speak Of” and must not be found in any form within the precincts of the village or “they” will be attracted to it. Warning bells, safety drills, and ritual peace offerings serve to remind the villagers of their constant peril.

This pervasive menace seems hatched from a fairy tale — and, in fact, that is what it is. The children of the village, who have never known another life, could not be expected to appreciate the vileness of something as abstract as the towns, and so the elders devise a myth complete with daily rituals to guard the innocence of their children. This mythology also allows the elders to avoid mentioning those they really do not speak of — the siblings, spouses, and parents they lost to violent crime before fleeing society and coming to rebuild on their own. “There is no one in this village who has not lost someone irreplaceable, who has not felt loss so deeply that they questioned the very merit of living at all,” Ivy’s father, Edward, the chief elder, confesses to her in a moment of anguish. “It is a darkness I wished you would never know.”

This wish has been a mirage. “You may run from sorrow, as we have,” another elder mutters to an uncomprehending Lucius. “Sorrow will find you. It can smell you.” He has just buried his seven-year-old son. The event is all more poignant because in the outside world it is actually the twenty-first century, and there the child could almost certainly have been saved.

As the movie progresses we learn that the village elders met each other at a Philadelphia grief counseling center in the 1970s, each of them shattered by the murder of a loved one. Unwilling to continue living in a world they felt was irredeemably broken by violence, they retreated to a time in which they believed such violence could not happen. While trying to get on the other side of original sin is a doomed endeavor, they do succeed in escaping many of the vices of modernity: the closeness of their community, their lack of cynicism, their simplicity and humble gratitude, and their spontaneous joy — these are the features of their new society, a marked contrast to the old one. They have apparently been reconciled to the hard bargain they set for themselves with the idea that death and disease, and the sorrow that accompanies them, are natural, and there is an essential purity in this.

It is this idealized vision of innocence that serves as their touchstone. “That, in the end, is what we have protected here: innocence,” insists one elder. “What was the purpose of our leaving? Let us not forget — it was out of hope of something good and right.” That hope, which comes at the cost of lying to their children, is that their protected world is one without evil.

Evil creeps back in the way it always comes: not by social forces but by individual desires. Eventually, the community experiences a violent crime that leaves Lucius seriously wounded. Ivy’s father breaks the compact and endangers their way of life by allowing her to set out through the woods to retrieve medicine. Defending his decision to the other elders, he protests, “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” This too is a myth — one of such staggering loveliness that it might be worth every other lie of the experiment. If it were true, of course, they would have no reason to be there — their murdered relatives were beloved, too, and the “world” didn’t give a damn. But if the world doesn’t, they do — they choose to live that way, and for that reason it is true in the confines of their creation. In their world, they kneel for love, and thus it seems as if the world is kneeling.

Ultimately, that world is perpetuated by a grimmer lie: Ivy succeeds in fetching medicine for Lucius but along the way kills someone in self-defense, mistaking him for one of Those We Do Not Speak Of. The elders determine to use this misinterpretation to cement the myth in the minds of the younger villagers forever. As troubling as it is, their decision to do this is also strangely moving. A deep desire for purity, such as they have, is the mainspring of any number of virtues and the haunting beauty of their world. But their overallegiance to what is in and of itself a good thing comes at an appalling cost.

There was some chatter when the film was released about whether Shyamalan had stolen his conceit from Margaret Peterson Haddix’s 1995 young-adult novel Running Out of Time. The essential similarity is that there is a nineteenth-century village located, unbeknownst to most of its residents, in the present day, and when there is a medical emergency a teenage girl sets off for the outside world in search of help. Beyond that, the stories lead in different directions. Rather than the desperate idea of a group of broken people, Haddix’s Clifton Village is a kind of theme park — a historical attraction where visitors can view live footage, via Truman Show–like hidden cameras, of a “real” 1840 community.

The adults’ motivation for participating was varied — they included neo-Puritans, radical environmentalists, people seeking a clean break with the confusion of their current lives, and people simply attracted to the romance of the past — but all were so deeply dissatisfied with modernity that it seemed sufficient reason to raise their children in a quaint, exploitative environment. The deal was supposed to be that they would still have access to modern medical care, but when their corporate backers choke it off, a diphtheria epidemic breaks out. Jessie Keyser, thirteen, makes a daring escape to fetch help, running out of her own time as time is running out.

There is a kind of cognitive dissonance about this story, insofar as the backdrop to Jessie’s adventure — the people left behind in Clifton responding to the crisis as best they can — would actually make for an inspiring narrative had it really been set a century or two ago. The extremity of the situation seems to draw out the best or worst in everyone. On the honorable side there is a great deal of valor, grit, self-sacrifice, and — when there is nothing else left — hope. There is a wonderful moment toward the end where Jessie and her sister Hannah, reunited, trade stories of trying to fill each other’s shoes: Jessie remembering to be prudent like Hannah would be, Hannah finding the courage to do something she didn’t think that she was brave enough to do herself by pretending to be Jessie.

But the irony is that the whole ordeal was totally unnecessary. There is a great lesson in the way that virtue can transcend adversity, but adversity is not chosen, not to mention manufactured, for the sake of the virtue it might summon. Jessie’s and Hannah’s heroism is no less genuine for the artificial adversity — they are not responsible for their strange circumstances, after all — but there is a cloud over it. With the discovery of vaccines and penicillin, diphtheria became avoidable, and so a failure to avoid it now means something different than it did in 1840. Potential triumphs of psyche were irreversibly displaced by a triumph of techne.

The point to consider is how far that displacement carries, or should carry, into situations that are less morally straightforward. What if all of our physical challenges, which people once understood as tests of character, could be technologically resolved? Is it conscionable to accept peril when we have the power not to? That premise (or its negation) lies at the center of many futurist utopias, and in Lois Lowry’s book, The Giver, which won the Newbery Medal in 1994, it is manifested as a perfectly and pleasantly flat society. There is no aspiration because there is nothing to aspire to; all struggles have been scientifically or socially leveled.

Everyone leads a safe, cheerful, comfortable life. There is nothing to cast a shadow and nowhere to cast it. “I tried to seduce the reader,” Lowry explained in her Newbery acceptance speech, and “I seduced myself along the way. It did feel good, that world. I got rid of all the things I fear and dislike; all the violence, prejudice, poverty, and injustice, and I even threw in good manners as a way of life because I liked the idea of it. One child has pointed out, in a letter, that the people in [that] world didn’t even have to do dishes. It was very, very tempting to leave it at that.”

In this society, there is a place called “Elsewhere,” an all-purpose repository for anything different or unknown. Even history belongs to Elsewhere. It falls to one select person, the “Receiver of Memories,” to hold in trust all the painful, foreign, exhilarating recollections of the old world — ours — from once upon a very remote time. As the book begins, the twelve-year-old Jonas is chosen to become the new Receiver, to absorb memories one by one from his predecessor. These memories reveal to him how (and why) his world was leveled, and how all its familiar features are no more than skeletal representations of what used to be.

His little sister Lily has a “comfort object” that he comes to recognize as an elephant. He has never seen an animal in real life, but in the memories, he witnesses a group of men fell one of these great creatures on the savanna and make off with its tusks in a Jeep, while another one emerges from the brush to stroke its companion, bellowing in grief and rage. Jonas tries to share this revelation with his sister: “Not of the tortured cry of the elephant, but of the being of the elephant, of the towering, immense creature and the meticulous touch with which it had tended its friend at the end.” But to Lily and to everyone else, this sensational tableau has been collapsed into an inanimate stuffed lump.

If the memories show Jonas the depth floating underneath his two-dimensional life, they also lead him to discover pockets of gloom tucked into the utopia itself. The anguish voiced by the surviving elephant — where is it now? Gone, of course. No one would choose to include such experiences in an ideal world. And in order to eliminate bereavement, the utopian designers naturally had to attack its source.

In Jonas’s community, references to death are euphemistic to the point of total abstraction. On the very rare occasion that there is an accident, it is called a “Loss.” The community gathers to chant the lost person’s name, fading away to silence; the name is then recycled and given to a new baby. For everyone else, there is “release.” The ill, the old, the defective, the troublesome are all quietly released to Elsewhere, as Jonas is aghast to learn, by means of lethal injection. (The Giver was Lowry’s second Newbery winner. Her first, Number the Stars, is the story of a girl in Copenhagen in 1943, whose friends and neighbors begin to be mysteriously “relocated.” This historical example was surely on the author’s mind as she wrote about release. Scrubbing out the “wrong” kind of people, including the infirm, is an all-too-familiar approach to advancing an idealized social vision. There is not much distance between the impulse to fix and to remove.)

The designers have succeeded in expunging death entirely from lived experience. But to gain control of it, they have to actively administer it, in their way, on their terms, in their time. They kill in order to avoid mentioning or thinking about death at all.

Curiously, the approach to controlling emotions, those former rascally agents of chaos, is just the reverse: they are plastered out in the open in a mandatory daily “sharing of feelings.” Stronger ones are dulled with medication, and the rest dissipate into thin air. Eros, like all other kinds of yearning, belongs to Elsewhere. “Love” is a rude word, uncomfortable. But Jonas loves — and when he finds out that his beloved baby foster brother is scheduled for release, he takes him and flees.

Thus Jonas makes a reverse escape, running from the painless future, just as Ivy and Jessie ran from the innocent past, all with a courage born of love, and all in search of somewhere very like the present — the very place that their ancestors decided, on behalf of all of their descendants, to abandon for a man-made paradise.

As a kind of blessing before every meal, Shyamalan’s villagers say, “We are grateful for the time we have been given.” In a way, this is disingenuous, as the time that they were really given was the one that they rejected; but the deeper lesson is their humble recognition that all time is borrowed. Seeking to escape chaos and suffering by idealizing the past or the future is, in the end, a rejection of our responsibility to the short bit of time that is ours, and a denial of our natures that aspire toward virtue even as they incline toward sin.

Caitrin Nicol, “Utopian Virtues,” in Acculturated, ed. Naomi Shaefer Riley and Christine Rosen, Templeton Press, 2011.
Image: Ivy and Edward Walker from The Village (Copyright Touchstone Pictures, 2004).
Header image: Ivy and Edward Walker in The Village (Touchstone Pictures, 2004)

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