1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Vices of "The Village"

I couldn't help but be reminded of this passage in Aladair MacIntyre's After Virtue after viewing M. Night Shyamalan's The Village:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history [i.e., the Dark Ages] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the coninuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead -- often not recognizing fully what they were doing -- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness (2nd ed., p. 263).
While there are clear parallels between the fictional inhabitants of "the village" and say, a Benedictine monastery, the divergences are fascinating. I think the differences (of course on is fictional, the other historical!) can be attributed to the differences between ideology and faith. Luigi Giussani defines ideology this way: "Ideology ... is based upon an aspect of reality ... taken unilaterally and made ... into an absolute" (The Religious Sense, p. 95).

1. Suffering. This "partial aspect" of reality taken to an extreme is the desire to eliminate suffering (especially in the form of violence) by leaving behind "the towns" (the big city) and isolating the community into what appears to be the late 19th century. Thus absent from the community are tools of violence and technology. Naturally, suffering cannot be willed out of existence -- it is intrinsic to the human condition. Much of the story hinges upon how the characters deal with balancing the desire to protect utopia and to care for innocent victims of misfortune.

2. Evil's Ubiquity. All of the founders of the village have a box in which they keep reminders of their prior lives. These serve as physical reminders of the pain and sorrow that is found in the towns outside. Yet in reconstructing a 19th century world it was also psychologically necessary to exaggerate the nature of violence and evil found in modern cities.

3. Myth or Lie? Perhaps the most brilliant creation of the founders is "Those We Don't Speak Of" -- imaginary creatures that surround the village and serve as means of insulating the next generation from the temptation of leaving home. Unlike the Amish, the villagers make it impossible for their children to explore a different world. And yet there is a certain truth to the creatures because the world outside the village is hostile to much of what the villagers have constructed: mutual dependence, cooperation and affection. Although "made up," the creatures do express a truth.

4. "Our Therapist, Who Art in Vienna..."

a. Godless? But at bottom, the village is not sustainable. By my reckoning, God is mentioned once. Several times we hear this prayer: We are grateful for the time we have been given. It is a curious prayer. It references a What but not a Who. And yet if one follows the logic of this prayer, one must necessarily encounter a Giver.

b. "Church" and Community. It is not until toward the end of the film that I was able to make sense of the meetings in the church-like structure in the village: the elders gather together, often in a circle to discuss issues before the community, but it has the physical form of group therapy. This goes beyond the pragmatic need to govern the community but speaks of our human need to connect with each other.

This film has many layers but it can certainly be "read" as a cautionary tale against utopian aspirations. Next time I will discuss the "virtues" of The Village.

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