I just re-watched the brilliant movie of Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006). The film portrays a dystopian future in which humans have become infertile and no children have been born for more than 18 years. The film explicitly links children to hope for the future (the main character Theo says “I can’t really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what’s left to hope for?”) and then explores a world without hope, a thinly disguised comment on our own post-9/11 society.
The film argues the familiar point that our society’s pervasive fear — fear of imigrants, fear of terrorists, etc. — has led us to violate our own and others’ human rights. My friend Sara Shady discussed this theme in an essay on Bowling for Columbine in which she reconstructs Michael Moore’s argument that our society’s violence has its roots in the loss of loving communities. And I explored the same connection between fear and violence in my essay on Batman Begins in which I expore Christopher Nolan’s argument that revenge is based on fear and then juxtapose that point to the New Testament’s claim that fear is rooted in a lack of faith in God’s providence. (I promise to post more about this one of these days.) So the link between fear and violence is nothing new to cinematic philosophizing. But what Alfonso Cuarón adds is a link to the third theological virtue. Along with Columbine‘s love and Batman‘s faith, Children gives us hope.
The film is arguing that our willingness to settle for war and torture — note the visual references to Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay — is a result of our failure to hope that the world could be better. It’s too much to hope that we could fight evildoers without ourselves becoming evil. That’s just the reality of war, and reality never changes. Or so we have come to believe. And, by structuring its story around the archetype of Christ’s Nativity, the film goes on to argue that this failure of hope is due to a kind of spiritual infertility. What we need is the hope of the Second Advent of Christ, the belief that God’s Kingdom will someday be established on earth.
Now, there is a problem with my reading of the film — a problem I suspect Cuarón himself would raise. The problem is that it is exactly the utopian image of the Kingdom of Heaven — what Hegel, Marx, and Fukuyama called “the End of History” — that many philosophers would see as the source of our contemporary woes. When we have a vision of Kingdom Come, we are constantly tempted to bring it about through coercive tactics. And it’s not just the Christian Crusades that is the problem here. Secular Communist and Neoconservative regimes have used coercive political and even military tactics to achieve their pre-determined ideals — and they have done so at the expense of reality.
In an interview included as a special feature on the Children of Men DVD, philosopher Slavoj Žižek gives this sort of criticism. (You can watch the clip online here.) He praises the film’s ending (in which the main characters are rescued by a boat named “Tomorrow”) for demonstrating that the only true solution to the problem of utopia is postmodern “rootlessness”. Žižek says: “What I like is that the solution is the boat. It doesn’t have roots. It’s rootless. It floats around. This is for me the meaning of this wonderful metaphor: boat. The condition of the renewal means you cut your roots. That’s the solution.” In other words, to avoid the political coercion seemily inherent in utopian idealism, we need to reject all traditions. We need to move forward, creating our own vision of the future together in such a way to include all viewpoints, silencing none through totalizing claims of absolute truth.
Now, I agree that we need to avoid the totalizing tendency of modernist philosophy which tends to silence alternative voices. But I also think the way forward lies in the rediscovery of tradition, not the cutting of all roots. As Žižek himself says in the interview, we can only have a “world” (or identity) by connecting to a culture’s tradition. The key to keeping these traditions from becoming repressive is to see tradition as an evolving narrative — not a pre-written narrative we are simply enacting in history, but a narrative we are writing together. (See my earlier post on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s narrative theory of tradition.) In other words, we need a model of utopia according to which the end of history is something that we can never be sure we have in view. We have to always be prepared to change course in light of ongoing discussion. This is what MacIntyre means when, in After Virtue, he says that the meaning of life is to live life as a quest in search of the meaning of life. If we ever think we have achieved perfect happiness, we will necessarily be wrong, because our world is constantly evolving.
Put in Christian terms, we have to keep in mind that because we are finite creatures, the Church will never be fininished with the infinite calling to embody Christ on earth. So whether or not we take the Second Coming to be a literal future event, the Kingdom of Heaven remains a kind of Kantian/Pragmatist regulative ideal that could never actually be achieved. The essential thing is that we have this hopeful vision to ward off the forces of nihilism.