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On the Movie “Divergent”: Virtue Facing Dystopia

We are living in times of radical political impotence.

So I went to see Divergent. I figured my effort to keep up with the popular cultural lives of my students and children require my going through the full gambit of these coming of age movies after taking the plunge and now being a survivor of the Twilight series. These films, which include The Hunger Games and its sequel, emerge, formulaically, from novels premised upon appealing to a special demographic: adolescent girls. I saw the first installment of the Twilight Saga with my eldest daughter when she was twelve; the first of The Hunger Games with my youngest daughter, when she, too, was twelve. And Divergent? Well, my wife and daughters wouldn’t go, so I went along with my youngest son, who, yes, is twelve.

On the surface, Divergent had all the elements to insult one’s intelligence: an adolescent girl who is not like anyone else (remember in Twilight that no vampire was able to read Bella’s mind) and who, caught up in a world of adults who ultimately act like children, defies a system premised upon foretold divisions or, as it is in this case, “factions.” Whether as races, species, or factions, it’s pretty much the same story in these novels and film adaptations. A hot but at first untrustworthy or “dangerous” guy comes into the picture, and sublimated sexual attraction gets the ball rolling until consummation, after much built up desire mixed begrudgingly with forbearance, occurs—usually at the point of overcoming the powerful, extraordinarily and arrogantly smart enemy.

Divergent is not disappointing in this regard. There is the adolescent or almost adult girl (sixteen years old—what a sweet sixteen, no?) who doesn’t fit in with the system, and it is ultimately through her that disruption occurs. There is the hot guy, who appears at first dangerous. There is the forced division of society. And there is the set of race and gender clichés of the immediate friendship with the cool black girl (interestingly played by Zoë Kravitz—which is why I kept thinking of Lisa Bonet—and who creates subtextual reference across fictional universes as her dad Lenny Kravitz was in Hunger Games), which, in American race logic, means no major presence of black males (except, as in Twilight 2: New Moon, a black male rapist who is decapitated, which also means symbolically castrated, and in Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire, where Kravitz’s character is brutally killed by officers in white). The two Kravitzes add an additional, albeit unintended, dimension of in-betweenness; as Afro-Jews, they raise multiple challenges to these predominantly white and Christological universes. Returning to gender, however, there is a black male character in Divergent who is completely complicit with the wrongdoing at hand. That black male is patently not marked, or rendered likeable, by mixture.

There are as well several other layers that make the story line move from the sophomoric to the unexpectedly perceptive and, dare I say, even brilliant.

I haven’t read the novel, so I won’t get into the author’s, Veronica Roth’s, intent. In terms of the film, there is what looks like a sophomoric reading and critique of Plato’s Republic. In this post-apocalyptic future Chicago is a city-state, surrounded by walls and a large electrical fence, in which social division is premised on five official “factions” representing: abnegation, for the selfless; amity, for the peaceful; candor, for the honest; dauntless, for the brave; and erudite, for the Intelligent. There are technically two others that pose problems for this effort at balance and utopia: divergent, for those who manifest all five traits, and factionless, for those who belong to none.

The governing group is the Abnegates, which makes sense since they are “selfless.” (The purpose of government, as many seem to forget today, is service.) This already begs the question of intelligence, since, apparently, selflessness is not a mark of intelligence. This governing body eschews vanity (rarely seeing themselves because of their preferring to live without, or with very few, mirrors) and greed (living in homes befitting at best a second-world existence). The Erudites are sharply-dressed mixtures of postmodern cool and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) types living in sharply contrasted environments of the whitest white and the blackest black, and, as we ultimately learn, they are greedy for power to the point of fascist zeal: in other words, they’re ultimately right wing. The legal system is left to Candor (truth-telling lawyers—really?), and the cultivation of crops to Amity. The Factionless, homeless and depending on the kindness of strangers (aye, those in need of welfare), look like zombies.

The critique of Plato’s Republic is already evident in having Abnegates rule. That villainy comes from the Erudites (the academicians, ultimately) reveals the flaw of having philosopher kings and queens. (These philosophers are, of course, premised on scientists and technicians, whose intrinsic capacity to lead, I should stress, existential humanists reject.) And the warriors, who are mostly adrenalin-pumped jocks, pretty much follow whoever manipulates them. Limited of mind, they easily succumb to mind-altering and controlling drugs.

So, there is already much for me to hate politically about this film. Anti-intellectualism would support right-wing rhetoric in the US these days, and, of course, there is no critique of what is ultimately a military state. Basic training proves to be rather essential, however. These stories, after all, tap into a fundamental fantasy of all adolescents: they wish to be able to defend themselves and protect their loved ones. This is radically so for adolescent girls, who for millennia have been offered protection through well-muscled arms of males under whose protection is also the danger of force that could easily be turned otherwise. While bad boys could beat off other boys, who is to beat them off if they remember that they are, after all, really bad?

There is also a psychoanalytical dimension, which, too, is part of the recent adolescent-girl-saves-the-world craze. The beautiful Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, the villainous, slick-looking fascist leader of the Erudites ruthlessly plotting to eliminate the Abnegates engaged in combat against the also beautiful young Shailine Woodley (whose magnificent performance in The Descendants so impressed me that her playing the Divergent protagonist Beatrice Prior is another reason I went to see this film—great acting is sometimes the salvation of so many cinematic stinkers), with the underlying theme facing one’s reflection in the mirror, reminds us of no less than the fairytale “Snow White.” As the older woman is attempting to birth a society in her own image, the theme of narcissism and standing in the way of the coming-of-age young woman is familiar stuff.

Yet, I really like this movie.

An irritating dimension of many of the other exemplars of this genre is that the heroine is often flat and her gifts are inexplicable. The parents are losers, and the viewer has to endure watching a world run by children ultimately because there are no real adults around. This criticism doesn’t apply to Divergent. The Divergents make sense once one considers the fundamental flaw of the whole silly system and premise of the film. (For logicians reading this, one should remember the power of the empty set: everything it generates is valid.) At sixteen, everyone learns through a psychological test—where situations are induced through a mixture of drugs and Matrix-style virtual reality—the faction to which she or he belongs. But in the ceremony, one must stillchoose the faction to which they would prefer to belong. For those who choose beyond their faction, this means facing an uphill climb to belong. If they fail, they cannot return and cannot stay, and thus become factionless. As some do succeed, it follows that this experiment in eugenics already has people from other factions mixing with each other to produce in effect “mixed” children. These children could inherit the weaknesses of their parents, but they could also embody their strengths. Over time, it logically follows that people would be born with the strengths of all factions. Divergents, then, are inevitable outcomes of this system.

The result is a tale of what could be called virtue ethics. Now, as the Catholic Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre pointed out well in his book After Virtue, the transition from the Greek notion of arête (and I would add the Egyptian/Km.tian concept of ma’at) to what today we call virtue was not seamless. The Medieval Latin concept of virtu, which connects more to female virginity, created some confusion with notions of sexual purity. This element is there in these series of adolescent-girl-saves-the-world films, since each, albeit for the most part horny, is also virtuous in the Christian sense of pure of heart (and, apparently, the rest of her body). Yet what is good about the protagonist in (and thankfully also The Hunger Games) is that the ancient concept of excellence comes to the fore and in effect liberates virtue from virtu. In other words, as a convergence of excellent attributes, mythically marked as being selfless, peaceful, honest, courageous, and intelligent, there is also the addition of a special kind of existential attribute—namely, the courage to face the contingent, to take the risk or leap of faith (and there is actual leaping in this film) into the unknown.

Courage is an underlying theme that taps into the psychology of the vicious or those marked by vice: governed by fear, which disgusts Triss, such people ultimately do bad things. Complicating the matter, however, and what makes this portrait of ethics and politics insightful, is that there are Erudites who go bad. Not governed by fear and drunk with knowledge, what motivates their infelicity?

We stand now in the terrain of what ancient Greeks call ἀκρασία (akrasia): knowingly and therefore willingly committing evil. What complicates the matter is that the term actually means “without power” or “without command.” In other words, not controlling oneself. This makes the knowledge one has insufficient for the course of one’s action. Something else must be at work. Now, philosophers from the time of Socrates to the present have disagreed about the psychology and anthropology at work behind this notion. Isn’t there some epistemic content, some knowing, at the heart of willing? If one cannot control oneself, how is it possible when it is oneself who must refuse control? While not really being in control (weakness of will) may offer some solace for those who would like moral education to prevail (in other words, as Fats Waller, paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth, used to say, “They didn’t know any betta”), the real and troubling question is, What if they did? Do we really believe that the Erudite Jeannine doesn’t know that she is organizing mass murder and is not willingly taking responsibility for that action? Is she seriously suffering from a weakness of will?

It is this kind of reflection that makes both the story and its cinematic adaptation special. These are stories and films that, after all, break many of the rules of what used to be offered to the young—even when accompanied by a parent. It is not simply that they are violent films, cinematic presentations in which people are tortured and killed. They are also films in which children and adolescents commit these actions. Beyond the questions of targeting the fantasies of young women and men—sexual and otherwise, at least with regard to physical strength and agility—there is the broader social and global question of why adult situations are being placed in the context of children’s literature and film.

I offer this hypothesis. We are living in times of radical political impotence. The erosion of political outlets, where communities resolve differences through the resources of speech and actions premised on commitment to a greater good, has led to disastrous consequences in our age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Though sounding fancy, these terms refer to radical privatization of institutions premised on social welfare and isolation of individual existence paradoxically through the valorization of individual rights. As Jean-Paul Sartre showed in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, all the valorization of individualism achieves is the assurance of individuals who depend on themselves for protection: in other words a separate but equally collective of vulnerable people. Corporations and private groups are, after all, groups, and as such they could crush individuals. And they do. The neoconservative end seeks order, and although there is anti-governmentalism here and there, the order sought is replete with militarism and appeals to traditions manifesting very little short of fear of the future. The problem for young people, however, is that they are the future.

Thus, the result is radicalized insecurity. Why valorize the powerful, individual body? It’s because of lost faith in a social world through which one could reach beyond one’s body. Sheer physical strength, matched by individual wits (and, of course beauty, a blessing from the gods), affords some chance of seeing another day.

We live in a world of radical changes happening in the midst of a desperate effort for permanent control among the powerful. But the truth is that reality exceeds our widest grasp, and turning away from time won’t change having to face tomorrow. As young people are bullied away from political outlets, from sources of action that would enable them to build the future in which ultimately they must live, what might these stories be telling the older generation, even where erudite and beautiful, other than that those among us who fail to understand that our responsibility is to contribute to a future in which we must ultimately step to the side are no less than a drag on history and obstacles to the future?

A meditation on virtue amidst dystopia, even with a big Hollywood budget, is an appreciable start. Bringing together the young novelist’s insight, even if subconscious, the protagonist’s chosen name reveals much in this regard. Beatrice (from Latin beatricim, which means “bringer of joy”) interestingly enough, is reborn through an act of naming—which, as students of myth know is an assertion of agency through interpellation—when she becomes “Triss,” a member of Dauntless, though, paradoxically, there is also deception as she is a Divergent. It is paradoxical because her divergence makes her dauntless. She is, in other words, dauntlessly beyond dauntless. As “Triss” is the Latin diminutive of “Beatrice,” her chosen new name is actually a hint of rebirth. This is truly mythic stuff: the goddess becomes flesh and goes through a process of trials and tribulations to be reborn. To push the mythic elements further, as a bringer of joy, she is ideal for sacrifice, for that which is to be sacrificed is that which one does not want to lose. If she were a bringer of pain and suffering, her parents losing her would be a relief. So already at the mythic level, the proverbial die is cast. A society that forces its youth never to grow up is imperiled. It sacrifices its young.

Yes, meditation on virtue facing dystopia is a good start.