Friday, September 19, 2014

The Giver (2014) and the Return of the Repressed

The 2014 film The Giver, the latest of a series of dystopian movies based on young adult novels (e.g. Divergent, The Hunger Games), is set in a futuristic city where every aspect of life is strictly regulated. Babies are genetically engineered rather than born. Children are observed like lab rats throughout their formative years, and upon reaching the age of 18, they are gathered in a formal ceremony where a group known as The Elders dictates their career to them. Adults are paired with a mate of the opposite gender with whom they raise the children that The Elders assign to them. At the end of life, old people are “released to Elsewhere,” a euphemism that has erased the concept of death. The result is a peaceful, ordered city, but one in which there is no freedom or choice.

Such control cannot be achieved through mere coercion and intimidation. Rather, citizens in this society are given daily injections which numb the passions. As a result, everything from color to romance ceases to exist. Inoculated from desire and emotion, people follow their prescribed courses in life obediently and without hesitation. Just as emotions are controlled through the injections, knowledge is also strictly regulated. No one other than a privileged and carefully-selected few may know anything about what history and society looked like before the present one.

The events of the film are centered around the protagonist, Jonas, who, upon reaching eighteen years of age, is assigned a unique position in society. Unlike his co-graduates, who are to occupy ordinary positions in the community, Jonas is designated as the community’s next Receiver of Memory. This position requires Jonas to travel far from the main city center, to what is known as “the Edge.” Here, he receives training and instruction from the previous Receiver of Memory (who refers to himself as “the Giver” of Memory). By and by (and usually through visions transmitted to Jonas through skin contact with the Giver), Jonas learns about life before the great war out of which the present society was formed. In these visions, Jonas sees color, feels sexual desire, experiences the terror of war, and mourns the death of friends. Jonas realizes that The Elders keep this history hidden as a way to rob the community of its humanity, and it becomes his mission to let everyone feel the same emotions and passions that he now feels after his training with the Giver. He further learns that there is a boundary, far beyond the Edge, which, if it is crossed, will send all of these memories rushing back to the community.

The story of The Giver is directly analogous to Freud’s structure of the mind. At the base of one’s psychology is the unconscious Id, driven by the pleasure principle. The Ego, or self-aware part of a person’s psychology, regulates which desires in the Id may come up into conscious thought, and represses unacceptable desires back down into the Id. Sitting atop the Ego is the Super-Ego, often associated with God or the father, which sets the rules by which the Ego regulates and represses these desires. The goal of psychoanalysis is to open up the entire unconscious Id to the Ego, shining conscious light on unconscious neuroses. This is accomplished through a process known as transference, wherein the psychotherapist assumes the role of Super-Ego.

In The Giver, then, the Super-Ego (at the beginning) is The Elders, who govern the society. The Ego can be any person who follows the rules set by The Elders, but for the sake of the film it is Jonas. The Id, of course, is the repressed history of the world before the great war. The Giver, like a psychotherapist, displaces The Elders as Jonas’ Super-Ego, giving him a new set of rules to live by. These new rules allow Jonas to delve deep into the repressed unconscious of society, where he finds out about love, hate, music, and other passions. The result is a complete transformation of Jonas’ Ego, such that he is able to do what had once been literally inconceivable. He crosses the boundary, and in so doing he brings color, love, and (presumably) hate back into the community.

The result is a very progressive, even radical message for today’s young people. Today’s neoliberal consensus has arrogantly proclaimed the “End of History” – with the result that modern cynical liberals think that history is irrelevant to the present. The Giver illustrates that turning a blind eye to history will lead to a sterile, stagnant society where people only do what the state demands of them. The message of The Giver is that the youth of today must set free the repressed past of our world – including all of its evils and contradictions – if they are to be free.

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