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Our Loveless World

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), the narcissistic mother of 'Loveless' (Still from trailer)

The other day, I watched Loveless, a 2017 Russian drama by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the same director who did the acclaimed film Leviathan. It is unavailable on Amazon or Netflix streaming, but a Pole I met raved about the movie so much that I went to my local library to check it out. I’m so glad I did. The movie has haunted me since I saw it. I didn’t realize it till the final scenes, but it’s an allegory about contemporary Russian society, which the director sees as suffering from an acute lack of love.

That sounds sentimental, but I assure you, it most definitely is not. Oh no, not this Russian movie, which is emotionally caustic. The film made me reflect on how its diagnosis of Russia today can be applied to the United States as well, and indeed to all modern societies. Loveless is a critique of social malaise in Russia, but its message is applicable to all advanced societies, I’d say. Let me explain. First, here’s the trailer:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h5GuecUU-Q&w=525&h=300]

When the drama opens, Boris and Zhenya, a middle-class couple, are fighting over their impending divorce. She has a rich older lover; he has a naive younger lover he has impregnated. They both despise each other, and are eager to go their separate ways. The problem is they have a 12-year-old son that neither of them wants, because he will get in the way of each of them having the life that they want. This fight is over who has to take the boy.

They think that he’s sleeping, and can’t hear them. In fact, he hears it all. His silent scream upon realizing how much he is unloved by his parents is seen here:

Alyosha, the boy, runs away, but it takes his utterly self-absorbed parents two days to realize it. Most of the drama consists of the search for Alyosha. You expect that the search will bring Boris and Zhenya closer together, but it doesn’t. In fact, it magnifies their worst qualities. They are both contemptible people, but they are not monsters, in the sense that they come across as freaks. By no means: they look and sound like normal people today.

Zhenya is obsessed with her smartphone. She is forever taking selfies, and other photos to curate her Instagram life. Except when she’s having sex with her lover, she can never quite be in the moment, because she’s always distracted by her phone, including photographing the moment to upload it to her social media accounts. Zhenya stands in a train car, absorbed in her phone … as are most of the people around her.

Boris is not addicted to his phone, but he’s got problems too. He lives as if life is a game in which the goal is self-preservation — to keep moving, staying one step ahead of reckoning. He works for a tech company whose owner is a strong Orthodox Christian who expects his employees to be family men and women. We see that within the company, employees engage in various ruses to keep up familial appearances, creating Potemkin villages for their corporate tsar.

When Alyosha disappears, the police are too overwhelmed and indifferent to offer much help. The couple engages the services of a squad of volunteers whose charitable work consists of searching for lost children in a thorough, professional way. At one point, the search team sends Boris and Zhenya to meet her mother, who lives three hours away, to see if Alyosha might have made his way to her place. The mother really is a monster, a ferocious rural babushka who stews in her spite, and curses her daughter, son-in-law, and missing grandson. Zhenya might be a sleek urban yuppie, but you can see where her inability to love comes from.

(Similarly, we see Boris’s future mother in law, who has a warm relationship with her daughter, giving the daughter tips on how to manipulate men. We get the message: this is a society that trains people to treat others as means to selfish ends; even the mother-daughter bond is poisoned by this ethic.)

I won’t tell you how the movie ends, of course, but I will say that it didn’t dawn on me until the final scenes that I was watching not just a domestic drama, about the disintegration of a family, but a political allegory about the disintegration of a society. The final shot (see above) depicts an isolated Zhenya, isolated on a treadmill in the winter, wearing a national training suit from the Sochi Winter Olympics, with the name of her country spelled in English, going nowhere, but trying to look good for the West all the same.

I’ve been thinking about this movie all weekend, but it came sharply to mind yesterday when I was transcribing an interview I did in Warsaw with Pawel Skibinski, one of Poland’s top historians. He said:

A strong family is necessary for any community. If you want to have a strong society, you have to have a strong family first. It is no coincidence that those who want to destroy society attack the family first.

And:

If one agrees that one is both an individual and a member of society, then one realizes that one has obligations to the community. If that disappears, then society will fall apart. Any sense of love will disappear, because society is based on love.

There you have it. The disintegration of the family in Loveless is a metaphor for the collapse of society.

Loveless takes place against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The director seems to be saying in this film that this terrible war is going on there, causing innocent people to suffer, and Russians are simply sitting at home, consuming it all on television, indifferent to the pain of the Ukrainians, and their own responsibility (the Russians’, I mean) to do what they can to stop the war. There are also small flourishes of revelation throughout the movie. In a brief aside in a fancy restaurant, we see a beautiful young woman giving her phone number out to a man who flirts with her on her way back to the table with her date. There is no loyalty here to anyone else, or any higher good. Even in the corporate empire ruled by the unseen Orthodox Christian CEO, he’s more interested that people look virtuous than that they be virtuous. In other words, when he surveys his company, he wants to see himself reflected back … not unlike Zhenya and her smartphone.

The only sign of hope — of ordered, sacrificial love — is the squad of searchers, who do what they do for no reward. They do it out of love of neighbor.

This is a movie about Russia, but the same movie could be made about contemporary America. Take a look at this new Derek Thompson article from The Atlantic. Excerpts:

In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places. In the biggest picture, it turns out that America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.

Cities were once a place for families of all classes. The “basic custom” of the American city, wrote the urbanist Sam Bass Warner, was a “commitment to familialism.” Today’s cities, however, are decidedly not for children, or for families who want children. As the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, they are “entertainment machines” for the young, rich, and mostly childless. And this development has crucial implications—not only for the future of American cities, but also for the future of the U.S. economy and American politics.

This is Zhenya and Boris. Yes, by movie’s end, Boris has sired two children, but it’s clear that this is not out of his desire to be a father, but out of his own carelessness.

Anyway, I was thinking yesterday about our president, and this garbage:

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I don’t think Donald Trump is capable of loving anything but himself. Seriously, do you really think he loves America? There is nothing about the man’s persona or his politics that suggests love, as distinct from total self-interest. He is driven instead by resentment, and by stoking it in others.

Here’s the thing: do you really think the politics of the Gang of Four are driven by anything we might call love? I don’t. I don’t see this on the Left at all. It’s all resentment.

And hey, I get that. Resentment is the only kind of politics that gets anybody anywhere today. Progressive resentment is invisible to most people on the Left, because they think they are just Good People who hate Bad People — people like me. I have a friend in a major coastal city who e-mailed last night. He’s a pro-life Catholic who is gay but chaste out of religious conviction. In one of his social circles the other day, a couple of guys who only know him via their shared love of a particular sport began spouting off on how Christians who are against abortion and full LGBT rights are disgusting people who are not fit for decent company, and ought to be driven out of the state, like New York’s Gov. Cuomo said. These people had no idea that they were talking about their friend. Now, he doesn’t know what to do. Should he come out to them as a chaste gay pro-life conservative Catholic, or just walk away?

Those guys think they’re all about #LoveWins, but they’re not. For them, love is simply a matter of hating the right people with enough passion.

When it comes to politics, I think this is true of all of us, myself included. Yesterday I was listening to an NPR radio show in which an educated white liberal interviewed an educated black liberal, and the black guy went on and on about how much whites hate blacks. It was so tortured, the black guy’s rationale, that I listened to it just to see where he was going with it. I finally turned off the radio because it made me mad. This was a man who was plainly talking himself into hating white people, or at least in justifying the hatred he already had, and making it into a virtue. And this liberal white interviewer was just eating it up, never once challenging his narrative.

It’s not hard to imagine liberals seeing the same thing in the right-wing media.

What makes it difficult is that there is so much going on today that one really should be outraged about. Take that creepy transgender guy who has filed a human rights grievance against a salon owner in Canada for being unwilling to wax his testicles (I wrote about it here.) It’s outrageous on its face, but what makes it more than a tabloid goof is that this transwoman, Jessica Yaniv, is only taking the accepted gender ideology to its logical conclusion. Yes, Jessica Yaniv has a penis and testicles, but Jessica Yaniv says that he is a woman, and demands to be treated as a woman would — and that includes having his groin waxed in a woman’s salon. It’s disgusting and misogynistic … but given the premises of gender ideology, why is it wrong?

Jessica Yaniv is the perfect avatar of our age: a self-obsessed person who wants what he wants, and doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get it. What makes him a progressive avatar is that he does what he does under the guise of transgender liberation, which is a cause embraced by all right-thinking people in the media, academia, corporate America, and the Democratic Party. But the utter selfishness is common to all today.

I do not love Jessica Yaniv. Jessica Yaniv is my enemy. I despise what people like him are doing to the common culture. The Democratic Party has embraced the kind of ideology that powers the Jessica Yanivs, and that would force female salon owners to wax Jessica Yaniv’s testicles as surely as it would force Christian bakers to bake a gay couple’s wedding cake. I’m supposed to respond to their aggressive contempt for people like me — aggressive in the sense that it wouldn’t be simply feelings on their part, but actions — without contempt? If the choice is between a contemptible and contempt-filled politician — Donald Trump — and a Democrat whose hatreds include people like me, and our interests, then why shouldn’t I side with the politician who, whatever his sins, doesn’t despise and seek to harm my tribe?

You see where this is going. A progressive could say the same thing.

And yet, Jesus, who in my belief was and is God, commands his followers to love our enemies. I can’t allow myself to despise anybody. But what does this mean? Consider that if anybody had the right to hate his persecutors, it was Martin Luther King. But on Christmas Eve, 1967, King delivered a sermon in which he talked about how interrelated we all are, and how if we remain loveless, we will die. He said:

Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

King went on:

There are three words for “love” in the Greek New Testament; one is the word eros. Eros is a sort of esthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way.

Then the Greek language talks about philos, which is another word for love, and philos is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people that you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved.

Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word agape. Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say:

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations. Something must remind us of this as we once again stand in the Christmas season and think of the Easter season simultaneously, for the two somehow go together. Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than the light, and they crucified Him, and there on Good Friday on the Cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is an eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again. Easter justifies Carlyle in saying, “No lie can live forever.” And so this is our faith, as we continue to hope for peace on earth and goodwill toward men: let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.

Read the whole sermon. 

Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

For King, these weren’t mere words. This was Christian witness at its fiercest.

I do not see anything like that in the words of Donald Trump, or the words of his most fervent supporters, not even his supporters among Christian leaders. I do not see anything like that in the words of the Democrats, or the words of their most fervent supporters, nor even their supporters among Christian leaders.

If I’m honest, I don’t really see that in my own heart.

King was no sentimentalist. His charity (from caritas, the Latin word for agape) was hard, and enduring. He paid for it with his life. Nobody fought harder against that particular evil of his time than did MLK. Yet he did not fight it with hatred. Is America today even capable of producing a leader like King, or are we too far gone?

The Christian must fear God more than he fears man. If we defeat the powers of this world, but we don’t have caritas, then what are we in God’s eyes? Satan took Jesus to a mountaintop, and offered him all the power in the world (for Satan is the Prince of this World), in exchange for worshiping him. Jesus told him to go away, because it is written that “You shall worship the Lord your God and only Him shall you serve.”

If you don’t think this has direct application to how a Christian should see politics, then you are unwilling to see what is right in front of your face.

Don’t get me wrong: Progressives who are not Christians don’t have a way out either. Many of them are willing to achieve power by means of hatred, because they are just as convinced that they would use it for good.

What would a contemporary American politician of either the left or the right be like if he or she embodied caritas in the service of civitas, to the extent that it’s realistically possible for any politician in this fallen world to embody caritas? I’m not asking rhetorically. I’d really like to know. In former days, we at least shared a common vision of what caritas in politics might look like. It’s hard to see that we still do.

In Loveless, there is a building sense of violent apocalypse. The more I think about this movie, and its deeper message, the more it feels that we too are preparing ourselves for something. Both left and right are working themselves up to violence. I don’t know what the spark will be — an economic crash? a political murder? — and maybe there won’t be a spark. But the lovelessness that Zyyagintsev identifies in Russian society is also with us, and it is the bone-dry tinder for a conflagration.

One more thing. In my interview with Prof. Skibinski, the historian, we talked about something that the late Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski wrote, to the effect of members of a society losing a shared faith in a transcendent source of value — God, most commonly — would lead to the dissolution of that society. Why? Because there would be nothing left to restrain the individual human will. I told my interview subject that in my interviews with people who had resisted Communism, I keep hearing the same thing: that you have to believe in something greater than yourself, or you will not be able to withstand the pressures of the society that wishes to destroy you. For Christian dissidents, it was their faith in God. For nonbelievers like Vaclav Havel, it was in a sense of human decency and liberty. But it had to be something greater than yourself, and your self interest. It had to be something that inspired you to be willing to suffer privation for the sake of a greater good.

From Prof. Skibinski’s reply:

Consider the metaphor of a kite. It’s in a kite’s nature to soar in the sky as high as it can, but it’s only possible if it is moored to a human on the ground by a string. It the string is cut, the kite will fall to the ground and be destroyed. It’s the same situation with humans. Humans are designed for higher things, to be free, yes, but in a higher sense. But to achieve this freedom that’s in our nature, we have to recognize our limits. The problem of contemporary society, and consumerism, is that everybody forgets about these limits. They think they can do anything they want.

If we lose our love for God, our unrestrained passions will cause us to lose our love for each other. Though it is not a religious movie, we see this in Loveless. Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago that the old folks used to say that the Bolshevik catastrophe came upon Russia because men had forgotten God. That seemed like a quaint peasant conclusion to draw, said Solzhenitsyn, but after suffering through the gulag, he learned the truth of that conclusion in his bones.

So, I fear, will we all. You and me both. And we will be responsible, because we knew, or should have known.

italianestro/Shutterstock

UPDATE: I was just going over my notes on Hannah Arendt’s book on totalitarianism. She notes that the European generation that gave itself over to Nazism was enamored of transgression (“They read not Darwin, but the Marquis de Sade”), and was re-enacting the annihilating trauma of World War I. Arendt writes:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. … The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.

What jumped out at me in reviewing these notes is Arendt’s claim that the politics of postwar Germany had its roots in the psychological shattering of German society in the war. This is hardly a novel observation, but encountering it just now, after thinking about the political and social criticism in Loveless, made me wonder to what extent our politics today, in the US, are a result of atomization and abandonment of post-1960s children. Thoughts?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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