Suffering and Active Love: The Role Religion and Spirituality play in Dostoevsky’s Conception of Flourishing

Fyodor Dostoevsky ends The Brother Karamazov with the young Kolya exclaiming praise for Alyosha Karamazov: “And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!”  Dostoevsky’s grand vision sees the Russian Orthodox Church as transforming the world with the presentation of the true Christ, in contrast to the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christ. It is in this vision that Dostoevsky subtlety reveals his conception of flourishing which is comprised of active love towards humanity, forgiveness, the confession of sin, and belief in God. In Dostoevsky’s conception of flourishing Christ serve as the foundation for active love. Christ brings an essential universal connection between all things and the ethic of love that correspond with this sense of universal connection. Here Dostoevsky’s asserts his own way of thinking about the ethic of love; the reason all things are connected is because God interconnects them. Consequently, the individual who does not view community or interconnection with any importance focuses on self-interest and self-preservation.  While the individual who is able to comprehend God’s perspective on universal connection values and practice active love towards humanity.


“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” – Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, verse 14


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Alice Neel, Untitled (Karamazov, His Three Sons, and the Servant Gregory), ca. 1938, 14 ¼” x 10”. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

In this essay I hope to illustrate how belief in the true Christ (Russian Orthodox), immortality, and belief in an afterlife play an important role in Dostoevsky’s conception of flourishing. Broadly, I argue that the Alyosha’s mysticism, particularly his hesychastic ideals [1], his undulating transformation (between faith and doubt) through the refusal of various temptations (particularly Ivan’s poem The Grand Inquisitor ) and his conversations with the school-boys, illustrate Dostoevsky’s broader narrative of the emergence of a new Russian Orthodox Church that will save humanity by seeding it’s flourishing. To illustrate this I begin by highlighting the similarities between Ivan’s characterization of Christ in The Grand Inquisitor and the narrator’s characterization of Alyosha at the beginning of the novel. Then, I explain how Christ serves as a foundational element in active love; by introducing the concept of active love to the world. Then I illustrate how active love indirectly produces flourishing through community (and Dostoevky’s hopes globally); specifically, how active love is introduced to  Skotoprigonyevsk through Zosima, and to Zoisma through his elder brother Markel.  Finally, I illustrate how this gift is passed on to Alyosha through his conversation with the school children, and illustrate the connection between the epigraph John 12:24 and the school children at the end of novel.

Ivan’s characterization of Christ in The Grand Inquisitor parallels Alyosha’s characterization and inherent mysticism at the beginning of the novel. In Book 1, Chapter 4, the narrator describes Alyosha as the “hero” of the novel. Alyosha’s characterization includes elements of mysticism; most apparent, his desire to experience spiritual clarity not through rationality but through entering the monastery.  The narrator continues to characterize as Christ-like, empathetic, wise, and loving.  While these qualities may appear typical and somewhat commonplace, the narrator notes something peculiar about Alyosha:

“In his childhood and youth he was not very effusive, not even very talkative, not from mistrust, not from shyness or sullen unsociability, but even quite the contrary from something different, from some inner preoccupation” (The Third Son, Alyosha  19).

Furthermore, upon reuniting with his father, Fyodor initially finds Alyosha’s reticent behavior and perceived shyness suspicious.  Yet, within two weeks of meeting Alyosha, Fyodor becomes enthralled by his son: “having come to love him sincerely and deeply, more than such a man had, of course, ever managed to love anyone else” (The Third Son, Alyosha 19) While it may seem that this love is nothing more than another illustration of Fyodor’s fickle behavior motivated by his alcoholism, the narrator denounces this idea by explaining how “everyone loved this young man wherever he appeared, and it was so even in his earliest childhood” (The Third Son, Alyosha 19). In a similar manner, Jesus in Ivan’s poem does not speak.  Ivan further portray Christ in a similar manner to the narrator’s portrayal of Alyosha “people are drawn to him by an invincible force, they flock to him, surround him, follow him” (The Grand Inquisitor  249).

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Untitled (The Death of Father Zossima), ca. 1938, 14 ¼” x 10”. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Both Jesus and Alyosha have the same ideological (and literal) response to Ivan’s The Grand Inquisitor; they both attempt to passively (mysteriously) address Ivan’s skepticism in regards to flourishing, active love, and faith by illustrating that the human depravity and innocent suffering can coexist with God.  The Inquisitor sets about questioning Christ about why he refused the three temptations by Satan.  He illustrates that because Christ forced men to be free he has forced them to live with asceticism instead of material well-being, free faith and individual responsibility instead of ecclesiastic absolution; he has left them isolated instead of safe within a universal church state. Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor respectively conclude that rather than allowing individuals to make their own decision and suffer, humanity would be better suited living under a fraudulent religious authority.  However, Ivan ends his parable with what appears to reveal aspects of spiritualism and active love in his character: “But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips […] ‘The kiss burns in his heart, but the old man hold to his former idea’” (The Grand Inquisitor 262).  Ivan’s peculiar ending seems to most explicitly illustrate the ongoing struggle within him between doubt and faith, but it is in Alyosha’s mysticism which illuminates the role faith plays in human flourishing.  Through his engagement in mysticism, even during his youth, Alyosha again mimics the actions of Christ by kissing Ivan: “’The formula, ‘everything is permitted,’ I will not renounce and what then? Will you renounce me for that? Will you?’ Alyosha stood up, went over to him in silence, and gently kissed him on the lips” (The Grand Inquisitor 263).  Alyosha’s kisses just like Christ’s are examples of Dostoevsky’s insistence on the role of mystery in religion, faith, and attaining active love and flourishing.  Perhaps, Dosteoveky is attempting to contrast mystery to the second temptation of Christ? Rather than confirm the faith of individuals by witnessing a miracle, faith must be inspired through self-reflection on mystery.  This self-reflection is central tenet to hesychasm [1]


Eudaimonia or ‘Human Flourishing’


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Untitled (Ivan), ca. 1938, 14 ¼” x 10”. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

In the conception of flourishing, active love is the process of birth of rebirth of human flourishing.  To illustrate this, I turn to the scene where Madame Khokhlakova comes to Zosima searching for answers about life after death and immortality. Briefly, I just wanted to note that within this scene Dostoevsky again hints at the similarities between Alyosha and Christ.[2] Nevertheless, Madame begins describing how when she was a child her faith – while “mechanical” – felt more concrete and realized.  Briefly, Madame Khokhlakova’s reflection on her childhood illustrates an important aspect about active love, faith, and flourishing; mainly that childhood or innocence does not necessarily guarantee flourishing in Dosteoveky’s conception. This is illustrated further in Ivan’s argument in Rebellion which contends that because God allows the suffering of innocent children, He does not exist. Madame Khokhlakova’s reflection about how her faith being habitual as a child allows us to get a more accurate definition of active love.  Active love is not simply loving your neighbor or loving humanity, it is a much broader and ambiguous imperative.   As she explains to Zosima her struggles with immortality and death, his reply exemplifies active love: “’Don’t worry about my opinion,’ the elder answered. ‘I believe completely in the genuineness of your anguish’” (A Lady of Little Faith p.56). Zosima response may appear showy and exaggerated, but this is active love. It requires the individual’s love for the other to be both unconditional and multidimensional; in that they must love the individual regardless of any philosophical or metaphysical beliefs. Essentially, the individual adopts a mystic state-of-being and this allows the individual to conceive the universal connection Christ conceives.

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The ‘Feminine Marxist’ Revolution: No Boys Allowed

Audre Lorde and Marilyn Frye lead the current critique against Feminism and Feminist thought, illustrating that the entire project is potentially at risk of becoming another project of white, straight, economically privileged women whose focus excludes intersectionality.[1] The sole analysis of the issue of gender oppression, as Frye and Lorde illustrate, neglects to reflect or illustrate the experience of any individual who occupies multiple realms of oppression including race, class, and age: for example, a black lesbian.  Consequently, the entire project fails to criticize or address the appropriate source and continued dominance of patriarchal society.  Nevertheless, in a 1992 reflection written by Frye, she seems to shed light on a possible source for the continued dominance of male society.  In her essay Who Wants a Piece of the Pie? Frye reflects on her privilege of being white and an economically affluent professor:

“My issue in 1976 was about whether or not to avail myself if certain opportunities. The existence and permanence of those opportunities seems to be utterly taken-for-granted. The essay seems to me now to betray no working consciousness of the fact that those opportunities that life, are not a permanent element of the natural order of the universe but a product of a certain phase in the in the processes of global capitalism. To the extent those processes are manipulable, they are manipulated by members of another class entirely than mine” (Frye p.37).

Frye statement illustrates the current tension between viewing the actions of humans within free-market society as natural instead of the perpetuation of false virtues and mythical norms[2] by dominant, ruling, patriarchal, bourgeois, class that is revealed through Marx and Hegel’s historical dialectical materialism.[3]

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Polarization and Corruption: Assessing Freedom of the Press in Venezuela

In response to international concerns, on May 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press act which amended the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act and expanded the scope and scrutiny of new media restrictions in the State Department’s annual review of human rights. This legislature was passed to address the escalating violence directed towards journalists and media offices and installations.  More so, it emphasized freedom of the press as an integral part of democratic society.  As philosopher Alexander Mielkejohn contended, the guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press hold an absolute, preferred position because they are measures adopted by the people as the ultimate rulers in order to retain control over government.  James Madison expressed similar thought for the role of media: “If we advert to the nature of Republican Government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the Government and not in the Government over the people” (4 Annals of Cong. 934, 1794).  Essentially, the media represents a crucial weapon for democratic citizens against the tyranny of a totalitarian state by protecting egalitarian ideals and providing citizens with a forum to discuss and reflect upon the state of the nation.  For the citizens of Venezuela today, this freedom is not guaranteed

In May of 2007, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) was shut down by the Government of Venezuela.  The oldest and longest lasting television network in the country had been accused of supporting the 2002 coup attempt against the democratically elected Chaves government. In response, RCTV and viewers argued that this action violates numerous human rights, most notably Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Rights; freedom of expression.  The Venezuelan government denied these accusations. Yet in January 2010, RCTV was again sanctioned for failing respect Venezuelan media law by not broadcasting Chavez’s speeches in their entirety.  Marcel Grainer, the director of RCTV made the following remarks in response to the Venezuelan government’s actions: “In no democracy does this happen, those in government simply do not tolerate any medium that tells people how things really are” (Washington Post).  The international community regards the actions taken against RCTV by Venezuelan Government as violations of freedom of the press – and they may even indicate a more insidious scheme taken on by the government to silence critics and dissenters in order to preserve itself.  Nevertheless, President Chavez denied these accusations.  According to Chavez, “good journalism and freedom of expression” were threatened by media such as RCTV; therefore, his actions actually defended an upheld freedom of the press. (Lamrani). So I pose the question does the Venezuelan government uphold freedom of the press?

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Redistribution: Is Interference the only Solution to Wealth Disparity?

In search of the freest society, Gerald Cohen intrinsically disagrees with the notion of a liberal capitalist society being defined as “free society.”  In his article “Freedom and Money” Cohen, a proponent of analytical Marxism, attacks the libertarian interpretation of freedom by illustrating that lacking money or wealth interferes with an individual’s economic freedom; Cohen emphasis that money can prevent an impoverished citizen from accessing certain freedoms. Libertarian disagree with this, they think to lack money is to simply lack means – not freedom.  Furthermore, the writings of Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls (both liberal thinkers) are used by Cohen to illustrate how this “reified” view of money has infiltrated even the “liberal” argument for redistribution. While Cohen’s argument attempts to reflect the liberal’s morally sound claim that an individual’s wealth can restrict access to certain economic opportunities, it fails to prove how “money” interferes with a individual’s access to freedoms  more decisively than an individual’s innate endowments.

Cohen’s argument centers on the normative question which ideology guarantees the citizen the highest degree of freedom? He attempts to replicate both a libertarian and liberal argument on this societal quandary; however, Cohen misrepresents the libertarian argument with a “supply-side” economic theory argument.  The “right-wing argument” reaffirms that poverty does not inhibit and individual’s freedom: “Freedom is comprised by (liability to) interference (by other people), but not by lack of means.  To lack money is to suffer not (liability to) interference, but lack of means” (Cohen 21).  Cohen successfully outlines how libertarians do not associate a lack of freedom with lack of money, but he engages in this auxiliary debate by suggesting that the “right-wing argument” is synonymous with the libertarian argument. He accepts the libertarian argument that freedom is essentially “freedom from interference”; nevertheless, he criticizes the “right-wing” normative conclusion on the basis of morality.  It is on this basis that Cohen agrees with liberal-thinkers like Isaiah Berlin. He echoes Berlin’s sentiment that “even if lack of money is just lack of means, lack of means is just as confining as lack of freedom” (Cohen 21).  However, Cohen feels more compelled to argue that lack of money is blatantly lack of freedom. While compelling at first, Cohen’s disagreement with the liberal argument seems trite and pointless. In the end, Cohen even admits that his main point is to morally and ethically justify redistribution: “the left’s protest against poverty is a plea on behalf of freedom…a protest against the extreme freedom of the poor in capitalist society” (Cohen 32).   Cohen’s vehemence inevitably ruins his argument as he engages in the senseless wordplay by self-defining terms such as “freedom” and “money” and using vague societal references to produce a normative conclusion that is arguably synonymous with Berlin’s argument. He begins distinguishing between an individual’s ability to access private and public goods and services: “the private ones, and many of the public ones, are inaccessible save for money: giving money is both necessary for getting them” (Cohen 25).  Cohen successfully shows how money is “necessary” to access these good and services, but his argument deteriorates when he fails to differentiate between how “money” is any more decisive than “special access rules.”

Secondly, he attempts to argue that “property distribution” is essentially a “a distribution of rights of interference” (Cohen 25).  He carelessly arrives on the same identical conclusion and again fails to show how an individual owning property interferes with the economic freedom of another individual. His argument at this point would suggest that the government should redistribute private property; but, government would then be guilty of, in essence, interference.  Cohen continues to reiterate his claim that “money confers freedom, rather than merely the ability to use it, even if freedom is equated with absence of interference.”  To illustrate this further, he uses an example of a woman who wishes to travel to Glasgow to visit her sister; however, because she is too poor she cannot overcome the “conductor’s prospective interference” (Cohen 26).  From this example, he continues to illustrate how it is not a deficiency in her ability that restricts her from boarding the train, but her lack of money that will ultimately cause the conductor or other station supervisors to physically prevent her from boarding the train.  Although, the libertarian argument could be made that if money did not interfere with her “freedom” to ride the train, than trains (really any public good) will inevitably suffer from the tragedy of the commons.  The only solution to this is provided either through allowing private individuals to own the public good, or allowing the government to redistribute.  Cohen, throughout his paper, is favorable of this notion of governmental redistribution; however, this requires restriction to access. This restriction seems to be what is in chief contention with Cohen, he feels that individuals should be able to “board a train to Glasgow” or take a “sweater from Selfridge’s” without interference; this is simply implausible.

Throughout his paper Cohen hints at the auxiliary argument that government ultimately possesses the capacity to rectify the socio-economic misfortunes of individuals who are suffering under the current “capitalist” society.  Cohen even attempts to paint government with this watchdog ideology; it serves to mitigate any loss of economic freedom: “it is not, standardly, the government, but the owner of the good…who…restricts her from in the money case” (Cohen 30).  Unfortunately it is actually the opposite case, when governments subsidize enormous business or corporations they interfere on behalf of these wealthy interests.  In doing so, the freedom (means) an individual has is, in essence, being restricted by the same agency.

On this precedence, I think that while Cohen’s argument incorrectly associates the “right-wing” advocacy for supply-side economics with the libertarian argument for a free-market system, his paper nevertheless seems to hint at a very important criticism towards the entanglement of large corporate interest and government.  I agree with Cohen that this notion that having wealth guarantees more access to means (or freedoms) is obvious.  To illustrate this, I call upon Joseph Stiglitz’s theory of “too big to fail.”  Stiglitz illustrates how large corporations such as banks like Citi, and AIG occupy such an enormous amount of the market that if their companies fail a domino effect occurs and the market is effectively crippled.  This is exactly what happened in 2008 during the financial crash. To summarize the US State senate issued the Levin-Coburn Report which summarized the entire incident: “the crisis was not a natural disaster, but the result of high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; and the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street”  To conclude, when looking at the amount freedoms these investment banks and large corporations can indulge upon, the average citizen who is not as wealthy will never be able to guile the free-market system and exploit government subsidies as effectively.  Thus, poverty again restricts an individual’s means (freedoms) to access.

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The Double Movement in Hollywood: An Analysis of the “Implicit Meaning” of Up in the Air

In the 1948 Supreme Court decision on the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the court outlawed the use of “block booking”: a type of vertical integration in which studios required theaters to purchase films that they had not seen (U.S. Supreme Court). Block booking allowed studio executives to secure profitability by contracting high-billed actors/actresses, directors, and writers, who would crank out lackluster and shallow “feature films” (Hodgins). While heavily praised films like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath emerged from this era, these films were considered especially risky to produce. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of The Grapes of Wrath, the producer Darryl F. Zanuck sent “private investigators” to Oklahoma to help “legitimize” the film, in case of Communist accusations. (Ebert). The court’s decision to protect local theater owners also gave rise to the independent filmmaker, and many who were once merely film-industry commodities (actors, directors, writers) quickly gained market power over studio executives. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia films, spoke against the “shift in power that’s taking place in picture-making”:

“We find ourselves in a highly competitive market for these talents [stars, directors, producers, writers]. Under today’s tax structures, salary, to those we are dealing with is less inviting than the opportunity for capital gains. We find ourselves therefore, dealing with corporations rather than with individuals. We find ourselves, too, forced to deal in terms of a percentage of the film’s profits, rather than in a guaranteed salary as in the past. This is most notable among top stars”

The rise of New Hollywood or the “American New Wave” constituted the end of the studio executives’ rule—no longer did these once all-powerful executives have complete control over films. In the changing media marketplace, New Hollywood films often featured “counter-culture” and “anti-establishment” themes that challenged the era’s moral conservatism and economic idealism. Even more controversial themes such as ‘Marxism’ and ‘feminism’ appeared in films during the New Hollywood era. While consumerism still motivated the Hollywood studio, this form of social protectionism by the Supreme Court would constitute a new period in which “auteurism” (the director’s artistic vision) would rise and become the economic ideal in maximizing profit.

In this essay, I attempt to illustrate how the market society continues to skew the “implicit meaning” of Hollywood films and compromises certain parts of the director/writer/producer’s artistic integrity in order to achieve commercial recognition. My analyses are rooted in Polanyi’s double movement to illustrate how the continued conflict between market and society not only formulates thematic elements of modern film, but also consequently blurs the film’s more critical message. To illustrate this, I first analyze the director’s motivation for creating the film. This involves 1) characterizing the director, 2) highlighting his or her skills and weaknesses in creating the film, and then 3) comparing the director’s vision to my response to the film. In her 2013 textbook, Karen Gocisk and her coauthors talk about seeking out a film’s implicit meaning: “The central facts of a movie are explicit. Implicit meaning is an association, connection, or inference that a viewer makes on the basis of the explicit meaning available on the surface of the film” (Gocisk). In the third section of each film, I attempt to illustrate the “implicit meaning” of each film, and in doing so comment on the current organization of the global market, the financial hegemony, the recurrent failures of the financial system, and the government and social institutions that reinforce this hegemony.

Up in the Air by Jason Reitman follows the daily life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizing expert, whose career-long goal of reaching ten million frequent flyer miles is threatened by the introduction of a state-of-the-art video-conferencing system. The film chronicles Bingham’s life in the midst of a global economic catastrophe. For Bingham, economic turmoil bodes well for his career as a corporate downsizing expert, as the enormous corporate losses constitute high unemployment. The film illustrates how our modern society is an amalgamation of the morals and ideals of economic liberalism. Even Bingham’s fictional idealism posits that “we are not swans, we are sharks” (IMDB). Yet his economic flourishing does little to cultivate his morality or “refine” his character (as McCloskey would suggest). While attempting to justify his lifestyle to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), Bingham is faced with his own reality: While he may appear to be the paradigm of the modern man—suave, successful, handsome, and wealthy—he is aging. He realizes that his own self-interest, his desire to travel and live a lavish lifestyle have left him alienated from his family and reality. After saving his sister’s marriage, Bingham realizes that he wants to settle down and have a family, but unfortunately this revelation happens too late. Unable to escape his alienated reality “up in the air,” Bingham decides to embrace his unreality, because it is the only home he has ever known. By framing this in Polanyi’s double movement, Bingham’s decision to attempt to court Alex, and his altruistic gesture to his sister and her fiancé constitute forms of “self-protection” against the inherent immorality and alienation of his commercial lifestyle, self-interest, and capitalism.

Jason Reitman is a “movie brat”, the son of famous comedy director and producer Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Evolution, No Strings Attached). Reitman received a Bachelor of Arts in English/Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, and began to act/edit small parts of his father’s films. In 2005, he achieved commercial success and national recognition for his poignant satire Thank You for Smoking. His next film, Up in the Air, was based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn. Kirn’s novel attempts to illustrate the impact of unemployment on society, and in the film Reitman made capturing the emotional struggle and complexity of joblessness a priority. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Reitman spoke of his naiveté on the subject of unemployment as “he has never been fired or known economic insecurity” (Abramowitz 2009). In order to compensate during pre-production in St. Louis, he put out a call for the recently unemployed to “come for a documentary on job loss” (Abramowitz 2009). Reitman filmed various testimonials of the recently unemployed, many of which were featured in the final production. Interestingly, Reitman’s approach to film exposed numerous similarities between the Bingham character and the director. At the end of the interview, Reitman speaks on the alienation that film success has left him with. “I have a job where I can do exactly what I want to do, and I have days where I want to be completely unplugged from everyone. I want to live in a city where I know no one and have nothing. Why am I exhilarated by that?” (Abramowitz 2009). Reitman appears to ground his own moral conundrum in Bingham’s transformation in the film, and in doing so, the “implicit meaning” of the film emerges as a larger critique on cultural and social desires. Or perhaps, Reitman simply directed the film to vilify his own lavish lifestyle?

First, I wanted to speak on how George Clooney truly “sells” the character of Ryan Bingham. While working on the script, Reitman wrote specifically with “Clooney in mind as his lead […] Bingham uncannily fits Clooney’s tabloid image of a lady’s man unwilling to commit” (Abramowitz). While Bingham’s amorality and arrogance may have obscured his more subtle nobility, Clooney delivers each one of Bingham’s racist or misogynistic quips with passion and conviction. Clooney’s portrayal of Bingham is so mystifying that the audience almost enjoys the feelings of animosity that Bingham’s character engenders. This animosity is not misplaced, however. While Bingham lives a highly profitable and extravagant life, we come to realize this is all a façade for his less attractive reality: a single man in his late 30s, seemingly destined to ride out the remainder of his life in the seat of a commercial airliner. Yet this underlining anxiety appears to define the 21st century comprehensively. Marriage rates are down, divorce rates are up, and everyone seems to be blaming one thing for all of this misery: the economy (Gray 2010).

The film’s themes of artificiality, commercialism, and materialism illustrate how Bingham’s immersion in work and his desire to maximize utility have diluted his sense of reality. When Ryan arrives at the airport, he is greeted with a “systemized” response from the airline receptionist. He goes on to narrate how certain aspects of commercial society attempt to create a false sense of home: “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, and the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.” As the postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues, these artificial recreations of goods (e.g. home-cooked meals) are simply simulacrum, which in Latin literally means “likeness, similarity”; they are a “perversion” of reality. The film takes this notion of skewed reality and applies it to every aspect of Bingham life, even in his most intimate settings. In essence, I would argue that this “perversion” even emerges through Bingham’s habits and mannerisms:

“Ryan Bingham: [on getting through airport security] Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip-on shoes. Gotta love ’em.

Natalie Keener: That’s racist.

Ryan Bingham: I’m like my mother; I stereotype. It’s faster”

During breakfast, Natalie begins to inquire about Ryan’s obsessive desire to accumulate frequent flyer miles. He explains how he refuses to spend any of his own money unless it earns him more frequent flyer miles. In this respect, Bingham resembles homo economicus: Bingham is a rational, self-interested individual, who is attempting to maximize utility through consumption. In “The Bourgeois Virtues,” Deirdre McCloskey argues that this consumerism has “refined” society. Robert Fogel, an economic historian, echoes McCloskey’s sentiment, and claims that these “amenities broaden the mind, enrich the soul and relieve the monotony of much ‘earnwork’ and goes further to claim that, ‘Today people are increasingly concerned with the meaning of their lives’ ” (McCloskey). This largely speaks true to Ryan’s perception of his own life, as well as the fictional idealism that inspires his motivational speaking. However, Karl Polanyi and even Adam Ferguson illustrate that the utility-maximizing conception of human nature in contemporary society is inadequate. As Ferguson intimates, “savages” do not operate in terms of utility maximization nor do they lust after status or power:

“Men are so far from valuing society on account of its mere external conveniencies, that they are commonly most attached where those conveniencies are least frequent; and are there most faithful, where the tribute of their allegiance . . . meets with the greatest difficulties.” (Ferguson, 1782, Part 2, III)

Similarly Polanyi intimates that the market effectively separates man from society. It separates land (habitation versus improvement), labor (status versus subsistence), and money (purchasing power versus commodity money). As Robert Kuttner illustrates in his novel Everything For Sale, commodification has permeated every aspect of our social lives. What this illustrates in respect to the film is that commodification creates “simulacrum”; the modern man has become comfortable and stimulated by these “perversions of reality” and this will inevitably result in alienation and disillusion. In essence, since these negative social consequences are derived from the market, Polanyi’s “market society” is validated:

“The subsequent work of social anthropology proved him emphatically right . . . man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets.” (Polanyi 1957).

While this may be a stretch, I believe that Reitman’s personal naiveté and his “inheritance” through his father’s success in Hollywood allowed him to attain a directorial position. The studios trusted Ivan Reitman because of his numerous box-office successes. Ivan Reitman knew he was taking a risk on Jason Reitman’s directorial début, the poignant satire Thank You for Smoking, but the film’s success validated Jason Reitman as a director in his own right. For Reitman, it appears the goal of Up in the Air was to draw audiences in with the allure of high-paid actors and gorgeous cinematography, and “ground” them in the reality that this lavish lifestyle ultimately ends in alienation. For example, during a promotional event, Up in the Air was screened on an exclusive American Airlines flight; among those invited were numerous members of the press and representatives from American Airlines (Ellwood 2009). Reitman also negotiated the use of product placement (Chrysler, Hertz, American Airlines, and Hilton Hotels) by exchanging the commercial exposure for filming locations at various airport areas and hotels (Hampp 2008). What this illustrates is that profit is still an immense motivation for directors like Jason Reitman. Reitman needed his films to be commercial successes in order to validate his directorial position, and his desire for fame and success appear to have clouded the movie’s poignant critique of economic liberalism by submerging it in cheap promotional ploys.

While Up in the Air is an excellent film, the movie’s ending gives Ryan Bingham’s character moral dualism. Bingham’s economic success allows him to improve Natalie Keener’s fate; his recommendation earns her another job in San Francisco. But this same economic success has left him alone and alienated from his own family in Omaha. Perhaps Reitman is intimating that McCloskey’s argument of refinement has some truth. I interpret Up in the Air’s “implicit meaning” as a critique of the staunch self-interest and utility maximization that illustrates that while we can become “refined” through commercial society, this refinement alienates us from our family and our community and does little to cultivate our morality. But Reitman does not demonize this lifestyle; instead he supports it, and even seems to embrace it.

At the beginning of the paper, I illustrate how New Hollywood marked the end of studio executives’ iron-fisted rule over film production and the rise in market power of Hollywood directors, writers, and actors. I hypothesized that this would constitute, as many film theorists have intimated, “auteurism” or artistic integrity in Hollywood film production; however, I believe that these former laborers (directors, writers, eg.) have not created a more “refined” cinema, but merely gained market power in the Hollywood industry. The result is the continued commodification of film. The directors, writers, and producers who gained immense popularity in the 1970s have merely attempted to repeat their initial box office successes, to little avail. The result is homogenized film, in which the same directors, writers, producers, and actors cyclically hash out film after film, each more shallow and lackluster than the one before it. The same issues that plagued the executives of Hollywood’s Golden Era continue to plague New Hollywood, and continue today.

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