C.S. Lewis and the Tao of "The Island"
- Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Hope of Heaven
In addition to an artificial Tao to provide a semblance of order, the clones are also pacified by hope for a false heaven. The clones are kept in ignorance about God. When McCord, a worker who befriends Lincoln, uses the word "God," Lincoln's response is, "What's god?" An alternative spirituality is needed that won't lead to transcendent questions. Clones are imprinted at "birth" with the phrase, "You want to go to the Island." The highlight of the clone's existence is the Lottery – a seemingly random selection of one or more citizens chosen to leave the sterile facility to luxuriate in tropical splendor. The chance of being chosen to go to the Island serves to pacify the clones by giving their lives direction and hope. It is all a lie – the equivalent (later in the film, chillingly explored) of Holocaust-era Jews being told they were going to take a shower when they were really on their way to be gassed.
In Lewis' sermon "The Weight of Glory," he discusses the promises of modern education – with an emphasis on technology. Lewis explains that the goal of modernists is to get people to believe that earth can be made into heaven, but that it will take a long time (no one really knows how long). All the while the Conditioners distract their pupils from thinking too much about death – for that would prove the whole thing a sham.
It is not only the clones that have bought the lie – the customers of the "insurance policy" have as well. Merrick, in a slick sales pitch, promises them smoother skin, a new set of lungs, and (perhaps) 70 extra years of life. But no matter how well his technology works, as Lewis notes, "each generation would lose it [the benefits] by death."
Masking the Lie
Since the Conditioners do not believe in an afterlife, they fear death and want to prolong their earthly lives at any cost – including the death of others, as long as it benefits the Conditioners. Throughout the film, the common explanation as to why people would pay millions of dollars to create a clone is that "people will do anything to live." And to this I would add, "As long as they do not have to look at the process."
The first mask that makes the clone farm possible is dehumanization. In describing the clones, choosing words for their rhetorical power, rather than their denotative power, scientists like Merrick can comfort clients while killing clones. From the introductory sales meeting, Merrick refers to the clones with the dehumanizing term, "agnates." Later in the film they are described as products, tools, and as beings without souls.
The second mask is "the greater good." Merrick, trying to convince security troubleshooter Albert Laurent of the benefits of the clones, says that clones represent "the Holy Grail" of science and that in a couple of years he will be able to cure "children's leukemia." But Laurent is not fooled. He bears a mark, branded on his hand to identify him as a subhuman after his father was on the losing side of a war. He knows that all the talk of cures is really about the business of killing. One person must die in order for another person to live. Laurent is also keenly aware of the "God complex" driving the doctor.
The third mask is misdirection. Normal people naturally abhor opportunistic killing. So Merrick describes the agnates as blobs of tissue, obscuring their true humanity. Merrick manufactures and then literally hides the clones out of sight in an old bunker in the desert. When Lincoln escapes and confronts McCord with the idea of going public, McCord's response is that the wealthy elites who ordered them don't care and don't want to see. He describes it as wanting to eat a burger, but not wanting to meet the cow.
Bringing It Home
Is the Conditioner culture exemplified in "The Island" really so far removed from our own? There are multiple stories in the news concerning parents who conceive additional children for the stated purpose of using these children as organ donors. As early as 1997, Science magazine ran a brief article speculating on the possibility of growing anencephalic clones – clones without brains – to be used for spare parts. People in the West are being promised longer, better lives through embryonic stem-cell research and fetal tissue experimentation. As Lewis predicted, we are seeing that humankind's conquest of nature is nature's conquest of humankind. When we abandon God's admonition that we are His image bearers by treating humans as mere animal parts to be harvested, humans are not elevated, but debased.
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