“Lava” in the Western World: Justice Kennedy and Pixar

Yesterday afternoon I watched Inside Out. You’ll get more from me about that later, but for right now I want to write a bit about “Lava,” the short, and the weird coincidence that I saw it on the day of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision.

Aesthetically “Lava” is a mixed bag–or rather, a bag with one great thing and one awful thing in it. The designs for the two volcanic main characters are charming, lovely, and just weird enough. But the short tells a simple story–it could easily have been wordless, with just a few tweaks–and a narrator sings us the entire plot. It’s intrusive, and because the lyrics are so bland it turns a simple fable banal.

The fable is this (spoilers for a five-minute film, I guess): A volcano lives all alone in the middle of the ocean. He’s surrounded by pairs of animals: two leaping dolphins, two flying seabirds, etc. Every day he sings about how much he longs for “someone to lava.” (If you did this as a wordless short you could still have him sing–he could either sing his actual song, and have those be the short’s only words, or he could warble wordlessly.) The years pass, he’s still alone, and he becomes grayer and colder, eventually sinking into the sea. But lo! a lady volcano has heard his song. Love gives her the strength to explode up above the water. Volcanette and volcano are united, in a cataclysm of underwater lava, and snuggle together as one island, forever and ever.

Several elements of this sweet little short were weirdly resonant with the view of love and marriage expressed in Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell. Hold on now: I’m not saying Pixar used these heterosexual land formations to make a point or change the culture. I’m saying “Lava” reflects the fears, longings, blind spots, and expectations of the culture we already have.

The villain of “Lava” is loneliness. This is the terrible fate that our hero must escape. We feel the shakiness of our communal bonds, and worry that we won’t find anyone willing to hold onto us: As parents divorce, friends move across the country, extended family members drift into mere Facebook-friend status, we fear that all people are islands.

The only way to vanquish loneliness, in “Lava” and in the culture that created it, is through romantic love. Love between a lady volcano and a man volcano exists to rescue us from loneliness. There are no other forms of love depicted in the short: no families, for example. The dolphins and the seabirds have no calves or chicks. Romantic love not only exists to free us from the terror of loneliness; it also stops there, and has no obvious fruit beyond the happiness of the lovers.

This image of the world, in which everyone is either coupled-up or bereft, is the way life feels for most people today, I think. Huge swathes of our culture, from our health-insurance policies to our church ministries, are set up as if the one way that adults give and receive love, care, and kinship is through romantic love, and marriage is the institution which ratifies and fulfills that love.

Without the possibility of romantic companionship–not marriage, since Americans increasingly don’t actually marry, but the kind of relationship that could become marriage if we were richer or older or trusted each other a little more; the kind of relationship marriage ratifies–we must face life completely alone.

You guys know that this is the vision of life that I’m constantly trying to challenge. I wrote my book because I don’t think a life without the expectation of sex or romance must be a life without love, care, and kinship. But I also wrote my book because so often a celibate* life is a life of loneliness. Nobody will tell you how to live this way. Everybody will tell you that real love and real companionship are romantic and marital.

(* meaning, here, unmarried and pretty thoroughly not seeking or expecting marriage. We need a word for this.)

And the last thing that really struck me about “Lava” is the choice of metaphor. Volcanos are not cute. (When the man-volcano exploded up from the ocean, I couldn’t help thinking, “…And twenty million people died that day”!) Lava can be immensely fruitful–correct me if I’m wrong, but I think lava enriches soil?–but it can be deadly. A volcano’s effects can be as beautiful as obsidian or as horrifying as a rain of ash.

This sounds like nothing so much as eros. And frankly, it sounds most of all like heterosexual eros. Sexual desire–that unimaginably hot, glowing vein down the center of the soul–can lead to a child’s shaky first steps, toddling from mother’s arms to father’s. Or it can lead to a woman alone, her hands shaking as she turns the pages of a magazine in an abortion-clinic waiting room. Eros can bind the sexes together, turning the betrayals and blame of Eden into long years of mutual forgiveness and repentance. Or it can allow men to use, hurt, and discard women in a profoundly personal way. (And yes, sometimes the other way around, but factors from misogyny to testosterone mean that one side of the ledger is much redder than the other.) The belief that eros can flower into promise-making is as old as the Song of Songs, but the promises exist to draw us beyond eros alone: to help us act rightly by one another and our children, when desire fades.

If I can paint with ridiculously broad strokes here (y’all, I’m doing exegesis of a Pixar fable about a singing volcano, this isn’t my dissertation): We’ve moved from viewing marriage as an institution that restrains heterosexual eros (both premarital and marital sexuality) and helps it to be somewhat more fruitful and less destructive than it would be otherwise, to viewing marriage as the solution to the problem of aloneness, the solution to personal isolation and social fragmentation. Marriage as constraint has become marriage as comfort, perhaps marriage as self-expression, even marriage as release. Marriage is the reward for achieving responsible love, rather than the institution that helps us, slowly, make our love responsible.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine how well marriage fulfills these new functions. What I do wonder is: What actually restrains our eros now? I do not believe our volcanos have grown cute. I don’t believe we have tamed the fierce god Eros. But I think perhaps we have to believe that we’ve tamed him, because he is the only guide we’ve been given to lasting love.

ETA: Uh I’m not happy with the ending of this post–basically the last two paragraphs–and I have other stuff to say too. So watch the skies, I’ll be arguing with myself in a day or so. LATER: Here it is!


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