And what of us in the West, and particularly in America? Do we have any image that explains our situation as well as Gulag does that of Russia? I am afraid there is an image, most unflattering to us, which is almost our equivalent of Gulag. It is “Disneyland” an image which exemplifies our carefree love of “fun” (a most un-Christian word!), our lack of seriousness, our living in a literal fool’s paradise, unaware or barely aware of the real meaning and seriousness of life.
I have labored for years to understand this word of wisdom from one my most formative of spiritual fathers. The truth of it resonated deeply upon first hearing it, but I have had great difficulty articulating the opinion to those outside of Orthodox Christian influence. After all, Disney means more to us Americans than just another movie theater company. It is a whole experience, a place of pilgrimage, even a complete view of the salvation of mankind, and this was finally made much clearer to me recently by Disney’s own excellent apologetic for its dogma, Saving Mr. Banks.
I say “excellent” not because I agree with its humanistic philosophy, but only because it is an excellently told story, one that had me in sympathetic tears at some moments. I was even, in the words of the chief protagonist, “careening like a kamikaze towards a happy ending,” until I was stopped dead by Walt’s view of salvation, remembrance and immortality. He tells P. L. Travers at the end of the movie, “I don’t want my life dictated by the past… George Banks is saved not in real life but in imagination. And that’s what storytellers do: Restore order and instil hope through imagination.”
I want to believe him because I have been won over by his winsome personality, his informal demeanor, and his compelling characters. But hidden deep within this eschatology is a blind spot to fallen human nature, that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. And Disney’s desire to have salvation sola felicitate (by happiness alone) makes his real life ironically quite unhappy and his eventual death alone and almost unremarkable. His remains were cremated and his funeral was attended by only a few close family members.
Still, the movie has some great moments that are worth extolling. I found myself wishing that Travers had conquered Disney and kept her rights to Mary Poppins who she described as “the very enemy of whimsy and sentiment, one who doesn’t sugarcoat darkness, but deals in honesty.” It was an important epiphany when Disney and company realize that Poppins did not come to save the children, but the adult George Banks with whom Walt personally identifies. Disney himself adds the truth that fairytales are really for adults. But instead of leaving fairy tales in all their healing potency whole, he has typically reinterpreted them into his own distorted image, just like he did to P. L. Travers literary character Mary Poppins.
So, it is this aspect of Walt’s legacy that makes his Disneyland ironically so much like the Russian Gulag. For in both, human suffering has no real meaning beyond the grave, but exists in a kind of vacuum that one cannot transfigure or transcend but only escape like a prisoner making a desperate run for freedom. It is an illusory freedom that lasts no longer than an amusement park ride, for the only true and lasting freedom comes from the Son who will set you free indeed.