Continuing my run of posts reflecting upon my recent viewing of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I would now like to think about the sedative scene in Cassavetes’ film as it relates to the sedative scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.
I have already written about the way the sedation scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice forces the viewer to sin. We, the viewers, are made so uncomfortable by the Alexander’s wife’s horrible, panicked yelling that we long for nothing more desperately than for her to shut up, and so we are gratified when Victor finally gives her the sedative. We get so swept up in the unpleasantness of the moment that we come to desire what, in hindsight, is not at all what we should desire. The wife’s response to the threat of nuclear warfare is, in its own way, entirely rational and understandable: the news is horrible, and too much for her. Does this mean she needs to be sedated, for her own good? Or is it simply that we project our own desires as her needs so that we may think of our selfishness as noble? In this case, I think it is the latter.
In the Tarkovsky scene, the object of our attention (the hysterical wife) is a relatively peripheral character, though there are so few characters that none is of little importance. Her breakdown and sedation serves to exemplify the concept of sin as that which is unnecessary, given voice (literally) earlier in the film—it is only in this scene that the impact of those words is fully felt. This scene, if we realize how it has made us sin, prepares us for Alexander’s sacrifice to follow. In this way, the scene marks a turning point in the film: we are brought to an awareness of our own wretchedness just in time to sympathize with Alexander as he confesses his own wretchedness to God.
The scene in A Woman Under the Influence is similarly uncomfortable, and similarly marks a crucial turning point in the film, yet it works quite differently from the scene in Tarkovsky’s film. The primary source of discomfort here is not Mabel, who is being sedated, but Margaret, whose repeated calls for Dr. Zepp to “do something” (because Mabel is “crazy”) are nauseating, a source of physical revulsion. But it is also uncomfortable for a second reason, which may become apparent only on a second viewing: we feel the injustice of what is being done to Mabel. We come to see just how cornered she is, and for no justifiable reason. We are made uncomfortable in a new way: we see the sick overrunning the healthy. (A sort of Nietzschean disgust.)
When we next see Mabel again, she is traumatized, having been locked away for six months in a place whose horrors of which we get a glimpse before, of course, Mabel is made to shut up, since acknowledging those horrors would be too “impolite” for a party. In what follows, we get the sense that the distinction between Mabel’s treatment in the asylum and her treatment at home is a difference only in degree, and perhaps not a great degree at that. The sedative scene thus marks a decisive turn in Mabel’s life: her being sedated marks the moment at which the world finally succeeds in breaking her, in which insanity finally prevails.
By contrast, the sedative scene in The Sacrifice works to prime the viewer, to make us more sympathetic to Alexander’s apparently “mad” actions to follow. By forcing us to sin and making us aware of our own wretchedness, Tarkovsky brings us closer to Alexander, puts us in a position to understand him, if only marginally. But, in a way, beyond this difference, the sedative scene in A Woman Under the Influence plays a similar role: if there is one scene in the film that proves that Mabel is not crazy, it is the sedative scene.
Sedation is, in the worlds at large of both films, seen as a way of dealing with insanity, whether that insanity is temporary or a lasting condition. But, in both films, the scenes in which sedation plays a role are scenes in which we are prepared or made to realize that what we would normally take for insanity is perhaps the height of human freedom. Tarkovsky and Cassavetes have very different visions of what that freedom is, but they share this: sedation will lead us astray.
I have a close friend who is a former admirer of Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror. Yesterday, however, he watched the film again and was unable to enjoy it—quite the travesty. After some discussion, he requested that I write something about the film. This post is my attempt to do so. Every attempt I’ve ever made to write about why I find the film so powerful has failed, so I’ll begin this post simply with the hope of understanding one puzzling feature about the film, and if it develops into something that, in addition, explains some small portion of the film’s appeal, even better.
Many details of the film, even details considered at a fairly broad level (e.g. the existence of certain scenes) are difficult to understand. The movement of the film is slow and meandering, moving back and forth in time, and I confess that some scenes remain opaque to me. The film as a whole, however, is fairly simple. Tarkovsky relates the following anecdote in an interview:
One day, during a public debate organized after a screening the discussion dragged on and on. After midnight, a cleaning woman arrived to clean the screening room, wanting to throw us out. She had seen the film earlier and she didn’t understand why we were arguing for such a long time about The Mirror. She told us, “Everything is quite simple, someone fell ill and was afraid of dying. He remembered, all of a sudden, all the pain he’d inflicted on others, and he wanted to atone for it, to ask to be pardoned.” This simple woman had understood it all, she had grasped the repentance in the film.
So there it is, very simple. But the details are still puzzling and one must come to grips with them. The aspect of the film I wish to focus on is the double appearance of Dostoevsky, once in person and once by name.
To get a foothold on this double appearance, one first needs to note the most prominent doubling in the film: the same actress plays both the narrator’s mother and his wife. This is given an explanation in the middle of the film, when the narrator tells his wife that he cannot think of his mother without giving to her (his mother) her (his wife’s) face. Nevertheless, the differences between them are apparent: it is a credit to the actress, Margarita Terekhova, that when she first appears as the wife, you can tell she is playing a new role simply because she is making a face that the mother would never make.
Dostoevsky appears once in connection with the mother, and once in connection with the wife. A brief description of the scenes, first. I shall focus primarily on Dostoevsky’s role, and assume familiarity with the film.
The mother. The scene takes place at the printing house where his mother worked. The scene cannot be a straightforward recollection, since the narrator was not present and was just a child, but presumably he learned about it somewhere and is now “remembering” it as if he had been there. His mother feared she had made a mistake in proofing an important edition of a book, and so checks the proofs and finds that everything is alright. As she goes to check the proofs, a man wordlessly offers to do it for her, but she insists on doing it herself. The man walks away with the remark, “Everyone’s rushing. Nobody’s got any time.”
After returning to her desk, she is berated by her boss, who compares her to Maria Timofeyevna, Captain Lebyadkin’s sister. Timofeyevna is always making demands, and her brother beats her for them. These, it turns out, are characters in a story written by the man who made the remark above (and who is present in this scene, silently watching), referred to by the boss as “Fyodor Mikhailovitch”. The man is thus identified as Dostoevsky, though the last name is never mentioned. (Maria and Lebyadkin are characters in his novel Demons, which, alas, I have not read.) The boss then draws the true moral of the comparison: her (the mother’s) ex-husband was right to leave her (he has gone off to the war and not returned, but is not dead), and, “as for your children, you will definitely make them miserable.”
The wife. The narrator and his wife are arguing about their son, Ignat. The narrator is both ridiculing his son (the flunk) and requesting that he (the son) be allowed to live with him (the narrator). One reason is that (as he has expressed earlier), he thinks a single woman is not up to the task of raising a son: she will make Ignat miserable. The options, as he sees them, are thus: (a) Ignat lives with him, or (b) his wife remarries. In this scene, his wife asks whether she should marry this man she has been seeing, a writer named “Dostoyevsky”—here only the last name is given. The narrator brushes him off as talentless, but nonetheless later tells his ex-wife that she should (even must) marry him.
A number of connections emerge between the two scenes. The narrator suggests that Ignat has told his mother that he would like to live with his father, which the wife disputes. The narrator asks her if she thinks he has simply invented this claim for his own pleasure—an accusation strikingly akin to the accusation leveled against his mother by her boss. Moreover, the second scene includes a reference to Lisa’s death—Lisa was a coworker of his mother. The wife suggests that he call his mother, who was (it is hinted) depressed after the death of her friend. This phone call we have already seen earlier in the film, in the scene immediately preceding the printing house scene. Connecting these recollections to the external events of which they are recollections, then, we can see the encounter with his wife as the cause of his phone call with his mother, which in turn drives the very existence of the “recollection” of the printing house scene.
This provides interesting insight into the printing house scene, which, for reasons mentioned, is as much construction as memory. Much of what occurs must have been supplied by the narrator, for he simply could not have learned about the scene in the requisite amount of detail (at least, it is very unlikely). We can see the construction as shaped by recurrent concerns, worries that developed, perhaps unconsciously, in childhood, and which are coming into view more fully later in life. Why should a scene in which his mother is told she will surely make her children miserable be present at all in a film in which the narrator is remembering instances where he has caused someone pain? In fact, not every scene is such a recollection, but it’s a worthy question to ask nonetheless. Not because he blames his mother for making him miserable (perhaps he does, or once did, and perhaps this belief in part led to his estrangement from his mother, and so to pain he caused her), but because he is worried that her life was ruined because of him. In the later scene, his wife says as much: she asks what kind of relationship he wants with his mother, and suggests that one reason that relationship isn’t realized is precisely because he is so worried. But there is also another worry: the narrator in effect takes on the role of his mother’s boss by suggesting his wife, so long as she remains unmarried, is unfit to raise Ignat. In constructing a scene in which his mother’s boss leveled just that insult at his mother, he is inserting his own worry about his own children. Moreover, because he sees it in the third person, because the boss is not him, but someone else, perhaps he is better able to empathize with his mother, and thus by analogy his wife.
In this way, the issues of these two scenes are intertwined, and the scenes can to a significant extent be seen as mirror images—distorted and different in detail, perhaps, but at root the same. This is abstractly represented by the fact that Dostoevsky, who is inserted into both scenes (Dostoevsky the historical author was in fact dead before either took place), is called by his first name and patronymic in the first scene, and by his last name in the second. What is begun and left open in the first scene is completed in the second.
Which leads to the question, why Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky certainly explored the connection between repentance and illness, and the doctor in the penultimate scene intimates that the narrator’s illness is one of those peculiarly Russian illnesses of the spirit that become illnesses of the body, wasting it away. And it is also worth noting that Tarkovsky, throughout the 1970s, tried and failed to make a film version of The Idiot—and the image of the Holy Fool that that book exemplifies appears repeatedly in Tarkovsky’s films—although not in The Mirror.
Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the crimes for which the narrator must repent are not anything like murder—they are not extraordinary at all. Though perhaps more shamefully callous than most people at times (but perhaps not), nothing that the narrator has done to his family is particularly striking. Tarkovsky reveals how these same feelings and regrets can consume a man even if his crimes are entirely ordinary.
Symbols, in Tarkovsky, do not have fixed meanings. They do not refer to anything outside themselves: an idea, an event, whatever. Instead, they function more like both centers of attraction and jumping off points. Themes coalesce around them, and they serve as launching pads for the various particularities of his films. So too the figure of Dostoevsky: it situates the film in a particular tradition, links together two crucial scenes, and encourages us to read the film in light of Dostoevskian concerns. Ultimately, however, what matters is to feel the presence of Dostoevsky in the life of the narrator: haunting his childhood and his ambiguous relationship with his mother, haunting his adulthood and his selfish disregard of his former wife and his child. What matters is to feel the foolishness of his dismissal of Dostoevsky as a writer with no talent who is not read, foolishness made apparent by the bare backbone plot of the film, as captured by the cleaning woman. Dostoevsky is a presence in the narrator’s life, functioning to link together events, memories, and worries as he lies dying. He is a specter hovering over the film.
In my post yesterday on Nietzsche’s ineffable virtue, I ended by raising the issue of how we can make sense of Nietzsche’s writing books at all if virtue cannot be named. After all, the reason the virtue cannot be named is that purity and communication are incompatible goals. In that post, I offered a few solutions to the problem. I think, however, that there is a larger issue, one that lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy. How is an individualistic philosophy like Nietzsche’s, one that privileges purity over communication, possible, given that humans are ineluctably social animals?
This is really a deep problem for Nietzsche, though not at all one of which he was unaware. In fact, I think consideration of this problem might help to make sense of a great many features of his philosophy, including why it is so essential to move beyond good and evil. In this post I want to explore this issue, not just from the perspective of Nietzsche exegesis, but with a view toward understanding his sort of individualism more generally. As such, I’ll also draw a good bit on the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I will discuss Andrei Tarkovsky as well, because I can. Ultimately, we will see that such individualism needs its own vision about how social interactions should be organized.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra gives several descriptions of his highest virtue. In the previous post, I focused on his conception of the highest virtue as ineffable, private. Exclusive emphasis on that conception leads to the tension between virtue and sociality that I raised above. To resolve this tension we need to look at another, explicitly social conception of the highest virtue, which Zarathustra presents in his speech “On the Bestowing Virtue”. (I am using the Del Caro translation, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy.)
There, Zarathustra speaks, “Uncommon is the highest virtue and useless, it is gleaming and mild in its luster: a bestowing virtue is the highest virtue” (56). This virtue is uncommon—indeed unique, given its ineffability—useless (more on this later) and bestowing. What is a bestowing virtue? Zarathustra goes on: “This is your thirst: to become sacrifices and gifts yourselves, and therefore you thirst to amass all riches in your soul” (56). To possess a bestowing virtue is to make a sacrifice and gift of oneself. So the question becomes: what is a gift?
We have already seen that a gift, for Nietzsche, is uncommon and useless. Here I want to bring Emerson and Tarkovsky into play, for both of them have thoughts about gift giving that are congenial to the Nietzschean picture, and can help to expand our conception of gift giving. Emerson, in his second series of essays, wrote a very short piece entitled “Gifts”. (I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays & Lectures.) In this essay, Emerson bemoans gifts of rings and jewels, which are not gifts, but mere “apologies for gifts” (536). He continues: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me” (536). Furthermore, all gift giving ought to be reciprocal: “The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537). And this, Emerson thinks, speaks to “the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts” (537).
Emerson and Nietzsche, then, converge on several points. A gift is a form of sacrifice, and it is beautiful, not useful. It should flow out of oneself, not out of social obligation or a view to what the other person wants or needs. A gift, then, is something quite removed from the domain of prudence.
This view of gifts is also that of Andrei Tarkovsky, in his film The Sacrifice. Early in the film, Otto the postman gives a gift to Alexander: a map of the world from several centuries ago. If you wish to find your way around in the world, it is quite useless, but it is beautiful and uncommon, and the sort of thing that only a man of Otto’s interests and eccentricities is likely to have to give as a gift. Furthermore, the gift is a sacrifice—Otto explicitly says that every gift is a sacrifice.
While I think my previous post on the relation between Nietzsche and Tarkovsky must be judged a failure on the whole, I think a few points I made are worth remembering. One issue people have in interpreting the film is the apparent injustice of Alexander’s sacrifice: surely he is wrong his son, at the very least. And what does his stopping speaking and giving up contact with his son have to do with averting nuclear warfare? Part of what drives these questions is a failure to appreciate the character of gift giving and self-sacrifice, of making a gift of oneself (to God, in this case). It is precisely the uselessness and imprudence of the gift that makes it appropriate and beautiful—and if you cannot see the beauty of Alexander’s sacrifice, I do not believe you watched the film very well. Recall Emerson: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” That is precisely why it is his voice and his son that Alexander must sacrifice.
Among these three poets we can thus see a shared vision of gift giving as a form of self-sacrifice, useless and beautiful. One way my prior analysis of Tarkovsky’s film went wrong was that I subsumed it too much under Kierkegaardian concepts, particularly that of a teleological suspension of the ethical. What was right in this, however, is the fact that acts of giving and self-sacrifice, of the sort Nietzsche, Emerson, and Tarkovsky conceive, are not captured by ethical categories. Ethics can be considered to have a positive role in society, that of making people useful to one another, as well as a negative role, that of preventing people from harming one another. Different ethical systems vary in which they emphasize, but broadly speaking they center around these aims—particularly the non-theistic ethics of today.
In this way, ethics is like an extension of manners and etiquette. It is a lubricant for society. As Emerson describes it in his essay “Manners” (517):
Manners aim to facilitate life, to get rid of impediments, and bring the man pure to energize. They aid our dealing and conversation, as a railway aids travelling, by getting rid of all avoidable obstructions of the road, and leaving nothing to be conquered but pure space.
Here manners (and by extension, ethics) are conceived as something primarily useful, and thus quite unlike gifts in the sense I’ve been considering. Moreover, as Emerson bemoaned time and again, these social rules create obligations, obligations that draw the poet away from himself. Just consider our usual etiquette of favors: I do you a favor, now you owe me one, and I now have a certain power over you. Gift giving, however, cannot create obligations in this way, because gift-giving, for Emerson, is always already reciprocal. Again: “The gift, to be true, must the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537, emphasis added).
Gift giving is a form of sacrifice: there is no expectation of reciprocation, of receiving anything in return. It is a sort of inner compulsion, driven by a virtue that wishes to bestow itself. It is not practical, and it cannot create social obligations. Thus gift giving is a practice that is situated beyond good and evil, where morality is seen as a form of mutual backscratching (which is how Nietzsche saw it).
Nietzsche’s amoralism, them, is not simply nihilistic destruction, but is an attempt to replace one form of social interaction, the semi-contractual form of ethical interaction, with social interaction as a form of gift giving. “You compel all things to and into yourselves, so that they may gush back from your well as the gifts of your love” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 56).
Sociality is thus not totally lost for Nietzsche, but it can still be a lonely prospect for the individualist, as Nietzsche’s life bears out. This loneliness occurs because of the necessarily reciprocal nature of giving gifts. I can only be said to receive your gift and your sacrifice if I also have a gift and sacrifice for you. One of the learning processes Zarathustra must go through over the course of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is learning to find an audience. Initially he tries to address public crowds, and meets only with mockery. His sacrifice is there, but there is no one to receive it. As the book progresses, he must learn to find his friends—those who can receive his gift, and who bring gifts of their own.
Interestingly, Nietzsche considered Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be his gift to the world, and it is worthwhile to reflect on its enigmatic subtitle in this context. (What I will say will of course not exhaust the meaning of that subtitle.) The book is “A Book for All and None”. As a book, it is written in a public language and is thus accessible to all (in principle, of course not in practice). But it must be received as a gift—in that sense it can only be received by someone who can reciprocate, who has a gift and sacrifice of his own. But to do that, one must have a highest virtue of one’s own, a virtue that is not Zarathustra’s. To be able to reciprocate, then, one must reject, must turn away from Zarathustra’s teaching. “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 59). So it is a book for none—only by rejecting it can it be received.
Nietzschean sociality is thus based on friendship, but not a friendship based on mutual benefit. Rather, it is a friendship based on spontaneous, internally compelled gift giving and self-sacrifice. It is lonely, for friends are hard to find—harder even than disciples. The flip side is that a few friends suffice, and the resulting interactions are beautiful in all their uselessness. I’ll let Emerson have the final word, from “Manners” (522):
We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day together, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus. No degree of affection need invade this religion.
From a book of his interviews:
Q: In the opinion of some there is in The Sacrifice a certain Bergmanesque atmosphere. Do you acknowledge the Swedish director’s influence or is it due to the spiritual atmosphere of the location where the film was shot?
T: I don’t agree at all. When Bergman speaks of God it’s to say that he is silent, that he’s not there. Hence, there can be no comparison with me. These are just superficial criticisms, saying this because the lead actor also performs for Bergman, or because in my film there’s a Swedish landscape, none of them having understood anything about Bergman. And they must not know what existentialism is, since Bergman is much closer to Kierkegaard than to the problem of religion.
Given that my analysis of The Sacrifice relied heavily on Kierkegaard, I think this casts it seriously into doubt. It is possible that Tarkovsky misunderstood Kierkegaard, and that they really are sympathetic minds, but in any case I will have to think more about my understanding of The Sacrifice. Since that’s a good excuse to watch it more and write about it more, I can’t be too displeased.
A brief glance at the categories into which my posts on this blog fall will reveal that I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I have once before written a post on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice. That film opens with a scene in which Nietzsche is discussed prominently, so it should come as no surprise that I have for some time been interested in writing a post about the role of Nietzsche in that film. I have had trouble writing it, however, always getting hung up on one particular point. This morning, while reading Kierkegaard’s essay on crop rotation (in Either/Or, Part I), I found what I needed.
What here interests me is a mistaken understanding of Nietzsche that a character in the film espouses—and then corrects. Gino Moliterno has written an interesting essay on the role of Nietzsche in the film, but he neglects to discuss the fact that Otto the mailman, in expounding Zarathustra’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, first gets the nature of such recurrence wrong. Since that detail is in the film, I assume it is important, and so Moliterno’s discussion, while helpful, is not enough.
After the credits sequence, the background of which is (visually) Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi and (aurally) the “Erbarme Dich” aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, we see Alexander (the primary character Tarkovsky follows in the film) planting a barren Japanese tree with the help of his son. As they work, Alexander muses on the importance of rituals. He is interrupted by a shout from off-screen, which turns out to belong to Otto the postman, bringing him a letter and good tidings on his birthday. In the letter (which is full of references to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) is the line, “God grant you joy, health, and peace,” which prompts Otto’s question, “say, how is your relationship to God?” (I do not know whether the strange choice of “to God” rather than “with God” is intentional or an oddity of the translation.) This garners the response, “non-existent.”
Following this, the discussion slowly turns to Nietzsche, as Otto brings up the “peculiar notion” of the dwarf that made Zarathustra faint. Otto professes not to be an expert on Nietzsche, merely someone interested in him, who gets “silly things in my head, things like this ‘eternal recurrence.’” Otto describes it:
We live; we have our ups and downs. We hope. We wait for something. We hope; we lose hope; we move closer to death. Finally, we die… and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just a wee, wee bit different, but it’s still so hopeless, and we don’t know why. Yes… No, I mean: really, it’s quite the same, literally the same. Just the next performance, so to speak. If I’d made it all, I guess I’d have done things the same way. Funny, eh?
As he speaks, two other interesting things are going on. First, it is thundering, and second, Alexander’s son is playing a prank on Otto, tying his bike to a bush. Alexander scoffs at Otto, but Otto affirms that he does believe in “his” dwarf and “his” recurrence, adding that if he truly believes, it will be so: “Believe that it hath been given, and it shall be given unto you.” Otto then excuses himself: he must go home and think of a gift. He begins to ride off, falls victim to the prank, and, after falling off his bike, turns back, raises his arms in the air, and jumps twice, grinning. Then he rides off. All of this takes place in a single shot.
It is useful at this point to see Nietzsche’s own statement of the eternal recurrence. There are several, but the most compact and explicit I think is that in The Gay Science. While Otto has clearly read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and I suspect has not read The Gay Science, my interest is in exploring how Otto’s mistake relates to what Nietzsche actually believes, so I don’t see a need to limit myself to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In book four, §341 of The Gay Science, a section entitled “The Heaviest Weight”, Nietzsche writes:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sight and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing: “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the heaviest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
This is an incredibly rich passage and I will explain my understanding of it shortly. First, however, I want briefly to return to The Sacrifice. The dwarf in Thus Spoke Zarathustra jumps on Zarathustra’s back and fills his mind with leaden thoughts, and Zarathustra must fight to throw him off. Zarathustra does this by finally thinking what he has been reluctant to think, namely, the eternal recurrence.
With this in mind, we can start to see a number of interesting parallels in The Sacrifice. When Otto jumps after falling off the bike, the image he presents is something between a demon and a dwarf. He is not a frightening figure like the demon of The Gay Science, but he has made the demon’s suggestion: “This life as you now live it and have lived it…” And Alexander, likewise, is reluctant to think this thought; his immediate response is to scoff. Moreover, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Alexander is lonely and cut off from those around him, so it seems he is ripe for such an apparition. The parallels are, of course, not perfect, but then Alexander is not Zarathustra, and what is appropriate for Zarathustra is not what is appropriate for Alexander. Zarathustra has his dwarf; Nietzsche has his demon; Alexander has Otto. A heavy weight lies on Alexander, and only by facing up to the eternal recurrence can he throw it off. Or so, at least, I suggest.
But this leaves three questions unanswered: What is the eternal recurrence? Why does Otto initially get it wrong? And how, if at all, does Alexander face up to the thought in the rest of the film? I shall take these up in turn.
Books can be and have been written about what, exactly, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence means. Kathleen Higgins’ Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a particularly good one. What I can offer here is only a thoroughly imperfect sketch of some crucial points, and not a full analysis. With that caveat out of the way: The first thing to note about Nietzsche’s doctrine is that absolutely everything recurs with no change whatsoever. Otto’s mistake is not one of mere detail; rather, Otto initially misses the entire heart of the thought—more on this later. The suggestion, I take it, is that every detail of one’s life, however “unutterably small or great,” is essential, i.e. part of one’s essence. An essence is, as generally conceived, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions required for belonging to a category. In this case, every detail of one’s life is a part of one’s essence: the details are disjointly necessary and conjointly sufficient. Hence a change in a single detail of my life would make it no longer my life at all, but rather the life of a completely different person with a different essence. (A very similar person, no doubt, but it is useful here to think of identical twins. For all their similarities, they are nonetheless entirely distinct people.) A recurrence of the slightly different would thus not at all be a genuine recurrence. For my life to recur, it must recur in exactly the same way, “even this spider and this moonlight between the trees.”
This thought is then supposed to lie on our actions as “the heaviest weight.” Action implies choice: the thought of the eternal recurrence is a thought that lies first and foremost on our choices. Whatever we choose, it will recur again and innumerable times again. So of every action we must ask, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” To be able to response to this question with a joyous and deeply thankful, “Yes!” is divine. It is a tremendous moment in which one can give such a response, to be able, in each of one’s choices, to will that that choice and all of its consequences become necessary parts of who one is—as Nietzsche implores: Become who you are!
I stress that this thought at its core involves choice. Keep in mind that nothing in the doctrine of the eternal recurrence says that this is the first “performance”—this is simply one performance in a line extending infinitely backward and forward. Hence any choice I make is a choice I have made innumerable times before. Every time one reruns the tape, I make the same choices. In one sense, I have no other choice but to choose the same way, because it is a recurrence of my life and, as we have seen, every detail of my life is essential. So one might be tempted to say that Nietzsche’s thought is self-defeating: it is supposed to lie on my actions as the heaviest weight, but it seems to make incoherent the very possibility of an action. On one conception of the notion of choice, this is right, but it is a petty reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, at various places in his work (e.g. Beyond Good and Evil), contests this very way of conceiving choice. To think Nietzsche’s thought fully requires being able to understand choice as choice of what is necessary. The freedom inherent in choice is an intimate bedfellow of necessity; indeed choice requires necessity.
With this in view it is easier to see the import of Otto’s mistake. Before correcting himself, Otto relays the thought in a way that allows none of its crucial consequences to come into view. I mentioned at the start of this post that I had trouble writing it previously; this is the point that gave me trouble. I could see the consequences of Otto’s mistake, but could not relate them very well to the film. A few weeks ago I had the thought that Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage might provide insight into this, but it wasn’t until this morning, when I read “The Rotation of Crops” (Either/Or, part I), that I saw how to make the connection clear.
The first part of Either/Or is a collection of writings by an unnamed man, called A, who figures as a representative of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage (as contrasted to the ethical and religious stages). One of these writings is the essay in question, in which he advocates crop rotation as a model for keeping boredom at bay. Crucial to the idea of crop rotation is the dialectic between recollecting and forgetting. Specifically, one must be able to forget poetically—which does not mean to be forgetful. Rather, it implies a sort of ability to forget at will, in such a way that one does not recollect unpleasantness. Life is a fight against boredom; crop rotation is the most effective strategy in this fight. As with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, the essay is marvelously rich, and unfortunately it would take me too far afield to delve into them fully. I do want to isolate one sentence from the essay, however:
Everything will surely come again but in a different way; what has once been taken into the rotation process remains there but is varied by the method of cultivation.
Here, in Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, we find an example of recurrence of the slightly different. For those whose lives are fights against boredom, there is such a recurrence. Part of this recurrence is a matter of recollecting and forgetting: these processes are “poetic”: they are selective and partial. Recollecting an event requires in a deep sense forgetting it, requires recollecting it other than as it was. In short, the aesthete’s poetic recollecting and forgetting turns on losing sight of the details—hence the recurrence of events is only “in a different way.” If Nietzsche is right, this sort of recurrence should make impossible any sort of stable identity, since every detail is essential. And this is just what we find. The diapsalmata that open A’s papers show an individual who constantly vacillates and contradicts himself. Nelson Goodman once argued that, since we must accept contradictions, there must be many worlds or none. An analogous argument applies here: A must contradict himself, so he must have many identities or none. This is captured by the fact that Kierkegaard gives him no name—on the other hand the man in the ethical stage (whose papers are part II of Either/Or) is given a name.
Otto’s mistake is thus that he initially describes a form of recurrence appropriate to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, but Nietzsche was no advocate of the sort of existence propounded in part I of Either/Or. What importance does this have for the film? I think there are prominent aspects of the aesthetic in Alexander as we see him at the start of the film. Before I go into these, let me preface myself by making it clear that I am not claiming that Kierkegaard influenced Tarkovsky—I genuinely do not know, but in any case there is no definitive evidence in the film that there is any such direct connection. What I am saying is that Kierkegaard’s philosophy provides a good model in light of which the film makes a certain sense.
Alexander’s relations to others are strained. Though he interacts with them well enough, when we see him alone he always seems profoundly dissatisfied and his interpersonal interactions come to seem incidental—his thought always lies elsewhere. I would even suggest that Alexander is bored, or constantly fighting to keep boredom at bay. Even though he is not engaging in crop rotation, he seems the sort of person to whom A might recommend such a course of action. He is ripe for a recurrence of the slightly different. Or, to put it another way, he has a dwarf on his back that he cannot throw off, and it is weighing him down. Throughout A’s papers there are Christian allusions and references to “the Good Lord”, but it is near-impossible to read these without at least a trace of sarcasm—A’s relationship to God is clearly non-existent, just like Alexander’s, despite the outward appearance of being religious.
But Alexander is not a pure aesthete; indeed he could not be. Otto, at one point later in the film, remarks that every gift involves a sacrifice, and the film is ultimately the story of Alexander’s sacrifice. A pure aesthete, however, has nothing to sacrifice, because a pure aesthete avoids commitment to anything. The act of recollecting and forgetting, for the aesthete, is an embodiment of this: to forget something is only possible if one is not committed to it. Hence if Alexander is to make a sacrifice, he must not be purely in the aesthetic stage.
And indeed this is so. In the crop rotation essay, A has a firm stricture against marriage and against holding public office. Both of these involve commitment, and in just this way they involve not aesthetic but ethical categories. To be married and to hold public office both involve duties to other people. Now, Alexander is married, and though his marriage is an unhappy one, he has not divorced his wife, so I suppose this testifies to something ethical in Alexander. But what really matters for the film is Alexander’s relationship to his son. It is there that Alexander’s ethical commitments are really seen fully. That is why, when Alexander offers to give up his son if only God will prevent a nuclear holocaust, and then goes through with it, it constitutes a genuine sacrifice. Alexander’s sacrificing his relationship with his son is, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, a teleological suspension of the ethical. (Note that Kierkegaard’s primary example of a teleological suspension of the ethical is the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, upon which the film is surely modeled.)
How this sacrifice comes about is interesting, and leads to consideration of my third and final question above. In one of the more opaque scenes in the film, Otto comes to Alexander and tells him he must travel across the island to sleep with his housemaid, Maria. The Moliterno essay I linked above discusses some common problems found with this scene that are worth considering. Johnson and Petrie are confused by what seems to be a double sacrifice: Alexander both sleeps with Maria and burns his house down—why both? Why not just the one? And Strick complains that it seems arrogant to think that God would avert nuclear disaster simply because of “one man’s silence and self-deprivation.” (References for both criticisms can be found in the Moliterno essay.) Seeing why both critiques are misguided will help elucidate the role of the eternal recurrence in the film.
I think it is unquestionable that Strick’s complaint is eminently sensible and reasonable—and this is just why it misses the point. One aspect of Kierkegaard’s discussion of a teleological suspension of the ethical is that, when faced with a person who acts on such a suspension, the rest of society cannot but judge him ethically. Strick’s condemnation is just such an ethical critique, and as an ethical critique it makes perfect sense. From an ethical standpoint, there can be no teleological suspension of the ethical, and so from an ethical standpoint Alexander’s action is indeed arrogant and presumptuous. But an ethical standpoint is not an appropriate one for assessing Alexander’s actions: he is in the religious stage at this point.
Johnson and Petrie’s criticism cuts deeper. I think I can answer the charge on Tarkovsky’s behalf if I can show how the film subsumes Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence to the Christian concept of sacrifice that the film clearly exemplifies. In this regard it is worth noting that Tarkovsky considered calling the film The Eternal Return (see the Moliterno essay). That suggests that there is a deep relationship, for Tarkovsky, between the Christian idea of sacrifice and the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence. Consideration of the “double sacrifice” in this light I think clarifies the role that it plays.
Tarkovsky’s films are always shifting between “solid” reality and the more ethereal world of dreams, and frequently scenes are ambiguous or suspended between these two states. The Mirror provides a great many examples of such ambiguous scenes, and The Sacrifice does not break the pattern of Tarkovsky’s earlier films. Early in the film, Alexander begins having apocalyptic visions, which then seem to become a reality. Planes start flying thunderously overhead, and the radio announces that threat of nuclear war.
In the face of this, Alexander retreats to his room and offers a desperate prayer to God, in which he offers his son (and more) as a sacrifice, if only God will make things as they were before the threat was ever announced. Shortly after this, Otto comes up to Alexander’s room and gives a set of bizarre instructions: he must go sleep with Maria. Alexander keeps demanding an answer as to why, but Otto cannot give one, beyond saying that Maria is a witch of the “best kind.” So, eventually, Alexander goes; he sleeps with Maria, and then—he wakes up, and everything is as if there never was any threat.
Two questions can be asked here. One might ask for a clear delineation of what “really” happened and what was “just” a vision. Did the threat of nuclear war really occur, only to be effaced by God, or was it merely a figment of Alexander’s imagination? Did Alexander really sleep with Maria, or did he only imagine sleeping with her? These are metaphysical questions, and the film doesn’t answer them. Attempting to force an answer on the film is as fruitless as attempting to determine whether Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence is metaphysically “correct.” Nietzsche offers no evidence for the doctrine because it doesn’t matter: the question is just not a metaphysical question. Nietzsche does not say that a demon steals after you in a vision, or that a really real demon steals after you; he says: “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness?” The metaphysical question is immaterial. The experience happens, and changes you “as you are.”
So I propose that instead we ask only the second question: why must Alexander sleep with Maria? There isn’t an easy answer, and I don’t know if what I will say can satisfy Johnson and Petrie fully. Nevertheless, here is what I suggest. I have already suggested that Otto is portrayed as to an extent demonic, and of course he has already espoused the doctrine of the eternal recurrence to Alexander. Here, I suggest, is a repetition of that scene, in a way. The demonic Otto steals after Alexander in Alexander’s loneliest loneliness, when he is despairing and forsaken, and says: sleep with Maria. And now Alexander must choose who he is to be. Will he affirm everything up to this moment, including his promise to God, and everything that follows from this choice, he knows not what, by going and sleeping with Maria? Or will he be crushed by the weight of the choice? Will he be changed as he is?
Alexander’s going to sleep with Maria, then, is the decisive moment in the film. It is the tremendous moment when he can say to Otto, “you are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” His actions upon waking to find everything as it was are a natural continuation of this decisive moment, and not a double sacrifice at all. Further, in seeing that the film involves a teleological suspension of the ethical, it is crucial to recognize that sleeping with Maria is just such a suspension: Alexander must step outside the ethical bounds set by his marriage.
I once read somewhere, I forget where, that one aspect of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is that it involves stamping eternity on each individual moment. By recurring eternally, each moment is abstracted from time altogether and is in that sense eternal, is outside time. This seems right, and is exemplified by the film. When Alexander sleeps with Maria, Tarkovsky does not show them having sex. Instead, the shot is of Alexander and Maria intertwined, motionless, levitating above the bed. The camera rotates around them, giving us a view of from all angles. The shot itself, of course, is extended in time, but what it shows is a moment altogether abstracted from time, a moment expanded to eternity, in short, a Nietzschean moment.
Hence I think, for Tarkovsky, that Alexander’s sacrifice and his Nietzschean affirmation of Otto’s demonic visit are not a double sacrifice; rather, they come to the same thing. Otto’s initial discussion with Alexander sets the stage for this two-sided coin. On the one hand, his mistake illustrates Alexander as he currently is, weighed down by what Otto calls ‘gloom’ (Nietzsche would, I think, call it a spirit of gravity). On the other hand, his correction foreshadows the thoroughly Nietzschean elements of his sacrifice. One element of Tarkovsky’s film is showing how thoroughly religious Nietzsche’s idea really is.
There is so much in this topic that I wish I could explore, but this post is too long as it is. So I will simply mention two issues that are raised by the film that I would have liked to discuss in more detail, but could not. The most obvious question is this: given Nietzsche’s fierce condemnations of Christianity (most fervent in his late work, The Anti-Christ), does the synthesis of Nietzschean recurrence and Christian sacrifice even make sense in the first place? I confess that one reason I have not even tried to address this question is that I simply don’t know how to answer it. Another topic worthy of some reflection is the fact that every time Alexander asks Otto for a clear reason why he should sleep with Maria, Otto demurs or otherwise circumvents the question. Why is this? And why, in the face of this, does Alexander nonetheless do what Otto says?