Archive for the ‘Kierkegaard S.’ Category

Art as goad and as pleasure

2014/01/25 1 comment

In the past week, in the course of fulfilling my teaching (assistant) duties, I have been attempting to impress on young minds the emptiness of arguing that something is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural. For how do we determine what is natural other than by allowing as natural just what we think is good? So it was a rude surprise when, in reading Emerson’s “Art” (Library of America, Essays & Lectures, as ever), I came across this:

They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. […] Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. (439)

Is my beloved Emerson so crass as to make this ancient and ubiquitous error? A proper answer to that question would require a careful study of his shifting uses of the concept ‘Nature’, but I can make at least a move in the direction of his defense. Nature here stands in for the absolute union of usefulness and beauty. The artists Emerson is considering forgo this union and take art to be merely beautiful, and not just that, but also a correction of imperfect nature: nature without the prosaic details. Let us explore this idea.

Moreso than most Emerson essays, “Art” contains a fairly direct line of thought, one sustained across the essay’s entire course. But his method is to begin by accepting the thought he rejects, and work his way to its rejection. In the second sentence of the essay, Emerson writes: “This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim, either at use or beauty.” (431) Emerson mentions, without endorsing, the popular distinction between use and beauty. We might, then, expect him to question it, but as the essay proceeds he seems to accept it. Already in the first paragraph Emerson is confidently stating that the artist should omit “the details, the prose of nature […] and give us only the spirit and splendor.” (431) Art improves upon nature, and it brings us pleasure in doing so. It is not useful, not necessary, but it is beautiful and hence pleasant.

So, for the time, at least, Emerson accepts the distinction. But as the essay progresses he begins to offer reasons to be skeptical of this hedonistic conception of the value of art. Emerson works himself out of his acceptance of the popular distinction. To understand how he does so we might start with the recognition that the sentence I have been considering is the essay’s second. It begins with the word “this”, referring to its predecessor’s contents. What is this “this”? It is the productive activity of the progressive soul. It is consideration of that activity that breaks us free of the division between the useful and the beautiful. Specifically, the distinction must be rejected because it is dangerous to the productive activity of the soul. Emerson considers four dangers, that I have discovered.

First danger. Art becomes about the exhibition of talent, and not about that “passion for form which [the artist] could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagances.” (439) But talent is a dangerous concept, because it makes possible a universal exculpation. To experience art as the showcase of talent is to experience it in terms of what you, the person experiencing, lack. You do not have the talent to paint as did Raphael, so you can only admire passively. And you are excused for this, because you do lack the painter’s talent. We admire in art what lies beyond us, and thence comes our pleasure. In just this way, our experience of art strangles our incipient activity: we lack the requisite talent, so we need not act. Leave that to the talented. Kierkegaard is even stronger on this point than Emerson. In his diary, he rails against the concept of genius—his use is closer to Emerson’s use of “talent” than his use of “Genius”—because, in treating something as a work of genius, we negate any demand it makes on us, by denying that we are genius enough to receive any such demand. The work of art becomes something outside us, and so activity is lost.

Second danger. If art is beautiful alone, aimed only at producing pleasure, art becomes something final and not something initial. The worth of art comes to lie in its ability to produce pleasure, comes to reside in that psychological state. The pleasure lasts however long—if one is lucky, it may last even after one has parted from the work—and then it is through. Pleasure is in this way a stopping point: it does not lead onward to anything. And so the work of art, too, becomes final: it produces pleasure, or it doesn’t, and that is the end of it. There is nowhere left to go.

But art, for Emerson—for anyone with a progressive soul—should be initial and not final. Their “real value” lies in their being “signs of power.” (437) It should be the product of the artist finding “in it an outlet for his whole energy,” and should point others in that direction.

Art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists. (437)

Whereas pleasure is final, being awakened to a “sense of universal relation and power” is initial, because the exercise of power still follows. Far from placing itself above the one who experiences it, art must be “practical and moral,” must “make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer.” (437) It has a use, it is productive, has effects beyond pleasure, and does so precisely through its beauty.

Third danger. If use is split from beauty, and the latter made art’s sole province, the progressive soul is led into an error: following the judgments of critics. It is an old notion that some pleasures are higher than others, that some have a better developed capacity to feel pleasure than others. Some find this thought inherently elitist and abhorrent. I do not. I find it obvious. A person with a thorough knowledge of music theory will hear far more in a piece of music than I—who know nothing whatsoever of the subject—and so their pleasures will respond in a more fine-grained way to the relevant details of the music than will mine. And this training, this talent, as it were, has its value. I do not find it elitist in the slightest to commend those who have trained their sensitivity to works of art for having done so.

No, the elitism comes in earlier, when use and beauty are separated. Once this happens, it is inevitable that the cultivated should be the best judges of beauty, since they are more sensitive to the actual workings of the artwork than most. That is not to say that their pleasure is really more intense than mine, though it might be, but rather to say that it is more sensitive. If they contest my judgment, they will be able to point to features of the work that I never noticed, and I will have to take this into account going forward. I will have to listen to the experts. And this easily leads to the dangers of imitation, of adopting another’s views for one’s own.

Only when art is viewed as essentially useful is this danger overcome. “The knowledge of picture-dealers has its value, but listen not to their criticism when your heart is touched by genius.” (437) But why not listen to them? Because the usefulness of art comes from nowhere else than from your making use of it. And you are the only adequate judge of that. The open-endedness of art lies in its usefulness, but even more in its not having any predetermined usefulness. Its use, or lack thereof, will depend on into whose hands it falls, and no one can say in advance what use another will make of a work of art.

A friend of mine has remarked to me that artists tend not to be very good critics. Perhaps this helps to explain why. Gripped as they are by their own vision, their criticism of art by others is subordinated to that and distorted by that. Their criticism of art then gives a better insight into their own art than that which they critique. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Fourth danger. The fourth danger is that, if use and beauty are wrenched apart, art may become an escape from life, from the ugliness of life. Art becomes something selective, picking only select aspects of the world to affirm. It becomes a correction of what is found in human life, and of necessity makes that life appear as something mean, base. “They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic.” (439) If poetry is beautiful alone, and not useful, then it cannot be connected with all those tasks of living that cannot be avoided, and poetry must then call them mere tedium. The ideal becomes something apart from “the day’s weary chores” (439), and life gets split in two: the tediously useful and the ideally beautiful. And it is just this that is “contrary to nature”—not in an empty sense but in a quite definite sense: when use and beauty are separated, art becomes a rejection of life, something set apart from it. If art corrects life by rejecting it as prosaic, then it cannot be useful to the one who has to live. And the progressive soul is nothing other than the living soul. “In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.” (440)

Insecure safety. To escape these dangers, “beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten.” And this fundamentally requires a way of approaching art that is not hedonistic. “As soon as beauty is sought, not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker.” (439) To seek beauty from religion and love, however, brings its own dangers. When art becomes initial, becomes a goad to activity, a sting, it becomes unpredictable. It lies at the doorstep of an uncertain future. But that is, I think, preferable to the alternative insecurity.

Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

2014/01/12 4 comments

Christianity, Kierkegaard is careful to tell us, is not a doctrine but a message. What does this entail? A message is to be lived, much more than believed. The individual task, for one who hears the message, is “living in it, expressing Christianity in one’s life.” (§141) Because of this, a message is addressed differently than a doctrine. A doctrine is given to a crowd that is asked to believe it. It is impersonal: it does not matter who said it, but only that it is true, and it speaks to all at once, regardless of who they are. A message, by contrast, is individually expressed, even when written—it does, that is, respond differently to different readers, contra Socrates in the Phaedrus. A message looks past the crowd to the individual. It is Socrates’ ability to do just this that makes him, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, more Christian than most self-professed Christians. “The great thing about Socrates was that even when he was accused and faced the People’s Assembly, his eyes did not see the crowd, but only the individual.” (§127)

The Bible, as the text carrying God’s message for humanity, is thus to be read in a very individual, personal manner. Kierkegaard laments that “no one any longer reads the Bible merely as an individual human being.” (§135) What is the danger of reading it as doctrine? It is that one attempts to sort out the precise way of characterizing the doctrine before one lives it—“always this sham that one must make sure the doctrine is in perfect shape before one can begin to live in accordance with it—which means that one never gets around to it.” (§135) But understanding can never precede living—as Kierkegaard insists, “temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” (§136)

Because the Bible contains a message and not a doctrine, there is a perpetuity to the Christian task: each individual and each generation must renew it. “The accumulated erudition of preceding generations is essentially superfluous.” (§141) Thus, the messenger’s task is not to draw firm, settled conclusions. That only encourages doctrine. Instead, one should “incite the listener to independent thinking”—it is for this reason that Plato, following Socrates, “does not draw any conclusions, but leaves a sting.” (§146) It is a sting that cannot be turned into doctrine, but can only yield further thought, further stings. (Things will be different regarding the message as it is presented in the Bible—which carries a special sort of authority—and as it is presented in Kierkegaard, who speaks without authority. But I don’t feel competent to discuss this in any depth.)

The problem of treating Christianity as a doctrine leads Kierkegaard to or past the brink of heresy: “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” (§135) I am only half-facetious—if that—when I suggest that Emerson may be the figure Kierkegaard desired.

Emerson is a messenger. He addresses individuals, and would spark them to change. What is his message? He is uncertain about the prospect of putting it into words: he thinks the influx of the divine is something ineffable, of which his essays are mere shadows. Yet there are themes. In “Circles”, he insists on the impermanence of all things. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial.” (411) There is the appearance of permanence, but it is just appearance: “Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known.” (404)

The thinker, insofar as the thinker is a lover and follower of truth, must thus forego any hope of stability. The thinker must be prepared for reform, must be ready to “cast away our virtues […] into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” (411) The valor of the thinker lies in “his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter.” (407) All may be superseded, the past, the force of habit be damned. The Emersonian thinker or scholar fundamentally unsettles: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” (407)

Because the thinker can only unsettle, the thinker must disclaim all authority. Kierkegaard did this too, quite explicitly—he spoke with no authority; all authority lay with God. So too with Emerson, for all their differences. “But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” (412)

Take at least five minutes to feel those words before returning to mine, I beg you.


Emerson’s task must be understood with this renouncing of authority in mind. He does not write to persuade, but to provoke. Emerson attributes this task to the poet, but that is false modesty: any task Emerson lays on the poet he lays on himself. “He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities.” (409) Emerson’s work is a sting, and it can only bear two offspring: the lives of those stung, and the stings to which those lives give rise. Sting begets sting, and nothing ever settles.

So there is an instability inherent in the Emersonian view, an endless succession of unsettlings, without resolution. In Kierkegaard, the Bible may provide some stability: as God’s message, it can serve as an anchor. But with Emerson, the Bible is only one more sting, one more provocation, and not the message itself. This is what we see in his Divinity School Address. For Emerson, the message is ever unwritten. All that exists is sting upon sting, sting giving rise to sting.

My title promises some discussion of prudence, so I had better deliver, lest I be besmirched as a man not of his word. Emerson is direct about prudence: “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.” (410) And Emerson speaks specifically of the sacrifice of prudence to some god—not the god of ease and pleasure, for then “he had better be prudent still”, but “to a great trust.” It is a trust in his virtue, whatever that may be, and a trust that external circumstance will not impede him from living his virtue, that marks the great man. What makes this trust possible? The answer lies at the beginning of Emerson’s essay, when he alludes to two consequences of the circular principle. One is the non-finality of all virtues. The other is what he traced in an earlier essay: the principle of compensation.

This principle gives Emerson a source of security. While it is impersonal, his principle of compensation gives him confidence in experimenting at the expense of prudence. In this way, it functions similarly to the way God functions for Kierkegaard, who in his diary often thanks God for gracing him with circumstances that helped him to remain devoted to his task. For both, there is a layer of safety.

But what if one cannot accept either God or compensation? What if one is resolutely atheist? Kierkegaard suggests the possibility of being a Christian without worrying if it is true: “What a great help it would be already in Christendom if someone said, and acted accordingly: I don’t know if Christianity is true, but I will order my whole life as if it were, stake my life thereon—then if it proves not to be true, eh bien, I don’t regret my choice, for it is the only matter I am concerned about.” (§157) But this, I think, requires suspension of judgment, which I lack. I actively believe otherwise, so this road is closed to me, even if I wished to take it.

So here is my question: is such a sacrifice of prudence to the god of a great trust possible for me if I believe that there is nothing in which to place my trust, but only a cold, inanimate universe, a mass of atoms swirling in the void? But here I must break off. I have asked a question words cannot answer. Only my life can answer that.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


This will be my final post in the Poetry and Prudence sequence, I believe. The first two may be found here and here. Many months ago I started planning a sequence of posts on this theme, mulling over them, gathering sources—and above all never putting any words onto any pages. After reading Emerson’s essay on “Prudence”, I decided to rescue the project from its neglect, mostly scrapping the original plan. When I began writing this post, I had no intention of its being—or not being—the last, but I think I pushed the question as far as it can go, or at least as far as I can now take it. So, I suppose, it is over.


I have looked at the following texts:

Søren Kierkegaard. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays & Lectures. Library of America.

Life as Emotion: Three Models

2013/04/25 2 comments

If I am convinced of one truth about narrative art, it is that plot is its least important element. This does not mean that so-called “plotless” works are superior to more conventional narratives, or that plot doesn’t matter. The point is rather that two works of art that are identical in plot may nonetheless vary almost entirely in quality, because the plot matters not in itself but in the way it serves as a platform for those innumerable small details that really determine the success or failure of works of art. Of course, the reality is that plot cannot be so neatly separated out from the rest of the work—the “plot” of a work is really just an abstraction. Enforcing an extreme separation between plot and the other elements yields a picture in which the plot seems to spin frictionlessly in the void, failing to meaningfully engage with the other elements of the work of art. So we must avoid this pitfall.

I think a parallel train of thought may be applied to our lives and our actions. What I want to say is that the “plot” of our lives, the actions we take, is somewhat immaterial next to the moods and emotions within which we act. Two lives with similar “plots” may nonetheless greatly differ in how admirable they truly are. A parallel worry arises, however: in this case, emotions can seem to spin frictionlessly, failing to engage with action in any significant way. This occurs when the mental is split too thoroughly from the bodily, when our mental life is taken to be a sort of efficient cause of our actions, where it is then possible to totally sever this link, until our actions and our moods bear no relation. (I am indebted to Stanley Cavell’s essays “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” from his Must We Mean What We Say? for clarifying my thinking on this point.)

But of course our moods and our actions are only dissociated at a broad level of description—just as is the case for the mood and plot of a work of art. In actual fact, mood shows itself through the myriad of small details that differentiate actions/plots that are indistinguishable when described in purely general terms. In that respect it is simply a mistake to treat two plots as the same, or the actions of two distinct people, however similar they might be. The real conclusion of the foregoing, then, is really that, generally speaking, it is the small, subtle details that matter, in life and in art, more than the abstract descriptions that simplify matters and obscure these details.

With that in mind, I want to present three distinct models of life as an emotion or a mood, and explore somewhat their consequences. The first comes from the first half of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the second from Beckett’s Molloy, and the third from Emerson’s journals. First, Kierkegaard:

My life achievement amounts to nothing at all, a mood, a single color. My achievement resembles the painting by that artist who was supposed to paint the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and to that end painted the entire wall red and explained that the Israelites had walked across and that the Egyptians were drowned. (Either/Or, 28)

The image here is one of life as a single mood, lacking in detail and variation. The passage is from the journal of the aesthete whose papers comprise the first half of Either/Or, and needs to be considered in that context. In fact, the aesthete’s moods vary wildly from moment to moment, yet he says that his life achievement amounts to “a mood, a single color.” I think the key to unlocking this puzzle is the reference to the painter. The painter, in simply painting a red canvas, has more than anything else evaded his task. The event he was commissioned to paint was rich and dramatic, yet his painting is dull and monochrome. Internally, his wild fluctuations lack any sort of consistency, and in such a way that, externally, all he can manage is one thing, with no variation. The inner turbulence makes for outer monotony. One reason for this, I think, is that for the aesthete, the inner and outer really are quite decoupled, in just the unhealthy way I described above.

Next, Samuel Beckett. The quote comes from the first half of his novel Molloy, in which the dying Molloy rambles about his life, reliving it as he retells it. Molloy is dying, decomposing, and he presents a wretched physical appearance. As he writes, he occasionally reflects on his writing, and the passage I want to explore is one such reflection:

But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence. To decompose is to live took, I know, I know, don’t torment me, but one sometimes forgets. And of that life too I shall tell you perhaps one day, the day I know that when I thought I knew I was merely existing and that passion without forms or stations will have devoured me down to the rotting flesh itself and that when I know that I know nothing, am only crying out as I have always cried out, more or less piercingly, more or less openly. (Molloy, 21)

Again we have a model of life as a single emotion, in this case, a “long confused” one. (I believe we are supposed to read this as “long, confused” rather than “long-confused.”) Here it is not so much a single color as it is a picture whose subject you can’t make out, whose boundaries are blurry, whose content is opaque. The long confused emotion is a picture of the Greek ideal of self-knowledge thwarted, and perhaps the suggestion is even that it is impossible. In any case, this internal confusion does become external: shortly after the quoted passage, Molloy writes, “A confused shadow was cast. It was I and my bicycle.” The confusion of his emotion extends even to the shadow he casts.

Finally, Emerson. Emerson wrote the journal in question when he was around twenty-four years old. (I don’t have an exact date, but the previous dated entry was six days before his twenty-fourth birthday.) Emerson muses:

Robinson Crusoe when in any perplexity was wont to retire to a part of his cave which he called his thinking corner. Devout men have found a stated spot so favorable to a habit of religious feeling that they have worn the solid rock of the oratory with their knees. I have found my ideas very refractory to the usual bye laws of Association. In the graveyard my muscles were twitched by some ludicrous recollections and I am apt to be solemn at a ball. But whilst places are alike to me I make great distinction between states of mind. My days are made up of the irregular succession of a very few different tones of feeling. These are my feasts & fasts. Each has his harbinger, some subtle sign by which I know when to prepare for its coming. Among these some are favorites, and some are to me as the Eumenides. But one of them is the sweet asylum where my greatest happiness is laid up, which I keep in sight whenever disasters befall me & in which it is like the life of angels to live. (Selected Journals 1820-1842, 147)

Kierkegaard’s aesthete has a theoretical understanding of his mood(s), but no real control over them: they fluctuate wildly, and all they amount to is, in the end, a single color. Beckett’s Molloy, on the other hand, seems to lack even that degree of self-knowledge. He can only recognize his life as a “long confused emotion”—he cannot make it out any better than that. Emerson, by contrast, while somewhat at the mercy of his moods, has at least figured out how to manage them when they come, and so it is a life of feasts and fasts. And while only the feasts are “like the life of angels to live,” no doubt the fasts are spiritually rigorous and make the feasts possible. Unlike the aesthete, then, Emerson has found some friction, and so, to borrow Nietzsche’s delightful phrase (from The Gay Science), he may paint his happiness on the wall.

If readers know any other passages on this theme, by all means let me know in the comments.

A quote from Tarkovsky

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.

The Eternal Recurrence in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice

2013/02/27 6 comments

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?