Malick’s Modern Job: “The Tree of Life”

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 The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.[1]

~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John

More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal.[2] Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph.[3] Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless.  As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”[4]

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Part Three on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972

Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory.  Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded.  In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave.  The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality.  The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention.  The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.”[1]  Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful.  The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations.  Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.”[2]  Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.

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Part Two on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

 

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Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC

The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.”[1]  Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides.  Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.”[2] Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day.  This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.

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Part One on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”[1]

 “Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …”[2] Thus begins the world’s seminal Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic.  It is a literary journey through the human soul; a dramatic dialectic in the search for morality.  The process will involve constructing a “city with words” in an attempt to create a concrete representation of the elusive human psyche.  The hope is that such a projection, writ large, of the inner workings of man will enable Socrates and his young students to find true morality and observe its effects on the one who seeks it above all else. The question: Is morality “intrinsically rewarding” regardless of extrinsic benefits?[3]  Inevitably, part of the discussion moves to education, namely, how one ensures the production of a moral soul.  What will nourish and protect the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good?  What will guard him against all the various temptations he will encounter along the way?  This leads the discussion to poetry, something that C.S. Lewis saw as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.”[4]  At first glance, Plato seems to suggest that the arts are inherently dangerous and should be avoided.  Yet, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the very medium he chooses to denounce them is itself artistic, an attempt to make the invisible soul incarnate.  Indeed, Plato’s narrator Socrates will compare the construction of this mythical city to the work of the artist.  What, then, is Plato’s assessment of the role of the arts in society, and can we find any truth to guide us in our consumption and production of art in our modern world?  Republic is what translator Allan Bloom observed as an “invitation to the philosophic quest.”[5]  Let us take Plato up on his invitation and determine if he is correct in his assessment of the role of the arts in the soul and in society.

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The Vigil of the Enlightenment by Dorothy Sayers

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Light pollution in Los Angeles as seen from Space.

“For an Evening Service”

This hymn is suitable for the Vigil of the Enlightenment

The day that Nature gave is ending,
The hand of Man turns on the light;
We praise thee, Progress, for defending
Our nerves against the dreadful night.

As o’er each continent and island
The switches spread synthetic day,
The noise of mirth is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of toil away.

We thank thee that thy speed incessant
Provides upon this whirling ball
No time to brood on things unpleasant –
No time, in fact, to think at all.

Secure amid the soothing riot
Of crank and sound track, plane and car,
We shall not be condemned to quiet,
Nor left alone with what we are.

By lavish and progressive measures
Our neighbour’s wants are all relieved;
We are not called to share his pleasures,
And in his grief we are not grieved.

Thy winged wheels o’erspan the oceans,
Machining out the Standard Man.
Our food, our learning, our emotions
Are processed for us in the can.

All bars of colour, caste and nation
Must yield to movies and the mike;
We need not seek communication,
For thou dost make us all alike.

So be it! let not sleep not slackness
Impede thy Progress, Light sublime;
Nor ever let us glimpse the blackness
That yawns behind the gates of Time.

~ Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian (pp.6-7).

Happy 125th Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien!

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Here is a little taste of his excellent essay “On Fairy-Stories”, a rebuttal to the following statement: “[Fairy-story-making] is breathing a lie through silver.”

“Dear Sir,” I said – Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
And keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sowed the seed of dragons – ’twas our right
(Used or misused). That right has not decayed:
We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Here is an interesting article on how Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were influenced by G.K. Chesterton:  Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis in Elfland by Joseph Pearce