Monday, December 5, 2011

Finding Meaning in One Human Action

Nostalgia - Andrei Tarkovsky (1983)
"'Why a candle?' I queried. 'Because of the flame, the unprotected fire. Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire. Well, as for the pool,' continued Andrei, 'they drained it unexpectedly. Foul-smelling bubbles rise from the ancient lime oozing with mud and slime and burst on the bottom of the pool, then the leading character — you, Oleg — lights a candle — it's a thin, uncertain, weak flame and you cover this flame with your hand, the hand of a strong, grown man. And you walk across the foul bed of the pool, trying not to slip or stumble, and all your will is concentrated on one thing: to save this weak flame, to keep it burning. But it goes out and you return to where you started, and again you light this uncertain, quivering flame, once again you shield it with your palm and set off. You are more than halfway along the path you must cover to bring the miracle into being. But the flame goes out again. You feel your last strength is leaving you and you will be unable to find the spiritual or physical strength to start over again. But you do. You return to the place you already set out from twice before, light the candle again, cover it with your hand and venture out on this endless journey, carefully picking your way. You walk on and carry the candle to the end. Then you leave it at the edge of the pool, understanding that not only has a human life been saved, but that now a hand will always be found to protect the flame when you are no longer there. This is when the leading character understands he has carried out the most important task in his life. He slowly sinks to the foul-smelling bottom of the pool and dies.'

'You see,' and Andrei suddenly changed to the familiar form of 'you' in Russian, 'if you can do that, if it really happens and you carry the candle to the end — in one shot, straight, without cinematic conjuring tricks and cut-in editing — then maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life. It will certainly be the finest shot I ever took — if you can do it, if you can endure to the end.'"
- Oleg Yankovsky, lead actor in Nostalghia, from an article, "How We Shot the 'Inextinguishable Candle' episode for Nostalghia, published on the Tarkovsky website,

Here is a large portion of Oleg's article to give a frame of reference for the candle-walk scene. But I want to reflect on the candle-walk scene by focusing in on one quote of Andrei Tarkovsky given in the larger quote: "then maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life."

By saying this, Andrei Tarkvosky seems to be quite the existentialist, such that instead of human beings Andrei is describing humanity in terms of human doings. Such a focus on the single human action. It's a powerful scene for certain, but is it what gives life meaning? This lonely action? For whom? So what? What could be transcendent about the action? And yet, watching the scene, I'm overcome by the forces that are bigger than the human, that dwarf the human, not the least of which (as has been mentioned) is the overwhelming power of time. Time seems to stop as we hang on the poet's every breath as he walks the candle, yet time marks the breaths, the steps, the candle flickers, and even though Tarkovsky may allow the poet to fully live in the moment of the successful transportation of the candle, the moment timeless in that sense, the viewer is yet painfully aware of the time it takes for the sequence to unfurl. And regardless of human agency within time, time comes crashing down on the poet at the end of the sequence, as there are only so many breaths allotted within time; in other words, death awaits the poet.

Another force which I am reminded of watching the scene that is bigger than the single human is the human institution, in this case, religion, as the poet's moment of action in fact becomes a ritual very like a procession at the beginning or ending of a religious service. Though the poet is alone within the film's universe, would I be remiss if I suggest that the viewer becomes the poet's fellow congregant and onlooker to the procession? The walking of a candle as a ritual cannot achieve its full significance outside of what we know of the power of human rituals in general as they are connected to some institution, especially in their giving life to and receiving life from the communities in which they were born.

And then the question is: how do rituals relate to time? In the rhythmic nature of the candle-walking ritual (as rhythmic as a person's attempt to steadily walk forward may be), there is a marking of time. However, in connecting this ritual moment with the rituals that have come before it within a collection of ritual moments within a community, there is the sense that time is overcome. Through successfully completing the ritual as the poet imagines it, the poet puts his stock into a communal reality of meaning that he has both affirmed and participated in uniquely. The communal reality defies time as long as it has persons that participate in that reality by making the communal reality personal through ritual.

And so perhaps there is transcendence in these larger forces at work in the solo human's action. Facing the void is an aspect of the existentialist situation that remains for the poet, but the complete meaning of that confrontation is not created in the void in the moment (though there is some of this); rather, the poet's action is prescribed for him as he affirms the community in which such a ritualistic action has power. Thus, where I see the existentialist's wet-dream of a totally free action failing insofar as not being able to give the person acting any relational affirmation of the meaning of that action, Tarkovsky both acknowledges the heroic element of the existentialist action and yet brings the person acting back into the fold so to speak, back into the communal fold, and in-so-doing, I would argue, allows the action to have meaning across time (not just in that moment for a single individual) in light of a communal context.

Here the understanding is that the transcendent is experienced through an individual's interpretation of communal ritual. God meets us through enacting interpretations of communal ritual. This, I believe, is most certainly true. Yet as a Lutheran viewer, I cannot help but also pose that God meets us through our failure to find ultimate meaning in our own acts. Certainly, glimpses of transcendence are possible, as is the case for the poet, but the meaning and experience of transcendence is finally dependent on God's being and doing. It cannot be otherwise. If our lives were dependent on our being and doing, we would be lost in the oblivion of human habit and construction. Habits enslave, constructions crumble. The poet's act is beautiful because it points to that yearning in the poet for ultimate meaning and transcendence. I believe only God can provide that kind of grounding.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Uncle Ira" Gets Suspicious

Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Siegel (1956)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 1990 Concert: A Non-Religious, Liturgical Event in Post-Pinochet Chile

Above we have two songs that Richard Elliott features in his article "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance" written for the British Postgraduate Musicology journal.1

The song on top is Victor Jara's "Te Recuerdo Amanda."
The song on the bottom is Silvio Rodriguez's "Unicornio."

English translations of the lyrics can be found in the above article.

I ran across this article by chance for a class on Worship and Politics. We're reading William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist,2 which witnesses to the horrifying acts of systematic torture perpetuated by the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile in the 70s and 80s. Cavanaugh also documents the painfully slow response of the Catholic Church in Chile to be a prophetic voice against the atrocities committed by the state. A major component of Cavanaugh's argument is that the church responded slowly due to a theology that advocated an "untouchable 'spiritual' space for the church which is both interior to the person and transcendent to the state."3 As a result of putting this theology into practice, the church left matters of social justice and common good to the state, forming a partnership with the state that Cavanaugh refers to as The New Christendom. With the church left neutered of its power to speak against the state, and the state systematically destroying any threat of opposition in the form of political parties, labor unions, and most other organizations, the Chilean people suffered.

The above article hints that a voice for the voiceless existed outside of the church in the form of musical movements for social change such as the nueva cancion. The church would eventually play a major role in advocacy for the Chilean oppressed, but during times when it was silent, folk protest songs spoke on behalf of the people. Elliott explores one particular concert as an event of personal and communal transformation that gave the people back their memories, identities, and voices. It is noteworthy that this event took place outside of the boundaries of the church. I'll ask more questions about this fact below.

In the article, Elliott talks about a concert that occurred in Chile in 1990, soon after Pinochet was voted out of office and democracy was restored. This concert featured the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and formerly exiled Chilean folksinger Isabel Parra, both prominent members of socially-committed musical movements within Cuba and Latin America, the nueva trova and the nueva cancion movements respectively. The concert was held in an arena in front of 80,000 Chileans and was recorded on video.4 Rodriguez dedicated the concert to Victor Jara, a Chilean musician and artist who was closely associated with the campaign that brought Marxist Salvador Allende to power in the early 70s. Jara was arrested, tortured, and murdered by Pinochet's military forces following the coup. We have a video of a live performance of Jara on the left.

Elliott argues in the essay that the concert (featuring prominent voices of resistance and their songs of protest, loss, and hope) functioned as a cathartic event in which Chile could participate in a communal act of mourning. But this performance was not only a looking-back, but a looking-now, and looking-forward. By providing the concert attendees the opportunity to publicly come together and reflect and hope and simply be together in a safe space, the concert opened up hopeful possibilities for the past, present, and future. Elliott describes this phenomenon referencing Walter Benjamin's use of the Jewish concept of "Messianic Time." There are certainly religious connotations here. Elliott asks, "Can we see performative musical events such as the stadium concert as ritualistic processes analogous to other ritualistic events (sacred or non sacred)?" Although I doubt whether Elliott is writing from a religious perspective, there is no doubt that he is aware of the transformative potential of the concert and the spiritual element at play therein.

As this concert opened up a performing space in which Chileans could reclaim their identities individually and communally, the concert stood as a drama in direct opposition to the drama of state-enacted torture that ruled the Chileans' lives for so long. Whereas torture divided communities into suspicious-minded, broken individuals, the concert brought them back together through familiar and emotionally-cathartic music. Whereas torture conflated time to the horrifying present, the concert recalled the past, and gave hope and possibility back to the present and future. Whereas torture broke down their bodies and minds, sometimes splitting the two apart from each other, the concert brought mind, body, and spirit back together in communal song. Whereas the torture was private and the scars made invisible, the stadium concert was as public as can be.5 Although it is a bit much to say that the concert mended what torture had torn apart, the concert at least became symbolic of the movement back towards wholeness. Elliott is right to note that the video recording is a testament, a monument even, that can serve as tangible evidence of this movement. Part of this movement involves the exorcism of the right-wing terror that had inhabited the Chilean people. This is a powerful image. Can communal song expel the demons of torture?

Communities that are dislodged from time, identity, body, etc., take comfort in anything that can bring them back to the ground of their existence. Elliott notes that there was a great attempt in the concert to provide this ground. The songs above, for example, were well-known tunes, but they also featured lyrics that carried connotations of loss and disappearance that jogged vivid memories for the concert attendees. Perhaps in these songs, the attendees rediscovered (at least for a time) their grounding in history.

This all sounds awfully familiar: analogies to Christian worship, anyone? The concert provided a liturgical experience of transformative healing outside of the church. Was this worship? I have more questions than I have information. I wonder whether the concert goers treated the concert as worship. I wonder what the Chilean Catholic Church's view of the event was, and what their stance was on these radical, musical, social movements in general. I wonder what the Chilean people's view of the church was by the end of the Pinochet years. I wonder what healing role the church tried to play around this time.

Beyond these historical curiosities, from a theological perspective, I would want to wonder about God's presence in non-religious, liturgical events such as this concert. Certainly I would affirm the concert as a site where transformation happened. I would also want to ask: What IS the role of the church in providing healing for the victims of torture? What can the church offer that a non-religious event cannot, if anything? And vice versa, what can a non-religious event offer that the church cannot, if anything? More specifically, is it presumptuous of me to ask what this concert provided that the Chilean churches could not? I realize that I'm taking one historian's interpretation of history in picking out one specific event to represent the healing of the Chilean people. There would certainly be other events to choose from. From what I gather of the structure of Cavanaugh's book, he gets to examples of how the church provides the site for transformation as well (I'm not there yet). I can guess one example: Eucharist.

PS. If you have time please read all of the Elliott article. It's fantastic.

1Richard Elliott, "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance," British Postgraduate Musicology 8 (Jun. 2006).
2William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).
3Ibid., p.181.
4Since the above video on the right is cited as from 1990, I wonder whether the performance is from this very concert!
5Cavanaugh, pp. 21-71.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Approaching the Christmas Window to See a Friend

Curse of the Cat People - Wise and von Fritsch (1944)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Head and Soul

Untitled (Skull) - Jean-Michel Basquiat (1984)

Pentecost by Derek Walcott

Better a jungle in the head
than rootless concrete.
Better to stand bewildered
by the fireflies' crooked street;

winter lamps do not show
where the sidewalk is lost,
nor can these tongues of snow
speak for the Holy Ghost;

the self-increasing silence
of words dropped from a roof
points along iron railings,
direction, in not proof.

But best is this night surf
with slow scriptures of sand,
that sends, not quite a seraph,
but a late cormorant,

whose fading cry propels
through phosphorescent shoal
what, in my childhood gospels,
used to be called the Soul.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reaching For Bela's Head

The Body Snatcher - Robert Wise (1945)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Theological Aesthetics and Luther - Part 3 of the Series

I continue my search for some theology of Luther's that might be used to support my independent study's foundational question of "Why not the image as a source for theology?" In reading Luther’s “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” I may have found just that in his incarnational theology. First let's take a closer look at the confession:

Luther draws out this theology in his argument that Christ can be both present in heaven and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. As Christ is both God and man in one single person, Christ has three modes of being according to how finite and infinite beings occupy a space: circumscriptively, as a person occupies a position in space, the space and person corresponding exactly; definitively, as a spirit occupies space in a nonpalpable, immeasurable fashion; and repletively, God’s mode of being in that God is both simultaneously present in all places and at all times and is at the same time without measure or circumscription.1 It is the second mode of being that Luther says makes sense of Christ’s saying, “This is my body” in the Last Supper. If Christ’s body can be present in and pass through spaces entirely occupied by stone and wood— the closed doors of the room his disciples had fearfully locked themselves in post-crucifixion (John 20:19) and the stone at his grave (Matthew 28:2)— why would he not also be able to occupy the bread and wine in a similar uncircumscribed manner.

For our purposes, it is the third mode of being that will especially accommodate a justification of images. Since Christ is of one being with God, it follows that Christ shares with God the repletive mode of being, whereby wherever God is present, so Christ is also, and since God is everywhere at all times in this mode of being, so Christ is also. Also the opposite: wherever Christ the man is present, God is also present. This is the radical nature of the incarnation. At the same time, this God is altogether incomprehensible, and beyond our reason. Indeed, God is beyond creation as well; God is not contained by God’s presence. As Luther says, God is “a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things.”2 And yet, “He is according to his nature a God who comes out to meet us… God is by his nature the God who becomes really present.”3

With this incarnational theology in hand, we come to some understanding that God wants to be involved in our existence. If Christ is present in the body and bread of The Lord’s Supper, might he not also be present in the stuff of art through the irregular nature of the Word?4 Though Luther does not use his incarnational theology to justify images as equally effective as other bearers of the Word, in that his theology points to a radical God and Christ who fill every little seed on earth and are yet beyond our comprehension, there is ample room to do so.

1Timothy Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 265-266.
2Ibid., p.272
3Simo Peura, “What God Gives Man Receives: Luther on Salvation,” Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p.86.
4See previous post.