Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mythic Pluralism in Stalker

*Note: there has got to be a better phrase for what I'm looking for than mythic pluralism. Suggestions welcomed.*

For the final unit of my independent study, the focus is on myth. I've read parts of Paul Ricoeur's The Symbolism of Evil, watched Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and referenced a number of different resources on Tarkovsky and his film. Bear with me as I try to put some of this great material together.

Though some might question as to whether Stalker is a science fiction film since it portrays no special effects-driven futuristic world, I would maintain that the film is science fiction at its best. It is like Children of Men (please refer to this previous blog post for reference) in casting a mirror back on the ills of the present world— in this case, the spiritual ills— by offering a journey to the alien world of the Zone. The Zone appears as an intrusion into the present reality, and, according to the Stalker, the spirit guide of the Zone, grants its supplicants and seekers their innermost wishes. Though perhaps not so forceful in its truth-telling as Cuaron's film, Stalker offers the viewer a meditative space in which to consider the collision of a variety of different myths (and the symbols that ground them) and the crisis of faith that may occur when confronted with mythic pluralism.

Myth as Paul Ricoeur defines it:

Myth will here be taken to mean what the history of religions now finds in it: not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today, and in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in his world.1

In the present world, there are a number of myths from which to choose (although there have always been a variety of options; hence, for example, religions' inherently syncretistic nature). I suppose there is some question as to whether we can choose myths, whether we subconsciously inherit them, or whether we are forced to accept certain myths in order to function in society, etc. I'd rather not get into this anthropological discussion. Mark Heim adequately describes the situation for the purposes of this blog post: "Individuals and communities live their way through a cloud of live, alternative possibilities. In their passing, they make some of these possibilities rather than others concrete, as the act of detecting an electron 'collapses' a quantum probability distribution into an actual location or velocity."2 In Stalker, Tarkovsky lays out the myths side by side in his symbolically-charged sequences. I will briefly attempt to represent what I see as the myths in play in Stalker in one of its most famous dream sequences.

Consider the following clip (about 18 minutes into the second part):

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky (1979)

The dream sequence here takes place in the course of the journey to the Zone. The Stalker leads the Writer and Scientist outside of the city confines, eluding the military that wishes to restrict access to the Zone. The Zone is a room couched in a set of decaying, unoccupied rural buildings. Having left the city and entered the general vicinity of the Zone, the three follow a haphazard course, set by the Stalker (the longest route is the least risky), through the ruined military machinery and green fields that surround the buildings, and then the buildings themselves, which contain claustrophobic tunnels, flooded and trash-strewn antechambers, and sand-filled halls. Over the course of the buildings lying dormant, nature has begun reclaim the space; greenery tugs at the walls, moss grows on almost every human-built surface, and water is ubiquitous. The dream sequence occurs during a moment of rest for the pilgrims on their journey.

The camera moves forward through (or inches above?) the water covering the floor of the roofless hall in which the three rest. While facing downwards, the camera glides over a number of objects resting on the floor of the sometimes inches, sometimes feet-deep water. One could easily deem these objects as symbolically-charged: syringes, gold dishware, coins, a broken glass fishbowl with fish inside, pages from a calendar, a gun, metal coils and wire, a religious image of John the Baptist (from a famous altarpiece by Belgian painter Jan Van Eyck). These objects could be seen to represent various myths (or micro-myths) at play in the present world: the myths of pharmaceutical medicine, financial wealth, human dominance over nature, military might, technology, and religion. Perhaps these micro-myths are not best seen as independent myths, but better seen as aspects of the overarching myth of civilization. I would rather not reduce them all into one myth, however, because, as Heim alludes to above, not everyone's syncretization of myths will be the same; there is no one myth of civilization. In showing us objects that are symbolically-charged and point to these various micro-myths, perhaps Tarkovsky is wanting to have us consider the objects that accompany the various myths that may frame our lives.

If we are right in this assumption, perhaps Tarkovsky also points to the role that these objects play in our limited and fractured modern existence; by pointing to and embodying the myths that ground our ultimate concerns, they become sacred objects. Ricoeur says that myths attempt to restore some wholeness to a world in which the supernatural, natural, and psychological have been torn apart. The wholeness signified by the myth, but so little experienced, "becomes available only when it is condensed in sacred beings and objects which become the privileged signs of the significant whole."3 The objects Tarkovsky shows us are elements of wholeness in people's lives when framed by the myths the objects signify. Though perhaps it is not consciously recognized as such, for a person dependent on the micro-myth of modern medicine, the syringe is a object symbolic of that ultimate structuring narrative. In a way, the syringe is a sacred object for that particular mythic structure. In laying out these objects, Tarkovsky shows us the sacred objects of modern culture.

Another element that is important to consider is the manner in which Tarkovsky presents these objects. They are submerged in murky water, rusting, decaying, and broken. They have been dislodged from their primary location of meaning (eg. the machine gun removed from a scene of violence, the rusting coil removed from the machine it helped operate), and placed together here in a filmmaker's still-life. As such, their meanings bleed together; the myths bleed together. As such, it is hard to say exactly which objects relate to which myths. Does a broken fish-bowl have to represent human dominion over nature? What is the meaning of placing these myths, these sacred objects side by side?

Tarkovsky calls attention to the objects as sacred objects in the midst of this journey of faith, and yet also obliterates their referential meaning by placing them in the still-life in a setting in which human civilization no longer has any firm hold. Without a clear mythic structure, the object loses its particular sacrality. A piece of bread is just a piece of bread outside of the structure of communion. It is important to note this element of ambiguity in the imagery of the sequence.

We notice then that it is hard to place some of the objects; where, for example, do we place the upside-down image of the tree? What myth does this symbolize? Is the image a photograph or a reflection or what? How does the image of the tree fit with these other objects? The symbolism is not altogether clear.

Still we press on with the idea of micro-myths in play in the sequence. If we pay attention to the audio of the scene we're immediately struck with more questions. What do we make of the voice-over reading of Revelation 6:12-17 describing God's judgment as a force of nature? Does Tarkovsky mean to frame all of these micro-myths inside of the Christian myth? By coupling this spoken text of God's judgment through nature with the imagery of the ruined sacred objects of the modern micro-myths, it is hard not to see the sequence as a pronouncement of judgment on the human idolatry of the trappings of civilization (religion is even included in the St. John the Baptist imagery). The question then is, does Tarkovsky wish to remind us of the deeper divine reality grounding all human endeavors such as myth-making?

Confronted by the pluralist reality of myths in the sequence, we wonder why this phenomenon occurs so often in history. Ricoeur offers an explanation: "The Sacred takes contingent forms precisely because it is 'floating'; and so it cannot be divined except through the indefinite diversity of mythologies and rituals."4 The disaster described in the Revelation narrative forces all of the people of the earth, the kings, generals, slaves, free, rich, poor, the faithful, the unfaithful, regardless of the myths to which they cling, to recognize and fear the Lord of Heaven and Earth. In a way, framed by the Revelation reading, the sequence is a foretaste of the apocalypse, when all of the trappings of civilization, all of the myths fall away, and reveal the Hidden God. Myths offer an ideal of wholeness, but wholeness cannot be fully realized until the eschaton. In the still-life of decaying sacred objects, sacred no more, Tarkovsky exposes the fallibility of the micro-myths to which the objects point.

What is interesting about this apocalyptic reveal, if we can use this sequence as a reference point for the film as a whole, is the role that nature plays. I have already alluded to this to some extent, but allow me to try to put it together. Tarkovsky puts nature and civilization in a dialectic tension in the film. The following comment from Tarkovsky will be helpful for understanding his position:

It is obvious to everyone that man's material aggrandisement has not been synchronous with spiritual progress. The point has been reached where we seem to have a fatal incapacity for mastering our material achievements in order to use them for our own good. We have created a civilization which threatens to annihilate mankind.5

Though he doesn't mention this explicitly in his book, in Stalker, at times, I wonder if Tarkovsky means to set up nature as antidote to the ills of civilization by exposing civilization's finitude. In the very sequence above, we can see the tension between nature and civilization. The murky water works at the objects of civilization, breaking them down, obscuring their functions. The forces of nature in the Revelation reading— the earthquake, the eclipse, meteorites, the moving of mountains and islands— all run counter to the normal functioning of civilization. They also can quickly destroy or swallow up the constructs of human civilization, the architecture, infrastructure, etc.

I doubt whether Tarkovsky would mean to romanticize the occurrence of natural disasters; certainly they cause immeasurable human suffering. Perhaps, though, at the very least, we can notice that when natural disasters happen, they can reveal the ultimate concerns of a society. They can expose human mythologies. For example, when natural disasters happen, we get still lifes such as the one described above: objects are strewn together, dislocated from their primary loci of meaning.

I have a personal example from a mission trip I took a couple years ago down to New Orleans to help hurricane victims. As we know, Hurricane Katrina caused great destruction, with the Gulf rising over the levies, flooding homes, dislodging precious objects from their mantels, and throwing all sorts of household items together in unexpected and haphazard piles. While helping clean up some of the homes, I noticed in particular, the soggy, photo albums that featured family pictures. Water had caused the colors to run together, obscuring the faces and ruining the pictures. Once invaluable as family memories, they were now worthless as they could no longer function as tangible manifestations of the memories. The faces in family pictures serve as reference points for the memories.

In this way, natural disasters (but even the everyday working of natural forces of wind, water, sand, etc.) can be seen to expose the limitations of all human projects. Architecture breaks down when left to the elements. And yet, one wonders about this tension in light of the fact that humans are a part of nature. In what way is human civilization and technology a part of nature (this has been a central question for this independent study)? What do we make of the Tarkovsky's contribution that humans can destroy themselves (and I would add, destroy nature)? The Zone and its surroundings make for a space in which we can, along with the Stalker, Writer, and Scientist, consider the place of humanity in creation, and consider the myths of civilization that inform that understanding. It is telling that humanity would need a place apart, even an alien space, to have the appropriate room for such consideration. The Stalker's remark upon their return to the greenery of the Zone landscape is also telling: "Here we are... home at last." What would it mean that we have a home outside of civilization?

In his imagery, Tarkovsky sets up the tension between natural spaces and the spaces of civilization. Tarkovsky films the city scenes in which civilization has its hold in sepia tone. There is a drabness and a griminess to the urban landscape that makes one wonder, why would anyone want to live here? Is this home? Upon reaching the general Zone area (now outside of the grasp of civilization), Tarkovsky floods the camera with the green of nature. The sensual effect of this switch is a joyous occasion for the viewer: ah, green again. We identify with the Stalker in his above words. The film slips back into sepia tone for the dream sequence above, which features the sacred objects of civilization.

Then also, over and over again, Tarkovsky frames his characters through doorways or claustrophobic spaces, so as to say, it seems to me, that these characters are confined by their surroundings. Confined within civilization, do we have room to consider the myths that order our lives? Tarkovsky gives many images of the characters trapped in drab and somewhat horrifying architecture in a manner that reminds one of the fish in the fishbowl of the above sequence. As such, in his imagery Tarkovsky clearly seems to delineate a tension between nature and civilization, and perhaps suggests that one over the other would make a better home, a better space to occupy.

Note the contrast in color and mood between the indoor (in the, aptly named "Meat Grinder" tunnel) and outdoor scenes:

And yet this line of thinking is not entirely representative of what the film offers or "says," if one were to be so bold as to venture a guess. There are questions that complicate this vision of deconstructing civilization, deconstructing myth to get at the true grounding of our reality, God. For instance, given that the apocalypse is still not imminent as far as we know, and this is also the case in the film's narrative, what do we do? The spirituality advocated by the Stalker and Tarkovsky does not merely comprise a deconstruction of belief. If we deconstruct in the way highlighted above, all we're left with is a belief in an unknowable God. That is hardly satisfying.

And so the Stalker believes in the Zone. A new mythological structure and accompanying ritual actions have been set up around the spiritual pilgrimage to the Zone. It is a purifying, humility-giving action to make it through the course that the Stalker stakes out. Realizing the need for this kind of action, Stalker says things like, "Hardness and strength are death's companions, weakness and pliancy are expressions of the freshness of being" and "The Zone lets wretched people pass." It is easy to recognize the Christian undertones in such sayings, and yet, the Stalker has clearly gone beyond the realm of Christianity to accommodate this new religious reality of the Zone. The Zone has given the Stalker his vocation and his hope, which neither civilization, nor his family can give him, it seems. As such the Zone makes him an outsider. He wonders, should I force my family to live in the Zone, or should I give up on the Zone because no one believes in it but me? He cannot seem to do either. What should the Stalker do then? Return to the myths of civilization that we see represented in the discarded objects of the dream sequence? What hope does Tarkovsky give us finally?

Robert Bird has an answer. He says, "In the final analysis, it would seem unimportant whether one is 'supposed' to believe in the Room of Desires or not; what is important is the performance of the act of faith."6 The question then is, what is the act of faith portrayed in Stalker? The act of faith is a common theme perhaps portrayed more clearly in other Tarkovsky films. For example, in Nostalghia, the final scene portrays the act of faith in the poet attempting to walk a lighted candle across the length of an empty, desolate pool. Bird suggests that it is the Stalker's daughter that portrays the act of faith in the miracle of telekinetically moving the glasses across the table. I'm not so sure. Is not the act of faith also the Stalker's recurring pilgrimage to the Zone?

At any rate, Ricoeur links the act of faith to a pre-myth reality, which would seem to make ritual more elementary than myth. He says:

According to the phenomenology of religion, the myth-narration is only the verbal envelope of a form of life, felt and lived before being formulated; this form of life expresses itself first in an inclusive mode of behavior relative to the whole of things; it is in the rite rather than in the narration that this behavior is expressed most completely, and the language of the myth is only the verbal segment of this total action. Still more fundamentally, ritual action and mythical language, taken together, point beyond themselves to a model, an archetype, which they imitate or repeat; imitation in gestures and verbal repetition are only the broken expressions of a living participation in an original Act which is the common exemplar of the rite and of the myth.7

Using Ricoeur's thinking, I would make an argument for the Stalker's first pilgrimage being the act of faith, since it can function as repeatable ritual, as opposed to the daughter's telekinesis, which would seem to me to be secondary to faith, a miraculous empowerment as a result of faith perhaps.

Do acts of faith comprise a satisfactory answer for the hope we can have in the midst of the pluralism with which we are confronted? What would comprise an authentic act of faith?

One criticism I would have to Tarkovsky's act of faith being the answer is that the examples that Tarkovsky gives us are often solitary, alienating acts. They are acts of existential angst: rituals that require the individual to cut himself off from all others to be successful. Even in the case of the pilgrimage to the Zone, which features a group of three, the Stalker attempts to have the other two focus on their personal, innermost wishes, and their personal state of mind. The Stalker often seems frustrated with the ongoing conversation between the Writer and the Scientist, as if the pilgrimage was best meant to be taken in a silent, devotional state of mind.

How do we construct myths and rituals based on these inward acts of faith? The monastic life seems like an option. Perhaps leaving civilization behind and living a hermetic life in nature would be another. However, most of us post-modern or late modern folk need an answer that will allow us to participate in communities of the world: families, churches, cultures, nations. The need for nature and places apart from civilization is well taken, however (we all have a need to unplug, to go out into the wild for a time). And in light of human-driven environmental disasters, it would be better to recognize that we need to be led by different myths than the myths of capitalism, human domination over nature, endless technological and scientific progress, and military strength. Though perhaps Stalker does not offer a constructive answer, the film does point to a deeper mythical ground to which we must return.

1Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil Trans. by Emerson Buchanon (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967), p.5.
2Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp.30-31.
3Ricoeur, p.168.
5Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, Trans. by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), p.234.
6Robert Bird, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2008), p.168.
7Ricoeur, pp.166-167.

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