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.