What does a tragic and senseless death do to us? How do we go forward from it? What questions does the needless death of a son or daughter raise about justice, nature, God and our capacity to even conceive of a redemptive universe? For all of the visual poetry, philosophic musings and oedipal triangles expressed throughout Terrence Malick's long anticipated film The Tree of Life, the emotional core is the dialectic of life and death - the origins of the cosmos set beside the imperative of human suffering. The Tree of Life is rooted in the fact of death - the fact that creates the fictions in this film.
There is a stark philosophical and psychological dualism stated at the beginning of the film as we are introduced to a 1950s family in suburban Texas. We must, the mother of a family of three boys insists in voice-over narrative, choose the path of nature or grace. Nature "wants to please itself and lord it over others," she tells her boys and us. Grace, in contrast, is the way of love, acceptance and spiritual surrender.
I'm not exactly sure what Malick means by "nature," in the context of the film. Is it what we commonly refer to as "human nature" or is he referring to the natural world? But one reasonable view of nature - and this was Darwin's view - is that nature neither "wants" anything nor "lords if over" anyone. Malick turns this understanding of nature upside down. Darwin's sober stoicism towards the natural world is, of course, one of the reasons why his theories were considered blasphemous in religious quarters.
Adam Gopnik, in his fine book on Darwin and Lincoln, Angels and Ages, points out that one of the disturbing implications of Darwin's point of view was that he regarded the "wedge of death" - the ubiquitous pain and suffering in the natural and human worlds - as in some sense creative but not justified by any transcendent plan or purpose. "It wasn't that suffering [In Darwin's scheme] was for your own good or for the good of the species; suffering just was," Gopnik writes.
In voice over and imagery, Malick explores the "religious" themes of redemption, the emergence of conscience, the role of "God" or "the father" in both the family and natural world. "Lord - where were you?" "Who are we to you?" the narrator asks. "Is there nothing that does not pass away?"
As for mothers, the mother of this film is ethereal and mostly passive in the face of a confused but authoritarian husband and father who believes that life isn't fair so you must take what you can when you can. He teaches his sons to steel themselves against life's outrages and that compassion is for suckers.
The other mother of course is mother earth. In one of Malick's origin images a meteor impregnates the earth thereby initiating the journey through geologic time. Malick seems to view nature as a substitute for God, the beauty and bounty of the natural world as the transcendent spirit in earthly form. There is even a scene depicting an anthropomorphic dinosaur sparing the life of a wounded kin through what looks like an act of empathy - the beginning of conscience or morality. Again, this is contrary to Darwin's sense of "origins" and his description of nature's stark and inexorable logic.
Darwin was not immune from feelings of "awe" and emotional exaltation at the sublime beauty of the forests "un-defaced by the hand of man" that he observed during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. But he also wrote, after the senseless death of his beloved ten year old daughter Annie, that there was "a dreadful but quiet war of organic beings going on in the peaceful woods...where we behold the face of nature bright with gladness but cannot forget that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life." Malick's picture of nature embraces the "gladness" while largely ignoring the terror of the dying bird.
Adam Phillips' book on Darwin and Freud (Darwin's Worms) asks the right kinds of challenging questions about our social, political and religious lives. He points out that both Darwin and Freud saw themselves as revealing the truth about nature and that "nature was what truth was about." How do we take justice seriously if we take nature seriously?
After Darwin and Freud, Phillips contends, one couldn't believe in nature in the way that one could believe in God. By declaring the death of immortality they urged us to surrender the consolations of religious illusions and ideas of utopian justice for the more limited goals of advancing our capacity to reason and painstakingly improving the human community.
At the end of the movie the mother lets go of the grief over the death of one of her children. She makes an offering to Nature? to God? - with the words, "I give him to you. I give you my son." During the same sequence another of her sons, now an adult played by Sean Penn, walks along an ocean shore surrounded by what look like acquaintances and relatives who have died but have regained both bodily strength and emotional contentment - the absence of strife and pain.
With this coda, the film loses its philosophical and psychological weight. The gravity of the intimate details of the 1950s family story with all of its conflict, repression and ultimate breakdown (did the father ever go have a drink with the guys from work or tell a good joke?) is reconciled through a mystical harmony and transformed consciousness - what Freud called the unbounded "oceanic" feeling of unity with the external world.
Malick has been called a Transcendentalist filmmaker, like Emerson, determined to explore solitary artistic and spiritual paths, and like Thoreau, drawn to the sensuality and power of the natural world. Thoreau took his council at Walden Pond and Emerson wrote that "Heaven walks among us...in triple or tenfold disguises." Malick attempts to unveil or immerse us in those disguises.
Literary critic Irving Howe has argued that in order to understand America and our literature, we cannot evade dealing with Emerson as a guiding spirit of a particular type of individualism. He also points out that it was Emerson's critic and contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, who observed that Emerson and his Concord neighbors were deluded by the notion that through an "exercise of spirit" they could raise themselves to a new state of being. For Hawthorne, there was no easy escape from history, nature and the community's incessant demands. The "heavy luggage" of intellectual pride, guilt and community obligation could not easily be tossed into the baggage car of the Celestial Railroad and forgotten.
Here is a Hawthorne character in The House of the Seven Gables:
After such wrong as [Clifford] had suffered, there is not reparation...
No great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our mortal sphere, is ever
really set right.
Nature would not provide Emerson's compensatory balance. It is the "invariable inopportunity of death" that renders reparation impossible.
There is an Emersonian devotion to inwardness in Malick's work. The use of gnomic voice-over narrative in all of his films is an expression of it. And his non-doctrinaire version of "belief," for all of its obscure imagery, is a good fit for our time. In a democratic and egalitarian world, one belief is as good as another and there is no need for the rigorous behavioral sacrifices or devotion to "scripture" required of believers in an earlier and more demanding religious world. Through our free-floating religious energies, we are all the interpreters of our own spiritual universe - Emersonian self-reliance without Emerson's intellectual depth and hard-edged self-doubt.
Howe views Emerson - and I think this view can be applied to Malick - as collapsing "the distinction between religious and secular, so that the exaltations of the one might be summoned for the needs of the other." In this grief stricken movie, grief becomes a source of secular wisdom and spiritual redemption.
Freud wrote in The Future of An Illusion, his 1927 booklet about the psychological sources of religious belief - that "Men cannot remain children forever; they must in the end go out into the hostile life." By rejecting the infantile wish for a protective father in the sky to replace the father we experienced in childhood, we are able to mourn our loss and go forward to engage the adult challenges that face us. For Freud, good mourning releases the energies for good living.
Freud criticized as "irreligious in the truest sense of the word" those who would pitifully substitute for the mighty personality of the biblical God, a shadowy and abstract principle or hide him in the misty forests of pantheism. Freud even regarded Yoga and other Eastern practices as a life sacrificing and narcissistic withdrawal from social conflicts - a futile search for happiness through "quietness."
Darwin, along with Freud a "master of retrospect," was obsessed with the majestic and life creating activities of worms (his first and last books were about the usefulness of worms) and preferred to look at the things that were on and under the shifting ground. Gopnik suggests that Darwin found the evidence which reinforced his theories in "the homely, the overlooked, the undervalued." He practiced the skill of "learning from the low."
After his daughter's death, according to Gopnik, Darwin abandoned any remaining remnants of Christian faith. "Serenity could only be found in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe," Gopnik writes. Annie was taken for no good reason and was gone for good. Darwin went back to studying and writing about his beloved worms.
Malick tries to have it three ways. The close feel of his Texas family grounded in its special place and time offers its own epiphanies about frustrated desires and misguided parents. Nature is a place where a worn down world can be revived. And finally, Malick turns our gaze upwards to the mysteries of the heavens in an attempt to, in Emerson's words, "love God without mediator or veil."
There is a tragic humanism that comes through in the film. The Tree of Life is the story of birth and death, love and hatred and a democratic stance seems to bracket the Christian mysticism. In the last scene Penn's character is at least surrounded by the multitudes, all walking on the same level ground. But when Penn was down on his knees caressing the feet of an Angel? Jesus? the Lord Himself or Herself in disguise? - I was reminded of Darwin's worms, slowly burrowing their way through the earth beneath Penn's feet, helping to create the "entangled bank" of existence that makes up the grandeur of life.
We can't seem to, as the German poet Heinrich Heine suggested we do, Leave heaven to the angels and the sparrows.
The Future of an Illusion - Sigmund Freud
Angels and Ages - A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln & Modern Life - Adam Gopnik
The American Newness - Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson - Irving Howe
Darwin's Worms - On Life Stories and Death Stories - Adam Phillips