Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Recurrent Thought on The Fountain

The twice repeated image of Tom, as the Spanish conquistador in the first chronological strand of the film, kneeling before a monstrance in which is placed some of the Queen's hair ... has returned to me twice today. Why was this done? Certainly, it must be symbolic, for such a reality would be unthinkable. Does it convey the sense that in the first strands he places her in too exalted a place in his life and devotion? And that in the second strand, he clings to her with too great a possession? In the last he yields and 'loses her', thus regaining All?

An exquisite film.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Death is the Road to Awe

I watched The Fountain today, having had to drive out to a mall with a Cinema Nouveau "art film" cinema in it, since the film was not showing on the normal circuits.

I now know why, and for the same reason it has been trashed in every single local review I have read: It is an extended musing on death. There is no plot to drive it (indeed, the elements of plot that give framework to the musing are only such as to sustain it, no more), and the three separate strands cannot be connected concretely. The other main character, Izzi Creo* lives only in the second contemporary strand, even though her existence expands into the two adjacent threads through the medium of her literary creation "The Fountain". The first strand is set, I presume, in sixteenth century Spain **, while the third is set in some distant future.

I think the key to understanding the film lies in understanding the main characters as archetypal. Its theme, as I have said, is death. The wife's cancer sounds the bell of inevitable mortality, and this inevitability is mirrored across the other two strands in her corresponding existence as the Spanish Queen in the first, and as the Tree of Life incarnation in the third. As queen she is opposed by the mythical figure of the Grand Inquisitor, a cruel and overstylized figure painted with deliberate exaggeration, who will have her executed for attempting to seek an eternal existence in the earthly sense. I should note here, for those who still hold to such propagandist views, that the Grand Inquisitor was not a dictatorial post (indeed, he could be curbed or overriden by the Suprema, the supreme inquisitorial council) and that the Spanish Inquisition was not as catastrophic a punitive body as is commonly believed. Though it was not without cruelty, it must be remembered that its punishments were not incongruous with secular equivalents (indeed its prisons were often better maintained on the whole - so much so that long-serving prisoners, even priests, have "faked" heresy so that they would be transferred to inquisitorial prisons!), and that executions were fairly normal punishments in the secular sphere. I am no historical white-washer: the anti-Semitism and flawed judicial form of the Inquisition is to me scandal and grief, no matter how much it can be explained as giving expression to the "Spanish temper". But we must place the Holy Office in Spain in its historical context and rid ourselves of the propaganda we have been fed about its supposedly epochal evils. Nonetheless, I do not believe the film wishes to inculcate consciously this image in the minds of the viewers, since the figure of the Grand Inquisitor is so obviously enlarged beyond all proportion (notice how he has already supposedly siezed three-quarters of Spain, and will now move against the Crown). This leads me to think that the Inquisitor becomes a symbol of religion and truth corrupted and skewed to dominate and oppress. In any case, from a Catholic perspective, the Inquisitor's insistence that the body is the "prison of the soul" is an old Gnostic heresy long condemned.

But back to the film. The mirrored incarnation of Izzi in third strand of the future is at threat simply because the Tree of Life, through whom she then lives, is dying. A beautiful ring links all three strands. In the first strand, it is given by the Queen to the conquistador, who fails to place it upon his finger when he "discovers Eden" as he was royally commanded. In the second strand, the main character loses the ring (which functions here as a wedding ring) and does not recover it. In the third strand, it is recovered and used, resulting in the consummation of death and rebirth. I believe that the ring symbolizes the acceptance of death. In the first, it is given but lost because of an avarice of life. Both queen and conquistador cling to this life, and in doing so lose the path to the Life that requires death. In the second, it is lost in the struggle to conquer death. While in the first strand, an acquiring greed wishes conquer death, in the second, technological prowess and ingenuity attempts to thwart it. Both fail, of course. In the third, consummating, strand, however, the main character realizes all this and passes into the acceptance of death. He recovers the ring, and through the medium of it, accepts his own death and the death of his wife Izzi. In so doing, he passes into the existence beyond death he could not possess without dying: life eternal.

The film is intensely religious, overtly so in the meditative lotus position of the character in the final strand and the quotation from Genesis at the introduction, and I must admit that it can be given a reincarnationist slant. However, I do not think it does, for the theme of the film is consummation in death: "Death is the Road to Awe". But of course, we do not feel awe passively, it is a response to something, or better, Someone. If death is the "road to awe", then it is not inimical to the film to extrapolate from it that the encounter in death with Reality is the ulimate event of all human life, and it will define our existence. This, of course, now comes within the concrete orbit of Christian eschatology, especially as speculatively put forward in the works of Ladislaus Boros. I do not think this necessarily far-fetched since the Mayan mythic figure of the "First Father" who sacrifices himself to bring forth the world, can be clarified as Christ who in His sacrificial death and resurrection as the Final Adam, raised the First Adam to Life Everlasting. These are all deeply personal reflections prodded into being by the film, and I suspect each person will upon reflection have another take on it. I am sure it can be given different slants, and I shall not therefore pontificate on its objective content. But go watch it, I urge you! It is splendidly done visually, and the music is extraordinarily fitting (worth buying the soundtrack for).

As I watched the final, sensually stunning scene of consummation-in-death, I reflected: The End will be more glorious than this, and I am not yet willing to sacrifice even a mere moment of self-comfort to pursue it.

Update: I have found another reviewer online who also sees in this film profound spiritual elements. He even sees in the eating of the tree in the last strand a Eucharistic element. Amazing!

* - Can I in happy naïveté imagine this to be the first person singular creare?
** - I do this on the basis of the existence of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, though of course it continued well into the eighteenth. Nonetheless, its overstylized portrayal lead me to postulate the sixteenth.

The Inquisition and Propaganda

I finished Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition: An (sic) Historical Revision a while ago. It was an exquisite, scholarly, painstakingly detailed and researched work on the Spanish Inquisition. I cannot adequately summarize the work without running to great length, but suffice to say that the stereotypical portrayals are enormously wrong. A few points from the book:

  • Excepting Castile, the Inquisition did not directly affect most of the Spanish population, especially those in rural areas.
  • The inquisitorial prisons were on the whole better than secular equivalents in Spain.
  • It almost completely avoided the witch-burning craze when this swept across England and France.
  • The Crown deliberately opposed papal control of the Inquisition, especially when the Papacy moved to curb both its power and excesses.
  • Except when it interfered in secular matters, it was supported, with reserve, by the Spanish people.
  • Proportionally, very few Protestants were punished by the Inquisition.
  • After the first twenty years, executions were not commonplace, and in the whole of its existence as little as 2% or 3% of those punished, were punished capitally. This is less than the secular proportion.
  • In sections of its history, other countries (esp. the Netherlands) executed more people than Spain.

Nonetheless, if the book has dispelled the bloody and evil aura so often pervading the traditional "Inquisition", it has certainly brought home the inherent injustice of some of its judicial aspects (secret witnesses and testimony, usage of sheer hearsay), and the way in which it focused the racialism of sixteenth century Spain, rather than abolishing it. While we can argue that its effects were not on a whole nearly as catastrophic as has been supposed, it remains wholly true that to converso communities (Muslim & Jewish converts, often forced to convert due to economic/social pressure and inevitabilities) it was indeed catastrophic and abominable, and rightly did John Paul the Great apologize publicly for the faults of the Church during that time, for we failed both Jew and Muslim, neglecting to let the Light of Christ transform the narrow cruelty of human sectarianism.

Is This Even a Dialogue?

I read Belief or Nonbelief? a while ago. While the entirety of the booklet was most enjoyable and instructive, it was far too short, of no engaging substance, and not nearly reciprocal enough to merit the title of "dialogue". Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, if only for Umberto Eco's sake. His marvellous prose is always exquisite, and his erudition delightful. His final defense of the possibility of wholly secular morality seems to me, however, to be flawed. Beautiful and noble, but flawed. Morality is not possible without some transcendent or religious backing. An expediency approximating morality, certainly, but not morality in the whole of its sense.

Speaking of Eco, I really should read The Island of the Day Before. Bought it in hardcover ages ago ...

L'Athéisme est morte!

Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism is very well written and thought-provoking, and I think it well underscores what I have long guessed: the challenge of the world is no longer that it does not believe in any Deity, but that it believes in any deity, or believes without allowing that belief to alter its course. McGrath shows convincingly that atheism in its full form (as opposed to mere agnostic indifference) is no longer a viable cultural force, and the increase in pitch and volume in its contemporary adherents only underscore this fact.

Which makes one think: if the first century largely came to disbelieve in the "old gods" and gave itself up to a myriad of spiritualities without objective center, and that was indeed the kairos moment at which the preaching of the Gospel would be most fruitful, then can we not have hope for this age of the world also? For today we have passed beyond unquestioned atheism into a relativistic plethora of spiritualities. Perhaps the ground is being cleared for a renewal of faith. Perhaps it has already begun.

Postcriptum: Another startling aspect of the book, but personally so, since I am a convert to the Faith, lies in this passage:
"To suggest a link between Protestantism and atheism might, at first sight, seem improbable, perhaps even bizarre. How could a movement so dedicated to the propagation of the Christian faith conceivably be said to have encouraged the rise of atheism? In making this suggestion, I am drawing together the number of scholarly studies of the origins and development of Protestantism, which indicate that there is a significant link between the movement and the emergence of atheism. Given the importance of this suggestion, however uncomfortable it may be for Protestants (among whom I unabashedly number myself), it is essential to explore its foundations ..."
McGrath then continues to describe, later in the same chapter, how Protestantism carries within it "imaginative failure", and a "disconnection from the sacred". He concretizes many of my tentative ideas.

But all of this begs the question. If Protestantism is the Gospel pure , without the Roman idolatry, then it follows that God wishes His Church to follow teachings which bring about a "disconnection from the sacred" and "imaginative failure" ... clearly false. Yet why then do you remain Protestant, professor McGrath? What reflects so alarmingly in the waters of the Tiber that you will not cross them?

Monday, 8 January 2007

Can you hear me ...

... sighing in a wistfulness dangerously close to envy?

Hail, Lamb of God, Hail!

O Medicine of Immortality!

Were it not for Thy Succour on the Journey,
how long ago would I not have perished?

With Thy Ever-Present Help,
how can I not come to the End of All Things?

Gould & Goldberg

There is something contradictory about it, I know, but I like the fact that Glenn Gould hums to himself during his extraordinary 1981 performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

This idiosyncrasy of Gould's must have cost the sound engineers much travail. I am glad that they did not excise it more aggressively; It might have removed some of the brilliance of that exquisite fingering of his.


our spirits awake the twin seductions
of despair devouring the horizons of the soul
of hope deaf to the cries of the dead

both are illusions and twixt them lie
the mirror of self which no man can wholly behold

but regard, brethren, the futility
of reflection without