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On Time: ‘Arrival’

If you haven’t yet seen the movie Arrival, then stop reading, because there will be spoilers.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie Arrival, then what’s wrong with you? Go! But don’t expect this to be an alien-invasion action movie. It’s not that at all. Your kids will be bored out of their minds, most likely. This is a cerebral film, very talky, very grown-up.

I’m going to put the rest of the discussion below the jump, to avoid readers inadvertently encountering spoilers. You cross the line, you’ll get spoilers. Major spoilers, the kind that will ruin the movie for you. What I’m going to talk about is the role of Time in the movie, a theme central to its meaning. If you haven’t seen the film, maybe this trailer will encourage you. Below the trailer is the jump, where I’ll be talking about the movie.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W1m5ER3I1Y]

OK, so it’s just us?

Was that mind-blowing, or what? If you’re still reading but haven’t seen the movie, here are a couple of paragraphs by the physicist Marcelo Gleiser that encapsulate the film’s mystery:

Meanwhile, as the 12 giant monoliths (in a touching salute to 2001: A Space Odyssey) land along spots near the tropics, the world falls apart. Fear moves people into destructive action, society unravels. Those in power try initially to cooperate in their translation effort. But soon, competition between countries takes over and discoveries become secrets. The Russians and the Chinese stop sharing what they know and arm their weapons around the alien pods. The human tribe splits into national factions; war is around the corner, even if the aliens have issued no threats or threatening behavior. People can’t stand not knowing, not being in control. When so much is at stake, silence is a form of torture. But the aliens wait, as if time for them was something different.

At some point in the movie, the physicist asks the linguist if she has been dreaming about “them.” The movie plays on the “theory” that the brain has a neurological plasticity to reshape itself as one learns a new language, adapting to its quirks and structure. This theory — which is actually more than a theory, according to modern neuroscience — is used in the movie to spectacular dramatic effect. Dr. Banks’ brain reshapes itself as she cracks the strange iconographic language of the visiting “Heptapods,” whose language is made out of inky, black, loop-shaped blots that resemble Rorschach-test forms. A beautifully evocative sequence of loops reveals itself as a language that mirrors the most god-like power of them all, to “see the future.” Loops in time create loops in language. The Heptapods can do this and, in a cinematic dramatization of the challenges of research that every scientist encounters to some degree in her/his career — the battle with the unknown, the difficulty in cracking the mystery — Dr. Banks can do it to. She can see the future. She sees her life with her daughter before it happens, her relationships, her triumphs and her losses.

We all know that learning a different language opens up new worlds. I only sort of speak a language other than English — French — and the difference knowing the local language, however imperfectly, makes when you are traveling is immense. Similarly, poetry can give us a new language that helps us see, experience, and understand the world in ways we had not done before. Specialists in various fields develop a language that allows them to discuss things in their field. When you learn it, it can lead you to experience what was previously a closed world. For example, learning the language that sommeliers use to discuss the various qualities of wine teaches you to be aware of those qualities when you taste wine. It draws your attention to their presence, or their lack; in this sense, language is a tool for deepening your understanding.

Arrival takes this a step further. It suggests that language rewires the brain in certain ways — which we know to be true — but can do so in a way that allows the language user access to other dimensions. One of my favorite stories is the one told by linguist Daniel Everett, who, while serving as a missionary to an Amazonian tribe, had a bizarre experience one morning in which all the tribesmen claimed to be able to see a jungle demon standing on a sand bank in the river — an entity that neither Everett nor his young daughter could see. Everett eventually lost his religious faith, but he has never been able to dismiss that event at the river bank as a hallucination. He wonders to this day if there really was some sort of entity present, and the tribesmen somehow had the ability to perceive it, but he and his daughter, both Westerners, did not. I wrote about it here; believe me, this is a fun rabbit hole to go down (and so is this one.)

Could it be that the Amazon tribesmen, perhaps through their use of their particular language or through some other experiential means, had configured their brains in such a way that caused them to be able to see through the veil, so to speak? If so, is it not possible that some people who use mind-altering drugs — psychedelics, for example — are not hallucinating in the sense of imagining things that aren’t there, but rather are having the doors of perception cleansed, and through a temporary, drug-induced change in their brain chemistry, are able to perceive a level of reality that is normally closed to us?

If you think of the language of the Heptapods as a kind of drug that breaks down barriers of the perception of time, then you get an idea of what Arrival is about. It’s not that the language is a magic spell. Rather, it’s that the way that language works wires the brain of the one using it such that he or she develops a new consciousness of time. The further Dr. Banks goes into acquiring the language, the more the barriers confining consciousness to temporality crumble.

Dr. Banks finds herself dreaming of future events in her life, in fragments — shards of time when she is with a little girl we know to have died. We viewers experience them as flashbacks, because that’s how we are accustomed to seeing time. What we don’t get until late in the film is that Dr. Banks is in fact experiencing memories of things that have not yet happened. In other words, she’s seeing her own future — something she doesn’t grasp until around the time that we do. By the end of the film, as you know, she makes a decision that she knows will cause her pain and brokenness, but also bring about great joy, and not only joy, but will play a role in saving the world. Look:


The theme rests on a line Louise utters in one of Arrival’s closing scenes. “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” she asks her future husband Ian Donnelly. Put another way, would you rob someone of their existence, and yourself of the time shared with them on Earth, if you knew they would one day would feel pain, and you would feel their loss?

The question haunts the narrative because Louise is harboring a terrible secret. She knows Hannah will die young. She knows this before she even decides to conceive Hannah with Ian, a theoretical physicist who, years earlier, helped Louise crack the alien language, even though he does not speak it himself. When Louise tells Ian their daughter will die, he’s naturally upset. He assumes Louise could have warned him, or refused to have a child — changed the future. But Louise made the choice, even knowing the eventual outcome.

If Louise Banks had not chosen to marry Ian and give birth to Hannah, knowing that Hannah would die young, then the alien visitation might have ended with global disaster. Hannah’s life and death helped her mother crack the language code that saved the world. Hannah, in other words, was born to die, and in a sense died so that the world might live.

If you are thinking of Simeon the prophet at the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple, and his words to Mary, then you are thinking along with me. How did Simeon know what was going to happen? How does any prophet, or seer?

I don’t know if this has happened to you, but it has happened to me, and to a couple of my children (the ones most like me, as it happens). We have dreamed of future events, yet not realized what we’ve done until being in the moment, and having an intense déjà-vu experience. It’s never anything important, just one of those “I’ve been here before” things. The kids and I have talked about it. It happened to me a lot when I was a boy, but doesn’t happen much anymore. I have no idea what it means. Does the future already exist, and what we experience in those dreams is a bleeding-over from the future into the present? As a newly married woman, my mother had a very intense dream in which she was killed in a car accident. She saw the accident scene near Thompson Creek Bridge, and hovered over it watching my father rush past the police cars and the ambulance to the crash site. The dream shook her up so much that she resolved never to ride in a car driven by the woman she was accompanying that day.

Was it just a dream, nothing more, or had she been warned? If it was a warning, was it a fragment of a possible future, disclosed to her so that she might choose otherwise and avoid it?

Look at this:

That man was the former bassist for the band Weezer. Two weeks after tweeting that, he was in Chicago for the weekend … and died in his sleep of a heart attack.

How did he know? Where did the information in that dream exist?

Watching Arrival, I couldn’t help thinking about the way novelist Evgeny Vodolazkin plays around with time in his novel Laurus. In the narrative, linear time is revealed at various moments to be an illusion. I asked Vodolazkin about this in an interview:

RD: Timelessness is one of the main ideas of Laurus, which leaps suddenly and unexpectedly from the medieval present, to our own time. What does this mean?

EV: Time doesn’t exist. Of course time exists if we’re speaking in everyday terms, but if we think from the perspective of eternity, time doesn’t exist, because it has its end point. For medieval people, God was the most important thing about life, and the second most important thing was Time. On the one hand, medieval people lived rather short lives, but on the other hand, life was very, very long, because they lived with their minds in eternity. Every day is an eternity in the church, and all that surrounded these people. Eternity made time very long, and very interesting.

If you would think about the first patriarchs, Adam, Methuselah, and others, they had an incredible long life. Adam lived 930 years, Methuselah lived, as far as I remember, 962 years. Because they had eternity in their memories, eternity could not disappear at once. This eternity disappeared slowly, dissipated in the long life of the patriarchs. Medieval people, by comparison to us, are these patriarchs. Their life was very long because they had as part of daily life this vertical connection, the connection to the divine realm, a connection that most of us in modernity have lost.

To live with one’s mind in eternity — that’s not what Dr. Banks is doing in the film, not really. Or is it? She doesn’t have a religious sense of eternity, but learning the language of the Heptapods has given her a true awareness of the eternal meaning of our actions, of connection across time. The Heptapods tell her that they came to earth to give the gift of their language to humans so that one day, 3,000 years into the future, the humans will be able to help them in their time of need.

Can we say that in a sense, acquiring religion — let’s say the Christian religion, because it is my own, and it is the one I’m most familiar with — is like learning the language of the Heptapods? I think we can. The essence of Christian hope is not optimism, but rather the certainty that our suffering has meaning, and that, in the words of St. Paul to the Romans, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, to those who are called according to His purpose.” When my late sister Ruthie learned she had Stage Four cancer, she told me that she hoped God would give her a miracle cure, but if He did not, she trusted that He had his reasons for allowing this to come upon her.

On the second night after her diagnosis, I had lain down to sleep in her bed at her house in the country (she and her husband were in the hospital in Baton Rouge). Then this happened (excerpt from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming):


The next day, I told my wife about that experience, but we kept it to ourselves. After that, I never believed that Ruthie would survive the cancer, though I hoped to be proven wrong. Instead, I doubled down on my belief — and hers — that if we submit to God’s will, and trust that all suffering (and no one avoids suffering) can be redeemed in the fullness of time, then anything is bearable. This is not cheap sentimentality. Not a day goes by in which I realize how dependent I am on this truth, and have to work hard to affirm it.

In the end, I think, the Christian religion is like the language of the Heptapods because at its heart is sacrificial love — or, to be more specific, at its heart is a God who is beyond all space and time, whose essence is Love. And this is where Dante comes in. Here is an excerpt from a second post I did last year about time and Laurus — this one involving Dante too:

Dante’s point is that at the end of the universe — that is to say, when he reaches the throne of God — he perceives that everything that ever was and is to come already exists within the totality of Being, which is to say, God. The poet Dante, describing his pilgrim self’s experience, says that what he discloses in his poem is barely a glimmer of radiant Reality.
There’s a great book called The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, by a scholar at the University of Notre Dame, Christian Moevs. In it, he discusses how one of the most important discoveries that the pilgrim Dante makes on his journey is that Time does not exist in reality. Moevs writes:

To experience and live the improbable postulate that even though consciousness (as in humans) appears to exist in, and depend on, the spatiotemporal world, the truth is the opposite (all space-time is a creation or projection of conscious being): it is to free oneself from the obsessive lure of the ephemeral through faith (action and experience, not just words and ideas) and take one’s rightful place in the Empyrean [eternity, the kingdom of Heaven — RD]. It is to know oneself not only as a thing in space-time, but also as one with the source of space-time. It is to awaken to onself Christically as the subject, and not only an object, of experience, by voluntarily sacrificing the attachment to, or obsessive identification with, the finite. It is to experience oneself as attributeless, extensionless, immune to all contingency: one with the ontological ground that spawns and knows all possible object of experience as itself. It is to know oneself as everything, and as nothing, which is to love all things literally, and not just metaphorically, as oneself. It is to achieve salvation, or eternal life.

This language is not easy, nor is the book. What Moevs says here is that the pilgrim Dante, on the verge of achieving theosis, or metaphysical unity with God, understands that everything that exists is only the projection of the mind of God, bound together by Love. We cannot “read the book” of reality with our minds, only with our hearts, through Love, which is the Logos, or ordering principle. Once you understand that Time does not exist in the mind of God, that everything is part of eternity, you become detached from created things, and love only God. This is not to say that you hate created things (because God created them, after all, and declared them good, and can be known partially through His creation), but rather that your love for them is subordinated to your all-consuming love of God. Moevs continues:

In the Comedy salvation is rather a self-awakening of the Real to itself in us, the surrender of sacrifice of what we take ourselves and the world to be, a changed experience that is one with a moral transformation. We cannot know what we are until we surrender what we think we are, with all its attendant desires. Dante could say with Wittgenstein that he aims to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change, and that there can be no true understanding without moral perfection (perfect selflessness, the dissolution of the ego)…

The point here is that to know God is to know Reality, and even more, it is to know God/Reality not with one’s mind, but with one’s heart. One cannot comprehend intellectually the fullness of Reality, standing outside of it, but one may unite with that Reality, by conversion of the heart, which is to say, through the purification and illumination of the nous (pron. “noose”).

In my earlier blog post here about Laurus, I quoted from an interview that Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and an ardent reader of Russian literature, said about Dostoevsky:

RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality.

LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.

RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.


This metaphysical truth is exactly what Vodolazkin bears witness to in Laurus, and exactly what Dante says in the Commedia. The journey of the pilgrim Dante  is ultimately the same as the journey of Arseny: towards unity with Reality, which is to say, with the God revealed to us in the Bible. Theosis.

Early in his journey through Paradise, the pilgrim Dante meets the nun Piccarda. He doesn’t understand why God has her on a lower level of heaven than he, Dante, believes she deserves. Piccarda explains to him that he’s seeing things the wrong way. To be in heaven, united with God, is the only thing that matters. To question why He has done this or that thing is to live in disharmony. Says Piccarda, “In His will is our peace.”

Arrival is not a religious movie, but a secular one. It says something about our time that them mystical gifts that lead us to wisdom and salvation come to us borne by aliens in spaceships. It has more to do with Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal return, which says that you should live your life in such a way that if you had to live it over again the same way, eternally, you would choose to do so. And yet it’s not really that either. I suppose the most I can say about it without seeing the film a second time or reading the short story on which it is based is that its message is that to live is to suffer, and the willingness to affirm life in spite of its suffering and finitude is the source of all true joy.

By the way, Laurus is now out in paperback. If you haven’t read it, please do. If you have read it, now is a good time to re-read it, especially if you liked the movie Arrival. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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