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Tarkovsky, Shaw, And The White Birds

Valediction to summer in Vienna, a season of hardship, healing, and mystery
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Today is my last day in Vienna. I fly back to Baton Rouge tomorrow; my son Matt, who was with me here all summer, left three weeks ago to start his final semester at LSU. I'll be joining him for the next month, settling my affairs, then moving to Budapest in early October. Matt will join me in Europe after graduation. As you may have heard, my wife filed for divorce this spring. We had been struggling intensely in our marriage for a decade; it cracked in part under the pressure of my chronic illness, which came upon me from the shock of my Louisiana family's rejection of us shortly after our 2011 return to Louisiana. Though I did not seek divorce, I assented to it without protest, because it was clear to me (and to our priests) that we had exhausted every possible avenue to healing. Every. Possible. Avenue. I don't want to go into detail out of respect for the privacy of my wife and children, but let me just say that this whole excruciating ordeal has taught me that people really have no idea what really goes on in a marriage. That, and the truth of the coffee-mug saying: Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle. Divorce is a horrible thing, never to be wished on anyone, but look, we are both practicing Christians, so I assure you we did, in fact, fight a very great battle to avoid this fate, and visiting it on our kids.

(And I hate to have to say it, but I must: if any of you are tempted to judge me for leaving Baton Rouge and the two kids -- 18 and almost 16 -- who are still living at home with their mother, to move to Hungary, let me strongly urge you to resist, because you have no idea what's really going on. Please, just pray for us all.)

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What a grief this all is. I was up early this morning in Vienna, doing laundry, cleaning the apartment, and packing, and reflecting on how I never, ever could have imagined that my homegoing to Starhill would end this way. But here we are. I won't dwell on the causes here -- the roots are in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, if you care -- but we do live in a fallen world, all of us. As Marco the Lombard says to Dante, "The world is blind, and you too come from it." Yep, and so do I. Would things have turned out differently for me, my wife, and our kids had we never tried to live in Louisiana? Maybe. But good things came from it too; that's what How Dante Can Save Your Life is about. If I had known what was waiting for me there, I never would have done it. Yet my wife and I brought our family there with the best of intentions, with hearts full of love and sacrifice. It destroyed us. Nothing to be done now but do the best we can to try to put our lives back together. I am grateful for the opportunity I have been given in Budapest to try to start over, but of course I would refuse it, and give back everything I have, if only... .

I have spent the summer trying to make sense of all this, and more to the point, trying to figure out what God wants me to do. As you may recall, I am at work now on a book about "re-enchantment" -- that is, the re-awakening, from within a Christian framework, of the visceral awareness that God exists, and that He loves us, and that life has meaning for those with eyes to see. The suffering of family rejection, a failed marriage, and now divorce, has refined my vision -- and so has prayer, and learning from others I've been meeting along this difficult way.

I've been writing about these others, whom I've met in person or in their books, mostly on Rod Dreher's Diary, my subscription-only Substack newsletter, which I publish twice weekly (you can subscribe by clicking here). There I don't write about politics or the culture war; rather, I write about God, spirituality, art, travel, friendship, and so forth. I write more personally there than I do here. I was just looking back over the things I've written this summer, and wanted to share a post with you from July. It came after I met online Martin Shaw, an amazing English writer and storyteller, whose recent midlife conversion to Christianity (watch him talk about it here) came after he witnessed a miracle in the forest, and was haunted by dreams of Jesus Christ. I offer this to you as an example of what I write about over there, and also as a valediction to a painful but rewarding summer:

A poem by Anna Akhmatova, titled “The Last Toast”:

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I drink to our demolished house

To all this wickedness,

To you, our loneliness together

I raise my glass —

And to the dead-cold eyes,

The lie that has betrayed us,

The coarse, brutal world, the fact

That God has not saved us.

I get it. Boy, do I get it. Maybe this helps you understand my obsession with the film Nostalghia. If the film had entered my life as a coincidence, I would have let it pass. But as you longtime readers know, it came to me after a messenger, an Italian artist, brought me after a 2018 talk in Genoa an engraving he had done of a minor medieval Italian saint, telling me he didn’t know why he was giving it to me; the Holy Spirit came to him in his studio that day, and told him to go hear the American’s speech that night, and give him the drawing, “The Temptation of St. Galgano.” I won’t repeat the story here; most of you have heard it many times from me, but for the new subscribers, here is the story.

The part I kept hidden back then was that I was depressed over the failure of my marriage, which had begun to break down in late 2012, and had entirely collapsed by sometime in 2013, though it took years of struggle in therapy before I realized how hopeless things were. My wife and I kept up the façade for the sake of the children. The depression deepened as my loneliness cut through the muscle, and started gnawing on my bones, around the spring of 2020. That’s when Nostalghia entered my life — this strange film by an exiled Russian, and the role of St. Galgano in it.

Why am I still obsessed with it? Because I am still on a quest for meaning, to help me accept this catastrophe. As a Christian, I believe in signs and wonders. I believe in meaningful coincidences. We do not dwell in a meaningless universe, but in a cosmos pregnant with significance. We only have to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and the wisdom to interpret. The trick is, even Tarkovsky himself said that he didn’t try to bury meaning in images; rather, he just allowed images to pour out of his subconscious. He said, “We don't know ourselves very well; sometimes we just give expression to forces that cannot be measured in conventional ways.”

Nostalghia is a movie about an artist suffering in exile, not only from his homeland (Russia), but from himself. It was Tarkovsky’s most complete statement about himself. He made it when he was forcibly separated from Russia in the early 1980s, when he could no longer bear the Soviet authorities. He told an Italian interviewer:

And we Russians, for us nostalghia is not a gentle and benevolent emotion, as it is for you Italians. For us it is a sort of deadly disease, a mortal illness, a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.

When I first read that, I realized that this is why in the film, Gorchakov, the writer, is so drawn to the holy fool Domenico: he sees Domenico as a fellow sufferer. Just now, as I write this, I spent an hour on the phone with my best friend in college back in the US. His wife of 28 years recently blindsided him with a request for separation; it’s clearly headed for divorce. He is shocked, shaken to the core. I understand his pain, and was happy, if that is the word, to have been able to help him bear it for an hour, to try to make sense of it. Tarkovsky once said that to be tenacious in trying to achieve a greater level of understanding is one way to understand hope.

I hope it doesn’t sound crazy to you that my obsession with this movie is an expression of hope. See, I really do believe that God is present in this suffering, and that He sent me the artist as a messenger, as an angel, and that He dropped into my life Tarkovsky’s film in the same way He dropped into my life Dante’s Commedia during my previous crisis. I accept the synchronicities as meaningful. Because I believe in an enchanted world, one in which God is everywhere present and fills all things, I believe that He is giving me these signs to draw me deeper to Himself, to theosis.

Why won’t he just give me the answers directly? Because we have to work at it, to search hard, to live the mysteries, in order to weave them into our muscles and sediment them into our bones. We have to sacrifice our attention. You can’t buy wisdom like this. You can’t open up a book and have it all laid out for you. You have to work at it. When I was struggling with Dante almost a decade ago, I realized that some of the lessons I was getting from reading the Commedia were tracking those that I was learning from my therapist. The therapist’s lessons didn’t really land. The same lessons, coming to me through story, symbolism, and from entering into the story — they did. So, I have it from experience that this sort of “art therapy” really works for me, in a way that sitting down with a therapist never did.

I went back today to an older Tarkovsky interview, and read him saying, towards the end of his life, that he is more interested in finding the meaning of life in “contemplation and Man’s being an inseparable part of the Universe.” He rejects, he said, the idea that the meaning of life is to stay alive and be happy. As the sacristan says in Nostalghia: “There are more important things in life than happiness.” That line, first heard by me in 2020, gave me strength in bearing up under the immense stress of our unhappy marriage. If I could honor the vow and keep the kids safe, that’s more important than personal happiness. Maybe my wife felt the same way then, I don’t know.

I’m not sure if Tarkovsky considered himself to be an Orthodox Christian or not. His diaries and his public statements are inconclusive, though he does seem to have become more religious towards the end of his life. In Orthodoxy, “truth” is something we live out, something we discover not so much through rationalism, but by experience. (This is a very Kierkegaardian perspective, by the way; when he famously said, “Truth is subjectivity,” he meant that there are certain truths you can only apprehend by living them passionately, by staking your life on them.) But poor Andrei Gorchakov can’t open himself to subjectivity; he is removed from the world around him, and stays trapped inside his head, with his nostalgic memories, and his dreams.

Nostalgia is a manifestation of a deep and abiding longing for a sense of Home, of wholeness, and of fellowship with others. Gorchakov has none of those things, and has closed himself off to the possibilities of receiving them. There’s the famous dream sequence when God says that He tries to reach Gorchakov, but Gorchakov won’t see, and won’t hear.

In an interview comment about the meaning of Time, Tarkovsky said:

The only way to experience the now is if we let ourselves fall into the abyss which exists between the now and the future.

Keep that line in mind; I’ll come back to it in a moment.

I confess that the Nostalghia obsession has come back full force after Martin Shaw entered my life, and with him a new appreciation for the power of myth. O felix culpa: if I had not overstayed my Schengen visa on accident, and had not been deported back to England, then I would not have had lunch in Cambridge with Malcolm Guite, and would not have learned about the recent Christian conversion of Martin Shaw, and would not have become curious about Shaw’s work on the power and meaning of myth. I would not have spent these past few days reading Shaw’s work, and experiencing my re-enchantment project take on new depth and dimension. And I would not have received the help I need so badly right now to make my way through this dark place after the end of my marriage. Glory to God for all things, including overstayed visas and border polizei!

I’m serious. When I bedded down for the night in the Vienna airport terminal, on the only benches I found, I knew God was in it, because the only place for me to sleep was in the airport chapel. I had faith that God was re-routing me back to England for a reason that would become clear. And now it has: the meeting with the sage Martin Shaw.

I read more on Saturday of his first book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree, and it was so overwhelming that despite having had two giant cups of coffee, I had to come back to the room to sleep. There is deep magic in his words. I see now why Guite, an Anglican priest, told me that only Orthodox Christianity will be able to contain the immensity that is Martin Shaw’s imagination and sensibility.

Reading Martin makes me understand better why I keep rolling over in my mind the myths that God sent to me in the depths of my suffering in this failed marriage. True, nearly all myths relate at some level to all people, because they contain distilled human experience. But I believe that some myths are more important to us at certain times than others. And I am absolutely certain that God sent me these particular myths to guide me through these particular hard times. By immersing myself in them, trying to draw out their meaning, and apply them to myself, I hope that I am showing you readers the importance of taking myths and stories seriously, regarding them as portals to ultimate meaning, given by God.

I am sure that my seemingly endless analysis of the meanings of these myths appears self-indulgent. You might be right; forgive me. But this is a diary, a recording of my own daily thoughts and creative struggles. The book I’m working on now is about learning to perceive the enchantment that already exists in the world. What I didn’t understand as well as I should have done, until reading Shaw, is that to live in an enchanted world is to live in a world where all things have meaning, and are sent to us to point us ultimately go reunion with God. It won’t do to point to a tree or a mountain and say, “I see now that you have meaning. Be well!” That’s not how it works. You have to pay attention to it, deep attention. Martin says that’s how we hallow things: by our attention.

How I wish God would just speak plainly to me and tell me how to think and what to do! That would be knowledge cheaply purchased, though. I have often said that I believe psychedelic drugs really can give certain people deep mystical insights, but that most people are not worthy of them. It would be like becoming a millionaire by winning the lottery, versus having earned the fortune by hard work. The amount in the bank is still the same, but it doesn’t mean anything to you if you got it cheaply, and you will likely squander it, or maybe it will even destroy you.

So it is with the kind of deep knowledge that one acquires through time and struggle. Reading Shaw, I know more than ever that there is no other way. You can escape your fate, if you want, but that way is death — the death of the soul, and depending on your mode of escape (e.g., drugs, alcohol), the death of the body.

All of which is to say that on this afternoon, I would love to get blind drunk and listen to country music, and forget about how sad and broken I am over what has happened to my marriage, and to my family. But that is the way of a weak man. I am called to something greater. But what? That is my quest: to find out, and submit to it.

Frederica Mathewes-Green reminds me that the Orthodox ethicist Tim Patitsas says that the Christian West begins with Truth and works toward Beauty, while the Christian East operates in just the opposite way. If that is so, then that sheds light on Martin Shaw’s way of working to analyze beautiful mythological stories to distill truths from them. Shaw writes, of experiences that give rise to myth:

Now let’s be clear: the experiences in themselves are not to be revered; the gold is in the context, the mythic frame that provides us with the discipline to divine clear water from the mud of our lives.

You could say that someone attempting to read their own experiences within a mythic frame is guilty of eisegesis — of reading something into facts. But isn’t it equally plausible that one is undertaking exegesis — drawing out meaning that is already there?

Shaw writes that our modern inability to understand life mythically is actually making us dumber and blinder:

The breakdown of initiation and the diminishment of mythic understanding are actually defences against encountering our own beauty. On a societal level, we appear to be working day and night at that defense. But the Great Self is hard-wired in us, and though the ritual mechanisms to approach it are wiped out, it won’t disappear but instead becomes mired in shadow. Therefore a King can only be seen as a tyrant, a Hag only as a bringer of misfortune. We tiptoe away from these beings, far too informed to take them seriously, and then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to vote. Myth proposes the paradoxical view that we are to dwell in the tension of a “crossroads” of Village and Forest, and that this very complexity provides the grounding of an authentic human life—a strange accord with ego and soul, rationality and vision. Ego gives a shape to these energies for living in the world that benefits others, but with no inner connection they lose their divine inflections and corrupt.

This makes me think back to how when I was going through that terrible trial of chronic illness connected to my relationship to my Louisiana family, especially my father, I found reading Dante, and trying to understand my own quest to return to health and stability in light of the mythical quest of the pilgrim in the Commedia, more helpful than straightforward therapy. Similarly, I believe I have gained more helpful insight into this epic struggle with a failed marriage, and now a divorce in process, by pondering the image of St. Galgano given to me by Luca Daum, and in turn Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. (In fact, in the comments, I would love to learn from you readers about films, novels, or other works of art that have worked deep mythical magic on you, to aid your understanding and healing.)

These lines of Shaw’s jumped out at me:

This is not a book at war with technology, modern medicine, and insurance policies (well, a little, maybe a skirmish), but rather identifies a malaise in contemporary culture, a disenchantment that originates from lack of relating to the wild—in landscape, literature, and metaphor. I believe we are damaged in this respect, our imagination reined-in on a short leash. Despite the cash flow of the West, life seems flatter.

See, this is why I believe my “fall” back into England, and to lunch with Malcolm Guite, was so fateful for my project. Shaw is teaching me that the pathway to re-enchantment is to learn to relate to the wild, to the world imaginatively. This is by no means an un-Christian, or anti-Christian, thing! Though it certainly does go against the grain of much contemporary Christianity, which has been reduced to some combination of intellection, moralism, and therapy.

Here is a clip of an Orthodox choir in the country of Georgia performing Psalm 53 for Pope Francis on his visit to Tbilisi. They are singing in Aramaic; there are many Assyrians living in Georgia. This is wild Christianity!

Says Shaw:

Wildness is a form of sophistication, because it carries within it true knowledge of our place in the world. It doesn’t exclude civilization but prowls through it, knowing when to attend to the needs of the committee and when to drink from a moonlit lake.

Last week, I went to an English-speaking Orthodox priest in Budapest for confession. I hadn’t been in about two and a half months. I told him about the divorce, and how the inexpressible feeling of peace that God had given me in Jerusalem had faded into the grinding malaise and pointed agonies of realizing that my family has been destroyed, and I have been sent into exile forever. I confessed sins of anger. The priest told me that I should not try to suppress my anger, because after all, I’m a human being, and anger is understandable in this circumstance. If you try to tamp it down, it will emerge in some destructive way. Much better, he said, to try to ride the anger out until it dissipates, rather than let the anger ride you.

That advice came to mind when I read this passage from Shaw this morning:

The difficulty was harnessing the energy [released by the 1960s] —to be like Dionysus, riding the leopard without being torn to pieces. For that first experience of wildness to be sustained, to mature, it has to have other elements in the potion nourishing it. Of itself, it becomes addictive, consuming and savage; in short, uninitiated. The ‘60s created a generation with the aspirations of magicians without the elders, boundaries, and community to give their apprenticeships grounding. Not much has changed.

… Indigenous teachers have always understood that initiation is a microcosm of the experience of living a human life; the very process of living requires leaving what is familiar, e.g. the womb, and venturing out into a world of uncertain outcomes.

Ritual and myth are coded steps that can help facilitate our movement through such awakening times. These old stories remove some of the abstraction in crisis, and keep us focused on the half-concealed path, rather than complaining that we’re so far from home in the first place. Liberated experience, originality, breaking shackles can result from following this route. The element that varies from individual to individual is how conscious we are that we’re in it.

The splitting of my marriage has released an immense amount of energy — energy that I struggled very, very hard to contain for a decade, to keep the marriage from flying apart. “Our loneliness together” — Akhmatova’s words — was a terrible cross, one that grew even weightier as the years passed. And yet, the relief I initially felt at its being violently removed has been replaced by the pain of its absence, because losing that cross meant I lost my home and family. I have been trying these past few weeks to deflect the anger conventionally, but haven’t had much success. I’m miserable. Shaw is helping me to lean into myth, especially the gift of the Nostalghia myth, which was clearly given to me miraculously via the artist who approached me in Genoa on a mission from God.

Shaw again:

Our isolation is not to be misunderstood as the need for solitude. This is an isolation that comes from emotional distance and lack of trust for anything of worth to a previous generation. We find in Michael Richardson’s translation of George Bataille’s The Absence of Myth:

For Bataille, this absence of myth was merely one aspect of a more generalized “absence.” It also meant absence of the sacred. Sacred, for Bataille, was defined in a very straightforward way—as communication. Quite simply, the notion of an “absence of myth” meant a failure of communication which touched all levels of society.... In a very real sense it becomes an absence of society, or more specifically, an “absence of community.”

The post-Christian world is one in which communication using the primary ancestral myth of the West is no longer possible, because we’ve lost that myth and its sourcebook, the Bible. [Understand that I’m not using the word “myth” as a synonym for “a made-up story about gods” — RD]. And not only have we lost the Christian mythological framework, but we have lost the ability to read the world mythically at all! We are a scattered remnant of individuals speaking our own languages, unable to communicate at a deeper level, because we no longer know how to.

In the myth Shaw tells to begin the book, a semi-divine young woodsman has to confront Baba Yaga, the terrible great witch of the Russian forest. Shaw:

With Baba, her form can contort into the shape of disease, a partner’s adultery, an unexpected sacking, watching something you cherish disintegrate over and over again. There is no glamour in her forms, only a kind of halitosis of the psyche, rotting meat by the radiator. The reaction to these moments is normally horror, as the hum of the muses, ignored for so long, becomes the shriek of the sirens, and the ship hits the rocks. Sometimes Yaga is a surgeon fiddling with his pen, delivering a life-altering prognosis, or maybe the ink in the pen that signs the lawsuit against you. She is endlessly malleable, and will always offer a bespoke experience: whatever is specifically ghastly to you is the form that she will take. Her mode is one of dislocation from previous status, a bringing to the knees. The perspective of her as wise or providing a kind of harsh nurture is small comfort at the moment she flies into view.

For me, psychologically and mythically, Baba Yaga is the divorce, Akhmatova’s “lie that has betrayed us.” It has brought me to my knees. In the myth Shaw tells, Baba Yaga invades the lodge where Ivan, the hero, lives with three giants, and attacks them. They are able to drive her away, but Ivan alone knows that if they don’t follow her to her lair in the underworld and kill her, she will return to finish them off. The three giants are afraid to undertake the mission, so Ivan sets out alone. He unfurls behind him a rope, telling the giants to drag him out if he tugs on it. Shaw:

The sheer unknown quality of the descent into the underworld involves sitting in a tense, unsettling position for an unquantified amount of time. In a way, terror is the rope on which Ivan descends, knowing that if he doesn’t get closer to the source of this anguish, Baba will return. How many of us, like the giants, feel the wound, the strip across our back, but refuse to examine it because of the inevitable change that this will bring?

Yes. The wanting to escape the pain rather than confront it. More Shaw — here, speaking of the “red” as a symbol for the fiery passion of youth, to the “black” as a symbol of the underworld:

Dying to the red is too threatening, so we stay in the paralysis of the between-space, holding the rope but refusing to go down, wounded but refusing the harsh possibilities of the black. The refusal of the call can manifest as depression when the rope looks too awful to grasp, the grief too deep. On a subtler level it can be the voices of our community that attempt to pull us back. To descend means for a time to become less visible, to become a nightwalker, to be the bad tooth in the village’s smile. This hinterland that the giants inhabit beside the hole has a kind of grayness to it, a neither one thing or the other. As well as lacking the strength to take the downward journey, we may also inhabit this place after a moment of great inspiration. “That play was amazing, but who am I fooling, I could never act, learn carpentry, speak Spanish, fix an engine. Best to sit between possibilities and wonder.” As we see, this moment can be subtle as well as wildly dramatic.

Now, at this point in Shaw’s analysis of this particular Russian myth, my jaw dropped:

To enter the black of Yaga’s kingdom involves opening your chest and a releasing a bird, one that can follow the scent better than your intellect can. Your incubating crow nature will be your guide at this point. The assembled elders we cry for in moments such as these are borne in ourselves, not externally. The response needed now is not English, but a getting down on all fours and eating Lorca’s cemeteries. The primordial freshness of instinct carries us. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Do you remember the opening scene in Nostalghia, at the end of which the supplicant opens the Holy Virgin’s garment, and out flies a flock of white birds?! Could it be that Western critics didn’t really understand this Tarkovsky film because he was working with Russian mythical symbols and motifs? Andrei, the writer, is too afraid to descend into the underworld (symbolized here by the cave-like church). He stands outside and says to no one in particular that he can’t stand all “your” beauty. (God’s? Italy’s?) The beauty all around Andrei torments him. As we see, he aches for his life in Russia, and regards the beauty of Italy in the same way that the monk in Andrei Rublev, captured and tied up by the pagans, regarded the naked pagan temptress.

Andrei’s translator and companion Eugenia goes in just to have a look, but she will not submit to the ritual, or the sacrifice (of her dignity and intellectualism) required for the ritual to “work” for her. After the birds fly, in a dream, we see a white feather descend onto the head of Andrei outside. Is it a sign of grace? The promise of freedom symbolized by the birds released from the Virgin’s womb? Of the call to follow one's noetic instincts? That the fertile grace released from the Virgin's womb, symbolized by the flight of the white birds, penetrates the suffering Gorchakov's dreams, and issues a divine call to him?

Or is it a double sign of grace and coming death, for Andrei dreams of a white angel, with wings, visiting his dacha back in Russia. In Tarkovsky’s earlier Andrei Rublev (1966), old Theophanes predicts he is going to die because he dreamed of an angel. Remember, Tarkovsky once said that the purpose of art is to “harrow the soul” and prepare it for death. In Tarkovsky’s imagination, only by preparing yourself to die can you truly live.

Get this Shaw passage:

We get some hint of an unexpected balance in this process by the image of both the sun and the moon hanging in the sky. The traditional polarities of masculine and feminine, solar and lunar, appear to have equal relevance in this realm. If the element that brought Ivan down the rope was terror, the realm it has opened up to him is surprising. It’s not a fog-laden wasteland, or a cemetery of the undead, but a place that holds rivers, woods, and mountains. After the rupture of Baba and the horror of descending the tunnel, we find a landscape of surprising fecundity. In the words of Nick Cave, “We jump into the abyss and find it only comes up to our knees.” This hints at an almost tantric perspective on Yaga, that to resist her is to witness the most terrifying apparition, but to walk toward her is to witness a Dakini, an angelic being. Her kingdom is spacious, holds beauty, living things, even balance. Best not to let your guard down entirely though.

If you have seen Nostalghia, you will be as amazed as I was by this. There’s a powerful scene in a ruined church (!), through the cracked ceiling of which a white feather falls. I hadn’t paid much attention to this scene until I read Martin. Andrei has slogged into the church, which is permanently flooded. He’s in the abyss, but it only comes up to his knees.

He’s drunk. A little girl appears on the edge of the abyss. Her name is, well, Angela. With reference to Martin’s insight, Andrei has gone into the abyss that is his life in exile, and sees … an angel!

Andrei begins a friendly inebriated monologue with her. He tells the child that he loves the old movies, the ones where no one kissed. He says, “Feelings unspoken are unforgettable.”

Ah ha! He’s trying to live outside of time, and loss. I think back to the earlier scene, in the ruined apartment of the holy fool Domenico, who tries to capture rainwater in bottles and buckets scattered throughout the place. It hit me, rewatching this: Domenico, who kept his wife and children locked for seven years in their home, trying to protect them from the apocalypse, is trying to bottle time as a hedge against destruction. Here, we see Domenico’s sane twin, Andrei, standing in flowing, pure water, inside a church (!), yet he resists going with the flow.

Remember the Tarkovsky quote about this movie? “The only way to experience the now is if we let ourselves fall into the abyss which exists between the now and the future.”

Andrei tells Angela a joke about a man who is happy living in a slimy pond, and who doesn’t want to be rescued. He’s talking about himself. Then he asks Angela if she’s happy with life. “Yes,” she says. “Brava!” he replies.

He passes out drunk on a stone in the church, and burns, either intentionally or by accident, a book of Russian poetry in Italian translation. It’s as if he’s giving up on trying to communicate his experiences to others. Then he has a dream that includes the famous incident in the Galgano abbey where God says that He’s trying to communicate with Gorchakov, but Gorchakov neither sees nor hears. I have spent so much time focusing on that scene that I missed the dream sequence just before it. Good grief, there is an answer!

In that one, Gorchakov walks past a discarded armoire on a cobblestoned street. His interior monologue could be spoken by Domenico, who kept his kids trapped. Gorchakov thinks, “They’re my children, my family, my own flesh and blood. Years without seeing the sun, fearing the light of day.”

(We don’t know what Gorchakov’s relationship with his wife and kids back in Russia was like. Did he hide something from them? Was he trying to protect them, but in so doing was hurting them, or himself?)

Then Gorchakov looks into the mirror of the armoire, and instead of his own reflection, sees Domenico. The next scene is the one in the Galgano abbey, when God tells the Virgin Mary that He can’t reach Gorchakov, who is locked into the past, which is to say, in his own head.

My wife and I struggled for ten years to save our marriage. For most of that time, I lived locked into an abyss of my own head, trying so hard to reclaim the happy marriage and family that I once had. I lived in the abyss primarily to protect my children from the apocalypse that would come upon them if the light of day shone on their parents’ marriage, and they saw it had disintegrated.

I kept them from seeing the sun, but really, I kept myself from doing it. The marriage was falling apart, and nothing we did to save it helped. But I had hoped that through force of will, I could somehow keep the disaster from striking our family. To put it another way, I didn’t want to go with the flow of time, but to bottle it up, to control it, to keep it from destroying my children, even though it was destroying me (and no doubt my wife too; she also suffered, and I am not faultless). Baba Yaga is the divorce, “the lie that has betrayed us,” but maybe this myth is telling me to surrender to what I cannot control anyway, and I will find an angel there who will be a sign of happiness. By walking towards Baba Yaga (the divorce) — that is, accepting it and moving on, not mired in nostalgia — I can find the means to rebuild my life.

If this is true, I need to hear it. I am finding it so hard to sustain thought right now, so consumed am I by fear of the future for my children. I need to figure out how to give in to the flow. In Nostalghia, the one thing that shakes Andrei Gorchakov loose from his self-imposed exile inside his head, with his longing for a world he can’t have, is a spontaneous act of compassion for a suffering soul, an act of self-denial that opens communication with another person. This is the only time in the film that Gorchakov lives in the present moment, not abstracted and alienated. This compassion draws Andrei up out of the abyss — but it kills him; he has a heart condition, and his heart couldn’t take the strain of sustained attention.

So: the one time Andrei Gorchakov opened up to the flow of life, he dies, as if the flow was torrent of electricity. This is supposed to make us go with the flow?! Well, yes: Gorchakov was depressed, alone, and dead inside, trying to live his safe life, closed off from passion, from beauty. Remember, in the very first scene, Gorchakov says he’s so sick of beauty. His disgust with Beauty is a way of hiding from Truth! The final image shows Andrei living in wholeness, in harmony, with snow falling in the ruined temple like manna from heaven. Reading it symbolically, I take two ways: 1) we can only ever really know the harmony we seek outside of time, in the afterlife; heaven is our only true home; and/or 2) to be free, Andrei had to die to himself and the false idols he had made, the worship of which trapped him inside his head. (The film opens with a sacristan warning that you can only get “what you want, or what you need” by sacrificing; casual onlookers get nothing.)

The two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. I know this is true for me. The lifelong sense of exile that has haunted me, the deep nostalgia for Home, will never be satisfied, because it can’t be satisfied in time. Come to think about it, my poor father inadvertently destroyed his family because he thought, and taught my sister and her kids to think, that if we only lived by the code and stayed in our places at home in the country, and never once diverged from convention, then bad things wouldn’t happen to us. Well, my sister died of cancer, and the inability of any of my Starhill family to let go of the code -- to try to store up the flow of time in bottles, so to speak -- meant that they had to reject me and my family, because we didn’t live by the code. Everything fell apart because of that — even, in time, my marriage.

Have I been my father in some way, in this sense? If he had simply accepted my sister’s death, and with it, the fact that within time, things fall apart; if he had simply opened his eyes, and the eyes of the others in the family, to the great good thing he had in front of him — his son, returned home, with his family! — he would have welcomed us, and everything would be different, probably. I would not have fallen chronically ill. I would probably still be married. We will never know.

I just had an insight: the death of my marriage, to me, is like the death of my sister was to my father, in the sense that it cracked the roof of our temple, so to speak — that is, violated the cosmic order. My dad and my Starhill family made their choice, and it was a tragically destructive one. I can’t let myself make the same mistake in my own context. Is there something I’m holding on to irrationally, that is denying life, and foreclosing the possibility of life? I have to figure out how to join the flow of time, to quit living in the past, to refuse to be so isolated.

Thanks to all of you for bearing with me as I analyze this movie over and over, wrestling with it to see what meaning is there, and why God brought it into my life. Had Nostalghia had a clear message, I wouldn’t have appropriated it inwardly with such questing passion — a passion revived by reading Martin Shaw. When I tell this story in my book, it will all be so smoothly edited and deftly related. Only you will know how messy was the hacking through the thickets in search of treasure. By giving myself over to the Beauty of Tarkovsky’s dense, complex myth on film, I am finding my way to the Truth that will save my life.

I’ll end with another poem from Akhmatova, who shows compassion for the one who destroyed herself with her all-too-human nostalgia. I feel this way about my dad, who caused so much destruction with his nostalgia, but for whom I can’t help but feel pity, because he really did believe that he could protect those he loved by force of will ordering the cosmos. The title of the poem is “Lot’s Wife”:

And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

--

That, reader, is how that particular newsletter ended in July. Re-reading it now to prepare to publish it here, I was startled to read about the role of white birds in Russian myth, which helped me understand their use in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. It was a sign to Gorchakov (who refused to be there to see it) to get out of his head and follow his instinct. Well, this past Sunday I was in Rome, and went to the Divine Liturgy at the Greek church. It was my last Sunday in Europe for the summer. I went in, reverenced the icon at the entrance, then took my place on the right side of the nave. A large icon of the Resurrection on the far side of the church caught my eye. I was transfixed by the gaze of Christ. Here it is:

I went straight over to the icon, hanging on the wall, stood before the figure of the Savior, and told him I had lost almost everything that ever mattered to me, except for Him. Now I stand naked before Him, poor and afraid. What do you want me to do? I prayed. Call me. Show me your will. Use me as you wish. I have nothing left. 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'

When I left the church of San Teodoro after the liturgy, look who was waiting for me at the threshold:

This book is taking longer to write than I anticipated, because I am living it out. But I have confidence that it's going to help a lot of people find God, and make their way to the Wonder. If you would like to follow these spiritual adventures, as I work the book's narrative out, please subscribe to Rod Dreher's Diary.

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Chris Karr
Chris Karr
As someone who is living in an earlier stage of the "exile" you mention above (grew up in a small community with its own Code, and left for the outside world as soon as I was able, and feel like an outsider whenever I go back), one lesson that I've learned is that Home isn't a place you live, but a place that you build by pouring yourself into it to try and rebuild the Edenic garden around you to the best of your ability. As someone with a tendency to live within my own head more than the physical context around me, I get that the "search" for Home as a place that is waiting for you has more appeal than the "labor" of building a Home that takes time and energy without the instant spark of "discovery" that you get at the end of a successful search.

I wish you peace in your journey, but hope that in addition to looking through your metaphorical spyglass at distant vistas that might become your new Home, you consider looking down at the soil around your feet and asking yourself, "What can I make of this?"
schedule 3 months ago
Eusebius Pamphilus
Eusebius Pamphilus
The only book that I can think of that had a large impact on me was, "Zadig or The Book of Fate" by Voltaire. It convinced me that real evil exists in the world and that while Socrates may be partially right that all mankind does evil out of ignorance this does not diminish or negate the actuality of evil itself. It convinced me that my belief in pacifism was naive. From living wild as you say, I've always felt a draw to nature. I've always felt more at home with animals and plants and an invisible kingdom of God than people. It wasn't until after college that I truly felt a connection to anyone at all, "if I'm honest with myself". Before that my experience of people was almost always negative and so for most of my childhood I avoided them. I just could not understand them. Books and art are not my muse but the art and books of nature and life; the animating spirit within life and the natures driving it about.

While books did help point at possibilities none stand out beyond the classics and the bible which all require further explanation and analysis to fully grasp. Without this further analysis it's like trying to watch a baseball game from outside the stadium. You might hear fury and sounds but they signify nothing. You must enter the chamber, smell the hotdogs and feel the roar of the crowd to understand its appeal. Likewise life attempts to teach us her way threw many mediums and many forms. One can learn a great deal about the nature of man, of being, of life by simply observing her orbits, her motions and interactions with us. Never doubt for a moment that we are all children. Whether trapped in a child's body or an adults. As such we should not discount the propensity of children to reveal deep wisdom that even they themselves may not be aware is there. Learn from the children, observe the kids play. Stop what you are doing, stop thinking, for the love of all that is holy stop planning and plotting and worrying and wondering and simply listen, feel and observe. Do not think ah ha this! Ah ha that! Just sit, quietly and absorb. Let down the barrier between yourself and everything around you and let yourself blend with everything around you and you will experience the world threw many sets of eyes. The first step is letting go of what we think, humbling ourselves in order to receive.
schedule 3 months ago