Elemental Chaos and Nietzsche’s Eternal Return in the Music of Alexander Scriabin and the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky.
“It is as natural to die as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other.” (1625/2002, p.344) – Francis Bacon.
The cyclic nature of life and the process of destruction and rejuvenation has been a subject of interest to artists for centuries. Even since the days of the Bible, rejuvenation through a blazed destruction followed by a take-over of elemental forces has been the subject of various belief systems from the religious to more philosophical leanings. Despite the age of such ideas and imagery, it was not until the 20th century that artists produced an aesthetic equivalent of equal match and scope to the purity of the original thoughts. Freidrich Nietzsche’s take on what we now call The Eternal Return goes some way to trying to argue for the philosophical means of this, addressing both strands of this essay; what I call Elemental Chaos and Cyclic Rejuvenation. These ideas are heavily influenced by Nietzsche and manifest in all of the artwork about to be discussed.
This essay concerns itself with two artists who are interconnected with these ideals. The music of Alexander Scriabin and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky seem a natural pairing in terms of these philosophical cycles. Both address the theme with emphasis throughout their creative lives but both seem to hit an endpoint in the arguments with their final work. Scriabin’s unfinished Mysterium project (1904-1915) will be the main case study for the musical arguments while Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice (1986) will make up the cinematic arguments. Both works appear to have had misrepresentation over the years, especially the latter with even leading lights on the subject, such as Mark le Fanu, only hinting at the readings presented in this essay; “Behind this human bedrock, then, there follow the film’s metaphysical speculations, foremost of which is a sort of abstract meditation on immortality.” (1987, p.59). For both works, this essay wants to avoid the readings being merely abstract ideas, but works that have definite goals.
It’s an interesting prospect to consider what actually drove the artists into this area of thinking; they’re both Russian with interests in the writings of Nietzsche and the poetry of Boris Pasternak. Both appear to have followed similar paths through poetry and music to find new expressive forms -“In his memoir Safe Conduct the poet Boris Pasternak tells how he sacrificed a career in music because, unlike his mentor Aleksander Scriabin, he lacked perfect pitch. Some 50 years later the young Andrei Tarkovsky, himself an avid devotee of Pasternak’s poetry, likewise passed up on music, eventually settling on the cinema as his metier.” (Bird, 2007, p.7). While analysing the arguments that surround the work, references to the writing of these two artists will be essential in understanding the music and the films. Pasternak in particular appears to be the missing link between the two. A neighbour and student of Scriabin as well as an object of obsession for Tarkovsky, he bridges the natural gap that the difference in media causes. Tarkovsky even believed to be in communication with Pasternak who appeared to have some sort of hold on the future of his filmmaking: “I am getting worse by the day. Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was right when he said I would make another four films. I am thinking back to those spiritualist séances at Roerich’s.” (1994, p.349).
One aspect that will not be addressed within this essay are the musical tools with which Scriabin sought to present these ideals. This is for a number of reasons. Evans addresses this point in his essay on Mysterium outlining that “Many of these surviving parts were instead incorporated into a work known as the Acte préalable, or, Prefatory Act – a work intended to prepare humankind for the Mysterium.” (2009, p.4). The first problem is that this essay is concerned with following through, hypothetically, the potential for Mysterium and the second problem is that the surviving prefatory act of Mysterium is long held to be a mere flavour of the work. In short, musical analysis of something that does not exist is impossible as well as counterproductive to dealing with Scriabin’s philosophical goals.
At the core of this essay is an understanding that these artists addressed these themes for very specific and personal reasons. Time is flexible as a concept in the worlds of both artists. The ideal is surmised by Shoemaker: “If time is dense or continuous, of course, we cannot in any case speak of a change as being caused by the state of the world at the immediately preceding instant, for in that case there is no immediately preceding instant.” (1993, p.75). While a brief overview will show these themes to have been of constant interest to Scriabin and Tarkovsky, their final works will be shown to have a cathartic and final emphasis on the cyclic return of life, whether physical or existential.