“The Mountains, Fields, Meadows, Forest, and Wilderness of the Preparatory Act text symbolize the mineral kingdom and natural kingdoms of the Earth, the first three “Rounds” of the Wheel of Cosmic life.” (1998, p.303) – Stephen Morris.
It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.
– After The Storm -Boris Pasternak.
Boris Pasternak’s poem, After the Storm, surmises the first section of this essay’s focus; that of defining what is meant by Elemental Chaos. While chaos implies a lack of order, it can equally mean a moment before harmony. Defining Elemental Chaos is in itself a challenge if only because such a title could imply a contradiction. Driesch hints at a similar issue in Man and the Universe suggesting that “It will be seen that the element in nature and in the soul which is not understood is here reduced to one ultimate element which is not understood.” (1929, p.46). If chaos is so completely encompassing, how can something as defined as an element be present (element here meaning a basic form such as fire or water rather than a purely scientific attribute)?
Alexander Scriabin’s work throughout his life had travelled a journey of impulse and eroticism. The element of danger surrounding the discussion of his Mysterium seems to stem from within Nietzsche’s text on The Eternal Return which argues that “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still.” (1883/1986, p.239). Scriabin’s highly eroticised movement through post-Romanticism was aided by his continual reappropraition of Romanticism’s tendency towards the Natural. Instead of Pastoralism, there is a sense of the Natural as a gateway to both the erotic and the destruction or the Gotterdammerung. While Scriabin eventually sought to the link the two in Mysterium, it’s fitting to use the term Gotterdammerung. The term, from Norse mythology, cannot help but reference the final section of Wagner’s Ring Cycle; itself a thematic precursor to Mysterium. While Wagner’s marked the end of Romanticism and beginning of new territory, eventually leading to Modernism, the Gotterdammerung could easily imply that the Twilight of the Gods would eventually lead to a new phase in life. Adamenko supports this by referring back to Scriabin’s parallel, Gnostic belief system: “Yet another component of Scriabin’s mythology is rooted in gnosticism -the “secret doctrine” that was banned as heresy by the Russian Orthodox Church. In gnosticism, the material is juxtaposed with the spiritual. The Savoir recuperates our knowledge, thus releasing it from the material world, while the non-gnostic is doomed to reincarnation.” (2007, p.154).
The elemental forces present in Scriabin’s Mysterium made up a part of the ritual of the piece. Though unfinished, the plans for its performance and the intended fallout from it are as close as music had got in trying to enforce Nietzsche’s Eternal Return upon civilisation and Nature was to be part of this process. Driesch allows this method of thinking to define his own consciousness: “First, there is the fact – to put it briefly- that there is such a thing as nature within the sphere of my empirical reality, that is, within a part of my world (or of the ordered sphere which belongs to my consciousness); or, in other words, that I can speak of Nature, natural objects and natural events, as though all these had an independent existence.” (1929, p.42). This existence was, in terms of this essay’s arguments, to be called upon in Scriabin’s ritualistic event. Driesch would go further to argue that “Nature, then, does not deceive me if I work conscientiously; only I must always ask myself whether I really “know” something or only am “assuming” it, and I must take care not to confuse mere assumption with definitive knowledge.” (1929, p.44). This assumption was to be dismantled in the most expansive of environments with the unveiling of the piece planned to occur at the foot of the Himalayan mountains on a plot of land that Scriabin bought in preparation for the event. With plans to take Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk to a new, synaesthetic level, Mysterium was destined to be seen as a sensuous, cultural ritual with its content eventually evoking a cataclysm.
This destruction is only possible through the eyes of a man in the clutches of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Borges follows this idea through: “If Edgar Allen Poe, the Vikings, Judas Iscariot, and my reader all secretly share the same destiny – the only possible destiny – then universal history is the history of a single man.” (1941/1999, p.228). Following Nietzschean logic, Scriabin can be seen to come to the same conclusion, the difference being that he was the man. However his role was in unifying rather than merely destroying: “As Theosophy attempted to synthesize philosophy, science and religion, so Scriabin sought to synthesize all arts, philosophical ideas, the human senses with each other, and humankind with the entire universe. The two central themes – synthesis and Scriabin’s belief in the power of art – tie directly into the final discussion, that of the Mysterium itself, its scope and content, and its fate.” (Evans, 2009, p.5). Evans later goes on to reflect that this action may be part of Scriabin’s religion; a belief which he argues to be “…described as the belief in creativity, and thus art, as a religion.” (2009, p.6).
What exactly can we call Elemental Chaos then? In a metaphysical sense, it is a destruction through means of a basic life element. In an artistic sense, this can be seen as a striving towards the creative unknown. Scriabin’s musical miscellanory is the fire with which he wished to burn in order to step forward. This fire could be said to derive from his obsession with Prometheus which Adamenko believes, arguing that “All three figures- Christ, Prometheus, and Satan- seem to constitute a single archetype in Scriabin’s mind. The universalization of the image of Prometheus, understood as the element of cosmic fire, led the composer beyond Christianity and beyond theosophical symbolism to a cosmological myth.” (2007, p.153). This also evokes an argument by le Poidevin which states that “Time is boundless if, and only if, it has neither a beginning nor an end.” (1993, p.156). Elemental Chaos is not merely a fiery end but one specifically followed by a new, paradoxical beginning.
In many ways these two moments in time, the end of the current and the beginning of the to-be, sit alongside each other in the plans for Mysterium. Look further at Pasternak’s words in the poem:
The gutters overflow; the change of weather
Makes all you see appear alive and new.
Meanwhile the shades of sky are growing lighter,
Beyond the blackest cloud the height is blue.
When the cultural gutters overflow, there is an inevitable change. Though this musical change was already happening around Scriabin in the form of Modernism, his place of progress was somewhere unknown, far beyond the reaches of current musical understanding. However, Scriabin was not merely destroying but trying to move away from the physical and towards the spiritual. “Death is the transition from one mode of existence into the other and “birth” is the same event in a converse sense.” (1929, p.97) is Driesch’s conclusion on man’s consciousness of nature and shares a pleasing likeness to Scriabin’s invoking of Elemental Chaos. The Theosophy-heavy belief system practiced by Scriabin lead to the idea that we were all, as a civilisation, far from God when based in the physical and it was only in the spiritual that we achieve our true purpose. Evans uses this basis for his own analysis, arguing that:
“As Theosophy attempted to synthesize philosophy, science and religion, so Scriabin sought to synthesize all arts, philosophical ideas, the human senses with each other, and humankind with the entire universe. The two central themes – synthesis and Scriabin’s belief in the power of art – tie directly into the final discussion, that of the Mysterium itself, its scope and content, and its fate.” (2009, p.5).
Scriabin’s destruction never came to fruitation because of his death but also because of his essential grounding in reality where a single, cultural event was never going to end everything. “The power of art to Scriabin is clear – as is somewhat the power of his own ideas. Even the cyclic, infinite nature of the oscillating universe – ideas from Theosophy and Hinduism he may have previously embraced – could be transcended, the Mysterium thus a truly final ecstasy. Scriabin believed the nature of art would allow the Mysterium to overpower laws to which the universe seemed to adhere.” (2009, p.48) argues Evans which hints that Scriabin’s beliefs, in spite of being rooted in potential of physical change, were never to truly manifest with miracle-like veracity at the foot of the Himalayas. Instead we turn to Tarkovsky’s work to see the potential of Elemental Chaos.
Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is just one of several films by the director to address this theme. The reason the Elemental Chaos seems more effective in the medium of cinema as opposed to music is that the former creates realms of infinite possibility in terms of cause and effect. In his essay, The Doctrine of Cycles, Jorge Luis Borges argued against Nietzsche’s Eternal Return using physical attributes that share a likeness to what is being argued here:
“Nietzsche appeals to energy; the second law of thermodynamics declares that some energetic processes are irreversible. Heat and light are no more than forms of energy. It suffices to project a light onto a black surface to convert it into heat. Heat, however, will never return to the form of light. This inoffensive of insipid-seeming proof annuls the “circular labyrinth “of the Eternal Return.” (1936/1999, p.122)
Ironically, this inner logic only works to dismiss it as an implication to Scriabin’s vision rather than Tarkovsky’s. Mysterium, no matter how musically eccentric, was never going to evoke the physical manifestation of Elemental Chaos causing the Himalayan mountains to dissolve. On the other hand, Tarkovsky’s film can show this potential outcome, as if applying Scriabin’s final intentions to the point of a hyper-reality. Scriabin’s intentions stemmed from a belief in ecstasy and its power over time as Evans discusses when quoting Scriabin’s friend Schloezer: “From his belief in the ability of ecstasy to transcend time, Scriabin thus “developed a theory postulating the possibility and even the inevitability of a tremendous acceleration of the involutionary process in its last stages (Schloezer 1987, 216).” (Involution is used here in its Theosophical meaning of infolding, or, essentially, the reverse of evolution). By compressing time, Scriabin’s event would cause humanity to evolve through the sixth and seventh races in nearly an instant.” (2009, p.48). This is why Tarkovsky appears to be more successful at presenting its manifestations.
The outcome in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is almost the ultimate in Gotterdammerung; an all-out nuclear destruction at the hands of a small few. The film concerns itself with the plight of a retired actor and critic, aptly named Alexander, whose solitary life is a source of anxiety for his family. While at his isolated house, the family hear of a nuclear attack. However, when the destruction happens or is about happen, Alexander prays for an exchange of everything in house for the rebirth of normality in the rest of the world. He succeeds but he must fulfil his promised sacrifice of his house. This is the literal embodiment of Scriabin’s belief that the artist as a “microcosm” can affect the more general “macrocosm” as argued by Morris:
“Through the Mysterium, Skryabin hoped to accelerate the course of Cosmic unfolding. He maintained the belief that the artist, as a microcosm, could affect the macrocosm of human activity, but he reduced his own role in the planned work from creator to facilitator. Success would be predicated on the desire of all to reach another reality.” (1998, p.287).
Within the actions of setting fire to his home, he destroys so much of the film’s previous imagery. In Scriabin’s world, the cultural norm he fought against would have been enough to start the fire, the house being the cultural world at the foot of the Himalayas.
It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze – (Pasternak).
Pasternak’s poem again reflects this with the man’s soul clearly as ablaze as his household but Pasternak also predicts the next phase of the Eternal Return in the form of “That clear the road to new and better days”. This clearing was to be performed by Mysterium and is performed in The Sacrifice through Elemental Chaos. This is the start in the process of Eternal Return. While Scriabin could only hint at it through his music, Tarkovsky realised Scriabin’s ideas and used them to address the horrors that an interconnected life can bring to one who is close to the end of life.