Natural Forces and Cyclic Rejuvenation.
“Critical neglect of this reference to Nietzsche is even more puzzling, however, when one considers that Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return is a philosophical re-interpretation of the theme of Time for Time was, after all, a major obsession with Tarkovsky. As is well known, Tarkovsky’s preferred way of characterizing the art of filmmaking was as a “sculpting in time”, which was the title he gave to his volume of reflections on the cinema, and his published diaries were also significantly titled Time within time.” Moliterno (2001).
With emphasis on the necessary means of cultural destruction before a cyclic rejuvenation, it may appear that both Scriabin and Tarkovsky were callous in their intent. The latter could appear to be projecting his own issues onto the man in The Sacrifice, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer (and dying the same year that film won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1986). Le Fanu thinks this is a possibility stating “Despite the above strictures there is a gloomy perverse authority about this final film of Tarkovsky’s, whose dramatisation of the fear of death loosens, in retrospect, a number of unhappy ironies. Did its director when he made it know he was dying? It is possible.” (1987, p.129).
When Scriabin was composing and planning his Mysterium, what exactly could he have had in mind for its reaction outside of the already discussed destruction? Indebted to Nietzsche, he appears to have wanted two separate but interconnected events to occur. The first is that of Elemental Chaos; his music being so inconceivably new and terrifying to cause a physical and cultural shift towards new realms. The second is the potential for growth and a new cultural cycle to begin once the Elemental Chaos had subsided. In Borges’ critique of Nietzsche’s theory he states the following: “Nietzsche wanted men who were capable of enduring immortality.” (1936/1999, p.119). This could also be said of Scriabin in a creative sense; that their creativity would outlive their physical body.
Even more so than simply believing in the patterns of time, Scriabin in particular refuted the actual concept of time itself. Nietzsche himself hints at this idea in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, writing “‘Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things that can happen have already happened, been done, run past?” (1884/1987, p.251). Tarkovsky also paraphrases this in the film’s dialogue with Otto, the Nietzsche-fluent postman, stating the following:
“We live; we have our ups and downs. We hope. We wait for something. We hope; we lose hope; we move closer to death. Finally, we die… and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just a wee, wee bit different, but it’s still so hopeless, and we don’t know why. Yes… No, I mean: really, it’s quite the same, literally the same. Just the next performance, so to speak. If I’d made it all, I guess I’d have done things the same way. Funny, eh?” – Otto.
The Sacrifice deals with Scriabin’s views and takes them to a potential narrative conclusion. In spite of the clarity of this vision, little has been analysed in this regard which Moliterno finds odd, especially considering its essential role in the film; “Now, although this reference to Nietzsche has often been noticed, it has, curiously, never been further explored, presumably because it has been regarded as mere badinage in the mouth of the rather garrulous Otto or perhaps just name-dropping on the part of Tarkovsky.”(2001).
At the beginning of the film, Alexander and his grandson are planting a tree, ever a symbol of life. This opening is vital as it is the key returning point in the cycle of the man’s life. The little boy, known tellingly as Little Man, does not speak a word (though does appear to mimic the dwarf from Thus Spoke Zarathustra). After the film’s drama has unfolded, the man’s promises of destroying everything of his and not saying another word in this life (being both a retired actor and critic, this is indeed a major sacrifice) are fulfilled with the destruction of his house and his hospitalisation. He is living the Nietzschean ideal suggested by the philosopher in The Birth of Tragedy; “Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems; the will of life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types –that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet.” (1872/1986, p.260).
The film ends back at the beginning where Little Man is sat by the tree. However he can now talk, implying heavily that the man’s sacrifice has resulted in some new cycle of life being possible with the nuclear attack averted. Borges looks at the affect of reception on the Eternal Return suggesting the following:
“In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.” (1941/1999, p.228)
It seems that Borges likens it to faith more than anything else but this is a perfect scenario in the context of Tarkovsky’s film as the character appears to have evoked the Eternal Return (with the Elemental Chaos being his debt to be paid, therefore showing the process out of order) through fear of a great calamity; that of nuclear war. Moliterno outlines the parallels between Tarkovsky and Nietzsche’s narrative stating that “The subsequent outbreak of a nuclear war, then, on the very day of Alexander’s fiftieth birthday, locates him at something very much like the portal of the Moment where Zarathustra had been forced to confront his own Spirit of Gravity. Indeed for twentieth-century man, the definitive outbreak of a nuclear war must surely count as a sort of absolute moment, a decisive instant breaking world history into two, with an eternity running off in both directions.” (2001).
This is a major blow for the other characters as Tarkovsky points out, suggesting “On the one hand, the practical result is that Alexander breaks irrevocably with the world and with its laws, which up till now he taken to be his own. In doing so, he not only loses his family but also-and for those around him this is the most frightening thing of all- puts himself outside all accepted norms.” (1987, p.227). However, the “accepted norms” are there to be broken by the Nietzschean ubermensch but, potentially, is little man literally a new, younger version of Alexander? In the context of Mysterium, this could have various parallel attributes.
Mysterium is so often linked to a desire for the apocalypse but this a misreading. Mysterium is more unanimous than apocalyptic, aiming to show how humanity can learn by becoming one; “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people: I teach you the superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (1883/1986, p.238). This implies some form of destruction but only in the sense of a cycle where the next stage of development is desired, in both cases this could be said to be cultural though, in Tarkovsky’s case, it appears to be a cathartic exercise in the accepting of one’s own death; an apt realisation for the director was dying when editing the final stages of the film, writing in his diary “Cold and cough. And the film has to be synchronized. And time is going.” (1994, p.346).