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[Meghan Florian] Kierkegaard, Malick, and the Soul in Need

We’re delighted to welcome Meghan Florian back to, this time with a commentary on Terrence Malick’s _To the Wonder_.  Thank you, Meghan, for this wonderful (sic) piece!


Terrence Malick’s new film, To the Wonder — haunting, beautiful, and at times troubling — was the last film Roger Ebert ever reviewed. In his review, he noted that the film leaves a great deal up to the viewer; motivations are often unclear, and the plot offer no clear pattern. Instead Malick paints a landscape of wide open spaces, shifting light, and endless skies, beneath which dance troubled people, longing for connection, trying to love one another, and failing again and again. Malick gives us none of the Hollywood romance we’re accustomed to. Instead, he depicts the failures of human love, interwoven with the transformation of divine love. The characters Malick creates can, arguably, be most clearly understood in light of a Kierkegaardian love ethic. I like to think of To the Wonder as Works of Love: The Movie.

The first question you might have, then, is whether Malick would agree, or if the Kierkegaardian resonance is unintentional. Questions of authorial intent are inevitably tricky to answer, a reality exhibited well by Kierkegaard himself, who wrote under numerous pseudonyms, interpreted in widely different ways. Questions of intent aside, Malick has certainly been influenced by Kierkegaard. After studying under Stanley Cavell at Harvard, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein. Though he never completed it, the themes in Tree of Life are one prior example of the influence of philosophy on Malick as a filmmaker. It is not a stretch to claim that, at the very least, To the Wonder is a story that purposefully reflects on the human condition. Kierkegaard wrote, “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act,” and this tension is lived by the characters Malick creates. To what extent can they love each other, their neighbors, and God? To what are they called, and at what cost to the self?

Placed alongside Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, Javier Bardem’s character Father Quintana becomes more than the depressed priest he might first appear to be, experiencing a dark night of the soul, preaching heavy handed sermons about how a husband ought to love his wife while drowning in doubt himself. “Love is not only a feeling, love is a duty. You shall love,” he preaches, using words that could have been lifted directly from Works of Love. He speaks these words to two people infatuated with one another, lost in the wonder of a poetic love — in Kierkegaardian terms, a specifically human love, a love of preference, erotic love, in contrast to the unconditional love of the divine. Throughout the film Neil (played by Ben Affleck), and Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) circle around one another, close but also hesitant. They might be asking, as the Young Man in Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, “What is the lovable?” as they stand on the brink of choosing one another, again and again.  Another figure in Stages on Life’s Way describes such pursuit of the beloved thus: “With a faltering gaze of unutterable admiration and blissful befuddlement we encircle her in the dancing steps of a worshiper.” Neil’s posture toward the women in the film embodies this sort of worshipful adoration. He gazes adoringly at the object of his love — at least until reality intrudes on his fantasy, until the woman reveals herself as subject rather than object.

In contrast, Father Quintana’s incessant search for God brings him face to face with uglier sides of humanity. He exemplifies love’s shall as Kierkegaard articulates it. He wants to know and feel the presence of the divine, and though he seems to wander, lost, for much of the film, he exhibits an answer to Kierkegaard’s question, “…what I must do.” He goes about the work of loving his neighbor. He brings communion to men in prison, wraps a coat around the shoulders of a sick woman, visits with a teenage mother. He shows up, even when he does not believe, because to him love’s shall is a duty rather than the feeling he has lost.

One scene in the film depicts Quintana, after returning home from his work, shut inside, shielded behind opaque curtains, while a woman he spoke with earlier knocks on his door. She knows he is there. Her shadowy form moves back and forth on his porch, beckoning to him to return to the world outside. It is, perhaps, as Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love:

Shut your door and pray to God – because God is surely the highest. If someone goes out into the world to try to find the beloved or the friend, he can go a long way – and go in vain, can wander the world around – and in vain. But Christianity is never responsible for having a person go even a single step in vain, because when you open the door that you shut in order to pray to God and go out the very first person you meet is the neighbor, whom you shall love. (WL 51)

When Father Quintana says, “You shall love, whether you like it or not,” the bluntness of his words is jarring, yet he is not speaking merely to Neil and Marina but to himself. His feeling is gone, as much as theirs for each other. Do they feel at times that their love has died, as he says? What if, as Quintana suggests,  it is rather waiting to be transformed into something higher? This transformation is at the center of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, as he shifts the focus from the character of the beloved to the process of becoming one who loves — rather than searching for some perfect beloved object for one’s affections.

Love is a kind of risk perhaps. Though Kierkegaard and “risk” are two words often put together only in the context of “the knight of faith,” a leap into the realm of truth as subjectivity, I would argue that what we see at work in his love ethic is a different thing. Father Quintana emphasizes the risk of love, and both Neil and Marina exhibit the very risks he speaks of. To love in this way opens the possibility of failure and betrayal — and yes, of sin. Jesus’ example of forgiveness, for Quintana as for Kierkegaard, shows us a way beyond such failure. Kierkegaard narrates Peter’s betrayal, depicting Jesus as one who even when abandoned and denied on the brink of death nonetheless forgives his friend and looks on him with kindness.

In a film with little dialogue, Neil speaks least of all. At a pivotal point in the film, when Marina’s visa has run out, her voice over whispers that if he had asked her to stay, she would have. But he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t say anything. He chooses not to choose, lets her go, blank faced and silent. After this he begins seeing an old girlfriend, named Jane. Again we watch him light up, wander around under those big skies in open fields, enthralled. As things turn serious, she knows what she wants — she loves him, trusts him, and wants to be his wife. She tells him this, and again there is no response. Preference can answer some questions, but it cannot answer every question Neil might be asking. He seeks the lovable, instead of seeking to love.

Marina returns, and she and Neil marry — first in a civil ceremony, later in a church. They continue their cycle of approach and retreat, exhibited in the films many twists and turns, roller coaster images that enact the instability of their feelings. They distance themselves more and more, so fully that eventually she has an affair, after which they both seek guidance from Father Quintana in different ways. For Marina, this means showing up to confession, and receiving communion. This in and of itself is revealing. Because of her faith, Marina’s failures find forgiveness, and she receives sustenance. Neil on the other hand follows Quintana  around, keeping a safe distance, while Quintana speaks to, looks at, and touches people in pain. He always looks askance, mimicking the many scenes in which Neil and Marina, also, are shown in the same frame, in different rooms, together yet miles apart. Kierkegaard emphasizes that love’s shall, this duty, is a duty to love the people we see, plain and simple, and Neil remains closed off. He doesn’t so much fail to love his neighbor as never try at all. He remains shut inside himself.

In contrast, in the love of his neighbors, Quintana finds God whether he feels it or not. At the emotional crux of the film, his voice over recites the prayer of St. Patrick:

Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left.

The divine spark he preached about earlier in the film,  in each woman and each man, is all around him, in the people right in front of him.

The storyline feels murky as the film moves to its conclusion. Neil takes Marina to the airport; there is no reconciliation between them. There are scenes of Neil in another house, with a child. From Marina, we hear words of thanksgiving directed toward God, as she wanders alone in the woods, drenched by a cleansing rain that hearkens back to the baptismal imagery from the film’s opening. For her there is some kind of resolution. Her relationship with Neil fails, for although she, in her faith, attempts throughout the film to keep God as the third term of their relationship — to put it in Kierkegaardian terms — Neil cannot. Neil is faithless. Their failure to reconcile might well be understood as their inability to allow Christ to bridge that gap.

The love, failure, and forgiveness that Kierkegaard writes of and Malick’s film wrestles with are perhaps what Roger Ebert meant when he said Malick “has attempted…to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

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