The Poetic Cinema of Tarkovsky, McKenna on Death and the Freedom of the Wild…
“The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie…one word of truth outweighs the world” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Alchemy of Life. In it you can find a short video commentary on the cinematic world of Russian filmmaker, director, writer and film theorist Andrei Tarkovsky. If you haven’t watched any movies by Tarkovsky yet, I hope that after reading about his work you will indulge in the poetic world of his creations. Tarkovsky is akin to Dostoyevsky, but with motion and sound.
We then explore Terence McKenna’s views on contemplating our own Death. The wisdom of all ages is that nothing lasts. However, the topic of death continues to be profoundly misunderstood by too many of us who fear this inevitable, enriching and beautiful process that solely makes life valuable.
Within the Culture segment we also have something from the American poet Walt Whitman: a poem entitled Song of the Open Road, which my father shared with me a few days ago and I thought you too would appreciate the spirit of freedom that radiates from Whitman’s words.
Finally, we move on to a video by Isabel Paige, a young lady who decided to live in the wild, where the freedom of nature – raw, beautiful and unforgiving – can be felt. Instead of a Netflix episode of some commercial TV series, I recommend watching this 40 min video. You can learn a lot more about yourself and the world.
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My mother’s abstract art shop - Hunaari.
“The collapse of everything familiar is going to open our hearts…”. This is how the short transcript from a talk by botanist and thinker Terence McKenna starts. In less than 5 minutes, McKenna distils the core teaching from all civilisations, or as he calls it “the hardest truth there is”: nothing lasts.
Although it may seem evident and trivial, contemplating on our own death, i.e. on the fact that we do not last, has a profound impact in changing how we see the world and ourselves.
“If you will contemplate your own death your heart will open. […] Everything flows. […] Nothing lasts: not your career, not your fortune and finally not even your own self. Everything is replaced. And if we can open ourselves to this […] then we will find dignity."
Many of us suffer from an obsession with being alive while craving as much certainty and clarity as possible and fearing, even hating, changes, especially those that remind us of what we truly are: temporary inhabitants of planet Earth.
However, death is the only thing we can be certain of, and it is the one aspect of our experience as humans that makes life worth the effort. Nothing has any value if it cannot be lost. Death transforms life into Life.
And yet, instead of contemplating death and embracing it, many of us are terrified by it and try to avoid it at any cost. All tragedies of human history are rooted to some extent in this desperation to staying alive: wars, slaughters, thefts, mass extermination, betrayals, lies, bizzare experiments and any anti-human act is rooted in “doing what is necessary to survive”. Although, we never survive, at least not in this bodily form and therefore, all that pain caused by doing what is necessary was, in the end, totally unnecessary.
McKenna explains in the video that we flow into this life and then out of it. Everything is connected. We are part of a larger organism – this Universe. Even the most radical atheists have no argument in denying continuation after death: as our bodies rot, through entropy, we become another form of energy: atoms, scattered throughout space-time.
As J.R.R. Tolkien says through Gandalf the White: “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take”.
Contemplate and embrace death – total freedom is on the other side.
My fathered shared this poem with me earlier this week. In fact, he sent me the video below, which is the first stanza from it.
Whitman was an American poet, “a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare”. The themes he wrote about included nature, love, freedom, friendship and death, celebrating the beauty and complexity of human life. Whitman’s influence will later be found in many great poets, such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Simon Ortiz, C.K. Williams, and Martín Espada.
Whitman however was an outlaw of poetry. He wrote about subjects which the public found “unnerving”.
“According to The Longman Anthology of Poetry, “Whitman received little public acclaim for his poems during his lifetime for several reasons: this openness regarding sex, his self-presentation as a rough working man, and his stylistic innovations.” A poet who “abandoned the regular meter and rhyme patterns” of his contemporaries, Whitman was “influenced by the long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry.”
All visionaries are misunderstood by the public of their time. But who cares what the public, or the larger society thinks - it never new anything more than to comply with what was given to it.
In Song of the Open Road, Whitman writes:
“The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.”
“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
“Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.”
For me, Whitman is in the same category with Snyder, Abbey and Bukowski (among others) – all very different people, but brought together by one common trait: their passion for the individual and the freedom to become one.
It is impossible to write about Tarkovsky, the man and the artist, in a few hundred words in a way that does justice to his life and work.
He was a Russian filmmaker, writer, theatre director and film theorist whose work includes a list of over 40 movies. The themes explored by Tarkovsky are deeply spiritual.
“Modern mass culture, aimed at the 'consumer', the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” – Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
The video linked above, Poetic Harmony, discusses the cinematic philosophy of Andrei Tarkovsky. Words aren’t always needed to express emotions, images are often enough. The Russian filmmaker, like all great artists, went his own way in creating his films, to find a way to truly express what was inside him. “You can imitate Tarkovsky but never follow”.
The video explores the aesthetics of Tarkovsky’s cinematography: unique, drenched in emotions, powerful enough to shake anyone to their core and yet, in perfect harmony, like stanzas of a good poem which creates an atmosphere of its own.
The order of life is abstract, and this is expressed in the Russian filmmaker’s creations. For me, this is clearly visible when looking at his stunning collection of polaroid photos.
“We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it's a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
“Among directors, Tarkovsky has become a godlike figure, his signature motifs imitated to the point of becoming clichés. He is the chief exemplar of what is sometimes called slow cinema, in which the camera lingers in long takes on austere landscapes and scenes of minimal activity.” – The New Yorker
If you want to learn more about Tarkovsky, you can watch this mini documentary about some of his major creations, which are, as the filmmaker said about cinema, “[…] a mosaic made of time”.
The more time I spent in modern society the more I understand that a lot of its complexity is nonsense and superfluous in the sense that it is fabricated hardship that is not necessary, as opposed to the difficulties of dealing with nature.
Instead of using technology to evolve, not just biologically but also cognitively and spiritually, we use it to be comfortable, domesticated, safe and limp.
Isabel Paige is a YouTuber who documents her life of living a simpler life in nature, with the challenges and pleasures that with this lifestyle. As Walt Whitman wrote: “The earth, that is sufficient”.
I find her videos informative, fresh and relaxing. You can watch Isabel’s perspective on this lifestyle, full of adventure, here.
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Thank you for reading.