People are people, were people, and forever shall be people. I think that modernity, or antiquity, or contemporaryness (though useful terms for categorizing common hairstyles, cocktail fads, and to some extent, cultural interests) are misleadingly narrow constructions, witholding real information about the condition of the human soul. BECAUSE THE HUMAN SOUL IS IMMUTABLE. People are always the same, regardless of the time you’re born and the material and geographic circumstances of your life. Know what I’m sayin?
That said, there is a mode of being I’ve been pre-occupied with lately, a mode I’d like to designate as extremely un-contemporary. A mode that is diametrically opposed to our present time, and I am starting to think it’s one mode I need to be in all the damn time, even though our times are telling me not to be.
Let’s call this the “stalking” mode.
I’ve just spent a good few months obsessing about the Tarkovsky movie “Stalker.” I’ve replayed it a lot in my mind, though I’ve only seen it once. I’ve had several hours of conversation about it with one friend, and exchanged emails about it for months with two others. I read Geoff Dyer’s delightful pseudo-critique/memoir/ramble “ZONA” about it. It’s been living in the primest real estate of my imagination.
For those unfamiliar with the film, let me explain. “Stalker” is a metaphysical science fiction movie, a damp, dripping, mysterious, and thoroughly ungallant “search for the Holy Grail.” Stalker is a guy in this shitty, conspicuously-Baltic industrial ruin world who leads two other guys (Professor and Writer) to a forbidden area to find out their heart’s true desires. The forbidden area can be only traversed and navigated by the Stalker–he’s like a travel guide. This area is known, literal-Tarko style, as THE ZONE. The place inside THE ZONE that reveals the heart’s true desire is called THE ROOM.
In conversations with friends, the question erupted: how pure is the Stalker? THE ZONE, we understand, is dangerous: you make a false step there, and you die. The Stalker, like one Chosen, is the only one with the seemingly primordial knowledge of how to safely traverse the area, and he advises his wards to show reverence to THE ZONE. And yet he’s never allowed to partake of its fruit. He’s not allowed to have the essential truth about his self revealed in THE ROOM. Stalker’s predecessor (PORCUPINE) made that mistake, and ended up killing himself.
We learn from Stalker’s wife that dude is only truly happy when he’s in THE ZONE and feels it calling to him when he’s not there. All around, Stalker has a reverence for the Zone, an addiction to the Zone, mystical knowledge of the Zone.
But Stalker’s pure relationship with the zone is complicated by the fact that Stalker is paid by some fools to show them around. He seems genuinely pained by their insouciance and disbelief in the fruits of the Zone, but at the same time, how else is he going to make a living? His relationship with the zone might be idealogically pure, but he apparently can’t be choosy about who he takes on to the Zone. It’s not a pilgrimage and he’s no one’s guru. He’s just a tour guide.
At first, I thought of the long-suffering-of-fools Stalker as a Christ-figure. He was Chosen and he is Driven to show others the truth of themselves in the Zone. I swear he even recites some Beatitudes at some point, saying something about how the meek shall inherit the earth. But then, you gotta think about the less glamorous aspect of money changing hands. I could go on, especially about the figures of Professor and Writer, but why bore you. I’ve now decided that Stalker is not a Christ figure but a Tarkovsky figure. He’s a film-maker, an artist. Someone concerned with revealing serious truths, but who also has to make money by doing it, and must suffer fools in the process. The impulse to make films and search for truth itself is a pure impulse, but the material aspects of it muddle the art, and can potentially ruin it. It’s a dangerous game, this truth-stalking through art, but only those who are truly CALLED to it really have anything to teach us about ourselves. From what little I know of Tarkovsky, he was a serious fellow, and took movie-making and truth-searching very seriously.
This serious search for truth–and the placing of the artist’s alterego at the heart of one’s Russian masterpiece–reminds me more than a little of Tolstoy’s character Levin in Anna Karenina. Poor Levin: forgotten in the dust-bin of literary history. Everyone always forgets that he’s Anna’s foil, so caught up are we in her sexy, black curl bursting infidelity. Levin, not so different than Lev T. himself, can’t fucking stand the artifice required of a person to get along socially in Moscow, much less hang out with the gaudy nouveau-riche scenesters of Petersburg. He’d rather be piling hay with his serfs, ahem, peasants, out in the country. Levin is always wondering what true fulfillment looks like, and how he’s going to go about getting it. He’s way into what I like to think of as the pastoral fallacy–that reverting to old ways, simple ways, will lead you to true fulfillment. (Tolstoy wore peasant attire even though he was a goddamn count. Nice try, Lev.) Levin, of course, is just one side of the coin–Anna, in her impulsive majesty, shares some of Tolstoy’s personal vices. (He was known for his infidelities.) To be all neat and structuralist about it, Levin gets the happy ending when he finds true love and a simple life in the country. His search for truth is not resolved, because the search, the fitful, tentative grasping for what makes meaning, the stalking of it as though it were something easy to startle on a hunt (of which there are many in the pages of AK), is itself the truth. Anna, as we all know, though, thought she found fulfillment, but the heart is capricious, and we all know how she got her comeuppance.
Both Tarkovsky and Tolstoy are guys that would have probably agreed that the aim of art is to tell us something about living. I know more about Tolstoy’s aesthetics, so I can confirm that he saw realism as the purest means of revealing “man to himself,” to using the phrasing of the day. His prose is plain-spoken and elegant, and he was attempting to take snap-shots of life, then let them reel out in real-time. He probably would have made really long mumblecore movies if he’d been around now, except they would have been profound.
Both Tolstoy and Tarkovsky have placed, at the center of their narratives, a striver, a searcher, a stalker who is perpetually hovering close to fulfillment and to meaning, but never getting it actually. They are just on the prowl. I find it admirable and beautiful that they have placed doppelgangers at the center of their narratives, and use these characters as a means to continue their own search. This is a mode that does not happen with the same earnestness now. This is a mode that is serious and noble. Things that are serious and noble now are probably seen as old fashioned. Sorry, this is maybe about to be a diatribe.
I felt this year that the movie “The Master” attempted to address some of this truth-stalking business, but the master and his path are fraudulent, and the master’s disciple has a brain that has been pickled in booze, and seems to be merely tagging along to fulfill his urges to eat and fuck, animal-like. A serious look at how to find fulfillment, as far as I can tell, is not on anyone’s agenda in the way Tarko and Tolstoy made it the cornerstone of their entire artistic output. It’s not like I’ve watched every movie… So I could be wrong. (Oh, and of course, there’s always Terrance Malick, grasping for the branches on the tree of life…) But, what I’m saying is, the earnest search for truth, well, that’s old fashioned. We live in a post-modern time; we kill our idols, god is dead, narratives are tangled and subjective, language is contingent, yada yada. Hard to agree on the human soul when the stuff of our times is the shifting sands of the unknowable. How is a person supposed to muddle through this and find any truths? How is a person to navigate this mess and find out something about living?
I guess, by reading long Russian novels and watching long Russian movies.