A reflection on Terrance Malick’s film: “The Tree Of Life.”
“I presume to speak to the lord, dust and ashes that I am.” (Gen 18:27)
First, let’s just cut through all the bullshit right off the bat; the *question* is an old one, old as that first ‘Homo Erectus’ that banged his head on the cave ceiling as he ran out to see what his child was screaming about and witnessed his only son, still alive and struggling and being carried away in the mouth of a saber-toothed tiger and screaming to his father for help. Now these first peoples weren’t the squeamish type, so it wasn’t just the image of his son skewered in the massive tiger’s teeth, blood running from his mouth and nose and from holes where there shouldn’t be any holes that haunts him; it was that look on his son’s face asking his father ‘how could you let this happen.‘ Maybe religion was born into the mind of the world that day when this Homo Erectus then looked...up (?) and maybe crying his first tears of sorrow asked god (like the character Mrs O’Brien ask in the movie about the death of their son) “...how could you let that happen.”
This was a new question for god too though, not that god hadn’t been anticipating that something in creation would be getting around to bringing this issue up. But god is also not the squeamish type and its hard to catch god in denial or unawares. And of course god would throw a similar question back at us further evolved, homo-whatevers, someday when god’s own begotten son was being killed by us, skewered by spikes, hopelessly struggling to get free, blood pulsing from his mouth and nose and from holes where there shouldn’t be any holes; and then at the last god’s begotten looks (up?) into his father’s face and ask ‘how could you let this happen?‘ Since then, most humans have usually just let that question be, until it was inescapable, until maybe we found our own selves skewered in the jaws of death, and then we might start asking questions for which the answers may be more painful than the silence. Until then however we usually tend to write the whole thing off as “mystery,” or else come up with really lame and offensive ideas like ‘god wants more company in heaven,’ or that ‘somebody’s getting there comeuppance for secret sins,‘ or that somehow some sort of bizarre justice is accomplished by punishing everybody in the world with pointless suffering and death for what some Eve woman did eons ago. Kinda like what the priest tells Mrs’ O’Brien at her son’s funeral in the movie: “Father Haynes: He is in God’s hands, now. Mrs. O’Brien: [not willing to let the priest off the hook so easily] He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?”
No, maybe it’s better to just let the question be. But then along comes Malick and “The Tree Of Life,” and starts bringing the whole uncomfortable situation up again. Like right at the opening of the movie where he starts with that scripture from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for Joy?” Now WTF kind of a question is that? We weren’t anywhere, maybe we were amoebas, or maybe some other sort of squiggly carbon based life form, or maybe on some other planet, or just not invented by god yet or...and why the heck is god asking us anyway? Oh...I get it, its a rhetorical question; somebody or something called ‘satan’ burns my house down, kills all my critters, destroys my crops, murders my wives and children, and now god gets miffed when I ask why? WELL EXCUUUUSE MEEEEE!!! But then, maybe god wasn’t miffed at all, maybe god had always anticipated, even desired that question from us, maybe that’s when we all really first became ‘Children of God.‘
“And said the Lord God: Behold, Adam hath become as one of Us, knowing good and evil, and how might he not stretch forth his hand and take likewise of the tree of life, and taste, and begin to live eternally.”
So God talks to his/her selves like I do, so what? In Martin Heidegger’s “The Essence of Reasons” (that Malick translated into english in 1969 btw and that permeates the movie) Heidegger writes that “Transcendence constitutes selfhood,” and that “...transcendence can be said to denote the essence of the subject or the basic structure of subjectivity. To be a subject means to be in and as a transcending being.” And later: “....all the modes of being of entities within-the-world are founded ontologically upon the worldhood of the world, and accordingly upon the phenomenon of Being-in -the -world. From this there arises the insight that among the modes of Being of entities within-the World, Reality has no priority, and that Reality is a kind of Being which cannot even characterize anything like the world of Dasein.” Now I take all that to suggest that, first, God may not be a Kantian (but then I‘m not really smart enough to say for sure) and second, that the ‘Reality’ of Being in the world as “Being towards death” is not as transcending as ‘Being for the Other,’ not just for the created but for the Creator as well, and that the death of the Other encountered as Being transcends this ‘Reality’ (I will admit my obvious Levinasian infatuation here).
Now if, as Heidegger argues that for humans meaning precedes perception, that we move from the whole to the particular, that we “World” the world by our questioning existence then ‘The Tree of Life’ was always already a tree of death as well, and that what we could have learned from the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ was how to ask, how to ‘World,’ the important question, which is not what’s the *difference* between good and evil, hell, it doesn’t take an evil snake to tell us that, but rather, what is the difference between life and death. That question is the earth destroying asteroid that is hurtling itself towards us at breathtaking speed even as we speak. But it isn’t coming from ‘outer’ space this time, but from inner space, from our own hearts.
“Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” What’s that Malick? you mean no innocent children ever get eaten up by saber-toothed tigers, or leukemia, or starve or get nailed to crosses or....? “Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” Ok, but if I choose grace will God heal my dying son or bring his mother back to life? Will God protect my other children from all harm? “Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” And if I do all that, if I really try, will God love me then? Will God take away this pain? Will God save me? “Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” But where is all this ‘smiling’ and ‘shining’ to be found, mostly what I see are shit and blood and pain lording over ME! Where do I find this happiness among the wreckage of this world? “Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” But what if all I ever learned of love was abuse, betrayal, exploitation, indifference; what if all I see is ‘the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the transformation of men into a mass, the hatred and suspicion of everything free and creative assuming such proportions through out the earth that such childish categories as pessimism and optimism have long since become absurd" (M.H.). “Mrs. O’Brien: [voice over] Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” Forgive? forgive who? You mean forgive my friends or even harder my enemies, or maybe you mean forgive myself...no, that’s not it, you mean forgive God don’t you....
In Fra Angelica’s painting of the “Annunciation of Mary” above, like so many other paintings, there is a beam of light that pierces the Virgin Mary in the heart like a meteor from heaven. In some depictions Mary is holding forth her hand to the light in a way that one could read as resisting it’s ‘invitation.’ In Reuben’s version Mary turns as if to flee and the angel poised above her seems almost ready to force her acquiescence. In Fra Angelica’s picture though, Mary seems to bend over in pain as if wounded by God’s Spirit, but she does not flee or push the angel away, instead she ‘Worlds’ a ‘Yes’ into this world and becomes the God-bearer.
So, it may be that It wasn’t Neanderthals praying Kaddish Avelim for the death of all the innocents, or cringing from God in naked fear, or our philosophical hermeneutics that made the first human to be a human a human. Maybe it’s more like in Malick’s movie, maybe it was a woman who looked into the terrifying, infinite abyss of the Helix Nebula, the ‘Eye of God,’ as we named it, and said: “ [voice over] ‘I will be true to you. Whatever comes.’ [last lines]” Obliged