‘It would be wrong to consider that the Book of Revelation only contains within itself a concept of punishment, of retribution; it seems to me that what it contains, above all, is hope. The time is near, yes indeed; for each one of us the time is very, very close at hand.’
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)
We live in an age of widening and deepening chasms – spiritual, cultural, social and political. 'Things fall apart,' as W.B. Yeats famously put it in The Second Coming. 'The centre cannot hold.' I will begin this essay by briefly describing why I feel the centre is dissolving, but I do not intend to speculate on how it might be recreated or restored. Discussion of this kind can easily be found elsewhere. I want to work instead from the premise that things are already too far gone and that no amount of rampart-bolstering will stop the wheels of de-spiritualisation that were set in motion long ago. We will not see the chasms bridged, in other words. Not in a worldly sense anyway. And this is as it should be. For, as Christ tells Pilate, 'My Kingdom is not of this world.'
It is easy to caricature the centre as some bland, 'picket fence' type of place, but in reality it is the most exciting ground of all. The centre is where the common good is championed and different worldviews honoured, but also where a shared set of values – civic, national, or both – gives those views a local shape and context. There is a sense of belonging. People feel at home.
Regrettably, this is not where we are today. The centre has lost its imaginative hold. Social and economic liberalism have driven a coach and horses through the practices and traditions that grounded men and women in reality. 'You can be anything you want to be,’ we are told. But this is a pseudo-liberation, which divests us of our patrimony, both in this world and the next. It denies the existence of a heavenly home, while at the same time severing us from our roots on Earth – from the past, the future and, increasingly, from the limits set by Nature herself. 'Liberated' from an objective awareness of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going, we run the risk of becoming something less than human – 'a thing with one face' in Louis MacNeice's phrase – putty in the hands of those who wish to enslave us.
Yeats, once again, read the runes aright. 'After us the Savage God,' he prophecied in 1896, stunned by the crudity of Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi. The poet recognized in this tale of an idiot dictator the potential for lunacy inherent in a free-floating world detached from its metaphysical moorings. Likewise, the revolutionaries of F.M. Dostoyevsky's, The Possessed, dazzled by the prolixity of Pyotr Verkhovensky, allow themselves to become vehicles of the demonic and conduits for nihilism. 'Listen,' declares this apostle of chaos. 'To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. Down with culture ... The one thing wanting in the world is discipline ... We'll reduce everything to a common denominator!'
One corollary of living in an epoch of moral and spiritual disintegration is that hope is gradually relegated to the margins. A transfigured world starts to feel possible in eschatological terms only. When we see secularism so deeply embedded in daily life and religious wisdom pushed so far to the periphery, it becomes hard to conceive of any constructive action we might take to help turn the tide. There remains, as always, the option of a retreat into literalism, but this is merely the flip-side of the relativism that assails us, and serves only to reinforce the dominant materialist paradigm.
Like Jacob wrestling the angel, this is a problem I do battle with every day. My romantic temperament (I am a monarchist and a Jacobite) pulls me perpetually towards certain Ersatz solutions. When the world grows dark, I find comfort in ancient Franco-German prophecies – visions of a 'Grand Monarch' and an 'Angelic Pope', who will restore the primacy of throne and altar, turn modernity on its head and, with their holiness and charisma, set hearts and minds ablaze for God. But this is a deception. It leaves the subject – myself in this case – unchanged and betrays a lack of faith in humanity's capacity for renewal and God's ability to surprise. That is why the life and witness of Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) is such a blessing for our times. This great advocate of the imagination portrays what the genuinely transformative future awaiting us can and will look like.
History, Berdyaev claimed, is divided into three stages: the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Spirit. The first age corresponds to the Old Testament and the Law of Moses. The age of the Son maps onto the New Testament and redemption from sin and death. The third age is still to come, and when it does it will change the dynamic and guide us beyond our habitual passivity in the face of the Divine. It will be our turn then to give something back to the Creator and thereby become creators ourselves. This, for Berdyaev, is the meaning of Apocalypsis – the unveiling in men and women of God's hidden purpose for the world. It is a transformation – a leap of consciousness – and an opportunity for ourselves, here and now, to quicken its advent. As he explains:
The Kingdom of God comes imperceptibly, without theatrical effects. It approaches in every triumph of humanness, in real liberation. In genuine creativity there comes nigh the end of this world, a world of inhumanity, of slavery, of inertia ... The end of time, the end of the world, the end of history is a passing over into another frame of consciousness. Within time the end is seen only as destruction, but in eternity as transfiguration.
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker, prefigures this 'passing over' particularly well. A tract of land known as the 'Zone' is cordoned off after a mysterious environmental disaster in an unspecified European country. Hidden in its midst is a secret chamber (the 'Room'), which has the power, so it is said, to make one's deepest wish come true. The Stalker guides two men – the Writer and the Scientist – across the Zone's treacherous terrain to the threshold of the Room. It is a descent into Hades – a grimy trek through mud and slime; broken, blasted buildings; floods of stagnant water, and overgrown fields scarred with burnt-out tanks.
The Writer and the Scientist are a cynical, world-weary pair, unable to see any further or deeper than the wasteland that surrounds them. Pausing by a pool of water, the Stalker – a mystic and a dreamer – prays that his companions may repent of their hardness of heart:
'May everything come true. May they believe. May they laugh at their passions. For that which they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outer world. But mostly may they have hope and may they become as helpless as children. For weakness is great and strength is worthless.'
Under the water we see a series of objects, representative of our civilisation, which the catastrophe has rendered useless – gold coins, a hypodermic needle, a machine gun, and a painting of Christ. Tellingly, it is the religious image which comes last. The order which has passed away placed its priorities elsewhere and has paid the price.
The Stalker, in the end, is disappointed by his colleagues' lack of faith. Like the contemporary world, they seem too far gone – compromised and blinded by their hard-nosed materialism. But two remarkable, unforeseen occurrences turn base metal into gold – a confession of unconditional, utterly selfless love from the Stalker's long-suffering wife, and an astonishing display of telekinesis from his crippled daughter, Monkey. The quest, on the surface, appears to fail, yet the wasteland is renewed in fresh and unexpected ways.
There is a price to pay, however. The wasteland in Stalker is literal as well as figurative. There will never be cast-iron proof, but it is highly likely that Tarkovsky's premature death, along with those of his wife and several members of the cast and crew, was caused by exposure to toxins during filming. The film had to be shot twice – from February to September 1977, and again from June to November 1978 – due to a fault with the first lot of stock. Shooting took place, on both occasions, in Estonia, close to a power plant pumping out poisonous, and probably fatal, chemicals.
Tarkovsky also suffered a heart attack in April 1978, which forced him into convalescence for two months, and became so ill again early in 1979 that he thought he might die. The cost of the film, in human terms, was colossal. Was it worth it? All I can say is that I was privileged and blessed, in April 2011, to attend a big-screen viewing in a basement room at Manchester University with half a dozen colleagues and friends. It was a shared experience of the utmost intensity. This slow, contemplative masterpiece brought both the characters and ourselves to the threshold of the Room. It stripped us bare. Skinned us alive. The silence at the end felt as numinous and charged with significance as the elevation of the Host at Mass. All those great intangibles – Faith, Communion, Mystery, Solidarity, and more – were alive and present in the space.
I often feel nostalgia for that miraculous night, but then I realise that the holiness we touched and felt points not to the past but the future. If only, for instance, we could find a way of conveying the Gospel story with just a tenth of Tarkovsky's imaginative force, I believe we would see a Christian Renaissance that would astound and rejuvenate the world.
The past will never be rejected. Obedience to God's law will always be central to our lives. The same applies, obviously, to salvation from sin and death. But Berdyaev is right. This is an hour of impasse and stagnation, and more is required of us now – a creative flair and visionary intensity that turns conventional wisdom upside down and draws its inspiration from the deepest wellsprings of Christian tradition: that Living Water offered by Christ to the woman of Samaria in St. John's Gospel.
The cost of such a transformation will be absolute. We will be burnt to a crisp on Ixion's wheel – dismembered like Orpheus and pieced back together by the gods. In Tarkovsky's next film, Nostalghia (1983) – set in Tuscany – the protagonist, Gorchakov, becomes irresistibly drawn to the village fool, Domenico. This Stalker-like figure sets him the task of crossing the hot springs at the Bagno Vignoni spa, holding a candle and keeping it alive at all costs. Gorchakov, like St. Christopher, carries the Light of the World over the waters. It is an act of high symbolism, which transcends the rational mind. He wavers and wobbles and it costs him his life, but he fulfills his mission, playing his part, as he sees it, in the redemption of the world.
The Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, called this nine-minute take 'a miracle', as by the time he completes his task, Gorchakov appears to be holding something more than a candle in his hand. The scene is an artistic tour de force, and as such performs a vital religious function, especially today. It re-enchants and re-mythologises the world. Our mechanistic, post-Enlightenment assumptions are broken apart and space created for the Divine – wild, fierce and strange – to make its presence felt. Spiritually-resonant art, like Tarkovsky’s, is moulded by silence and refined by fire. It brings gifts of insight, perspective and depth, which can and should inform the way we practice and present our faith. It unveils pattern and meaning, and helps us see the turning point ahead for what it truly is – an end, yes, but also a beginning. A death too – most certainly a death – but with the light of the Resurrection already, even now, here and there, starting to break though. As Berdyaev assures us:
God will not judge the world and mankind, but a blinding light will pierce the world and man. This will not be only light, but a searing, purifying fire. In this purifying fire, it will be evil that burns, not living beings. And that will lead to transfiguration, to a new heaven and a new earth.
Sean Martin, Andrei Tarkovsky (Kamera Books; Harpenden, 2011), 163.