(Continued from Part 1)
2. The problem of the transcendent
By juxtaposing the way of grace and the way of nature, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life enlivens the sense that grace is something transcendent, a matter of other-worldliness. Grace, of course, is itself a matter of love, and as Hannah Arendt notes, “Love, by its very nature is unworldly”.1 It is unworldly not in the sense of being assuredly unreal but, rather, in the sense of seeming not to originate from – or seeming not to be wholly contained or locatable within or as – the physicality generally regarded and referred to as the reality which is nature. It is as if that other-worldliness is an aspect of something which – in addition to being transcendent – is also already somehow immanent, even if it is not readily or often seen. It is as if the transcendent is not just other-worldly but is also present and available, yet waiting to be made manifest (or more readily apparent) within this world.
The problem of the transcendent is the issue of its manifestation: Is it even possible for the transcendent (if there is such a thing) to have a durable this-worldliness which does not itself adulterate the transcendent? Arendt has noted that nothing alleged to be transcendent ever manifests permanently within the physical world. This is because, if there is a transcendent and if it ever becomes this-worldly, its appearance is perceived as or in an occurrence, in the fleeting moment of a thought, a word, a deed, an observation.2 The extreme brevity of any such supposed manifestation does not even leave a clear, indisputable trace of the transcendent. This lends to the transcendent being interpreted as withdrawing or hiding from this-worldliness when it does not suggest the transcendent as not just non– or supra– or super-natural but actually unreal (or, alternatively, merely the psychological phenomenon of thought).
Even though the juxtaposition of the way of grace and the way of nature in The Tree of Life has the effect of presuming that the transcendent is real, that movie is still encumbered with the general problem of transcendence in the form of the particular problem of grace and how it can ever be made durably manifest. According to Arendt, since it is “inherently” other-worldly, “love can only become false and perverted when it is used” in the world, when it is intended to effect change, even when it is regarded or utilized as a means for salvation.3
In stark contrast to the presumed reality of the transcendent with which The Tree of Life begins, an earlier Malick movie, The Thin Red Line, almost immediately starts with a disavowal of the transcendent: Pvt. Witt recounts having heard people talk about [transcendence in the form of] immortality, but – as he indicates – the transcendent remains for him unreal so long as he cannot see it.
I remember my mother when she was dying. She was all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. Couldn’t find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God.
Of course, to disavow is not necessarily to dismiss, and a disavowal need not depend on there being a demonstrated falsity assignable to that which is disavowed. In fact, the disavowal of the transcendent with which The Thin Red Line begins simply introduces the first defining condition of the transcendence problem: Is anything transcendent actually real if it is not in some way possible to perceive it from within this world?
As Witt reports it, although he had not seen the transcendent either before or at the time of his mother’s death, he had since then become aware that the transcendent was there to be seen in the calm of his mother’s last breath.
I wondered how it would be when I died. What it would be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same calm. ‘Cause that’s where it’s hidden – the immortality [the transcendent] I hadn’t seen.
Because of that seeing, because of that now retrospective perception, what was unreal had become real. The other-worldliness of the transcendent had become real for Witt, for his person, for his own self. When Sgt. Welsh later tells Witt that “there ain’t no other world but this one”, Witt tells him, “You’re wrong there. I seen another world.” However, Witt must have some sense that what he is saying is easily (mis)construed or (mis)understood either as what some would call a metaphysical claim or as some sort of demand that this other-world be in some way acknowledged, because he quickly admits that “Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.” It is as if Witt regards this other-world as something wholly dissociated from demands – at least demands that others even speak in terms of this other-world, much less acknowledge it. It is also as if Witt will not restrict reality simply to considerations in terms of what exists. This is actually quite reasonable, because claims about what exists always follow from a preceding sense of there being something important or potentially worthwhile about that which is being noted as a part of reality.
In effect, this is to say that every thing which seems real does so only when and only because it exhibits some sort of relevance. That being the case, it is not the reality of the transcendent which matters so much as it is the relevance of the transcendent which is of primary importance. Besides, it is only by means of its relevance that the reality of the transcendent (if there is such a reality) could ever seem more real than imagined.
If someone perceives the transcendent and is motivated by that perception to respond in some way, then the perception is certainly relevant to the perceiving person. However, this sort of personal, individualized relevance is likely best described as being at most only minimally or indirectly relevant to the world, its ways, and its reality.
Accordingly, the problem of transcendence is not limited to the possibility of perceiving the transcendent from within nature; instead, the problem of transcendence quickly moves beyond perception and on to the matter of whether and how the perceived transcendent is ever relevant beyond the person who perceives it. Is there a public place for the transcendent? Can the transcendent be taken public in any way that is publicly meaningful? But, then, what is public relevance or meaningfulness? Does it refer to anything other than a usefulness within the world or the fact of being utilizable by or for the public in contradistinction to a strictly personal relevance?
If Arendt is right, and not just love but also other facets of the supposed transcendent, such as goodness, are perverted when an attempt is undertaken to make a public use of the transcendent, then the transcendent never actually manifests publicly. Instead, to the extent it makes any sense at all to say that the transcendent is real, it can only appear to – and be directly relevant for – individuals. This, in turn, leaves any indirect relevance to the world as wholly dependent upon the manner in which the individual who perceives the transcendent makes it manifest in his or her own person and his or her own actions.
Continued in Part 3
1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 242.
2 Ibid., p. 75.
3 Ibid., p. 52.