from Mirror (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
The world can seem, in one instant, to brim with beatitude, and in the next to fall far short of the measure of our longings. It’s felt like this since I was a boy, a time I associate both with plenitude and with loss. “We look at the world once, in childhood,” writes Louise Glück, who recalls being entranced by the novelty of drifts of crocus and the smell of grass. “The rest is memory.”
Although not an unhappy child, I bore a resemblance to Joan Didion’s “keepers of private notebooks…a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things…children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” And I could relate to Cynthia Ozick, who recalls: “Even in my girlhood I lamented the passing of my prime. At eleven, I scribbled a story and appended a lie: ‘By the Young Author,’ I wrote, ‘Age Nine.'”
And so I read, in those early years, not only to discover, but to regain. At times I was surprised that what I regained was an archetypal memory of something that preceded my own birth. For instance, the thrill in me when I reached the end of Mrs. Dalloway after reading it cover to cover on a long summer afternoon corresponded to a dim knowledge that I had happened upon a primordial dimension of the human experience. “It is Clarissa,” Peter Walsh grasps the meaning of the “extraordinary excitement” that seizes him at a party even before he’s laid eyes again on his onetime love who awaits him there: “For there she was.” I was still a decade away from falling in love for the first time, myself, and here I was, bowled over by the poignant familiarity of this moment, startled by what was at once recognition and anticipation.
All this unfolded in a small house in Central Massachusetts. In this sense, only a little of the world — a book, a poem, an image — is necessary to prepare us for its startling grandeur. Only a little is necessary to create in us our insatiable thirst. Baudelaire said it well:
To a child who is fond of maps and engravings
The universe is the size of his immense hunger.
Ah! how vast is the world in the light of a lamp!
In memory’s eyes how small the world is!
I stepped through an open window once and never regretted it. I still feel a sense of adventure when I remember that summer in my fifteenth year. The protagonist of John Williams’s novel Stoner says that literature is the one thing that’s never betrayed him; I could say this about cinema, too.
I was in a summer program at Philips Exeter Academy and was looking for a place to study where I wouldn’t be found, because I was skipping a mandatory afternoon of sports and recreation. I remember motes of dust drifting through the golden air in the room I discovered in the back of the library, where the shelves were lined with foreign films and a little TV sat on a rolling cart in the middle of the floor as though awaiting me. I had heard of De Sica, Herzog, and Forman, but I’d never seen their work; so I came back to this room every day and watched as many as I could, entranced.
This is how I fell in love with Fellini before I ever fell in love with God. 8 1/2 converted me to faith in international art cinema. The film brings us through altered states of mind and soul: the world as experienced through dream, through memory, through fantasy, and through art. It finds a cinematic language for these oneiric states of mind, as though they were constitutive of reality and not deviations from it. A clairvoyant gazes into the protagonist Guido’s mind and dredges up, “Asa Nisi Masa,” a sort of Italian pig latin for “anima,” for “soul”; and Fellini follows her lead into the soul that indwells every memory of Guido’s childhood: his mumbling grandmother, a ghost story, and his encounter with a rumba-dancing prostitute gazing wistfully out at the sea. This was the poetry that graced my mind, and which I found it increasingly hard to find in a world that seemed disinterested in it; yet here it was, in Fellini, thanks to Fellini, who understood.
from 8 1/2 (dir. Federico Fellini, 1963)
Music has never betrayed me, either. In college I believed that Bach was the apogee of human creativity, because the scale of his ambition was the majesty of a God I was beginning to aspire to knowing. Later I felt that Mozart was the one who is “pure inspiration” without any of Bach’s religious earnestness — or angst. “Each tone is correct and could not be different,” writes Joseph Ratzinger. “The message is simply present…The joy that Mozart gives us, and I feel this anew in every encounter with him, is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole, something I can only call inspiration, out of which his compositions seem to flow naturally.”
Later I encountered the Romantics: Schubert, Brückner, Mahler. When I listen to — and watch — Claudio Abbado and Magdalena Kožena performing the third of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, I have the same feeling I had with Fellini: I realize he understood everything.
My musical world would not be complete without Leonard Cohen, or the great voices of Latin America: Lola Beltran, Violeta Parra, Mercedes Sosa, Caetano Veloso. But to this day, I derive a special pleasure from driving alone late at night through a deserted city with classical music on the radio. I remember, once, a long drive north through the darkness from Redondo Beach to Culver City with the swells of the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis carrying me up and down the eternally summer-carpeted hills; and another ride, in tears, through the icy streets of Cambridge, accompanied by his Heiliger Dankgesang — “the song of a convalescent’s holy thanksgiving.” These moments are unforgettable.
from Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951)
Time and again I have felt this paradox of art and faith: love for what is wordless engenders a desire to give praise through words. Poetry lifts us to what is transcendent, and then betrays us by its inadequacy. Religion furnishes us with beauty, yet appears just as often festooned by banality. The word “God” can both disclose ultimate reality and, in the next moment, conceal it, and so I find myself loving both the saints and those agnostic artists and humanitarians whom Camus calls the “saints without God.”
Countless filmmakers, whose art is sacramental (conveying invisible grace through visible signs), have turned to the mysteries of faith with varying measures of ambiguity: Kieslowski, Sokurov, Bergman, Paradjanov, and the one who’s almost always meant the most to me, Tarkovsky, with his dripping ceilings, burning houses, and candle-carrying seekers burdened by the worries of the world. It was little wonder that, always led by their example, I followed them to faith as well. Yet my faith could only be sustained insofar as I found theologians who were themselves capable of poetry.
Thankfully, I found Rahner, who believed that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished,” yet also discovered, in his “Encounters with Silence,” a concept of God that was enough to keep his “ceaseless restless striving in motion.”
There was also Tillich, for whom faith “is not an opinion but a state”: “the state of being ultimately concerned,” or “the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.” Indeed, I am religious not because I prefer certainty to mystery, but because I am grasped by the power of being, and because I am ultimately concerned with what is ultimate.
And I am Catholic in part because I lived in France and would hear Messiaen on the organ in the great Gothic church of St. Séverin, with its stained glass windows like green and blue flames; and in part because Robert Bresson, on whom I wrote my Master’s thesis, found a way to remain Catholic too. In Bresson’s minimalist depictions of people’s cruelty and mediocrity, one first seems to detect an antipathy toward human existence. In fact, his restraint is a refusal to judge, and the equanimity of his gaze is a form of deep and unsentimental love. “I want my films to have a Biblical tone,” he once said, and they do: just like the Bible does, Bresson reduces us to our essence, which is at once so simple and so “fraught with background” (Eric Auerbach). Just as in the Bible (which, far from a manual of piety, has its horror: the Gospels’ Gerasene Demoniac, for instance, is worthy of Goya or Bosch), sin and redemption are inextricable, so that even in the midst of pain it is possible to say, in the words of Bresson’s lonely country priest, that “everything is grace.”
Poetry has an extraordinary arsenal of words for our desire to overcome un-poetic forms of our existence. It can give us a voice with which to cry out with the very longing it inflicts on us:
In the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
I want to be among the wise ones,
or else alone.
That is from Rilke. And this is from Jack Gilbert:
I would burrow into stone. Into iron.
Into the rain to find someone important
there in the dark. A mystery that magnifies
the earth but does not lie.
But it would be false to pretend that art leaves us only with melancholy. The experience of my life has been that it also brings togetherness. For one thing, this is the benefit of churches: their music and architectural space, however beautiful or unlovely they may be, enable diverse people to unite every Sunday in song.
And museums mean as much to me as cathedrals do. I remember being stifled once in my own humanity by a form of religiosity that did not admit to full human flourishing. I found myself in San Francisco one weekend that spring, at the Museum of Modern Art, and I think that it saved me, saved me by reminding me that the human spirit can transgress the limitations imposed on it by the many forms of fear, and can connect us to the indomitable search for meaning that other people have undertaken everywhere in the world.
At the Races in the Countryside (Edgar Degas, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
This is my favorite painting in my favorite room of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. To me it says everything about family, community, preciousness, even if its looming horizon and tiny background figures also remind us that we will all, someday, be swallowed up by time. I could gaze at it for hours, and I am always also moved to see who else is gazing at it in its little corner in that beloved museum.
I hope not to forget the social and embodied experience of art in this digital age. We can forget to commune with strangers in museums, to meet them in bookstores. We can watch every film we ever see on our laptops, or — worse — on our iPhones, looking down at a small screen, rather than up at a large one in a way that invites us to the experience of awe.
The cinema has made possible two moments of connection with humanity that I remember to this day. First: I went to see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev on 35mm, and the projectionist had left the first box of film reels at the post office. They had to show that part of the movie on DVD. When the moment came to switch to film, and the light came streaming through the celluloid onto the vast screen, we all gasped in amazement, all captivated, all held close by its shimmering grandeur. The mysterious, poetic quality of moving light: I’ll never forget it.
Another memory concerns Pather Panchali, which many have called the greatest film in the world. (Kurosawa said that if you haven’t seen it, it’s like never having seen the sun or the moon.) Toward the end of this film, there is a moment of such power that everyone watching it becomes one, strangers become kin, and you leave the cinema looking at each other through tears. I always forbid everyone I talk to from watching it alone on a laptop. The communion it brings about in a theater is too splendid for that.
from Pather Panchali (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1951)
That moment is like the one at the end of Mrs. Dalloway: a moment so primal, so elemental, a moment when living means discovering a trans-historical memory of enthusiasm and love. In such newness and recognition, we see that both the words of Leon Bloy and their opposite are true. (His words: “There are places in the heart that do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.” And their opposite: we may not know that we’ve carried a wound until it’s been healed.)
Pather Panchali presents the entire world in a microcosm — the microcosm of a boy in a remote province of India. The best art does this, condenses a world into a couple hundred pages or minutes, so that on the one hand we have been told a particular story distinct from every other, and on the other hand, we have been shown the world. Sometimes this happens with operatic aplomb, as in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and sometimes it happens far more discreetly, as in Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men. Both films came out in 2011, and both films left me shaking in my seat in the cinema as the credits rolled, feeling they had shown me the inner secret of my own life, my own longing.
from The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
However different, both films do what all great ones do: they find the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” as T.S. Eliot puts it, and capture “the music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all.” And this has to do with honoring an intuition into the meaning of my human life which I had as a precocious child.
The Tree of Life, in its depiction of mid-century American boyhood, evokes one final inspiration, a short work of literature I nearly memorized in middle school. James Agee, writing about a youthful summer in Knoxville in 1915 (“in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child”), recalls evenings full of locusts and frogs and the sound of hoses in the grass, and adults gathering in the dusk to talk, and finally a bedtime ritual that will no doubt resonate with countless others in the same way that it always resonated with me:
“After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her; and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”
Asa! Nisi! Masa!