Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"The Fountain": A Movie Review.

May 13, 2010 at 4:09 P.M. "Errors" inserted and corrected, again.

This review was written as my computer was subjected to 10 intrusion attempts. According to Norton Security, my main attacker today (as on November 29) is -- New Jersey? I am unable to read this essay at my msn group today, February 26, 2007 at 1:53 P.M., after 268 intrusion attempts (the most recent took place at 2:41:20 A.M., yesterday), attackers:,, 3358 (NJ Supreme Court?),, 2312, (NJ Attorney General?) Coincidence? I doubt it. More "errors" inserted and corrected in 2010.

Mysterium Tremendum.

I wanted to be alone. So I went to see Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. It is a beautiful film that is both entertaining and a work of art. Solidly grounded in cinematic and surrealist imagery, this film poses a set of entangled questions and offers suggestive interpretations concerning the ultimate mysteries of life by way of an answer from our philosophically-minded director.

The "world-knot" or ultimate riddle of metaphysics, religion and science is the entanglement of love and death, the "dance" between creation and destruction that generates both life- and death-principles, which are symbolized in the mystical union of day (masculine) and night (feminine), man (sun) and woman (moon).

For Christian alchemists and mystics of the ancient and medieval world (comparable terms exist among kabbalists, Hindus, Buddhists and the pre-Colombian rituals) this puzzle was known simply as the mysterium tremendum. One is reminded of Quetzalcoatl -- the ancient Mexican winged serpent god -- swallowing his tail in an image of eternity among Aztecs. Also felt in this movie is the presence of the Maya's "great father" (sky) and "great mother" (earth), who (I love this term) "fecundate" the earth with life. The subject of this movie is neither mortality nor immortality. Many reviewers got it wrong. Aronosfky's theme is love's eternal power to defeat death and time, here and now.

The film is deeply romantic. It is a kind of symphony in three movements, whose resolution is a return to the beginning. The exploration of triadic relations establishes a connection between this work and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit that is concerned with self, other and spirit; with Beethoven's great symphonies and their composer's quest for resolution and fusion of self with the Absolute in ultimate peace and lasting harmony; also with the transformation of science in our times into religious insight, even as religion has anticipated and been reinforced by science's most important and newest discoveries.

This magnificent cinematic work of art -- and Mr. Aronofsky's vision -- suggest not a conflict between science and religion, but the resolution of that conflict in a higher synthesis that includes both forms of knowing in the service of humanity. Writing of the romance of science and technology, in a time skeptical of traditional religions yet still hungry for spiritual experience, Norman Mailer comments:

... our voyage to the moon was finally an exploration by the century itself into the possible consequences of its worship of technology, as if, indeed, the literal moon trip was a giant species of simulation to reveal some secret in the buried tendencies of our history. It was as if technology had determined to invoke the god of magic it had already slain, even as a priest might step via his nightmare into the powerful passions of sexual instinct so primitive he had once cast it out, and wished to see if he were powerful enough to cast it out again.

Of a Fire on the Moon (Boston: Little & Brown, 1969), p. 161.

The plot of The Fountain concerns two lovers incarnated in three distinct settings: As knight protector to the Spanish queen (Hugh Jackman) is given a mission, the "lover's quest," to discover the tree of life in Central America in order to rescue his threatened queen (Rachel Weisz), whose lovely features fill the screen with an ethereal and graceful beauty that alone justifies the $10.50 cost of seeing the movie. He is asked to find Eden. Ms. Weisz conjures associations with the eternal feminine in global -- and especially Western -- iconography. She looks like the Virgin Mary as painted by Juan de Ribera or Diego Velazquez.

Both the movie camera and director are obviously in love with Ms. Weisz. Who can blame them? By the end of the movie the audience also is besotted. The acting is amazing. Mr. Jackman impressed me with scenes calling for depictions of a man's extreme emotional pain at the loss of an adored woman, which are truthful and heart-breaking. Whatever they paid this fine actor was too little for the psychic places that he visited in this story.

I no longer know how to explain what it feels like to discover a new "error" inserted in this essay-review since my previous revision of this work -- an inserted "error" which is not found in my printed version of this essay. Perhaps this inserted "error" is related to the arrests in New Jersey this week. I will correct this "error" and do my best to discover other writings which may have been vandalized today. ("Senator Bob, the Babe, and the Big Bucks.")

The tree is found and then pierced with a knife. The tree is between earth and sky. The tree "bleeds" life -- like the sacred heart of Jesus -- pointing to the number three. The three-sided pyramid is central to this story as are the three settings. As in Daronofsky's previous movie Pi, numbers are mystical symbols. Numbers are a language spoken by nature/God, revealing the doorways of perception and reality. "Death," our hero is told, "is the pathway to awe and alternate reality."

Those interested in comparisons between scientific representations of our protean realities and religious efforts to account for this same intuition of plural selves and realities may wish to juxtapose theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities From Plato to String Theory (by Way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and the Twilight Zone) (New York: Penguin, 2005), pp. 10-19 and physicist F. David Peat, Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (New York: Bantam, 1988), pp. 85- 113 with Robert C. Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 58-74 and Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura, S.A., 1992), pp. 99-125:

"Cuando era de noche, en la oscuridad, los dioses se reunieron ..." y crearon a la humanidad: "Que haya luz", exclama el libro de los mayas, el Popol Vuh, que nazca la aurora sobre el cielo y la tierra. ..." (Fuentes, pp. 100-101.)

"When night fell, in the darkness, the gods were united ... " and they created humanity: "Let there be light," exclaimed the book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, may the aurora be born over the sky and the earth ..." (My translation.)

The lovers, then, in a contemporary city are struggling against a malignant tumor (like a dark tree that "bleeds" death?) growing in a woman's brain, even as her husband, a scientist, seeks a cure based on substances from the same Central American region and tree that provides the first scenario's ambiguous symbol. As the piercing of the tree yields the sap that flows into creation -- only in agony and death, is life born -- so with this scientist's work, discoveries are made which lead to extensions of life for others, but at the cost of his beloved's life. A Woman's bodily death is also this man's spiritual death.

Finally, in a distant future (which is also present) the two are reunited, restored to the confrontation with life-principle (tree), mystery (death and separation), resolution and reconciliation (love, which is serene acceptance of life's mystery or redemption). The stars from which we come -- from which we are made and to which we return -- serve as silent witnesses drowning the suffering lovers with their pity, as angels in Christian scriptures confer their infinite compassion on humanity by sharing, willingly, in human suffering. See Wings of Desire and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Life necessitates death. The decomposition of all organisms into the "primal unity" (Buddhist terms) of matter is inevitable. Love takes us out of the cycle of life and death, however, as measured by time's ticking clock, through eros ("with woman on top" -- according to Maya wisdom!), which makes lovers immortal. "Helen, make me immortal with a kiss," says Marlowe's Faust.

Mr. Jackman's character finds "Eden" and "eternal life" -- both are love. The price of that love for him is tragedy and pain, as it is for most of us. The first act of creation is the kiss of earth and sky. The achievement of human completion, for Romanticism, is the lovers' kiss.

A key symbol in this work is the ring, made of metal, of star dust, of the three vignettes that constitute eternity. The absolute center of nothingness is zero. The star cluster is a circle. So is the story we have seen, which viewers -- like the husband of the dying woman who was writing a book titled "The Fountain" -- are asked to "finish." We are given the task of completing this work for the creator, as humanity must complete creation through human choices, freedom. "Finish it," we are told. ("Sinbad's Excellent New York Adventure" and "Metaphor is Mystery.")

This is a film demonstrating a free hermeneutic exercise by inviting audiences to "interpret." In the same way, it is up to each generation of Americans to contribute to "finishing" our experiment in Constitutional government and revolution by interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Consider this late poem by T.E. Hulme:

The fountain is turned on. It has a definite geometrical shape,
but the shape did not exist before it was turned on.
Compare the arguments about the pre-existence of the soul.

T.E. Hulme, "Cinders," in Speculations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1924), p. 240.

Love and Death in the Language of Symbols -- Where Science and Religion Meet.

A. Tree.

A key symbol throughout the world is the massive centering tree (have you decorated your Christmas tree?) which shelters and feeds, lives and dies, dropping its seeds upon the earth. In Chapters 1 and 3 of Genessis, we are told of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and tree of life -- both are mentioned in the film -- which become a single tree that is the cross on which Christ is crucified, also the tree under which Buddha is seated for eternity as he achieves enlightenment. The tree, like humanity, touches earth and sky. We are spirits in a material world.

We are returned to the earth and cycles of all life, as the roots of the tree connect it to the planet, even as its branches reach for the stars. The ultimate act of human pride is defiance of our earthly natures and the aspiration to escape our ultimate destiny, which is death that gives poignancy and meaning to our works and days. One expression of this Promethean hubris is art, another is science. Philosophy and religion serve as correctives to our overweening pride as a species. Here is a famous serpent in Eden -- possibly the first scientist and philosopher -- who (wisely) chose to speak to woman and not to man:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?' And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.' " But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Quoted by Elaine Pagels in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), p. xiii.

The first fully human act is defiance. It is humanity's rebellion which makes us "god-like," moral subjects because we are free; hence, possessed of the knowledge of good and evil. The fountain in Genessis is the tree of life -- as in Maya scripture and in this film -- which is the earth, dual, life-giving and life-taking, tree of knowledge of good and evil, bringer of freedom or death. Life is dual, but then so are we: masculine and feminine, within and beyond ourselves. The "Fountain" in this film is a tree, and the tree is man and woman in relation with the cosmos.

I will pass over in silence the simplistic Freudian interpretation which sees the tree as phallic. The tree is as feminine as it is masculine in this art work. Jung will be better than Freud in coming to terms with this film.

B. Pyramids.

The three-sided structure, pyramid, is holy for ancient people. This is true both in Egypt and in the "new world" of the Americas. The number three is symbolic of human cycles -- man (1) and woman (2), then child (3). Also, the pyramid structure is the vessel symbolizing the female womb, which is the center of creation, like the earth, which is the "womb" from which humanity emerges. Think of the Holy Grail and individuation.

C. The Ring.

The ring is symbolic of wedded bliss or romantic union between man and woman, as representatives of the love of God for humanity. Hence, the ring is symbolic of eternity in the union of God and man. In all world religions the ultimate source of life and creation is life-giving love, which yields itself to create the world. Love is the bleeding heart of Jesus from which flows salvation -- which is sharing in Christ's love -- along with compassion in suffering with and for others. (See my story "Pieta.")

Islam addresses these themes with extraordinary poetic beauty. Although pictorial representation is prohibited in Islam (since creation is the province of God), recognition of organic intricacy and intertwining can be seen in the lettering of texts from the Koran found in decorations of structures throughout the Islamic world, an intricacy also mirrored in the entaglement of all life on this planet. Even more, it is the great theme of Sufi verses:

In the Sufi view, "Everything in the world is in some mysterious way connected with Love and expresses either the longing of the lover or sings of the beauty and glory of the eternal Beloved who hides His [Her] face behind a thousand forms ... " Love between men and women is part of divine love, for the human experience both conceals and reveals the ultimate Lover and the ultimate Beloved. Indeed the love of God is really the only love there is . Divine love is the depth, meaning, and esoteric secret residing in profane love. The eleventh century Sufi Ibn al-Arabi writes:

"It is God who in each loved one manifests Himself to the gaze of each lover ... for it is impossible to adore a being. ... Thus it goes for love, a creature loves no one but his Creator."

John R. Haule, Pilgrimage of the Heart: The Path of Romantic Love (Boston & London: Shambala, 1992), pp. 3-4. See also Joseph Campbell, "The Mythology of Love," in Myths to Live By (New York: Bantam, 1972), pp. 152-174.

Love's Wound: The "Bleeding Heart of Jesus" and Life Principle.

A. Mystical Union/Eros

The piercing of the flesh of this tree of life and the shedding of its "blood," conjures associations with the "bleeding heart" of Jesus in Christian iconography, as I have noted, which is symbolic of divine love and suffering for humanity. It is this love which gives eternal life. This is accomplished not by repairing the flesh forever, but by unifying the person with all of life and creation "here and now." Mr Jackman's character becomes vegetation, reconnected to nature, through consuming the sap of this tree.

The analogy to sexual union among lovers is a powerful part of theological speculation on this subject for centuries before Freud. The representation of this in religious ritual was misunderstood in The Da Vinci Code. Thus, St. Theresa of Avila writes of her "Mystical Union" with divinity:

I can only say that the soul feels close to God and that there abides within it such a certainty that it cannot possibly do other than believe.

George Brantl, ed., The Religious Experience (New York: George Brazillier, 1964), p. 593.

It is only by blending into the life of another, that one experiences both the loss and preservation of self. The lovers' embrace in the film is shadowed by death that awaits this lovely young woman. With the death of the individual comes his/her return to the earth and eternal cycles of creation, even as the flesh dissolves into the totality from which it has emerged. "You must die," Hegel says, "in order to live." You must understand yourself less in terms of individual appetite and desire, as ego, so as to become self-giving in and for the other in community. Resurrection. Think of the Buddha holding a lotus flower. Think also of the shattered glass bound in cloth in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

B. Separation/Loss.

Love presents us, therefore, with the agony of separation and loss. All that we love will be blasted by time. Hence, to seek spiritual fulfillment in time is a doomed venture. Moreover, to choose love is to accept the inevitability of suffering "for" the other, whose pains and eventual destruction become our own. Yet love is the meaning or call of life. It is why we are here: to learn to give up our selves and unite with that larger Absolute which contains us and to which we contribute, willingly or not, achieving our place in creation. Love can only be kept by being given away. The same is true of the self. ("'Inception': A Movie Review.")

Jung's descriptions of the Self rely on images of the Absolute from the various world religions: Christ, atman, Tao, emptiness, and the like. Images of the irascible, jealous Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and the blood-thirsty Kali of Hinduism are set side by side with the Good Sheperd, the Lamb of God, and the playful Krishna. The divine is the absolutely powerful factor in the universe and within the psyche. In Jung's language, that is Self. Insofar as it is the source of all life and harmony and unity, it may be called the mythic rhizone out of which flowers transcendent meaning with its capacity to make life secure and soul-satisfying. Insofar as its synthesis is tenuous, doubtful, fragmentary, a bridge of fog, it may be called the wound.

Pilgrimage of the Heart, pp. 76-77. ("Out of the Past.")

Religions teach this lesson of interdependency through poetry and symbols; science teaches this same wisdom by means of knowledge of our humble place, again, whether we like it or not, in an infinitely vast universe where all of life and all that "is" matters in relationship to us and we matter in relationship to all that is. Philosophers may be associated with great mystics from all over the world, also with our finest physicists and biologists, when seeking to place humanity and the narrative of the earth's trajectory in time, as well as the evolution of life, within a grand cosmic story that contains us.

To worship science, Norman Mailer writes, was like being married to a beautiful woman who furnished your castle, bore your children, decorated and illuminated your life, filled your days, was indispensable. Yet all the while you did not know the first thing about her true nature. Was she in love with you or a masterpiece of hate? There, in the center of dream, was not an answer but an enigma. Was light corpuscular or wave? Or both. Both!

Of a Fire on the Moon, p. 166. ("Duality in Christian Feminine Identity.")

You begin to see why the serpent spoke to woman. Also, why Germaine Greer confronted with Mailer's echo of Freud -- "What do women want?" -- responded: "Well, it certainly isn't you."

Something of the exasperating and bewitching mystery of the feminine principle, so linked to life and death, to that "fountain" which is the earth that nourishes us and to which we return when we die, is captured on screen in this film in the enigma of Ms. Weisz's character, wearing dangling white pearl earrings -- like the white sap of the great tree -- symbolizing tears and breast milk, loss and nourishment. Woman is associated by this director with the ambiguity of life; men are concerned with the search for answers that woman, somehow, already knows.

C. In the end is my beginning.

The pain of separation is overcome, then, only through the affirmation of the moment, the eternal now, which is a defeat of time and death in passion or eros by means of a surrender of self with and to another. This is the "eternity" of which poets speak. In the act of love, the union is established forever, even as the decay of the body proceeds to the inevitable and ultimate dissolution of the bodily self. Love-making is a spiritual act and protest against -- as well as acceptance of -- death.

The Fountain is a religious celebration of love's defeat of death, even as it offers a grim and realistic depiction of the tragedy of loss in human life. Science and religion meet in what we are told in this work of art of human destiny: We must suffer and die, but if we have loved at least one other person, then we may affirm our single instant of worldly existence (our lives), insisting that, for a fleeting moment, we were here and the stars and all that is were "here" only for us, now.


A. "Bed is the Poor Man's Opera."

What is this work of art that Aronosky has given us? It is a "repetition," to use Kierkegaardian language. It is a depicting on celluloid (or digitally, nowadays) of that primal human journey that is the concern of religion and science, also the true subject of all great art. This film is saying this is what we are -- loving and dying creatures, aware of incompleteness and in search of one another, coming home to that source of life from which we have been born.

This work is only a way for you to see yourself. It is also a way to ponder those mysteries that are always beyond us. This film is -- like all genuine art or the face of someone you love -- a mirror and door. I will close with Ernst Cassirer's meditation on art applied to this movie:

Wordsworth defines great poetry as "emotions recollected in tranquility." But the tranquility we feel in great poetry is not that of recollection. The emotions aroused by the poet do not belong to a remote past. They are "here" -- alive and immediate. We are aware of their full strength, but this strength tends in a new direction. It is rather seen than immediately felt. Our passions are no longer dark and inpenetrable powers; they become, as it were, transparent. Shakespeare never gives us an aesthetic theory. He does not speculate about the nature of art. Yet in the only passage in which he speaks of the character and function of dramatic art the whole stress is laid upon this point. "The purpose of playing," as Hamlet explains, "both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

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