myth and poetry

Mythopoetry Scholar

Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Mythopoetry Scholar vol. 3 2012
Dissolution and Dwelling
in Terrance Malick's film, "The Tree of Life"
-Judith Kennedy Mazis

Everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under
the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant,
rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles,
moans and falls silent, pales and darkens. . . .  The poet, if he is a
poet, does not describe the mere appearance of sky and earth. 
The poet calls, in the sights of the sky, that which in its very self-
disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself,
and indeed AS that which conceals itself.

-Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 210.

It has been said that the films of Terrence Malick are “cinematic poetry,” a poetry that elicits an experience of authentic dwelling between earth and sky, loss and connection, mourning and elation with the necessary coagulant eros (Furstenau & MacAvoy, 2011). The film is informed by Malick’s intimate knowledge of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the fourfold: earth and sky, divinities, mortals.  The poesis of film elicits an engagement with the invisible and the hidden rather than with meaning, logic and linear sense.   It calls viewers to be slow and reflective, open to the panoply of shifting images and requiems, rhapsodies and bursting nebulae to the soft, existential whisperings of the soul.  In this way, the film itself is a place of dwelling.  It is a crucible in which lines vanish between human existence and the movements and mysteries of nature and the universe, a crucible that contains suffering as the film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job.  

Malick’s film, “The Tree of Life,” won the Palm d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival in 2011 (Ng, 2011).  It continues to receive mixed reviews, walk outs and dismay because of its lack of clear narrative and linearity; however; the thinness of plotline verbiage, the emotional thickness of voiceovers, the collapsing and reversing of darkness and light, the fluid enfolding of imagery, memory and time and the absence of firm conclusions precisely characterizes the poesis and the challenge of “The Tree of Life”.

Grief and Dissolution, Birth and Creation

In the context of a film that allows time to move in ways other than sequentially is the story of Jack, the central figure, who struggles inwardly in the midst of clear, outward success as a corporate architect. He works within the glass tower of an architectural firm and is often seated near the tower windows pensively condemning the empty culture in which he is embedded and of which he has participated in building.  He lights a blue votive candle and ponders the death of his brother, an implied suicide, and its lasting effect upon his family.  He calls forth the memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950’s.  It is the flow of memory that leads Jack through the darkness of complicated bereavement, the nigredo, as Jung would say,in which dwells the potential of “gold,” perhaps linked with authentic dwelling in the world.  The qualities of this darkness are expressed in the film’s voiceovers, in the meditative inquiries about suffering and the nature and existence of God, in other words, questions of theodicy.

The flow of time is wedded with memory as we are “led back” within the labyrinthine psyche of Jack and his younger self.  Jack whispers, both as a middle-aged man and as an inwardly reflective twelve-year-old, “Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me, always you will.”   Early in the film, we find Jack’s mother as she receives the telegram regarding the death of one of her three sons. She asks, as did Job, “Lord why?” “Where were you?” “Did you know?  “Answer me!” The young, pre-adolescent, Jack, some years prior to the death of his brother, is already questioning the meaning of the existence of suffering and whispers to God and the cosmos.  He is dismayed that God does not intervene when he witnesses a child’s home burnt to the ground, people crippled with disease, social injustices: “How do you let these things happen?”  “You are not good, why should I be?” 

The film moves into the masterfully rendered depiction of the creation of the universe, conjoined with Jack’s bereft mother dropping to the floor.  This is accompanied by the Polish composer, Zbigniew Preisner’s, requiem, “Lacrimosa”.    There are no boundaries between the imagery of the birth of the cosmos and the expansive, disembodied grief that pulls us into the “ultimate loss,” that of mother for dead child,  father for lost son,  brother for brother. 

What we glean from the barely audible whisperings of the family is immersion in the most profound of human emotions and queries that spill outside of any perceived boundaries into an infinitude of loss, and yet, as we are carried into this meditation, the film places us face-to-face with the grandeur and majesty of the creation of the universe.   

As theologian Catherine Keller states:

In terms of the sign of creation . . . we might now ask:  Is the uncreated “darkness on the face of the deep” the very bottomlessness of the divine? A depth of which finite creatures can have no knowledge – only an inkling  . .  . where our most radiant capacity trails into oblivion? . . .  The depth questions of mysticism appear on the surfaces of our living relationships. Truth touches upon our very skins. Spirit matters (56).

The perennial questions of life and death become flesh in this way.  The ultimate losses register in the felt sense of our bodies and extend outwards beyond those perceived limits and edges.  And yet, the world of the glass tower in which the ponderous elder Jack is situated is far removed from this sense of interweaving with the cosmos however artificially constructed to meet the sky.  In so doing, this kind of building engages in a forgetfulness of the earth and a disembodiedness (Mazis, 81).  The tree is set off from its surround in a cement cube as Jack questions how he lost his connections. What is needed is memory and image and meditative thought, the notitia (Hillman, 101) that can restore psyche/soul, that can allow for “spirit to matter”.  The poetry of film invokes the river of memory and the kind of thinking that Martin Heidegger tied to what is most essentially human about us, meditative/reflective thought (Heidegger, 1966, 66).


A River of Music and Memory

When Terrence Malick discussed the music score with composer Alexandre Desplat he told the latter that the music was to run like a river throughout the film.   David Ng states that in Heidegger’s lecture titled Holderlin’s Hymn To “The Ister,” the river is the “place where humans find their dwelling place, but the river itself is an ‘enigma . . .’ it is not a puzzle we should wish to ‘solve’.  Rather, it is something we should bring closer to us as an enigma.”    (Wikipedia, 2011).

Easy explanations or conclusions to the question of suffering are echoed in the Book of Job and leave Job enraged rather than comforted.  Jack’s mother is little soothed by the well-meaning attempts of others to explain that “God giveth and God taketh away.”

Catherine Keller states the following: “Therefore, even for one as tragically hurt as Job, new life can take place.  This may only be possible because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life.  Ex profundis” (75).

The music follows familial and cosmic memory as it folds grief into its opposites and then with fury folds back again with other rivulets, currents and sea shifts of expanding life.  On the other side of grief is the exalting musical composition, the “Vltava,” a homage to the Vltava river by Bedrich Smetana.  It scores the sequence of the young brothers running with wild abandon, racing through tall grasses with bounding dogs, tumbling together, leaning breathlessly against a tree at dusk, then settling into the stark contrast of the formal family dinner with their authoritarian father and silent mother.  This is the “rennet,” the coagulant of eros, as discussed by David Miller (91) found in the heated crucible of this traditional 1950’s family, the layered complexity circulating within the container of the family: the deep schisms between the masculine and the feminine as held in the traditional roles of mother and father; the Oedipal complex, the incest taboo, patricidal and fratricidal impulses, associated rage and shame.

The tension occurs in threes.  In Miller’s discussion of the “theological formulae of the trinity” he cites Jacob Boehme as observing, “No place or position can be found or conceived where the . . . Trinity is not present and in every being; but hidden as the essence of it” (13). While the film begins with the mother saying there are “two ways through life,” the “way of nature and the way of grace,” one listens for a third.  The tree of life is planted, scaled, contemplated by father and son, by mother with her contemplations, by the elder Jack as corporate architect and the internal play of his familial memories, by the unspoken and invisible way of dwelling with mystery.

Memory and the Mysterium

Jack’s journey back to this “eternal family” (Hillman, 200) circulates in archetypal movements: his infant brother’s tiny feet held within the cup of the father’s hands;  leaping over church pews;  moving through portals; swimming out of watery dreams; crossing bridges;  gazing at spiraling ceilings and rock formations; gathering together at the sea’s edge. All are carried along the steady motion of the river of music as they empty into vast blackness and open again into blue-golden flame.

Jack’s movement through bereavement traces a course through the imaginal bereavement of his internal family carried back through memory and down into the “feminine” as mother and father embrace their dead son now returned to life at the sea in the midst of vast unknown others.  The elder Jack is led by his younger self through dunes, portals, climbing ladders, crossing boundaries and edges to his deepest desire to return the sea, to “origins”. 

This phase of the cycling of Jack’s psyche is conjoined with an image of the full eclipse of the sun, the coming together of two forms of light, one expressive and brilliant, one reflective and silvering set in the black sky with brilliance covered over by moon.  The wandering maze of return has been lunar, reflective, “feminine” and watery.  This coming together of moon and sun foreshadows the conjoining of elements and family members as dark bereavement folds into sea and the sky.

The third way between “nature and grace” is unseen and invisible, a way of “dwelling” with being.  This culminates in the film with Jack’s vision of his beatific mother surrounded by other feminine presences as she is bathed in light after having embraced her deceased son as a young boy and exchanging glances with Jack as a mature man communicating wonder and gratitude for the reunification.  It is after this point that she is able to say, “I give my son to you,” the mother’s release of her son to the universe, the release of the black bereavement into the light of acceptance of the incomprehensible.  Jack is surrounded at the sea not only by the eternal family within himself, but by others who have this longing, this archetypal need to be reconciled with the ghosts of loved ones. 

These visions at the sea collapse into a field of sunflowers, then a bridge, and Jack’s return to the glass architectural tower.  Jack is an architect, a builder.  He finds a way to follow the flows of memory and imagery and the ghosts of the world to a place of dwelling.  He is returned to the technological world of his work through the process of dissolution, death, dismemberment, fall from grace and reflections softly uttered, internally spoken to the “ground” of being, to the unseen, to the mystery.  Questions remain, no set conclusions arrived at, yet there is a smile.  There is a smile as Jack returns to the glass tower that looks into the sky.  What does he see as he smiles at the tower and the sky upon his return?  Is he ensouling the city of his making, restoring the anima mundi (Hillman, 99), is the tower now a place of dwelling between earth and sky?  Is it  like the tree, rooted in the earth of meditation, rising up like poesis? (Heidegger, 1966, 57) Is it a third way between nature and grace?

The image of the tree of life was presaged in Malick’s earlier film,” The New World.”  It is the source of restoration for the bereft Pocahontas as she kneels before the poison mushroom and contemplates death.  She hears the sound of the bird, sees the tree and returns to life.  The tree of life, as discussed by Carl Jung, points to a way of dwelling in the world at a time when the collective of humans is mostly estranged from the earth.

It is not surprising that the unconscious of present-day man, who no longer feels at home in his world and can base his existence neither on the past that is no more nor on the future that is yet to be, should hark back to the symbol of the cosmic tree rooted in this world and growing up to heaven – the tree that is also man.  In the history of symbols this tree is described as the way of life itself, a growing into that which eternally is and does not change; which springs from the union of opposites and, by its eternal presence, also makes that union possible.  It seems as if it were only through an experience of symbolic reality that man, vainly seeking his own “existence” and making a philosophy out of it, can find his way back to a world in which he is no longer a stranger (1968, par, 198).

Yet, as David Miller states:  “It does not suffice to be led back and led down into archetypal images and mythic resources if love is lacking.  Without love there is no link to life.  But in love, with its impulse and passion to think and feel connections, the soul discovers its body. Psyche finds amor at last” (9).  This is in keeping with the declaration of Jack’s mother, “Without love, your life will pass you by” and implicit in the river of multiple strains of music that runs throughout the film.  It is love that opens us to the visceral pain of loss, of emptying, and also to the working through of the archetypal maze of narratives to a deepening dwelling on the earth that retains, as is found in Heidegger,  an “openness to the mystery” (1966, 55).  Is this place of dwelling one in which is found the “binding” or “yoking,” the religio?

The Malick film provides a vas for dwelling with loss and connection, for following the meandering maze of the imaginal, for a way of saying “Yes” to the conundrums and sufferings of Job, to residing like the tree of life, rooted and rising with sufferings and mysteries, to the infant’s feet cupped in the father’s hands.

Works Cited

Furstenau, M., & MacAvoy, L. (2011). “Terrence Malick’s Heideggerian Cinema:  War and the Question of Being in The Thin Red Line.”  In H. Patterson, (Ed.), The Cinema of Terrence Malick:  Poetic Visions of America. the past/26/early-europe/the-new-world.html

Heidegger, M. (1966). Discourse on Thinking. (J. Anderson & E. Freund, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, M. (1971). Poetry, Language, Thought. (A. Hofstadter, Trans.) New York:
Harper & Row.

Hillman, J (1989). A Blue Fire.  (T. Moore, Ed.) New York:  Harper & Row.

Jung, C.G. (1959). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.  In Collected Works, Vol. 9, (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.), Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Keller, C. (2008). On the Mystery:  Discerning God in Process.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press.

Mazis, G. (Earthbodies:  Rediscovering Our Planetary Senses. Albany:  State University of New York Press.

Miller, D. (1986). Three Faces of God:  Traces of the Trinity in Literature and Life.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press.

Ng, D. (2011).  “Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’:  The classical music factor.” In The Los Angelos Times, accessed 11/19/2011.’s Hymn, The Ister, accessed October 31, 2011

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Judith Kennedy MazisAUTHOR BIO
Judith Kennedy Mazis, MS, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist, poet and riverside philosopher in Marietta, PA.  She lives on the Susquehanna River with husband Glen and their two dogs, Rosie and Sophie. She studied religion at Syracuse University and clinical psychology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.  Her poetry appears in Poem, Ellipsis, Friends Journal, and Atlanta Review

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