The World of the Fort

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

But into the valley hung heavy the vast
And fate-acquainted fort, by lightnings torn
To the ground it stood on; yet
Eternal sun still poured.

Its freshening light across the giant and aging
Thing, and all around was green with ivy,
Living; friendly woodlands ran
Murmurous down across the fort.

(From Hölderlin’s Heidelberg)

What is the “fort”? Like Smith confesses, the Fort is damnation. There is even a snake swimming in its waters, certainly the one which we will see in The Tree of Life. The Fort is Malick’s darkest side. Hate, sadism, meanness, violence, “greed”. War, Malick’s war: “War don’t ennoble men. It turns ‘em into dogs.” (The Thin Red Line). The world of the Fort is made of Stroheim, Hitchcock, Buñuel, Kubrick and others like them. In its center Smith ordered Ivan’s well to be excavated.

In the Fort Pocahontas will turn into Rebecca, The Tree of Life’s Carlotta: “Conscience is a nuisance. A fly, a barking dog. If you don’t believe you have one, what trouble can it be to you?” Argall’s words while bringing Holly’s 17th century version into the Fort. Words from the man who orders Smith to be whipped:

“Your conscience is a nuisance. A conscience is like a child.  If you pet it and play with it and let it have everything that it wants, it becomes spoiled and intrudes on all your amusements and most of your griefs. Treat your conscience as you would anything else.  When it is rebellious, spank it – be severe with it, argue with it, prevent it from coming to play with you at all hours, and you will secure a good conscience;  that is to say, a properly trained one.  A spoiled one simply destroys all the pleasure in life.  I think I have reduced mine to order. At least, I haven’t heard from it for some time.  Perhaps I have killed it from over-severity.” (Mark Twain)

I had this scene in mind when I mentioned Buñuel’s Susana in my review. Malick changed it a bit (that guy is not the one whipping Smith, like Dona Carmen is), but it shares Buñuel’s shot sadistic, hysterical joy. Here, as Malick is whipping himself...mmmmm...so...better to leave it to the experts.

Smith, like Witt in The Thin Red Line, was a part of Malick trying to avoid total war (although Smith really is Malick, what I can’t say of Witt). That is the game. But the “king” (malik/malick king) would not allow it. So Witt ended up dead and Rolfe took the girl to England (have you noticed how perverse seems Christian Bale looking to Rebecca?).
RL’s 17th century version is born from their marriage (remember him playing with the sheep [you] in the park?). RL’s light – “Eternal sun” – would enter in The Tree of Life, to keep and guide Malick and Mother “to the end of time”. But this is a deleterious sun. One driving Malick to “a condition which is irredeemably corrupt and sick.” (Death in Venice).
Why was the boat in The Thin Red Line filmed like Aschenbach’s vaporetto arriving to Venice (see the images in the end of my review)? Because its final destination was The Tree of Life, Malick’s Venice, his cinematic Venice, where he wanted “To die of love, into the floods of time” (Heidelberg): “What joy for an artist! Think what a dry an arid thing good health is. Especially if it’s of the soul, no less than the body.” (Death in Venice)

RL looks to the Ecce Homo stained glass in the church. Let’s forget its possible meanings through “grace”. Through “nature”, the Ecce Homo can mean: “this is what I am, like it or not.”; a reference to Nietzsche’s self-portrait; a joke with the fact that Malick plays God in The Tree of Life: ecce Homo, ecce Deus is a typical commentary to this passage of the scriptures. These possibilities of meaning are all reasonable. But to say the truth, it is a reference to Buñuel.

Malick is a master in the art of appropriation.
Nazarín: “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

Even so, whatever was the director’s intention, The Tree of Life is the passion of Terrence Malick.
The Passion is love. To give oneself for love. An excessive act of love, to the point of self-sacrifice. Although Malick, like Welles’ sharks, is only sacrificing himself for the sake of his own delight, the analogy is still valid: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Malick is willing to pay the price not to live to be a statistic:

“Unless you are ready with a savage will to break free, you stand to miss your own destiny. What is worse than that? To wake up and find you’ve been leading another man’s life!” (Smith, The New World script)

This triumph of the will (no, I am not making a bad taste joke) is The Tree of Life: “You make yourself what you are. You have control of your own destiny.”

Ecce Homo


They say Malick likes Dostoevsky, that he recomends Brothers Karamazov in moments of spiritual crisis. Well, he certainly used the Russian writer in The Tree of Life. But I am not interested here in the “love every leaf” Dostoevsky. I have thought: this praise of will – the way of nature’s will – smells Dostoevskyan. So it came to my mind the idea of posting here a bit of the most famous chapter of Notes from Underground  (I, VII).
I started comparing translations. But my choice would be a matter of taste, as I don’t have the minimum knowledge of Russian. Then I found the study of Evgenia Cherkasova on the writer and Kant. It tries to enlighten the particular “will” at stake in Notes discussing the concept of volia. Cherkasova’s considerations might be the better way to introduce Dostoevsky into this discussion. I find the passage from Romeo and Juliet chosen to beggin the chapter "Underground as Will" very inspiring in the circumstances:

[Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power.
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.]
Two such opposed kings encamp them still,
In man as [well] as herbs – grace and rude will.

(William Shakespeare)

“Unlike Ivan Karamazov, the underground man is not going to weep on the graves of European sages. He is quite proud of being able to contribute something radically new to the centuries-long development of human ideas – something that "those stupid, translunary Germans" do not see. Among the many themes of his speech, which is a peculiar blend of confession, deep psychological struggle, buffoonery, and theoretical dispute, one is of central importance for our investigation of the problem of volition. This theme is the underground man’s unsurpassed glorification of "the most profitable profit" (samaya vygodnaya vygoda) for which he claims he is ready to act in opposition to reason, honor, peace and prosperity. This so-called profit, in none other than voliathe Russian word that means at the same time "freedom," "liberty," "spontaneity," "unfettered will," and "arbitrariness."
Speaking about volia and using other words synonymous with it—khotenie (wanting, desire), svoevolie (arbitrariness, capricious exercise of will)—the underground man is referring to what medieval scholastics would call liberum arbitrium indifferentiae (free will); German "Willkür" is quite close to its meaning, while English does not offer anything closer than the Shakespearean "rude will." (…) The underground man speaks:

One’s own free voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes provoked to the point of madness – all this is that most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil. And where did all these sages get the idea that man needs some normal, some virtuous wanting? What made them imagine that what man needs is necessarely a reasonably profitable wanting? Man needs only independent wanting, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. [But the devil only knows what wanting…] (...) I believe in this, I will answer for this, because the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a [piano key]! With his own skin if need be, but proving it.

[I: VII and VIII]

As we can see, the underground man’s passionate cry for volia is not just aimed against different philosophical views of freedom and virtue. Instead, it claims to uproot the very system in which his imaginary opponents think. He proposes an ostensibly innocent addition to the list of all human profits known thus far, namely, he wants arbitrariness to be recognized as one of the "profits." But being included in the list, his "most profitable profit" immediately turns the very idea of a profit upside down. Hence, the underground man’s version of Gödel’s theorem: either our system of "profits" is incomplete, or it must include arbitrariness, which may very well go against all profits. In addition, if arbitrariness is the core of human freedom and individuality, then freedom and human nature are somehow ontologically opposed to any hierarchy of values. No wonder Dostoevsky calls his hero a "paradoxist."
The underground man’s disturbing statements led some commentators to the conclusion that the Notes represent a "perverted" idea of freedom. This point of view presupposes that another, "normal" idea of freedom exists, which the protagonists misinterprets. His "declaration of independence" usually provokes two kinds of responses. While some readers dismiss the underground man’s rebellion as pathological, having nothing to do with "true" freedom, others see his speech as a proof of freedom’s capricious and unpredictable character.
To approach this problem, we must keep in mind that Notes are the swan song of volia and volia is not merely perverted freedom. Freedom (svoboda) and volia are qualitatively different, even though their respective ranges of meaning occasionally overlap. But I am not concerned with linguistic perplexities here; the difference between svoboda and volia that the Russian language recognizes has significant philosophical, political, socio-historical, and cultural implications. In his article "Russia and Freedom" ("Rossiia i svoboda" [1946]), historian George Fedotov observes:

To this day the word svoboda seems to be an adequate translation of the. French liberté. At the same time nobody would argue against the essentially Russian character of volia. This makes it all the more important to realize the difference between svoboda and volia for the Russian ear. Volia is first of all the possibility to live, to "live by" (pozhit') and under one’s volia, not limited by any social bonds, and not only chains. Volia is constrained by both our peers and the world itself. Volia is triumphant both in escaping from society, in the expanses of the steppe, or in the exerting power over society, in violence over people. Whereas personal freedom is unthinkable without respect for another person’s freedom, volia is always only for oneself. It is not opposed to tyranny, for a tyrant is also a vol’ny creature. A brigand represents the ideal of Muscovite volia, just as Ivan the Terrible represents the ideal of a tsar. Since volia, like anarchy, is impossible in a civilized community, the Russian ideal of volia finds its expression in the cult of the desert, of wild nature, nomadic life, gypsying, wine orgy, self-forgetting passion, villainy, rebellion and tyranny.


The main philosophical characteristic of volia is that it is utterly unpredictable; it overflows all bounderies and does not assume any responsability. It is outside law and ethics. It is anti-social and uncultivated. Svoboda (freedom, liberty), on the other hand, presupposes some social reciprocity and structure. Such concepts as "freedom of speech," "freedom of conscience," and "freedom of thought" can only arise in a social context that recognizes the flaws and advantages of a community and struggles to reconcile individual and communal interests and aspirations. Yet what sense does freedom of speech make at the height of a wild orgy?
Svoboda differs from volia as a nicely arranged cocktail party differs from an unrestrained, drunken bacchanalia. It is not merely a difference in degree. Instead, svoboda is self-reflective, self-determined liberty that involves some respect for, and recognition of, the other participants’ way of being. Svoboda is neither foreign to the hierarchy of values per se, nor opposed to a sense of social form and property. Volia, on the other hand, is purely Dionysian phenomenon, disordely and chaotic; it recognizes neither the limits nor rules, neither law nor social contract. Volia could be the attibute of a genius or that of a criminal, for its very nature is trasgression and it does not discriminate between creation and destruction.
Literally, volia also means "will." Arbitrary, indiscriminate, rude will is the congenital wild force that finds its expression in anything from the most sublime human needs to the most base and cruel.”

(Dostoevsky and Kant: Dialogues on Ethics, 2009)

I don’t know if volia is “essentially Russian” or not, but it is surely a good toll to aproach Malick’s “furious will”.