This essay appeared previously at Bright Lights Film Journal.
“To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.” – from “On the Concept of History” by Walter Benjamin
Nostalgia for the Light is a poem that avails film. While it enjoys an extraordinary 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (for you potato-heads out there, that means thumbs-up unanimity among critics), there’s been some contrarian back-chatter along the standard movie critic tropes of uneven pacing, languid narrative arc, and at times a stubbornly meditative stasis. Also missing is the heavy hand that passes nowadays for a signature director’s imprimatur. We’ve been coarsened into the view that the screen should play host to a never-ending orgy of effusive gesticulation. Anything less runs afoul of collapsed attention spans. This is a market-based tenet. Every project is undertaken (and financed) with the grim knowledge that it must compete against myriad alternatives for the eyeball. Thus each time we sit in a chair, perhaps desirous of a contemplative interlude, we are unfailingly bludgeoned. So much for the nirvana of a thousand choices; we are being rendered insensate by a thousand hyperactive cudgelists. Interiority is the province of sissies and negative ROIs. Nostalgia for the Light is not a hurtling locomotive or snakes on a plane. It is a desert song for parched souls, an upright vessel on a ledge gathering rain.
Director Patricio Guzmán also avoids the easy polemical broadside. Here would be the screaming headline right out of DeMille’s playbook: Extra! Extra! Dictator Pinochet marches thousands of Chile’s flowering youth into the waterless Atacama Desert. Can a tear be shed in a waterless desert? Perhaps. But first, conclusive grief requires forensic evidence. Thousands of young Leftists were abducted by Augusto Pinochet’s military junta in the mid-seventies and spirited into the night, never to be seen again. The dilemma is achingly existential. How does one mourn the “disappeared’? The past must be reconstructed. The dead cannot die (within the hearts of the living) until their death scenes are properly folded into the mosaic of human memory. As suggested in Benjamin’s prefatory quote above, a fully “citable” past is a prerequisite for human redemption. (Hold onto your forward gaze, futurists. Before this movie is done, I predict more will be transpiring than what has already happened.)
The tyrannical grip of the undead is not lost on the Chilean mothers and wives who’ve spent decades scouring the desert for their loved ones’ bone fragments, body parts, and other personal effects. Sometimes a foot is found. But even partial recoveries fail to extinguish the anguish. Though the bone-dry desert is capable of mummifying entire bodies for centuries, the women’s quest would hearten even those tasked with seeking needles in haystacks. For one thing, the Atacama Desert is as large as Portugal. There are also rumors many bodies were tossed into the sea. Out of respect for the women’s unimaginable torment, Guzmán does not hurry them through their stories. Humanity insists on a tempo that at times may exacerbate the mise-en-scène crowd.
Robert Frost once huffed: “Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.” Bedeviled by political foot-dragging and bureaucratic inertia, the women are forever detained from grief. Their needs remain tactile and immobile. This is not poetry in motion because there is no motion. Time has stopped for them, but in a toxic way. Years of fruitless attempts at obtaining information on their loved ones have taught them just how recalcitrant the recent past can be with its web of deceit, political calculation, and agenda.
Paradoxically, while the desert’s near-present is maddeningly opaque, the very origins of time lay themselves open for Atacama’s European Southern Observatory with the guilelessness afforded unmanned eons. As Guzmán narrates, “Science fell in love with Chile’s skies.” Indeed the skies above the desert are the best in the world for receiving the light of a much younger universe. Guzmán the poet gathers up all these scale models of time — the macro, the micro, the personal, the cosmic — and, combining them with his hopes for Chile’s future, creates a time-dissolving gestalt on film.
In space, no one can hear your grievances. Should we be surprised, then, that the most profound poet in this poem-film (besides Guzmán himself) is astronomer Gaspar Galaz? Even Galaz notes the irony of a place where billion-year-old phenomena yield themselves to human inquiry while the local terrain’s forty-year-old secrets remain stubbornly withheld. Wonderment and awe may be the natural human response to time, but only when personal memory fails to serve.
Giving lie to the Existentialists’ eternal worship of the now, Galaz reminds us how all light striking the eye is an emanation from the past, no matter how short the time interval might be. Human beings are innate nostalgists. Perception is a retrospective. “Pure consciousness” might lay claim to spontaneity. But until the presence of mind is definitively isolated from the brain’s time-bound synaptic processes, immanence remains a theoretical construct only. A thought came to me. Oh yes? From whence did it depart? Thus we live more in the past than in the present. Galaz is even more blunt: “The present does not exist.” At the end of the film Guzmán the romantic, apparently reluctant to part entirely with “presentness,” leaves us with this: “Those who have a memory are able to live in the present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere.” Yet if the past is all that exists, as Galaz suggests, we live in memory alone. Differentiated only by the locus of our haunts, we are a species of ghosts.
In a more Marxist context, French philosopher Jacques Derrida speaks of hauntology, a condition wherein the present, flimsy at the best of times, becomes even more provisional near the end of history. Thus we are preoccupied now, to an unprecedented degree, with swirling apparitions from the past. Crudely put, life is a continual process of putting things to bed (or, if they’re profoundly nonresponsive, doing our best to bury them outright). Going forward, modern physics remains beholden to the unidirectional arrow of time; however, human consciousness is a different time machine altogether. How might we assist our inner selves toward an ouroboric unity and a healing of time’s myriad rifts?
Nostalgia for the Light is such a compelling piece of visual poetry on so many levels that it warrants an extended examination of some referential poetic frames. The Atacama Desert is an in extremis locale where the elemental constituents of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — air, earth, water and fire — seem to resolve one another to a supreme and eerie stillness. Though it escapes empirical verifiability, this stillness, quite beyond the rigors of mere atmospherics and physics, creates a metaphysical climate that facilitates accessibility to time’s origins. We’re onto far more here than simply powerful telescopes and clear skies. Eliot introduces the notion of the still point in Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
At the same time, the desert is alive with the tangled cries of recent human crimes. Of course, cosmic time will ultimately compress these inequities into space dust. But for the present human moment, the future has no way through. Justice languishes, unserved. Victors get away with murder (Benjamin: “Not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious”). A painful past can work its own malignant spell. We often counsel traumatized people on the need to “move forward.” Anything that impedes the gathering of time’s fullness is something to be overcome. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” Pity our eyes are blinkered with scales such that glimpses of the infinite are restricted to the occasional poetic insight or epiphany. For we are here, not just to memorialize the tiny moments of our own personal histories, nor to fetishize the mortal coil’s more arduous afflictions. We are here to let time have its way with us. Hubris constitutes the reversal of this relationship, scales that boast an unimpeded view.
By seeking paradigms outside their moment,
I’d tried to force forever to successions
of hours, as children might mistake atonement
for nothing more than sorry introspections,
then turned my bedside candle off to sleep,
with full faith that its lightlessness would keep.
— from “I’ve Been Pondering Eternity Again,” by Jennifer Reeser
The future is no less jealous of its prerogatives than is the past. The presumptuous relegation of eternity into what Jennifer Reeser calls mere “successions of hours” is a nonstarter, something fate invariably has no time for. Benjamin similarly dispatches mere successions through his Angel of History whose face forever surveys the singularity of the past: “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.”
With an ironic twist on Edna St. Millay’s iconic candle that burns, perilous and bright, through the night at both ends, Reeser offers us, from the same darkness, the “lightlessness” of full faith. This is pure consciousness without time-decay. Faith doesn’t seek evidence for itself in the past or in the future. Ouija boards and tarot cards are parlor tricks spooning out false comforts. Such devices court a nostalgia for the future when, as Benjamin suggests, the future will enter of its own accord thank you very much, usually through the most unanticipated gate, a tactic of caprice aimed at spiting man’s hubris. We cannot hope at prefiguring time’s path, a tendency often among those whose disenchantment with all that has come before is most acute. What is disenchantment after all but the fear of even worse things to come? The future promises everything and will not be cowed by futurism, which is a dressed-up dread of all that might yet arrive. Future-gazing is an empty pastime of the weak: “It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter” (from “On the Concept of History,” by Walter Benjamin).
We are not to see what lies ahead. (Though the future does “lie in wait” in some premeditated state. In the fullness of time, the future has, in some sense, already happened. Thus while the theologians tend to stress the either-or contour of the debate — free will versus determinism — both conceptions of the future might, paradoxically, be true.) Faith is the uncued belief in a future absent the hubristic tendency to squeeze concessions from, or steal cheap glimpses of, what it may bring. Those moments yet to bless us (God willing) with their presence deserve a transcending paradigm worthy of the spiritual callings of atonement and faith. In this, the poets of all genres are our spirit-guides.
If Eureka moments represent piercings of the temporal veil, then perhaps human ingenuity exists, in some unmolested “natural state,” out of time. Yeats said, “Genius is a crisis that joins that buried self for certain moments to our trivial daily mind.” When genius succeeds in overwhelming the day’s trivialities (Bob Dylan once defined Allen Ginsberg’s holiness as, “cross[ing] the boundaries of time and usefulness”), the buried self challenges the “scheduled” ego, and its many time-laden objectives, for primacy. For the poets, it hardly matters whether the trains run on time. Architects of the still point, they are tasked with overcoming such wafer-thin trivialities as arrivals and departures. Poets are the original strangers on a train — walking corpses overrun by the dead, open-armed front-men to an unknown future:
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never-ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
— from “The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets), by T. S. Eliot
When a moment is promised to poetry as a still point, it must fulfill its momentariness andconduct the eternal. This twofold mandate creates a special tension. Eliot’s “ground swell” is the moment rising to its special occasion, which gives rise as well to the paradox of the church bell: The clanging bell is a stark chronometric gesture announcing a discrete moment while simultaneously celebrating eternal holiness. Cleverly of Eliot, it also happens to close out the stanza with a punctuating sense of punctuality. While Eliot’s brown river god is generally impervious to stakes in the ground (or does the river secretly register every riverbank sparrow falling from every tree?), the poet is perpetually foisting never-endingness upon some unsuspecting moment that, to the minds of unpoetic drones anyway, already has its hands quite full with the usual slate of scheduled meetings and events. Many harried commuters would say poets are an indulgence laid atop an already-freighted day. In fact, poets are our heavy lifters. Galaz is after all merely contemplating the genesis of creation.
Never mind. For the poet, poems represent discrete moments — vessels — to be filled to their breaking with never-ending time. (The breaking of the vessels is a Kabbalistic metaphor, popularized in poetry criticism by Jewish gnostic Harold Bloom wherein the vessels meant to contain God’s light shatter beneath the sheer incommensurateness of their task.) Poetry demonstrates in this conveyance, quite remarkably and paradoxically, how all time “that is and was” can be conducted to a still point. Where the crisis arises is in the near-breaking as the poetic vessel struggles to encircle the immensity of an impossible endowment. (Poems are an encirclement. Coleridge called them tail-eating serpents or ouroboros; Eliot again: “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.”)
The still point also happens to reprise the physicists’ Great Singularity marking the universe’s beginning. Emerson the mystic ventures further still, speaking of a time “before time was.” Alas, science, whose poetic language is mathematics, cannot venture with Emerson beyond the creation of the laws of physics at the Singularity. Nonetheless, just as the most powerful telescopes mysteriously fall dark in their attempts to gather the primordial light of the universe’s earliest moments, the great poets fail at achieving absolute still point. Poems are asymptotic approximations, never consummate arrivals or perfections. Where the serpent’s tail enters its mouth is a conference between gods and thus permanently obscured to human apprehension. The crack of the otherwise perfect vessel occurs at this join.
More here about cracks — namely the crack of a starlet’s ass as it threatens to appear above her backless chiffon gown. There is often a seedy prelude — the casting couch as horizontal timekeeper. The ingénue grovels before the Hollywood suits for her chance at a timeless, era-defining role. If the bargain is consummated, a sublime totem is borne aloft on a moving carpet of celluloid frames, 64 per second. This is earthly reward dolled up to mimic eternal glory. As below, so above. The direction is reversed as the director seeks, with Promethean audacity, to populate Olympus with marquee gods. How dare the temporal instruct the eternal. We do not trick time. Time tricks us.
The still point is the real McCoy, though of similar perpendicular construct as the false idol. Time never-ending pours forth into a discrete moment of time-stopped, which exists, amongst its fellow quotidian moments, along the horizontal axis of linear time. David Bowie offers a personified, perpendicular time-metaphor with the latter flexing itself into a taut verticality prior to reaching the horizontal floor. Picture an elephant preparing to squeeze its bulk through a prairie dog hole. Picture Christianity: God poured impossibly into the vessel of Jesus.
He flexes like a whore
falls wanking to the floor
his trick is you and me, boy.
–from “Time,” by David Bowie
The mission, redemptive in nature, is to achieve a horizontality beyond the insertion point so that the fallen narratives of our lives (toiling largely oblivious in the lower realm) might be arrested by poetic vision and experience an epiphany or partial lifting of the anamnestic veil. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Nowhere, man — or at least they’ve forgotten their origins.
Time never-ending compromises itself in order to redeem the stop-and-go moments of a fallen, time-scripted world. Ed Wood was no originator. This mortal coil is the B-movie. Here we have God’s Son gone into the world to half-bury his patrimony as the fallen Son of Man. (Mel Gibson got a bloody good pic out of it with the emphasis on bloody as in Lethal Weapon: Jerusalem Chapter.) P. K. Dick describes a hybridized gnostic-Manichaeism process in his Exegesis that suggests the dirt cast over Yeats’ “buried self” is the loam of forgetfulness:
In conventional terms, heaven (upper realm) and earth (lower realm) were separating, carrying the lives within the lower away from their form one (upper) counterparts (this can be viewed as the Godhead itself falling apart, into its yang and yin two halves, with the lower form universe as God expressed physically in time and space). The solution was for the divine (yang, light, form one) to follow the lower realm down, permeating it and thus reuniting the cosmos into one totality. To do this, elements (in ancient terms, sparks) of light advanced (descended) into the dark kingdom, the immutable prison world; upon doing so they shed (and knew they would shed) their bright nature, memory, identity, faculties, and powers, and fell under the dominion of the delusion that the dark kingdom is real (which when severed from the upper realm it is not; i.e., the world we presently live in doesn’t exist).
P. K. Dick, darling of the silver screen, offers something from which the “make-believe world of movies” should take heart. The world we presently live in doesn’t exist. This is a near-verbatim recitation of Galaz’ assertion “The present does not exist.” Are religion and science converging in the movie-house? (Or as the materialists insist, has quantum cosmology abandoned science for metaphysics?)
Our personal divinity “permeates” the lower realm at no small peril. The women of Atacama are divine sparks who risk extinguishment in their too-furtive sifting of vestigial bone and flesh. They are Frost’s poetic failures, gnostic sacrifices to their own acute catalog of earthly grievances. It tempts the charge of insensitivity, but tarrying over the dead is a toxic nostalgia, yet another trap set by the dark kingdom. Availing Eliot’s distinctions, they are arrested in fixity. Some believe the human apparitions known as ghosts are spirits forever pinned to some implacable, temporal trauma: the spirit as stuck record. Beware the mundane obsession. Pressing tasks of the day are the real ephemera. We must dream ourselves back to wakefulness. Mothers must somehow put to rest their lost babies or risk being trapped like inconsolable ghosts at that moment of unimaginable loss. All tragedies are bearable by cosmic design. How else could the gods allot them to us?
And yet such dark, unanswered sins fester at these women. There but for the grace of God go you and I, especially as they toil for us, to redeem the darker hours of our time from Benjamin’s “single catastrophe.” The messianic hour — whose best, great hope is only evernow — approaches more expeditiously through their efforts. (“For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly” (from “On the Concept of History,” by Walter Benjamin).
As in Heaven, so on Earth — at least if poets, the holistic defraggers of man’s time-fractures, have anything to do with it. Successful poems engender sparks of recognition. In a Jungian sense and consistent with Yeats, the psyche in its unburied manifestation is infinite and never-ending. The successful poem reflects the holy uselessness of its transcriber — uselessness in the sense of accomplishing nothing concrete, running no dark kingdom errands.
Thus the poet’s genius lies in almost stopping the world, not with grievance but with an eerie stillness born of undifferentiated consciousness. This drives the bell clangers — with their penchant for horizontal time-efficiency — to distraction. Use-value is always leveraged against some moment in time. Yeats might say, like Dylan, true genius struggles to create a moment devoid of utilitarian value. Like the evacuating contrariness of Keats’ negative capability, Heidegger saw poetry as a clearing. It’s not a stretch to see Coleridge’s encircling ouroboros as the armature of this clearing.
In all instances emptiness is sought over utility. Apart from the anchor of tactile image (things in service to metaphor), poetry cannot busy itself with the drab details of the day if it is to create a clearing suitable for near-glimpses into the eternal. Not surprisingly then,Nostalgia for the Light surrenders some poetic power when it departs the locational still point of the desert to tie up loose administrative details in Santiago.
Poets are alive in the still point, getting nothing done. At the same time, those who think themselves dynamic high-achievers enact a parody of vibrancy that, in the fullness of time, is shown to be death pursued at a frenetic pace. Dick’s Black Iron Prison inmates clang the bell madly as they conduct the rounds of a busy life. The poet plans horribly. Thanks to his inattention to punctuality and time management, we who peer over his shoulder spy our fullness in his empty calendar. There, in the clearing, we both bury the dead and anticipate renewing with their company on Judgment Day. Will the circle be unbroken? Absolutely — if the poets have anything to do with it.
Poetry arrives in many guises, genres, and languages. So far we’ve belabored the Western sensibilities of Eliot and Dick in this examination. The Buddhists predate much of the Abrahamic rigmarole and are alleged to have known a thing or two. In fact, Eliot’s still point very likely derives from his readings of Indian literature, where the unmoving part of the wheel is a venerable trope. All that is essential is centered. All that is peripheral is acquired. The Indian spiritual figure Osho captures the paradox of the still point surrounded by movement: “On that unmoving hub the wheel’s movement exists.”
The Eliotan still point also resembles the fourth moment, which Buddhism calls the state of vipashyana, or the state of non-ego. Here, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes it: “You have the past, present, and future, which are the three moments. Then you have something else taking place, which is called the fourth moment. The fourth moment is not a far-out or extraordinary experience as such. It is a state of experience that doesn’t even belong to now. It doesn’t belong to what might be, either. It belongs to a non-category — which provides another sense of category” (from “Beyond Present, Past, and Future Is the Fourth Moment”).
Might the fourth moment/still point have a kindred soul in physics’ wormhole, that is, some kind of gathering or shortcut in the normal topography of space-time? It’s a tempting and purely speculative notion. Trungpa goes on to say that “the vipashyana awareness of the fourth moment cannot materialize unless there is a slight tinge of being haunted by your own ego. The hauntedness and the sense of insight work together.” The ego is what clings to certain renditions or slivers of time. Paradoxically, these “hauntings” supply the troubled murmurings that compel us forward to an encounter with the still point — or not. If not, then the original “sense of insight” fails to epiphanize. In such instances, a fourth moment is averted:
Scanning the cosmos
you waste your hours.
He is present
in this little vessel.
In this little body
He has made His abode.
-–from “Songs of the Bauds of Bengal”
The telescope is a vertical hub pouring light from the past into the nostalgic eyes of the desert-dwellers below. In the final scene of Nostalgia for the Light, our poet in another poet’s poem, astronomer Galaz, conducts two of the women on a tour of the observatory. As they take turns gazing through the telescope, we cannot help wondering whether this encounter with cosmic time might spark a fourth-moment experience within the women, enough to spring them from their provincial time-prisons. As one woman steps back from the telescope, the hauntedness in her eyes was, to this viewer at least, undiminished. The infinite poetry of the universe has failed to unseat her private agonies. She is inured to awe and wonder.