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Tonight, I finally got a chance to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a theater, rather than merely on my computer. I first watched the film back in college—it was, I think, the film that sparked my serious interest in film as an artistic medium—and find that now, seven or eight years later, my perspective on it has substantially changed, though my love for it hasn’t.

On previous viewings, I identified most with the Stalker, even though, as an atheist, my beliefs aligned most with the Writer (at least, the beliefs he expressed in his early laments about the boringness of natural law and of triangles). And I took this to be the attitude of the film: its commentary on society is expressed fairly directly through the Stalker. Even now, I think it is probably true that Tarkovsky himself finds his views most reflected in those of the Stalker. On this viewing, however, I came to see more critique of the Stalker within the film.

The first indication that the Stalker is not above reproach is the film’s opening scene, in which he is shown reducing his wife to tears, to the point where she ends up writhing on the floor. There is a basic disconnect, a basic selfishness that is revealed here. My younger self was inclined to forgive it because I saw the private importance, to the Stalker, of his trips to the Zone (the source of his wife’s grief). Today, while I may still forgive it, though less thoroughly than before, I am more struck by the Stalker’s inability to connect with another human being, an inability that carries throughout the film.

In the Zone, the Stalker tells the Writer and the Scientist about his mentor, Porcupine. Porcupine’s brother died in the Zone, and shortly thereafter, Porcupine hanged himself. Before doing that, however, he entered the room in the Zone that satisfies one’s inmost desires, and was rewarded with a large sum of money. While the Writer’s musings throughout the film are largely comical and spiritually empty, his take on Porcupine is, I think, entirely accurate. Porcupine entered the room hoping to help his brother, but this was a superficial desire: ultimately, he wanted money more, and the room gave him what he truly desired. It was his inability to live with that piece of self-knowledge that drove him to suicide.

The Writer makes this point in response to the Stalker’s claim that his motivation in taking people to the Zone is to bring them happiness: that the meaning in his life comes from aiding others in this way. But this rings hollow: he goes to the Zone for himself. Bringing others is only an excuse. This is not to say that he does not want to desire to help others, but the overwhelming sense I get from the film is that this is an abstract desire, and not what really drives him. And so, while he says he cannot enter the room himself because it is not the proper role for a stalker, I am inclined to agree with the Writer that it is actually fear that keeps him from entering: fear of what he will discover about himself.

In stark contrast to this stands the wife. At the end of the film, we see her having overcome her distress, taking on a very nurturing role toward the Stalker. As he wonders who he can take to the Zone in a world where all have lost the ability to believe, she offers to go with him, and the viewer can feel the genuineness behind her offer. The empathy she displays is not a trickle-down effect of an abstractly believed ideology, but a spontaneous result of her love, despite everything, for her husband. I come away from this thinking that, while it may be true that the Stalker is one of God’s fools, it is the wife who seems the model of humanly attainable happiness—happiness, as she well knows, intermixed with a good helping of sorrow, but happiness nonetheless. In a film where every other adult character is, in his own way, overcome with despair, in her the vigor of life has not yet been snuffed out.

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions:

You have taught me that I should come to take food in the way I take medicines. But while I pass from the discomfort of need to the tranquility of satisfaction, the very transition contains for me an insidious trap of uncontrolled desire. The transition itself is a pleasure… (Chadwick, trans.; Oxford World Classics; p. 204)

“The transition itself is a pleasure”—one’s attitude toward this fact I suppose determines whether one lives a life of the animal or of the spirit. In the animal life, one celebrates this excess of pleasure that is independent of need-satisfaction: “Let the stoics say what they please, we do not eat for the good of living, but because the meat is savory and the appetite is keen” (Emerson, “Nature”). In this generous excess of nature, such a one finds life. But he who lives of the spirit can see it, as Augustine does, only as temptation, as trial. The sensual world, for one such as Augustine, is a terrible fright, a den of dangers, in which one may never take delight—for that is just the danger. And so he creeps through it frightened, jittery, in constant peril. And yet I am supposed to imagine him joyful?

But now, as ever, comes the old nag: and is that all, that excess? Is that all, that striving forever after more sensitive, more discerning, more cultivated pleasures? No longer can I say, with Augustine: “the happy life is joy based on the truth” (p. 199). For truth has become modest, has been demoted, is now mere means to the end of joy, and moreover is with equal cheerlessness willing to serve suffering, if one should point it in that direction. In this modesty truth has become nobler and more praiseworthy, to be sure—after all none likes a puffed-up pride. But the intimate link between truth and joy has been severed. And thus I ask: joy, pleasure—is that all?

Asceticism involves stripping back from the excess to the mere necessity. It is recoverable within the animal life: we may strip back here to gain sensitivity there. And is that all it is? Is our only aim, our only source of pride, this discernment? Yes, I suppose, but so it was with Augustine. He gave an objective, external justification of his pride, but this justification rested on false premises: in the end his joy in God was itself no more than puffed-up pride—for which I by no means blame and condemn him! Only I will do without such justification. I will call my pride, ‘pride’.

I say Augustine appears to me as a cowering creature—does he not appear so to everyone? About the sounds of music he writes, “Not that I am riveted by them, for I can rise up and go when I wish” (p. 207). He is afraid of giving himself up to the sounds, of losing even for a second power over himself—is this not cowardice, and precisely a lack of self-possession? To be able to offer oneself up willingly to something external requires true self-possession, true freedom. That is the basis of receptivity, openness. Augustine lacks the self-trust to so offer himself. Given over to God, he is stolen from himself.

I am—I do not deny it—making an image of Augustine, an image of use to me.

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, writes:

Surely this beauty should be self-evident to all who are of sound mind. Then why does it not speak to everyone in the same way? Animals both small and large see it, but they cannot put a question about it. In them reason does not sit in judgement upon the deliverances of the senses. But human beings can put a question so that ‘the invisible things of God are understood and seen through the things which are made’ (Rom. 1: 20). Yet by love of created things they are subdued by them, and being thus made subject become incapable of exercising judgement. Moreover, created things do not answer those who question them if power to judge is lost. There is no alteration in the voice which is their beauty. If one person sees while another sees and questions, it is not that they appear one way to the first and another way to the second. It is rather that the created order speaks to all, but is understood by those who hear its outward voice and compare it with the truth within themselves. (Henry Chadwick, trans.; Oxford World Classics; p. 184)

Does the “created order” speak? What does it say? But first let me drop the loaded language, and speak only of the material world. I see no need to prejudge the matter. So: I have loved the material world, and I have loathed it and held it valueless, and in both states I have posed questions to it. Who are you?, I have asked, and I have found that while the material world is very noisy and full of clatter, it does not speak, but is ever silent, and goes about its cacophonous way. Nor am I much moved if I am told that I have never truly abandoned my love for it, never truly esteemed it nothing. For ‘no man knows the being of man except the spirit of man which is in him’ (1 Cor. 2: 11). To make such a suggestion is an epistemic scare tactic, a desperate defense of a conclusion dearly held. It is a maneuver that once moved me, but no longer: I have fortified my mind against it. Indeed, I may say that any God who endorses such reasoning—which may be used to justify anything at all—is unworthy of worship. If God put the truth within me, then he must rest content with the truth I find there: that speech is late-arrived, and parochial—that silence is the rule, and speech the exception.

A second question is pertinent. To love material things, must we become subject to them? Kierkegaard says that only two lives are possible, the life of the animal, which is the life of loving the material world, and the life of the spirit, which sees the task of life as death. He is correct, and if I reject the life of the spirit, then my life-work is therefore to live the best animal life I can discover. It is thus of great interest to me to know whether such a life is necessarily a kind of servitude. It is not. Augustine, blinkered by his embrace of the spirit, underestimates the diversity of love. One may love as underling, as equal, as superior; as friend or as foe; intimately or at a wary distance. Certainly I do not deny that much love of the material is a kind of servitude. I know such a condition only too well. But it is not the whole. It is characteristic of Christian rhetoric to reduce the animal life to what is worst in it, to gluttonous intemperance—but this is just rhetoric, and the self-respecting atheist need not be moved by it.