as a Master: Autobiographical Notes
by Valery Vinogradovs
Love it when, in Beyond Good and Evil, a lone wolf Nietzsche says to discerning
readers: every philosophy, after all, is a “memoir”. He insinuates that
any philosophical activity is at heart autobiographical, that it’s about
searching for meaning in your life. Nietzsche preaches that we should seize the opportunity to be honest with ourselves, to begin with.
How would Plato's autobiography look, for
example? Is it in his dialogues? What would we know about the actual Plato, the
living founder of the Academy, if it weren't for several surviving anecdotes spotlighting his contemporary Diogenes the Dog, a street thinker?
The old-school Cynic is notorious for positing fearless humanistic questions, such as, “Who is a
man who has spent all his time philosophising without having once disturbed or
Why do our
academics tend not to write memoirs?
As Nietzsche's spiritual autobiography is
vivid in his works, so is Andrei Tarkovsky's. Like
Tarkovsky was more interested in Dostoevsky’s character, rather than his work
as such, I am intrigued by Tarkovsky's character, his style of thinking and his
strivings, responsible for disturbing and
nourishing people for a number of generations.
An artistic master, Tarkovsky emerges
during the oblivious Soviet regime. His youth and studies coincide with the
post-WWII period when Stalin was burning books and heretics, proclaiming that
“life's gotten better, and more cheerful”. From then until his untimely death,
Tarkovsky represented humanity that resists falling prey to plebeian dreaming like everyone else, of finding home in material security and abstract
As a devotee of his art for a long time, I
do not remember why I thought of teaching a course dedicated to Tarkovsky.
Possibly there was a gap-instinct, an empty space, a yearning to get to know
him better. Perhaps I felt nostalgic for a time when I had a comparable
companion around. With the support of the Melbourne School of Continental
Philosophy I ran the course “Tarkovsky’s Philosophical Portrait”, in winter
2019, a course which has set into motion a
wild, almost fictional spiral in my life.
I am currently navigating a peaceful and
open-ended curve, no-one knows where, broke and thriving, on the prehistoric
shores of rural Victoria, observing, hoping to catch a fish. Digging for worms
beside a lyrebird, tiger snakes skulking among black skeletons of trees
inanimate after this year’s fierce fires. An eagle hovers against the sky above
At the time of the course, however, and
for the five years prior, I was living atop Mount Dandenong, the old mountain
shielding remaining swathes of ancient forest from the persistent encroach of
Melbourne’s suburban periphery, from the noise. I was
fortunate to spend those special weeks crafting the course with my son by my
side, mostly, and Tarkovsky too, savouring aimless investigations into the
In a video interview held somewhere in the
wilderness of Italy, Tarkovsky is held by the branch of a tree, hands behind
his head, and invites coming generations “to learn solitude, to love to be on their own” (my translation
It seems far-fetched to find solitude, one
of the key conditions for self-understanding, while enmeshed in a life
structured by urban pressures and temptations. Well, possibly in your loo...
“Tarkovsky’s Philosophical Portrait”
approached five of his seven films as memoirs, artistic attempts to communicate
his vision of humanity as situated in a world devastated by cruelty, greed,
ignorance, wars, scars, hypocrisy, complacency,
trauma fears aggression shame, the ruins of hollow feelings, a world that, most
probably, can no longer be saved by beauty (as Dostoevsky's Idiot promised), a world where beauty is no longer the promise of
happiness -- despite all the faith, scientific
insights, gender fluidity, eight-hour days, free speech and cosmopolitan education, despite
all the hard work and progress.
Tarkovsky's world gravitates toward
sacrifice, toward the spiritual roots, an example of life that is adamant not
to compromise the pursuit of truth despite the iron-willed bullying of the
state, its weapon of poverty, and the
illusory lures of a penthouse lifestyle.
In my eyes, Tarkovsky belongs to a strand
of humanists who sense an abundance of shit in this endlessly churning world of
ours. Montaigne, Diderot, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Tarkovsky -- all offer rare
insights into the fleeting sense of freedom and play surfacing on the overall
dull face of humanity, which bears a tragic expression. Again and again, our
attention is called toward an observation of humanity as callous,
fragmented and self-centred; here, only
a fortunate handful are drawn to face their life's promptings.
All these humanists really offer is an
affirmation of one's life, a possibility of purpose, a
friendly laughter, their own voice, a kiss in the abyss. They give
you no promises of comfort and convenience.
I am still not sure whether these
free-spirits can be taken seriously in a place where the forceful drive to a
secure comfortable-chair future, and jogging, inherited from previous
generations, overrides the sweet heart-beat of taking existential risks, of
trying it out, carving it out. This is not to critique the value of safety, a supreme achievement, but to expose the risks of a safe
conformist existence. It baffles me that Tarkovsky is widely recognised as a
genius, and yet his innermost messages to us are glossed over in favour of
studying his artistic approach.
A striving XXI century artist should read
Tarkovsky's diaries -- Martyrology: a
word of the martyr -- to learn fortitude and resilience in the face of
indifference and bigotry. All of his films are guided by a
sense of urgency, as opposed to success, by dramatic
feelings, which are more often than not sharpened by criminal or violent
activity. He shares this artistic inclination with Dostoevsky, and yet note
that Tarkovsky hardly ever gives voice to any trivial struggles in the ordinary
world. Much of his work is other-worldly, it invites us to participate in
painfully crafted events and experiences, allows the sensitive person to
entertain an ideal, a long moment of stillness, which may then reshape one's
cast of mind in the everyday, so long as one
approaches his films as a form of education, rather than merely high-end
Tarkovsky belongs to a thorny lineage of
humanistic authors who, in one way or another, communicate to us an ideal of
spiritual change as a necessary condition for realising our humanity, and each
other. What this change is about -- in ways of thinking,
feeling and being -- is an endless topic, a forking path.
What is clear in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre is that such a change can't be entertained
alongside a hopeful submission to the rules and promises of
regimes which insist on their notion of having a “productive” day. Tarkovsky is
shaped by war and love, by exploring talents, true
friendship, and by confronting some of the root-causes of disciplinarian
aggression; these forces are not original. He wanted to share his truth
in the world where “truth” is an office problem.
In another video interview, Tarkovsky
considers the meaning of life and says that for him it is “to spiritually
elevate ourselves, and hence our art is to serve this [purpose]; if I were to
choose a different principle for myself, then my art would look different and
I’d create something else” (my translation).
Tarkovsky was disgusted by the mass Soviet
philistinism, and appalled by the pandemic of Western professionalism. While
filming his concluding work The Sacrifice (1986), he writes in his
diaries: “The Swedes are lazy and slow and only interested in observing rules
and regulations. Shooting has to start at 9 a.m. and not a moment later! And
that's outside, on location! This must be the only country [he was wrong] where
they treat the shooting of a film like work in an office. From such and such a
time to such and such a time, without a thought for the fact that a film has to
be created” (6/03/85, translated by
Childhood (1962), a boy who displays more wisdom and courage than the
average old man sacrifices his life for his comrades, for the memories of those
he cares about, against the shared enemy.
Rublev (1966), the icon painter takes a decade-long vow of silence to morph
the experience of murder into divine truths glowing sky-blue on wood.
In Stalker (1979), the guide protagonist repeats the words of Leo Tolstoy that our
spiritual feeling is "atrophied" and that, deep down,
we search for little of our own.
For me, the critical moment of running the
course was an experience of catharsis. Tarkovsky died in 1986 after a brief
battle with lung cancer, a young master who never reached old age. He fled the
Soviet space in the early 1980's, and must have suffered much spiritual damage
while dealing with a swarm of bureaucratic rats who would not allow his son to
join him until his terminal condition was confirmed.
“They are having terrible money problems
in Moscow. I must think of some way of helping. What swine those people are!
Not allowing me to send money to support my own family! It's tantamount to
condemning them to death. They are getting their own back on us by inflicting
misery on totally innocent children. Butchers! Monsters! How is it that the
earth doesn't swallow them up!” (17/01/84, San Gregorio). “It's all so
difficult. And I'm so tired. I just cannot bear it any longer, being without
Andriushka. I don't want to live” (29/09/85, Stockholm); “Dedicated to my
little son, Andriushka, who is being made to suffer, innocently, as if he were
an adult” (10/12/85, Stockholm, translated by Hunter-Blair). Only a theorist can dismember his art from his life.
There was and currently is a threatening prospect of me being separated from my son Seraphim, too, an omnipresent uncertainty sustained by the local department of immigration and border
protection over a number of years. The day after delivering the lecture on Tarkovsky's
concluding film, I watched my family's video recordings from 1990, when I was seven. I watched myself as though I was my own son, holding my father's hand like he, my dad, meant a
lot to the boy. Thanks to Tarkovsky, I've been learning to weep, that is to say, to understand that there is art and meaning in shedding each tear, that there is a boy within who seeks
understanding, an old man and a world in the making.
The day after experiencing this catharsis,
my students and I celebrated the completion of the course by attending a play
based on Lem's novel Solaris at the Malthouse theatre. The show was
a blasphemous spectacle. Despite this, and not unlike the
protagonist from Tarkovsky's Solaris,
I somehow met my angel that night -- sitting by her side for ten wonderful
minutes, until the cheap unfolding of the
performance forced me back out to the desolate city streets.
We are now having a baby, here on the
prehistoric shores of Marlo, away from it all. It is as though
I’ve found home while connecting with Tarkovsky’s character, and now I feel a
sense of belonging, even around people who confuse my lack of an Australian
accent with a lack of intelligence.
Tarkovsky's most famous picture
is perhaps Stalker, in which myths
meet industrial landscapes. The film, based on a novel by the Strugatsky
brothers, circles around a spiritual guide, a lunatic, who ushers the
disenchanted of this world, painted in the corrosive colours, through the
resistance of the police state and into the Zone. Stalker is a spiritual
midwife of sorts but, unlike Socrates, he takes you to a place of profound
solitude. As one dialogue with his wife suggests, Tarkovsky’s protagonist does
not belong to our world:
W: You were going to get proper
work. They promised you a decent, normal job.
S: I will be back soon.
W: You will be back in prison. Next
time, they’ll give you ten years instead of five, and you’ll have nothing to
show for those ten years. Not the Zone, not anything. And in ten years I’ll be
S: “Prison”? I am imprisoned
In Russian, a colloquial word for prison
is zone, “зона”. That which is dispiriting for the many is Stalker’s home and
vocation. A decent job! A normal life is a prison, a chain of
habits and aspirations.
The Zone, on the other hand, has its own laws, reminiscent of an ocean’s nomadic motions. The Zone is a strange domain
one must negotiate so as to discover who s/he is, to use
Nietzsche's formulation of the ultimate calling, to face their ghosts,
inhibitions, -- no guns, psycho-analysis and pharmaceuticals are tolerated
here, -- to realise that one's innermost desires can be ascertained and
fulfilled. In the allegorical Zone, this place is called the Room. No character
in the film, besides the telepathic daughter of Stalker and an antecedent
Stalker named Porcupine, enters the Room. The English word “porcupine”, again,
does not do justice to the profound hues of meaning in the Russian “дикобраз”,
comprised of “дикий” and “образ”: a savage image. Purcupine is a savage
image of humanity who enters the Room, gets filthy rich once out of the Zone,
and then, dismayed, commits suicide.
your innermost desires? where do they come from and what are they directed
Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice seems to imply that the Room is too remote a place for
us, and shifts our attention toward a more basic territory. To begin with, we
are to seek a boundary between the monochrome pursuits in the everyday and the
Zone, the protected boundary between an arbitrary value system and one’s
Tarkovsky's own despair in his final years
are channeled into The Sacrifice. In
the background of the film is the ominous presence of nuclear warfare captured
in a second-long episode of a thunderous explosion.
knows we’d keep waging wars one upon another.
Early on, the protagonist Alexander
discusses with Otto, a postman, a passage from Nietzsche where Zarathustra
falls on the ground, breathless. Setting the tone for the film, Nietzsche urges
the reader to attempt to overcome the “dwarf” inside, the spirit of gravity
taking pains to convince you that your innermost dreams are mere dreams, weak
and worthless, that pursuing similar dreams to those around you is sign of
humanity and civility, rather than a decadence.
A mad, dangerous passage -- look for it,
for your own safety!
In his earlier films, Tarkovsky's
characters are desperate to find a worthwhile ground for human existence in the
world; though we may find it hard to relate to a warchild Ivan, or a troubled
genius of the 15th century iconographer Rublev, the sci-fi mental
trips of Kris on the orbit of Solaris, or the post-apocalyptic lands wandered
by Stalker and his followers. In his last film, however, Tarkovsky brings a
more tangible obstacle to our attention, not just the limits of our
edited while Tarkovsky was undergoing chemotherapy, is nearing its finale with
Alexander setting on fire the dream of all Western dreaming, the dream of
owning a home, typically, one's central material possession. Fire communicates
a fierce sense of urgency, and home can mean many things. Desperate to feel a spiritual footing,
Alexander is watching his country residence alight, in a ritualistic gesture,
and then momentarily gets locked up, assisted by his caring family, the medical
car driving off to one of the city’s rectifying leveling facilities. What fool would set his own house on fire,
And yet, in the manner of Tarkovsky’s
oeuvre, this masterpiece does not end by accentuating the discord
between the demands of searching for one’s own character and the pull of
arbitrary cultural norms.
All of his films are imbued with beauty |
the impossible occupies a sacred place in his
work, like air in his blackening lungs.
The Sacrifice paints a cycle as Bach’s Matthew Passion accompanies both the
beginning and the finale. At the outset, Alexander attempts to plant a dead
tree, his son (youthful like Tarkovsky’s son and my boy) helps him to place
pebbles at the base to secure it. They leave. Once Alexander is condemned to be
diagnosed in an asylum, the beautiful boy returns to the crooked
tree, on his own, with two metal buckets full of water he can barely handle.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s life was full of
agonising moments, though it’s not an agonising portrait: when he, irrevocably
ill, finally embraced and kissed Andriushka, crying like
a child, he
must have forgotten all the futile pain of this world
and felt it is all worth it.
Who is human,
is a philosopher and educator who is thankful to Chloe for bulletproofing.