Tarkovsky’s final movie and masterpiece, The Sacrifice, was by far one of the most fascinating movies I have watched. I think it could be seen as an autobiographical work, what an intellectual might go through when looking at their past and also to the future, especially as death is looming. Using maybe the writings, style, and character of Arendt, an essay by Agnes Callard, I’d like to think about the great director’s masterpiece and what it might show about intellectualism.
Note - By intellectualism, I am just referring to the non-rigorous definition of the person who is engaged with fields of study that intellectuals are usually engaged with such as philosophy, history, literature, poetry, aesthetics, theater, etc.
Hannah Arendt did not want to consider herself a philosopher. She was still an intellectual by all means of the word. However, she was put off by the philosophers and especially political thought of the time. She studied philosophy at university with some esteemed thinkers and got to experience these intellectuals, such as Jaspers and Heidegger, first hand. She describes the philosopher here as someone who is out of touch with reality, who finds it all too easy to build up these philosophical superstructures that might justify why someone like Hitler is good. She says in an interview
I neither feel like a philosopher nor do I believe I’ve been accepted in the circle of philosophers
In response, the interviewer said “I consider you a philosopher” and she says “I’ve said good-bye to philosophy once and for all.”
I am no Arendt biographer, but from her work she seemed to be a “pioneer” into what some of the new philosophers look like today. The new philosophers are aware of how theory might affect reality, take the theories of Adam Smith or John Locke or Karl Marx and their impact on modernity. Philosophers are also more aware, particularly moral and political philosophers, that they should keep in mind the people they are writing about and what this theory would look like in practice. For example, if your theory of human nature does not capture vital parts of it, you should not just hold onto it blindly and ignore reality.
I think something like this is what Arendt was interested in, was that it seems the theories we have either cannot or have not said anything about the human condition or things like state sponsored death machines, what we should do in the face of nuclear war or climate change. She seemed concerned with events that would radically change human life such as going to the moon or total automation. A lot of the intellectuals nowadays are concerned with these as well I believe. Less concerned with theory in itself, but concerned with how theory will be used and what it can do for us as beings who take theory to heart.
Using inspiration from a film called Children of Men, UChicago philosopher Agnes Callard writes in thepointmag on what might changed, for better or for worse, knowing that we are the last generation of humans. Humanity in the film is no longer able to reproduce, they are the last generation. The film features massive suffering from genocide and terrorism on a scale never seen before, yet no one seems to care.
This is a problem since a lot of people think that moral and political efforts are hopefully going to reach some better state of affairs, like parents who do good things in hope that the world they are making are better for their children. If the meaning in our lives, why we do what we do, depends on their being future generations, it seems that a sort of nihilism would take over the planet. The film features a baby, that brings awe and wonder on the people. This is probably due to what a baby symbolizes, something Arendt has central to her work, natality. Natality is the opposite of mortality, it can symbolize something like hope, to start a new.
The conclusion that Callard draws is that we do not just have a biological drive to survive, self-preservation, but an ethical one. Knowing that you are the last generation or that even on an individual level that you are going to die might bring about some sense of moral courage in yourself. She discusses the courage of the Flight 93 passengers, who no matter what they were going to do was die. The passengers who fought the hijackers at least knew that what they were going to do was going to have some affect on the world, there would be future generations.
The Last Generation of humans, must prepare not from science or politics. The job of scientists and politicians is to try and keep humanity alive and propsering in perpetuity. The job of the humanist is to “help prepare us for them”. Maybe this means that they have some new found moral courage like Callard says. Or maybe this is where faith comes in, something like Kiekergaard’s counter to despair or Kant’s rational faith. It seems that both these thinkers thought about this problem exactly, how to live as the Last Generation and how to confront depression, nihilism, despair.
The Sacrifice is the spiritual and philosophical transformation of Alexander, an ex-actor who became an intellectual who is a journalist, critic, aesthetics lecturer, and seeming amateur philosopher. The film opens with this landscape-esque painting scene that features a monologue / dialogue between Alexander and Otto the postman. This scene is one where you get the impression that Alexander is well respected as a thinker, possibly even making us think he is just some armchair intellectual.
The scene after is one where Alexander and his son, Little Man, are meandering and playing around in a nearby cluster of trees. Alexander gets lost in his thinking here. He starts to think about his life, how he got maried and how he ended up at this house. He then turns to some more philosophical thought, condemning the onslought of technology and in addition the seeming uselessness of speech.
As soon as we make a scientific breakthrough, we put it to use in the service of evil.
Perhaps you mean that we ought to study the problem and look for a solution together. Perhaps we could if it wasn’t so late. Altogether too late. God, how weary I am of this talks! At last I know what Hamlet meant. He was fed up with windbags. And so am I! Why do I talk this way? If only someone could stop talking and do something instead! Or at least, try to.
In this angry monologue, Alexander realizes he does not know where his son, Little Man they call him, has gone. He gets frantic because Little Man has changed his life. They way he thinks about his life, morality, and humanity in general has changed since being responsible for another human. Little Man comes up behind him and Alexander freaks out and accidentally hurts Little Man.
It seems that Alexander is hosting some sort of special gathering, Alexander’s birthday in his house, his friend Victor has come to visit and stay a bit.
Have you … never felt that your life was a failure?
Victor replies “No, why?” Alexandar says that he once felt that way once.
But since Little Man came along, all that has changed. Not all at once, of course. A bit at a time as he grew bigger. … But there is something in all this that I resent. I prepared myself for a life, a higher life, so to speak. I studied philosophy, the history of religion, aesthetics. And I ended up putting myself in chains, of my own free will. But at the same time, I’m happy.
Otto the postman comes and interrupts the house with a gift. Someone gives Alexander an authentic 1600s map of Europe, priceless.
But it’s far too dear a gift. I don’t know if I …
Oh God, don’t say that!
But it’s far too much. Too much, Otto!
I know it’s no sacrifice, but …
And why shouldn’t it be? Of course it’s a sacrifice! Every gfit involves a sacrifice. If not, what kind of gift would it be?
A few scenes later, we hear the roar of the planes. The house shakes. The residents run around the house, as if to do something besides sit. A few more scenes later, Alexander comes downstairs in the middle of the night to listen and watch the television broadcast. Everyone but Little Man is around the TV, watching quietly. Alexander knows what is happening. WW3 has started, it is clear that the end of man is near. Alexander’s wife becomes hysterical, Victor sedates her with some medicine. Alexander goes upstairs to his room and prays to God, to stop the extinction of humanity and protect his family, his friends.
Earlier, Otto revealed himself to be a man of mysticism and conspiracy theories, but when the world is tearing apart the conspiracy theories do not seem so radical anymore. Otto informs Alexander that his servant, Maria, is in fact a witch. If he sleeps with her, she will grant him a wish. Alexander realizes that maybe this is his chance from God, maybe God does not exist even. It could just be any opportunity, a chance for him to do something.
Alexander bikes over to Maria’s residence and he makes some small talk. However, the small talk does nothing. Maria does not reveal herself as a witch, Alexander begins to despair. He pulls out a gun and pleads with Maria as if she is God, he will do anything. He will give up his home, his familial relations, his fatherhood. He learned earlier on that Gandhi took one day out of the week to not talk at all, Alexander decides to give up talking altogether. He wants to sacrifice everything he can to, to give a gift to the world, the gift of survival.
He sleeps with Maria, and awakes to a normal day, free of apocolayptic dread. He notices and begins to follow through on his plan. He lures his family and friends out the house with a note so that he can burn down his house. They come running back at the site of the inferno, to find Alexander acting “not normal”. Maria enters the scene, he runs to her as if to thank her for what she did. Alexander is then taken away in an ambulance, presumably the last anyone will see of him.
The intellectual progresses into the moral intellectual in their later years. They move on from viewing moral and political problems as similar to algebra problems. Whether this comes from some internal event such as self-reflection or an external event, extreme tragedy or happiness, such as war or the birth of your child. Now they take on a new element of being, the mode of being that comes from taking moral and political problems seriously now that you have a newfound respect for the dignity of humanity and the beauty that comes with it.
Like Arendt, Alexander was disgusted with the naiveté and character of scientists, the possibility of using science to eradicate and not help humanity. Alexander was also in sync with the Arendtian critic where we miss out on the active part of life, the political. Pure contemplation alone is not sufficient of a dignified and free life and neither is mere work or labor. The active is where we understand ourselves as part of a plurality of people, trying to create a history and last through time. Part of Alexander’s guilt is that he was too caught up with contemplative, the intellectual.
Like Callard’s article, Alexander was showing courage in the face of despair. Granted, this was just a fictional wish and not actual action as we would see in reality, the point is the same. The humanist intellectual wants to figure out how to use their skills for the benefit of humanity, how to prepare us for being the Last Generation or looming existential crises.
Alexander’s story is one where he transitions from just a regular intellectual to what we could call the humanist. He feels guilty about his past, maybe even looks at his old self as naive and immoral. However, Little Man spurred Alexander into seeing the error of his previous ways. It seemed that Alexander was aware of the incoming world war, he realized his humanism all too late. Maria represented almost like a do-over, a wish, to make it all better.
Unlike Alexander, we are unlikely that we do not have Maria there to grant our wish via having sex to save the world. To be an intellectual in the 21st century is to realize that the possibility that the Last Generation has been born is likely. At best, we can delay this, it is inevitable. At worst, we should, like Callard says, help prepare the Last Generation. We should keep in mind what the point of moral and political philosophy is, who the people we are doing it for are, and realize the impact and urgency of this thought. Otherwise, we may all find ourselves like Alexander condemning technology and speech in the forest, wishing we could do something while knowing it is too late.