“Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in had valle abstractionis.”
How does one picture the pathos of humanity, of creation, of the line between good and evil that runs through the heart of all, of the twilight confusion between the god we create and the Creator who made all; between idolatry and true worship; between being forsaken and being redeemed: the span of human experience in the figure of an ark afloat on the chaos and wickedness and fear of a world we did not create but nevertheless find ourselves in without our permission, knowing enough light to see and enough dark to be blinded? Truth happens in the tension, when the familiar, mythological milieu folds over itself and opens something new upon the expanse of human consciousness, like a new wave upon an ancient sea. These thoughts came about while watching Darren Aronofsky’s controversial film Noah.
The film is remarkably unbiblical. And hence remarkably biblical. For if there is one thing the bible is not, it is biblical, at least in the senses we tend to force upon it, like those who would turn it into a manual for family values or sentimental moralism. Of course the practice of retelling biblical stories has a long and often venerable literary tradition. (At times, for example, watching Noah felt like watching a cinematic expression of D.H. Lawrence’s chapter from Women in Love, “An Island” — which is about creation and humanity’s place within it. The argument between Birken and Ursula is nearly the same as that between Noah and his wife. Read this chapter if you want a synopsis of a central theme in Noah.) In fact, one can hardly understand much of great literature without knowledge of the actual biblical text. The brilliance of this tradition lies in disabusing ourselves from what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the myth that our present time is de facto more enlightened than previous generations, as if time magically made us smarter and better people. More often than not, we repeat the same barbaric atrocities and errors we accuse the ancients of, all the while conveniently forgetting that only the wispy speed of time separates our age from being just as ancient as well. But instead of the fantastic and imaginative mythologies of ages past, we cleverly cloak our errors with séances and myths about “scientific” progress and enlightenment. So, I suppose, many will watch Noah and think about how barbaric the story is, while some will be chilled by the blatant similarities with our own barbaric times: our penchant for destroying creation, the worship of the will to power and violence, our constant fashioning of idols (Mammon, anyone?).
The spirit of the Bible, its central themes, are remarkably prescient and just as ethically complicated and shrewd and subtle as, say, the novels of Dostoevsky; we must not be fooled by their ancient mythological clothing. Nor should we be so quick to assume the philistine fundamentalism of religion and atheism. Both of these camps have remarkably naive readers, thinking mythology and fiction as synonyms for lies. But is not history more complicated than the idolatrous praise of brute literalism both these camps, ironically, engage in? Is it even possible to speak of a brute, uninterpreted historical event? If The Brothers Karamazov were not historical in one sense, then why do I have it on my bookshelf? How was I able to read it? And, really, is there anything more historical than human consciousness and its productions? The very idea of the “historical” is a far cry from a brute historical event; in fact, the “historical” is an imaginative criterion and category invented by human consciousness. What we think about — what we intend — is the most primal historical event of all. History, then, is not synonymous with the truth; rather truth resides in the crepuscular wrestlings with the meanings of history, the meaning of human experiences as they unfold in time.
All I’m saying here is that there are levels and modes, often labyrinthine in nature, to what should be called the “historical” — all arising from the same book of human consciousness, albeit different pages. And in this sense the biblical myths, and Aronofsky’s retelling, are both historical, even if not falling within the reductionistically — and often banal — literal aspects of history. The question lies not in whether Noah built an ark at such and such a time and place but whether what the story is saying about humanity is true or not: are the aspects of the characters on the ark semblances of what reside in all of us in all times and spaces, in contradictory simultaneity? To dismiss it offhand would be like dismissing everything in Melville’s Moby Dick because it didn’t “really” happen. To the contrary, Moby Dick is too historical because its themes are played out in the daily historical experiences of humanity across the world. We have divine poetry and divine history in the Bible; shall we not, as C.S. Lewis wrote, also have divine fiction? (Lewis, in his brilliant essay Is Theology Poetry?, took Noah’s Ark to be “legendary, even mythological.”) Is it not the fictional and most mythological language of the Bible that proves the most perennial of all? Why do most of us love novels over the plain telling of dates and times? Dates and times are irretrievable, unable to be repeated, whereas myths tell universal truths in the visceral language of the imagination, both bounded by and free of particular spaces and times, like consciousness itself.
What I admired most about the film is that watching it actually evoked in me the same tensions as when I read many Old Testament stories: the constant temptation to dethrone the image of God resting upon each woman and man in order to usurp the throne for oneself, and that central biblical tension of mankind’s desperate attempts to escape self-deception and idolatry. The first temptation, after all, begins with the doubtful question of “Did God really say … ?” — the rest of the Bible is a very subtle midrash on this very question, but instead it tries to get us to ask the doubtful question back to the tempter, to the deceptive idol itself, which is often our own ego. Without the right questions, the Jewish tradition stresses, the answers, however seemingly right, will inevitably lead to self-deception.
Aronofsky, I think, brilliantly and subtly asks the right thematic questions, making multiple viewings both necessary and enriching. But, to be honest, the actual cinematic aesthetics could’ve been far better, most notably — and here I agree with a review by Richard Brody in The New Yorker — the music, which is perhaps the least powerful soundtracks of all Aronofsky’s oeuvre. Being a fan of Aronofsky’s films for sometime, though, I’ll blame these contretemps on the lack of funding he received for a film that certainly would’ve been an absolute disaster in the hands of a lesser wit.