With the help of their wings they could fly away to distant regions, blessed regions, where they really had their homes, for here they were but alien sojourners. -Soren Kierkegaard
The great temptation of loving much is that love may love love in the wrong way, becoming, tragically, its opposite, hate. Our love, as Augustine said, is our weight, it determines the movement of will and desire, determining the shape and substance of life. The ordo amoris, the order of love, is the business of the everyday, the sole task of living.
Yet love can succumb to disorder, fall prey to myriad delusions, entrenching the self in a war of deceptions, thrusting consciousness into an ethereal sea of lust masquerading as love. The most difficult endeavor in life, as Wittgenstein wrote (no doubt following Kierkegaard), is trying not to deceive oneself. All these thoughts sprung to mind as I viewed the trailer to Terrence Malick’s newest film Knight of Cups.
There is something quintessentially Kierkegaardian in the galaxy of meaning contained in the trailer. Of course this isn’t new for Malick. In his last two films— Tree of Life and To the Wonder—the presence of Kierkegaard can be at times quite explicit, featuring verbatim quotes. In Tree of Life we feel Kierkegaard’s meditations on the plight of Job (particularly in the sermon scene), and in To the Wonder he explores some of the central themes of Works of Love.
In Knight of Cups, at least from the smidgen I’ve gleaned, Malick seems to be drawing from Kierkegaard’s various knights, whether it is the happy knight of faith, the knight of infinite resignation, or the knight of resignation on pilgrimage to the true knight of faith. Thus, Knight of Cups looks like it could be a mixed metaphor, at least partially, for both Kierkegaard’s various types of knights and the riddles of the eponymous tarot card. I don’t intend to delve too deeply into Kierkegaard’s stages of knighthood—they are notoriously nuanced. But I do, however inchoately, want to point out a few scenes from the trailer that may (or may not) allude to the melancholy Dane’s knighthood.
The trailer begins with a man, Rick (played by Christian Bale), who has become lost to the world, a stranger to himself and others. An infinite, unsurpassable chasm has emerged between all relations. “All these years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know,” he says, perhaps recalling the prince’s words from the old Syrian Hymn of the Pearl:
Lone was I there, yea, all lonely;
To my fellow-lodgers a stranger.
Rick is alienated, in despair. To remedy the loss he must embark upon a search to regain the world and self he has lost, a journey fraught with deceptions. He pursues money, sex, power and fame: the cult of celebrity. But most importantly he seeks to regain reality—like one of Kierkegaard’s knights in Fear and Trembling—through the pursuit of a princess, a woman. But realizing that love in reality is different and more difficult and less “exciting” than love in ideality, he choses to leave the real woman behind, and similar to Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, he retreats into the realm of his own imaginative, self-inscribed idea of love. The knight of resignation becomes absorbed, obsessed, with the feeling of the experience of love. He resigns from actual love—with all its inherent, finite limitations and boundaries, not to mention duty—to dwell instead in ethereal and exciting castles of purely ideal and novel love. No longer is he susceptible to the actuality of the other, the beloved. The princess is sacrificed for an idea of love.
After the resignation into himself, away from the princess, he can only be with others under the condition that they, too, share the same desire for the fleeting experience of purely transitory love. The consequence is that no one is actually loving a real “other,” but only loving their own idea of love. A deep alienation from the world follows, a glimpse of hell, if you like; the “hell” which Dostoevsky describes as “the inability to love,” or Wittgenstein: “Hell is one’s self.” That is, the self becomes imprisoned within false expectations of love and reality, the expectations themselves are loved while the “other” disappears. A voice-over in the trailer says, “You don’t want love, you want to love experience.” This mirrors Kierkegaard’s knight of resignation who is “absorbed” in the experience of love but not the beloved herself. An obsession, which, as Kierkegaard’s Works of Love attest, often leads to the dilemma of lust: the double desire to devour and be rid of the beloved at once.
Yet like Kierkegaard’s knight, there’s a recognition, an awakening and awareness, in Rick’s consciousness that something is awry in how he loves. Something is missing. And this awareness is key to escaping despair. But how can you escape despair without sinking further into self-deception? This is the great quest of Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. “It takes no time at all to be deceived,” Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, “one can be deceived immediately and remain so for a long time—but to become aware of the deception takes time. . . No earnest person, therefore, wearies of the tracking down of the illusions.” The genius of Malick’s films is that he never wearies of tracking down the illusions, and never succumbs to cheap cynicism or sentimentalism; in fact he achieves true Kierkegaardian repetition, the “place where ideality and reality meet” in actuality, the place where Abraham receives back Isaac, the lover back the beloved.
Repetition occurs for Kierkegaard when all that has been deemed lost in the irrecoverable sea of time is suddenly received back in light of the eternal. It is like the sensation of a “man sentenced to death who’s been granted a sudden and unexpected pardon,” as Dostoevsky put it in Crime and Punishment. Repetition, however, is more than a mere fleeting feeling, rather it is an intimation of the nature and promise of reality, a new way of being in the world. Repetition is the atonement, indeed resurrection, of the world. It is, as Kierkegaard writes, life being understood backwards in time but lived forwards into the eternal.
The way Malick uses image, music, poetry and voice—all the way down to the movement of the camera, the eye of light—is an audacious attempt to show what true repetition looks like in concrete life. And this is his story: regaining what has been lost and forgotten within the new key of divine Love. The beloved must be repeated in the Eternal (rather than left behind) if love, joy and peace are to be received in reality. Of course this is all speculation and could be completely off the mark, nothing but the Kierkegaardian projections of a Malick admirer. Nevertheless, I tend to think that if ever there was a Bach of film, he is certainly among us in Terrence Malick.