Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is, by nearly every account that I have heard or read, painful to watch. It is frustrating, boring, uninteresting. Nothing happens. No story is told. Imagine—a movie without a story!
These are curious reactions to a film that enables us to be present at the creation of the universe, watch dinosaurs fighting in pristine forests and frolicking on the shore, be voyeurs of a darkly suffering family in 1950s suburban Texas, and witness the stellar conflagration that ends it all.
Yet, it is true: no story is told. In this lack, the film shows us a way to exorcise the enchanters haunting x-buddhist meditation.
Exorcise it of what, exactly? First of all, of the controlling narratives which invariably cleave to it. I mean the heroic narratives about its origin, value, use, benefit, purpose. Once we evacuate the narrative from the practice, we can exorcise it of the subordinate grammar that supports the narrative. What is left is a form of severe parataxis. Severe, but just. It is an existential grammar without coordinating or subordinating connectives. It’s this next to that. No hierarchy. No and, for, with, because. No therefore, since, and then, as, if. No essential sense or meaning—the fires that fuel the narrative juggernaut.
Malick’s paratactic cinematic grammar is a model for our meditation grammar. Although all of life, from creation to destruction, is swirling and humming around him, Malick, as filmmaker, simply makes himself present. He is present, moreover, alongside of the life, not above it or below. From above, as omniscient narrator, he could connect disjunctions, reveal patterns, intimate meanings, announce conclusions. From below, he could expose the organic viscera that propel life’s relentless torrent. He doesn’t.
He stays right here, on the surface, alongside of the life unfolding. In remaining parallel and present, he does not so much refuse to tell a story as to render himself incapable of crafting a narrative whole. He simply cannot explain the life that he is present to. Explanation is the fata morgana that rises on the horizon of our cognitive-linguistic connectives—and, and then, then, so, therefore, but, or. Explanation hallucinates a reality hidden beneath the brute discontinuity of life. As Malick’s temporal trajectory shows, life persists, yes. But it does so mutely. It tells no story.
That is severe. That is just.
In “The Justice of Non-Philosophy,” Joshua Ramey says that in persisting in this manner, in abstaining from representing that which cannot be represented, Malick:
does an almost unconceivable justice to human life. If human life is a story, then each life is its own story. Thus every telling of that tale is an abstraction, perhaps a kind of distortion. But what kind of story is a life? The discontinuities in life—including violence, suffering and death itself—seem either ineffable or patently betrayed by narration…What any narrative must do, but seems incapable of doing in good faith, is to deal with discontinuity. For living—in pain or pleasure through loss or ecstasy, and with the constant burden of the past—is different from narrating that living, and it is difficult to see how narration could fail to fail existence, to merely pretend to keep the secret of life by telling it.1
If life, the lived, is foreclosed to narration, we, the living, are wholly prone to it. We, in fact, require narratives. They give shape to experience. They create cohesion. They provide an explanation. They help us make decisions and predict outcomes. Apparently, they are also inevitable. So, two important questions become: what is the source of our narrative, and are we aware of it as narrative?
Here, mute world.
There, dharmic tale.
Near here, inching ever closer,
the persecuted human.
Why “persecuted”? A defining characteristic of an x-buddhist is that s/he looks to The Dharma for narrative cues. “The Dharma” is the x-buddhist “big other.” In Lacan’s terms, the big other provides the symbolic apparatus for negotiating the base material real. It also serves to regulate the community’s social interactions while the community enacts its symbolic apparatus. A symptom that some x-buddhist is in thrall to the dharmic big other is that in “seeing” a direct correlation between the words of the narrative and material reality, he is self-evidently, and of his own free will, “seeing things as they are.” In other words, the symbolic-fictional nature of The Dharma is wholly opaque to him. This spell is difficult to break, for a further function of the specifically x-buddhist big other is, in Zizek’s words, to mask the “intricate cobweb of unwritten implicit rules.” These rules:
are never explicitly stated. If you state them explicitly you even usually commit some kind of crime or violation. This is what always interests me: how what holds communities together are not explicit rules but the unwritten rules which are even prohibited to be announced publicly… My point is that the appearance of a free choice [has] to be sustained.2
The Dharma as x-buddhist big other is a topic for another day. I am bringing it up here in the hopes of catalyzing some consideration of an obviously unbearable thought: The Dharma as persecutor. Is it conceivable to think The Dharma as yet another human-obliterating narrative that harasses, coaxes, seduces, negates, and incessantly nags the practitioner to do this, think that? Among x-buddhists, the very possibility of examining the ways in which this may or may not be the case is implicitly prohibited from even being broached.3 Acceptance of The Dharma as an overarching, cosmically anchored narrative which “provides a safe haven in the flurry of contemporary confusion of roles and identities,” as Zizek says of the “new age” versions of the big other, is non-negotiable.4
Meditation as existential parataxis, however, can break the spell. For, when sitting in still, silent, present attentiveness, the dharmic narrative, and with it, its persecution, is erased.
Here, mute world.
There, dharmic narration.
Near here, inching ever closer,
the persecuted human.
That does not mean that the intransitive truths cataloged in the dharmic inventory are invalidated.5 It means that once their exalted warrant is cancelled, their magisterial vibrato silenced, and their network of voltaic postulation disabled, they became raw, unprocessed chora–chora borne, or not, in the immanence of the mute world.
[Materials for Practice 2]
Image: See the discussion on this image at Language Log.
1 Joshua Ramey “The Justice of Non-Philosophy.” Laruelle and Non-Philosophy. Eds. John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. 80-99.
3 Zizek’s example, in the talked linked above, of the requirement that the prohibition be implicit is illuminating:
Imagine a session of the central committee where someone stands up and starts to criticize Stalin. Now, everyone knows this was prohibited. But that’s the catch. Imagine someone else standing up and saying: “But listen, are you crazy? Don’t you know that it’s prohibited to criticize comrade Stalin?” I claim the second one would be arrested earlier than the first one. Because although everybody knew that it’s prohibited to criticize Stalin, this prohibition itself was prohibited. The appearance had to be unconditionally maintained that it is allowed to criticize Stalin, but simply why criticize him since he’s so good. My point it that the appearance of a free choice had to be sustained.
4 Slovoj Zizek. “The Big Other Doesn’t Exist.” Journal of European Psychoanalysis. Spring – Fall 1997. http://www.lacan.com/zizekother.htm
5 See “Radical Potential.” On the intransitive, see Roy Bhaskar. A Realist Theory of Science. New York: Routledge, 1998. p. 22:
[Th]e intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. They are not unknowable, because as a matter of fact quite a bit is known about them… But neither are they in any way dependent upon our knowledge, let alone perception, of them.