Olavo de Carvalho
January 30, 1997
Translation by Jules Lapprand
We get a foretaste of this irony in the scene with the dog. Why does the dog, at the moment when the couple is heading out on the rowboat, chase after the lady, barking? Was it that he foresaw something terrible about to happen? Or was it simply that he wanted to follow after his mistress? The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide. You are free to interpret it as you wish. But how is one to interpret the real reason for the dog’s chase? What matters in fact is not the cause, but the meaning that this episode brings to the plot as a whole. And why? Because, during that brief interval when the man returns to put the dog back in the house, he could have changed his mind about the murder he was planning. The dog’s showing up at this time is either a random happening or has an intention behind it, but in either case it could have preemptively saved the woman and prevented the subsequent course of events. It could have, but it didn’t. This dog “has no teeth”; its presence is merely a natural element of the situation, too isolated and weak per se to give it a definitive turn. The dog, “pure natural sanity,” is powerless when confronted with the progress of evil; to stop this kind of evil, all of nature must be mobilized against it—hence the storm.
All the same, at every turn we see that whatever the cause behind a given happening might be, its meaning is clear. And this meaning is not subjective. The dog’s intervention at that moment could have prevented the tragedy. It almost did. And that’s another thing about this movie: from beginning to end, you are trying to predict what will happen next, and this prediction begins to look like a vow, in faith: you desire that events follow a certain course, and you try to influence the situation such that they do—and although nothing happens the way you want it to, the end result is, at least in a more fortuitous and implied way, exactly what you desired. When you see the man get into the boat, and you know he’s going to kill that poor innocent woman, you hope he doesn’t carry out his intention. And when the dog starts barking and the man turns back, the dog, in a certain way, is acting out your desire, but he fails. In that scene, everything is reeling: you, the dog, the protagonist, the woman—she, too, is unsure of what is about to take place. She, too, is in suspense. All these elements, all these facts always have a very clear meaning, and always refer to events preceding and events following. Not once are you dependent on any subjective interpretation the characters might make of the situation.
From a set of simple psychological principles, a profoundly enigmatic scenario is constructed in which everything, in some way or another, leads toward that reawakening the protagonist needs to take back possession of his life. This is the film’s overtone from start to finish: all elements vie with one another and yet myseriously converge toward an overall meaning. But whether or not that concurrence is the result of some predetermined plan is left on hold. It is a reality of life that you do not know which events will determine your destiny. But it is also a part of life for you to understand the meaning of what is happening. I do not know who causes the rain, nor with what intention, but I do know that taking all the different parts of my life into account, in that moment, the rain’s meaning is crystal clear. What is that meaning? It is the moral obligation of an action, an obligation that makes sense in light of the course of my life and of my own identity. Since I am who I am, since I have a single path to tread on and not another, I have the obligation of doing this or that, because only then will my life have meaning. Viktor Frankl would cry out with enthusiasm if he saw this movie.
Its metaphysical interpretation is subordinate to an ethical interpretation, an ethic that precedes metaphysics in a certain way. Whether a providential hand is guiding everything or not, the meaning of the events is right before our eyes: it is the moral obligation to act in a given way, since that way is the only one that makes sense. The problem of providence is not found in the causal sphere, but in the sphere of meaning; it matters little whether that providence acts through natural or supernatural means.
The rain could be a mere coincidence. Let’s look at things from God’s point of view. If it were predetermined through natural laws that the rain should come at that precise moment, God certainly knew it, and He did not need to send the rain specifically so that the events would follow a given course. The sum total of natural and human causes is enough to create a meaning. What is providence’s role, then? To create and maintain meaning itself.
Since providence itself is supernatural, it has no need to rely on supernatural means. From the simple play between an indefinite number of natural and human causes, x will take place. A preordained plan was not necessary for this specific case: everything was ordained so that man, a rational being who always tends toward a unity of meaning in his life, could make use of whatever should happen to him to fulfill that meaning. Interesting result: the unforeseen nature of the events is on a certain level overcome. Their efficient cause, that is, the thing that made them happen, is fortuitous. But their final cause is certainly not. In other words, a countless variety of random efficient causes can contribute to a final cause that is fundamentally good. This is actually an element of Leibniz’s philosophy (the Best of All Possible Worlds). I don’t know if Murnau thought of Leibniz when he made this movie, but to be Leibnizian it is not necessary to have read Leibniz; it’s a question of personality and of spontaneous spiritual affinity. In any case, it is worth noting that before dedicating himself to cinematic work, Murnau studied philosophy and theology.
In his other film, Tabu, there’s an apparently contradictory message: human and natural causality working toward a tragic end. This, too, can happen. In any case, whether everything ends in comedy (when everything ends well it’s a comedy, no matter what kind of suffering the characters have to go through in the interim) or in tragedy, none of this is decided in the realm of efficient causes but in that of final causes. This is the solution to the age-old dispute between determinism and free will.
Both free will and determinism require each others’ concurrence; there is no way to conceive one without the other. Determinism exists in the sense that certain causes, once set in motion, will infallibly produce certain results. We can interpret the natural causes that appear in this movie, such as the dog’s behaviour or the storm, as the simple result of natural laws. There are natural processes that explain these facts. Everything in the order of efficient causes can well be predetermined, but nothing can be predetermined with respect to the end, to the finality. There would be no point in creating a being with the ability to choose, with the ability to act, even with the ability to incur guilt, if his life’s end were infallibly predestined. It would be nonsense: a conscious agent is not necesary to fulfill a mechanical role; a being as intelligent as man would not be necessary for this. There is a certain wiggle room even within the natural determinism. Life has meaning, but that man should fulfill it is not a given.
We can say that the dog had “no choice” but to run after the lady, because that was its instinct; likewise the rain had no other alternative than to fall at the precise moment it did. But man is a being who has the choice to understand or not what is happening and to conduct his life in a way that is harmonious with his natural framework, with his duty and with the meaning of his life. To fulfill the meaning of his life, he must understand what is happening around him and the influence all these things exert on him.
Events (such as the mistress, who did not exist in the life of the protagonist and who suddenly sprung into his life while he was on vacation at a given place and time—that is, who made an intervention) happen consecutively and come from the surrounding environment. It is the individual himself who understands or who fails to understand. And to fail to understand, he needs only to detach himself for a moment from that dense tapestry of causality and enter another world in which he himself is the sole causal factor. That is the realm of the imaginary, an entirely logical and well ordered world, a world in which he invents the causes and where their effects follow in the most logical way possible. It’s the logic of the criminal plan the man’s visitor proposes to him: let’s kill your wife and move to the city, and you’ll live there with me, and we’ll danse in that nightclub I always go to, and so on and so forth. All this, admittedly, is logical and linear.
But as the return to real life progresses, causality is no longer linear; rather, causes are correlated and countless. Their connections can be perceived or not, since the individual is himself a link in many criss-crossing chains. It’s one thing for the rain to fall at all; it’s another for the rain to fall while you’re there. Even from a purely natural or physical standpoint, it’s not the same thing for rain to fall on a barren land, on a field with vegetation, in an area where animals live and at a place where human beings are found. The consequences of the rain will be fundamentally different in each case. In this case, the rain falls precisely when our protagonist is there, and therefore this rain is not the same for everyone; it has different meanings.
The man could have failed to understand the situation. He could have been so overcome by the death of his wife that the situation’s irony would simply pass him by, without his learning anything. But he consents to learning a lesson because he continues to dialogue with nature on a moral plane. He asks: “What is it you want of me?”—that is, trusting that life has meaning, even when that meaning is hidden from him because of the mistakes he made. Now, nature never responds completely, but human beings are the ones who add the missing links. Humans respond by embracing meaning and all it implies, all real implications it has. Otherwise, they fantasize further. They invent, and they flee from their duty and from the meaning of life.
When you see how all this has been said with nothing but silent images, you realize that this movie is truly an astonishing masterpiece. Shakespeare’s The Tempest makes similar use of the interactive play between a countless number of causes all contributing to a final result; the difference, however, is that the all-powerful wizard Prospero’s hand, directing all things, is conspicuously absent from Sunrise. There is no wizard’s hand here; you know neither who is guiding the plot nor if it is even being guided at all. What you do know is that it is tremendously meaningful. To ask whether it was premeditated or not, in this case, is entirely pointless, because it is the wrong question to ask. The question is not who is guiding the plot and to what end, but rather: what exactly is happening? Is this an ordinary storm? No. It’s the storm that kicks up at that moment and kills the woman whom the protagonist wanted to kill a few hours prior. The moment at which it happens is not inconsequential; real life is precisely that dense space in which all factors are absolutely inseparable, and the only thing truly at stake is whether you will embrace that complexity or whether you will flee to another, flat-planed world without gravity, a world of subjective fantasy. This is the drama that gives to the movie its true strength and its impact.
The protagonist understood perfectly well the story he had invented for himself, but what about this other series of events that actually happen to him? The factors at stake are so numerous that he couldn’t possibly come up with a complete explanation for them. To understand everything that happened, he’d have to be God. Imagine just how many causes would have to be discovered to know why all events converged in a given way. No one could ever find that out. There will never be a complete explanation of everything that happened. Meanwhile, far from understanding this in terms of what’s commonly referred to as the “limits of human knowledge,” we are richly enlightened as to the very nature of reality: reality is real only insofar as a set of known elements that might be non-sensical per se are part of an infinite that, although unknowable in and of itself, gives unity and meaning to the finite set. Whenever the finite is self-referent and attempts to explain itself on its own terms, we are in the realm of optimistic and Promethean logical fantasy. And whenever the finite is meaninglessly dissolved into the infinite, we are in the realm of morbid fantasy. It is in the meaningful articulation of the finite within the infinite that knowledge of reality is to be found.
The meaning of the protagonist’s life is not even subjective: I would say it is historical. The protagonist is that man and not another, he has this life and not another, and he is not free to feel just what he wants, when he wants to. His feelings will change according to what happened before and what he anticipates and hopes will happen.
Right when the individual is heading home, hoping to attain some kind of peace after everything the couple has been through, after the man’s temptation and feelings of remorse, at that moment the rain falls. And it has that meaning because it fits into the sequence of that before and that after, and not because the individual “felt” a certain way. In reality, he could simply not feel anything; he could act like a deer in the headlights. Many people, faced with that kind of suffering when life carries out their morbid fantasies, go crazy and try to stop thinking. There they cease to grasp the meaning of what is happening, but that meaning remains and may be discerned by an outside observer.
The price of the meaning of life is to understand what is happening, no matter how painful it is. But this understanding is always from a merely human perspective, without universal explanations. Now this is very important for any student of philosophy: in any kind of metaphysical investigation, the human tendency is to want to jump right into questions of providence, of determinism, of divine intentionality, and to approach these subjects in a general and abstract way, without first being anchored in a personal meaning of life—but this is the sole intermediary by which an understanding of divine intentionality could ever be reached. If you can’t even comprehend the events that represent the plot of your own life, how will you ever understand the intentions of the Writer who produced the work? If you don’t understand history, how will you understand its Author’s psychology? It’s absurd when spiritual idiots who are incapable of understanding and taking up responsibility for the meaning of their own lives start giving their two cents on philosophical issues just because they read Kant or Heidegger. The saying Primum vivere deinde philosophari means just that: a true philosopher is a philosopher always, not just a student who talks about philosophy. That’s precisely why the search for metaphysical truth can never be a mere abstract investigation with an impersonal, scientific approach; it always implies personal responsibility. And so the question to ask is the following: are you willing to fully embrace understanding what is happening in your life? Just how much can you handle? Eighty per cent of philosophers would scurry away with their tails between their legs when asked that question, because certain things are terrifying to understand, especially when it comes to the consequences of a person’s actions on their life.
Suppose there is a God, that He knows your thoughts and that He can—and He does in this case—make your worst nightmares come true. Would you want to know this God? The truth is that most people, right about here, won’t want to go any further. Ignorance is bliss. Makes me think of that famous “Machine of the World” poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade—where an individual, after having sought and toiled for the truth his whole life, suddenly finds the Universe responds and is willing to shed light on everything, and he says in reply: “I’d rather not know.”
my defunct beliefs far below
weren’t as quick as to colour or to repaint
a face neutral: faith was too slow
to build a newer face upon the faces
I go on demonstrating pale and faint
to each path I tread upon of late;
as if another being, a distant mate
of the one I had been, had now replaced
for years countless what of me became,
I resigned my will and thus abandoned
what I might have wanted – no command
was offered: as some flower, say a rose
reluctant to being open is well nigh close,
as though a tardy gift were now too bland
to be longed for – how much less
possessed! – I set my eyes upon my feet
and proceeded uncurious, void of sense
and tired, quite tired and quite unfit
to behold any splendour, any gift.
Night had finally landed, thick and strict;
a quiet darkness was all round, all dense,
almighty… The machine of the world
recomposed itself as slow and wordless
as it had been repulsed. I weighed the cost:
my hands hanging by my sides, tense,
my whole body bending on the road
of old, stony Minas, there I strolled
evaluating what I had lost.
(Lines from Carlos Drummond’s “The Machine of the World,”
translation by Bruno Tolentino, 2002, p. 167-171.)
Access to knowledge of a metaphysical order must first go through a moral and ethical understanding that doesn’t consist in “following” a pre-established moral or ethic, but on the contrary, in truly wanting to understand your own life and fulfill its meaning, facing all you have to accomplish with everything you’ve got, because real life is where you will find the link between nature and the supernatural. Where else could the supernatural be active, if not in reality, in this historical and human world we live in?
[to be continued]