Olavo de Carvalho
January 30, 1997
Translation by Jules Lapprand
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?
Nature is a given; it is a fact that is right before our eyes. And its course has been set, if not eternally, at least habitually; although at least on a macroscopic level there may be a coefficient of indeterminism in nature, overall on the visible plane of the natural world things function with a certain regularity you and I can’t interfere with. Man’s interference in natural processes is minimal. Very well; where else can you interfere? On the supernatural level? No, because then you’re dealing with God, and He’s omnipotent; you can’t mess around there. Therefore, you can tamper neither with the natural order nor with the supernatural. You’ve been thrown, so to speak, into the natural world, but you’re just slightly above it, such that you can discern nature as a whole and wonder about some vague thing beyond it, but which you cannot reach. Then where are you? Exactly between one and the other. Between this whole that you can see but can’t understand and this other that, if you come to know it, you’ll understand, but that you don’t know. Visible nature is knowable; it’s right before us, but we don’t understand it, because it doesn’t seem to have intentionality. Sometimes it seems to, and other times it doesn’t; so we don’t know. How can we ever know? Well, we have to ask the One who is beyond nature, the One who is above it and determines its course. We have to converse with the Author of history. If you knew the Author of history, everything would be plain to you; but you don’t know Him. What you do know, you don’t understand, and what you understand, you don’t know. God is perfectly comprehensible; the moment you start to think about God, you realize that everything makes so much sense. But we can’t see Him nor hear Him, and we don’t know Him. Everything we see, hear and know doesn’t always make sense. You have the fact here below and the meaning up above. You’d love to rise up to those heights and grasp that meaning. But where is the link between the two? Within you, because you too exist materially, that is, you too are an object of your own understanding, you know your own body, your own life, in exactly the same way you know nature. And what is the meaning of your life? The reality of your life is obvious, but what is its meaning? With respect to yourself, you too are divided. You know the reality of your existence, but not its meaning. The concept of meaning is clear; it makes sense, but you don’t know the meaning of your life. And life, you know it, but you don’t know if it even has meaning. So? You are the link. Because at every moment, you can connect the realm of facts with the realm of meaning. And how do you do that? By understanding the meaning that facts impose, not abstractly nor in and of themselves, but in your context, in the context of your historical life.
Only to the extent you accept and understand the meaning of your own life in this way will you have the necessary openness to that greater link between nature and the supernatural. The relationship between your life and the meaning of your life is the same relationship that exists between nature and God. Since you are the only link, something must be resolved within your immediate sphere and at your scale before you can think to make any kind of serious metaphysical investigation.
Now, when we grasp this, every one of us can ask the following question: What events determined my destiny? And so, if you begin to tell your own story from start to finish, you will see that there were events that determined your real destiny without asking your opinion on the matter, without your being consulted and sometimes without even your noticing them. It’s easy to see this sort of thing in the lives of others; in your own life, it’s a real effort.
Let’s suppose you own a warehouse. After an economic crisis in Ecuador changes the international market price of a product, your warehouse founders. You don’t need to understand this economic crisis, you don’t need to know where it began nor the extent of the damage. All you know is that your warehouse is finished. Now let me ask you this: do you want to know the real size of the problem that annihilated your business? Do you really want to see how big the elephant is that trampled on you? Do you really want to know what determines your life’s course? And note here I’m not talking about supernatural causes; I mean socio-economic ones. At this moment, the vast majority of persons set their eyes upon their feet, just like the character in the “Machine of the World.” They don’t want to know, and thus rejecting meaning, they return to an animal-like state—that of the beast whose life is meaningless, whose life does not need meaning, and who does nothing but wait to die as soon as possible. From that moment, any efforts the person will make to feed his or her vital impulses or desires will do nothing but carry out an instinct of death. What is the result of biological life? Death. Death is the only result biological life can achieve. So, the moment you reduce your life to mere biology—as enticing as that might appear at first—you know that all you’re headed for is death, nothing else. You give up on meaning, you give up on your life itself.
To know the meaning of life presupposes knowing the meaning of the things that are happening throughout that life. But to apprehend this meaning sometimes implies understanding forces of a terrifying magnitude, forces of a historial, social, planetary or even cosmic scale. Let’s suppose, for example, that the planets exert some kind of influence on your life. Suppose one of those planets were to swing out of orbit, and that this movement could have an effect on your life. How could you even fathom to contend with something that big? Most people, out of fear, don’t want to look up and see what’s governing their lives. But to grasp the meaning of life presupposes grasping the meaning of that cosmic stage you find yourself on—not the stage in and of itself, like an environmentalist would; rather, the stage of that play that is your own life. From the starting point of where you are now, your conscience can stretch itself to encapsulate more and more concentric circles, gradually getting to comprehend all the factors that objectively govern your existence. And to the extent your conscience grows, still more will your sense of personal responsability that gives meaning to your life be clear. Then, no more will you seek protection in cowardly ignorance (feigned at the beginning, but which over time you’ll be less and less aware of), but rather in your duty, and this will always give you more courage.
When a person does this, he or she will soon discover it’s nearly miraculous to be able to make a decision in the midst of such a powerful mix of elements. At that moment, the person can’t help but face the most brutal of all human realities: just how fragile a single person’s power is. Expanding your conscience means losing your pretentions and your selfishness, and that’s when most people make a U-turn. Faced with the machine of the world, they’ll shut their eyes or look at the floor, because they’re so afraid of losing that initial sense of security, that illusion that they’re the centre of the world and that they’re in control of their lives. But from then on they’re like cattle, or pigs, or geese… and yet oxen, hogs or geese that think they’re important.
And so back to our protagonist—here, he embraces the human condition in the fullest possible sense. He understands and fully appreciates what’s happened. He understands that his life is determined by a dialogue, a confrontation between infinitely powerful forces, forces that could utterly obliterate him. The reason for the film’s title, Sunrise, is quite obvious. The film’s protagonist is a true twice born, born again in God, born again in the realm of the Spirit.
Evidently there are factors at play he can choose to ignore, but these factors never ignore him. We can choose to ignore cosmic or historical factors, but they reach us the same; we don’t know about them, but they “know” about us. A bit like a Jew in Nazi Germany: the Jew can ignore the Fuhrer if he wants to, but the Fuhrer is watching him. Or like a Christian in the USSR: he can choose to ignore Stalin, but Stalin knows everything about him. Such a scenario takes on a certain sinister configuration. And you: could you stand to face it? Do you really want to see, or would you rather not? It’s in this scene that it’s decided whether the man will be worthy of his human condition or will willfully undergo that spiritual self-castration—the worst thing anyone can have happen to them—which no material reparation can compensate. The man who decides not to try to find out what is determining his life, his biography, has given up on that life and biography. He has ceased giving it any worth; he has tossed it into the garbage heap. At best, he’s returned to the state of an infant who, unaware of anything around him, does nothing but beg for miracles or curse his destiny, society, or God Himself. And from this moment on all he’ll ask for are miracles. But we heard it from the mouth of Christ: to ask for miracles is cursed. “It is a wicked and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign.” How on earth will the person obtain what he seeks anyway, if he’s not in the least willing to observe nature around him, to look at the real world where these kinds of signs take place at every moment?
And here I can’t help but quote George Gurdjieff (I don’t like him, but a few of his sayings are marvelous), who says that most people’s prayers consist in asking that two and two make five. A person doesn’t know what to ask for. But if they’re not even looking at the reality that’s around them at all times, then they don’t know where they are, and therefore they don’t know what they really want. They’ll ask for some random, useless thing. And in doing so, they’re rejecting the gift of the Spirit, and they’re committing the greatest of sins: “I don’t want to be a conscious and responsible individual, I want to be a little sheep that knows nothing about anything, I want to remain in a state of animalistic innocence.” Such a person will sin against the Spirit and then dare to ask God to perform a miracle? Any sin is pardonable except this one.
That’s why I see that vulgar apology for the “simple life,” “simple persons,” as an appalling blasphemy. That’s an issue that was never studied sufficiently. True evangelical simplicity means precisely to ask for little, to require little, and not in living the life of a mindless sheep that’s unaware of anything that’s going on in the world around it. That kind of ignorance is to reject the gift of the Spirit, and that’s the sin that is pardoned neither in this life, nor in the next. It’s the worst of all sins. Everything is forgiven except the sin against the Holy Spirit. What is the sin against the Holy Spirit? Willfull ignorance—and you can still find people who have the gall to call it “evangelical simplicity.”
The lack of desire to find the meaning of life, to despise this search for meaning or to reduce it to a mere academic curiosity, as though it were something you could detach from the thing your very life is hinged upon—this is what it means to despise the Spirit. If a person is doing this and then reads his Bible, prays, or what have you, he’s wasting his time. It’s a disgrace: he’s already told God he wants nothing to do with Him.
This unspiritualization is the individual’s total absorption into activities of mere subsistence. This inclues the search for pleasure, because pleasure is also necessary for your subsistence. You need a certain amount of sexual pleasure, of good food, etc., just to survive, just as, to survive, you also need a certain dose of sweat and tears. But as soon as an indivudal limits him or herself to these two things, pleasure and effort, he’s opted for natural life alone; he wants nothing to do with the supernatural. If he wants to know something about the supernatural, the only way for him is to find out the meaning of his life.
If you want to find out the meaning of something, first you must know what it is. “What am I?”; “Where am I?”; “What am I doing here?”; “What’s happening to me?”; and “What is the directing factor of my life?” Think: do you really want to know all the malignant hereditary impulses you inherited from your ancestors? Murderers, rapists, swindlers, smugglers, pimps, stool pigeons? Do you want to know? Do you want to find out? This is what Dante calls the descent into the lower regions: to recognize all the base possibilities that still exist within you. Would you want to see all that? “No,” most people will say; “I don’t want that.” Well, if that’s your case, praying won’t do you any good, because the Holy Spirit’s role is to reveal precisely these things to you. Only by looking intelligently and straight at the evil within you will you overcome it: if you can see and recognize your own interior evil, then you are already above it; if you don’t want to see it, well, it still dominates your life. No one is afraid of what’s inferior to them. It’s only when you want to see the big picture that these malevolent possibilities, by the simple fact of being seen, are set ablaze and, as it were, branded into the realm of your conscious understanding. Thus you’re already above them.
If we think in terms of iron and a hot furnace, the very prevalent idea today of a “realistic” preoccupation with the predictability of daily life is ultimately to flee from the Spirit and to administer to oneself a series of painkillers. When something terrible happens, a person will ask him or herself: “Why me?” Good question. But before asking about the tragedy, he or she should be asking other questions. But no, people always wait for the big disaster to happen before they ask those kinds of questions. Now the tragedy could well be complicated, and sometimes a person just won’t understand. For the film’s protagonist, the situation is evidently idealized, and therefore artistically simplified. It’s an individual who had never thought about anything and suddenly needs to understand everything. And then he does. Now, he understands because it’s a movie, a symbolic simplification of real life. In real life, if a person spends their whole life in sancrosanct ignorance of everything that’s happening, when tragedy strikes they won’t understand any better. In fact they’ll become stupider than they were before.
I’m not of those who think leaving everything to the last minute can do any good, except that in the movie, there’s an idiot who’s suddenly thrown into a tragic situation, where he has to understand everything and really does understand everything, and the moment he does, his understanding becomes cathartic. The moment he becomes cogniscient of what happened, he’s freed of the burden the situation imposed on him, good instantly comes from evil, and his wife is saved.
I can’t deny that in this sense, human understanding can exert a sort of magical influence on the course of history or even on the cosmos, to the extent it grasps evil and, grasping it, expresses it or sublimates it—just as Thomas Mann said, that sometimes people make predictions precisely so that the events don’t take place.
But what if no one wants to see the evil? The events will still take place. If you don’t want to see, you let everything continue in the realm of mechanical sequences, through the causes that are in action independently of you and that will inevitably reach their finality. If you perceive and absorb this impact, it’s possible that your awareness of the situation will play a cathartic role that will benefit many human beings around you.
This is why generally, prophets and great mystics tend more to be sad than happy, because they understand what’s happening. They can forsee certain results that others can’t, and they already know what will lead to failure. Mohammed once saw a guy he knew was already in hell and that he couldn’t do anything for him, and so he wept. But that’s an extreme situation; you don’t have to see someone burning in hell. But it’s impossible for anyone not to foresee the dire predicament of some poor bastard in a gas chamber or before a firing squad. Meanwhile, in situations where that kind of end is fast approaching, most people wait until the last moment to become aware.
Every tragedy bears that element: either you want or don’t want to see. In the tragic literature of the ancient world, this failure to see did not imply guilt; ancient tragedies start from the principle that human intelligence has certain limitations. It’s an extreme case in which the individual, even doing everything he can to the best of his abilities, is still not able to understand. He then becomes an innocent victim on the cosmic stage.
But in the Christian realm, this is no longer admitted, and ignorance always bears a sense of guilt. That’s why the tragic genre did much flourish much here. In the Christian world, the one who doesn’t want to see is guilty. There’s always a margen of error: things always could turn out differently. There could well be a disastrous ending, but the disaster wouldn’t be a tragedy, because we’re not dealing with inescapable fate. A person can simply make a mistake. In a paradoxical way, guilt restores freedom, because in accepting guilt, a person conquers fate and destiny itself. And people today who make light of the Christian sense of guilt either fail to understand, or pretend not to, that the only alternative to Christian guilt is a return to tragic Greek fatality, where the innocent is always condemned. In other words, the enemies of the sense of guilt are the enemies of freedom.
There are different ways to understand the story of Adam and Eve. Did Adam and Eve err because of fatality, or did they have a choice? Could they face what was happening, or were they poor victims of circumstance? The Islamic interpretation of the story says that Adam had a moment of intellectual lapse, and that’s why Muslims don’t believe in original sin: where Adam erred, anyone would have. But it’s important to understand that the Islamic perspective, in this case, refers to the human species as a whole and not to the individual. When we’re talking about individual actions, guilt exists, most definitely. What Islam professes, deep down, is that Adam’s sin had a merely cognitive origin and wasn’t moral in the full sense.
The class recording stops there, abruptly. But I remember saying in closing that Sunrise, the work of a director who had studied philosophy, religion, symbolism and esoterism in depth, is the summit of artistic achievement, which the film industry has not since been able to surpass, precisely because in Sunrise the images plainly sum up, without any kind of enigmatic language, the highest questions in metaphysics, of destiny and of providence, with a subtlety worthy of Saint Augustine or Leibniz. I still maintain that Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is for me the greatest director of all time, until proven otherwise. • June 1997
Directed by F.W. Murnau Screenplay by Carl Mayer Based on the collection of short stories Die Reise Nach Tilsit (“The Excursion to Tilsit”) by Hermann Sudermann Cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss Music by Hugo Riesenfeld Edited by Harold D. Schuster Produced by William Fox
George O’Brien – The man Janet Gaynor – The wife Margaret Livingston – The woman from the city
If you wish to know more about the life and work of F.W. Murnau, check out these marvelous websites: