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Essay

LAST NIGHT I watched—mesmerized, despite its near three-hour length—Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a minimalist science fiction epic set in a dreary, bombed-out industrial wasteland. The title does not derive from the contemporary connotation of sexual predator, but goes back to the sort of guide who leads hunters to where game can be found. In fact, the script deliberately associates its stalker with the James Fenimore Cooper character Natty Bumppo, who is known as “Deerstalker.”

In the film the stalker leads people into the Zone, a heavily fortified area guarded by machine-gun nests and roving patrols. Some years back, it seems, something—meteorite or spaceship—crashed there, leaving a device known as the Room, which apparently grants the wishes of those who enter it. There are those willing to try to get past the perimeter, but for this they need a stalker. The stalker’s services are required not only because the authorities have sealed off the Zone but because the site has strange distortions of space and time, making any direct approach to the mysterious room impossible. Since Tarkovsky provides almost no exposition, some of these details have to be pieced together. But it helps to explain strange little gestures, such as the stalker’s habit of tying bits of metal to pieces of cloth and tossing them ahead, as if to test for anomalies in the space-time continuum.

On this particular journey the stalker leads two men into the Zone; he calls them Professor and Writer, and they come to represent two distinct ways of looking at the world, that of science and art. The professor ostensibly wants to win the Nobel Prize (or at least gain the recognition of his colleagues) while the writer seeks inspiration. But the stalker reminds them that the Room grants only one’s innermost wishes, and soon deeper, more complex motives begin to emerge. So do fears and defenses: one of the men is carrying a gun while the other has a suicide pill.

One might be tempted to idealize the stalker, but throughout the film he is an abject character, anxious and divided. Like Natty Bumppo, he is more at home in the Zone—a lush, wet, green place, despite the litter and waste that mar it—than in the gray world of the city. His daughter has been maimed by something he has picked up while in the Zone, and his wife suffers through his absences. Not everyone who ventures into the Zone survives, and that includes stalkers.

But for all his anxiety and suffering, the stalker possesses a kind of reverence for his task. He is a beggar, a suppliant, before a mystery. The professor calls him, somewhat scornfully, “God’s fool,” a term that had great resonance in the Russian culture Tarkovsky inherited and contains echoes of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with its own holy fool, Alyosha. At one point in the journey, as the stalker approaches a deep pool, he utters something like a prayer:

May everything come true. May they believe. May they laugh at their passions. For that which they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outer world. But mostly may they have hope and may they become as helpless as children. For weakness is great and strength is worthless.

Of course, Andrei Tarkovsky was shaped by the experience of living under Soviet totalitarianism, which attempted to outlaw religious faith, so the professor and writer represent to him the failure of the two noblest human enterprises left to him—reason and imagination—while the stalker takes on religious connotations. If Tarkovsky had lived long enough to contemplate a remake of his own film, he might have added a fourth figure—the religious fanatic—to his band of pilgrims. Honesty compels the admission that ideological religion itself has emerged in a particularly fearsome way as one of the new forms of alienation from, and disdain for, mystery—and not merely in the Islamic world.

As I reflect this morning on the past two decades of publishing Image, I’d like to believe that this journal has been a place hospitable to contemporary stalkers, to those who throw probes out toward the mystery, those who know that to approach mystery is a long, arduous pilgrimage, best undertaken by those who know themselves to be beggars and fools.

Image was founded because the professor, the writer, and the fanatic are too much with us. Reason, imagination, and faith have gone their own ways, and the fragmentations and distortions that follow in the wake of that dreadful separation continue to haunt us. Without all three of these capacities we are less than fully human.

The path toward reintegration will require its own lengthy journey, because the interests surrounding these warring fiefdoms are powerful and entrenched. Nonetheless, many people do not feel represented by any of them and are in search of their own Zone. Many carry scars from past experiences, often inflicted by religion, making the road that much longer.

Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a group biography about Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy, took up this subject in a recent essay in Commonweal. Though Elie wrote about the state of Catholic literature, his essay resonates beyond denominational boundaries. He praises O’Connor’s insight into the postmodern world—its sense of displacement and uncertainty—but points out that her confidence in church teaching as a countervailing force is precisely what contemporary writers lack, even writers who consider themselves to be believers.

To shed light on the present Elie employs a distinction made by the Victorian Matthew Arnold between a creative age and a critical one. Elie sees the era of O’Connor and the other three figures as a creative age, energized by modern secularism but confident in its faith. With the tremendous cultural shifts that took place in the 1960s and 70s, he believes we entered a critical age, characterized not by O’Connor’s self-described mission “to make belief believable” but by skepticism—by the need to step back and, in Arnold’s words, “to see the object as in itself it really is.” The religious writer in a critical age starts from her own problems with the church, and her scrutiny can be anguished and harsh.

Elie is deeply sympathetic with the predicament of such writers, yet he is uncomfortable with the critical sensibility. His conclusion is bleak. Arguing that intransigent church authorities are making the problem worse, he blames them for causing these writers to doubt the existence of God. He says that the current critical age is coming to an end, yet he is unsure whether a creative age will follow. We are living, he says, in a state of arrested development, the artist of faith paralyzed by Vatican pronouncements. Perhaps he thinks we’re in Limbo.

While I have profound respect for Elie’s many gifts, I cannot agree with his conclusions, and I believe the last twenty years of Image journal contain much of the evidence I need to make my case. In an earlier editorial in these pages I made my own distinction between religious writers of O’Connor’s generation and our own. Alluding to O’Connor’s statement that “for the hard of hearing you have to shout,” I contrasted “shouts” with the “whispers” of the current generation of writers. It is possible to be nostalgic for shouts, as many of my conservative friends are, but for a religious tradition based on the wisdom of the “still, small voice” I think it unwise to say that one mode is clearly better than the other.

Appealing as big concepts like “creative” and “critical” ages may be, they tend to break down under examination. Both impulses are at work at any given time; both are necessary for a healthy culture—or church, for that matter.

One of the editorial policies Image has followed from the beginning is the belief that our pages should contain both artists and writers who are grounded in faith communities and those who remain outside. Moreover, we’ve been interested in work that seems to us to grapple with religious questions even when their makers profess no faith at all.

This hasn’t always been the easiest course to steer. Some would like Image to become little more than a highbrow outpost of the culture wars. And I suspect that certain artists have refrained from contributing to our pages because they fear being co-opted into a community that makes them uneasy.

Image is not a thesis-driven publication, unless creating a space for a perennial set of questions—stalkings, as it were—constitutes a thesis. That is also why we have refrained from backing a single artistic style as salvific—or a particular political agenda or religious subculture. After twenty years, it can be argued that the sheer diversity of work that Image has published demonstrates the persistence of the religious sense among those who make art—an ongoing struggle to integrate faith, reason, and imagination.

Elie is right to point out that many “critical” writers have turned to nonfiction to work out their agonistic relationship to church and belief. But he misses the most prominent themes of this nonfiction writing: stories of recovered faith, faith clung to despite the odds, and new conversion stories. What makes these narratives so compelling is that they are hard won, precisely because they seek to “see the object as in itself it really is.” Needless to say, our pages have shown this to be true of all the art forms.

Where the editors of Image have come close to a thesis is our conviction that the effort to be fully human cannot ultimately be undertaken in solitude. Though there are many forces in our culture that lead us, willingly or unwillingly, to reduce religion to a merely private experience—to “spirituality”—this is to rob it of meaning and to surrender to solipsism. We believe that the Jewish and Christian roots of our culture, though tainted by terrible sins of omission and commission, can and should be renewed by reason and imagination. As any artist should know, you cannot have content without a form. To reject institutions, to refuse to reform them and be formed by them, is a counsel of despair.

In the two decades that Image has been publishing, the gatekeepers of culture have become less aggressively secular, but the myth that enduring art inspired by faith is a thing of the past has not gone out of circulation. It is still possible for a reviewer in the New Republic to write: “the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is.” That is the sort of blinkered view that occurs when people begin to believe their own propaganda.

In Tarkovsky’s film the professor and the writer are not held up for vilification; they speak for pathways to truth that we can never abandon. They may enter the Zone with mixed motives, but they go anyway. Whatever their heads may tell them, their hearts desire is to draw close to mystery. The religious sense is part of what it means to be fully human. Image will continue to present the best writing and art that speak to this ineradicable desire of the human heart.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • David W. Landrum

    Excellent thoughts! I like the concept of modern writers who “whisper” and do not shout. I don’t particularly like the older method of shouting (though not to like Flannery O’Conner seems almost a heresy among contemporary writers who profess faith). I am much more drawn to the still, small voice, if you will, of modern writers of faith. Very good thoughts and an encouraging and enlightening essay to read on a morning in a coffee bar where I’ve settled down to write! Keep them coming!

    • Image Journal Staff

      It’s okay, David, we won’t tell anyone how you really feel about Flannery O’Connor. 😉 We’re also drawn to the still, small voice in modern writing. We’re glad you found this essay fruitful! Thanks for reading!

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