"Nostalgia for the Absolute" in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"

It is a sign of our deep-seated discontentment that we are often an envious, jealous, and anxious people. Yet, these discontented desires also signal a great truth about the human condition: we have a deep-seated desire for our lives to be fulfilling and meaningful. We gain a certain satisfaction for a time or place in our lives when things seem to make sense, or, when our lives seem to be as they ought to be. Hence, we use the term “nostalgia” in reference to the power of memory and the desire for a sense of “home.” To feel nostalgic is to be filled with memories which produce longing for that metaphysical sense of home, or, that place where fulfillment and significance meet.

Renowned literary critic George Steiner has famously used the phrase “nostalgia for the absolute” to describe the decline of the role of Christianity in the modern West, and the resulting vacuum that has been left to be filled by various secular messiahs (e.g., Freud, Nietzsche, Marx). For one to feel at home is to feel a sense of contentment, and to feel this sense of fit we strive for our existence to meaningfully cohere. To feel a continuing absence of contentment, then, signals that one feels not at home. Two defining ways in which we feel that lack of home is in our experience of suffering and loss, and in our propensity toward self-destruction. These two questions are at the forefront of Terrence Malick’s highly impressionistic The Tree of Life: why is there suffering and loss, and what causes self-destructiveness?

Terrence Malick’s film opens with a passage from Job 38 where God answers Job’s questions concerning his suffering with His own question: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This passage is important to the film’s depiction of both the universal and the particular. The film portrays nothing less than the universe coming into being, a magnificent sight which is depicted alongside the story of a 1950′s suburban Texas family. We learn early in the film that present-day Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are trying to deal with the unexpected death of their 19-year-old son. One line that is memorably uttered by Mrs. O’Brien is “where were you?” — a common plea to God among humankind, but made especially interesting when set in parallel to God’s “Where were you?” to Job. What follows are the beginnings of Jack O’Brien’s (Sean Penn) reminiscent wonder at the creation of the universe, and, subsequently, his memories revolving around childhood life at home.

Some critics have balked at the film’s grandiose imagery, complaining that while Malick’s ambitious work is beautiful, his inclusion of these scenes comes across as, at worst, pretentious, or, at best, too far removed from the more particular O’Brien narrative. While the criticism is understandable, I appreciate the ways in which Malick connects the universal with the personal. Based on the passage from Job, the film’s literal depiction of “the foundations of the earth” being laid seems, at least in part, an answer to the question of the O’Briens’ suffering. When God answers Job in this way, the response implies more than simply an acknowledgement of the human creature’s inability to understand the Creator’s purposes: the very act of Creation seems worthwhile to consider as a means of dealing with the pain of suffering.

That the Creation story parallels the O’Brien narrative is initially apparent in two notable ways. The first and most obvious way is that the birth of the cosmos mirrors Jack’s birth. Secondly, though, the evolutionary portrayal of the universe’s coming into being implies a sense of cultivated metamorphosis as part of God’s creative purposes. For example, we are also treated to scenes of Jack and his siblings learning to walk and to talk under the cultivation of their parents. There is a sense in which we — like the universe — were not created in an instant what we shall be. Existence, rather, means to be in a state of becoming. The question for Jack, then, is how did he come to feel homeless in the modern world, and what is he to become if he is to feel at home again? For this, he ponderously returns to memories of his life as a child with his family, a time when two opposing forces were being cultivated. But, first, we might do well to consider how our becoming might be crucially related to our origins.

While many critics have rightly focused on 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger as a significant influence on Malick’s work, the 19th Century Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — while by no means providing any sort of “key” of explanation to totally understand the mysteries of Malick’s work — provides an interesting angle of analysis to pursue, particularly as it relates to Jack’s despair and the role of “nature” and “grace” in the film. Not only was Kierkegaard’s philosophy influential on The Moviegoer — the Walker Percy novel which Malick is rumored to have adapted into a screenplay — but Malick also studied the Danish philosopher while working on his thesis in graduate school. Furthermore, Kierkegaard and Malick, by many accounts, share the commonality of Christian commitments.

One of the most foundational elements of Kierkegaard’s philosophy helps expand the consideration of the role of nature and grace in The Tree of Life, and how this dialectical theme might be related to Creation. In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard defines despair as the human creature’s attempt to ground his identity in anything other than the Creator. For Kierkegaard, part of being human means understanding that our very essence as human creatures is constituted by givenness. This has manifold implications, but two important ones to consider are precisely related to the macrocosmic and the microcosmic in Malick’s film. First, if we are part of God’s loving Creation, then we are constituted in our very nature by “gift.” And thus, secondly, we must consider the designs of the Giver. Hence, for Kierkegaard, one way for a person to feel “despair” is to be missing “the power to obey, to submit to the necessity in one’s life, to what may be called one’s limitations.” Though expressed in various ways, despair is ultimately for the human creature to not be in a relationship of personal faith with his Creator.  Kierkegaard’s brilliant anthropology is compelling to consider with regard to nature and grace. All of life — human beings, the natural world — is a gift. That is, there is a sense in which nature is brought to life via grace. Thus, on an individual level, if one does not accept this givenness which entails living graciously, and originates with Creation, then one is actually living in a way that is self-damaging.

On Kierkegaard’s terms, sin is using one’s freedom to reject grace, or the givenness of one’s existence. We might say that nature without grace is one’s living in dis-grace. The ultimate “fall from grace,” as it were, is thus also a significant loss of one’s identity, or sense of self. To understand who one is in the “here and now” — including an individual in a 1950′s suburban Texas town — one must consider the givenness of his or her origins on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Human nature, if fallen from Grace, is in defiance of Creation. An individual’s day-to-day life — and, thus, who that person is becoming — hinges upon his or her acceptance or rejection of existence as a Divine gift. We are either becoming more gracious or becoming more pridefully selfish.

Thus, upon hearing of the death of his brother, Jack soon turns to memories of his childhood, and wonders where he went wrong in order to understand what he has become. As it has been widely known since the release of the film’s trailer and plot summary, Jack’s father represents “the way of nature” and his mother represents “the way of grace”. The best way to describe Mr. O’Brien’s living according to the way of nature is to say that he is often self-absorbed. He is demanding, competitive, and seeks to inspire “fierce will” in his sons so that they can “get ahead in this world.” He covets status, wealth, and demands stringent obedience to his unflinching rule. Mr. O’Brien explicitly commands self-sufficiency; he wishes to be a sovereign who is in complete control. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien tends to allow her sons room to enjoy, to play, and to grow. She exudes kindness and a sense of calm contentment. She is often shown giving of herself for the sake of her family. In one voiceover, Mrs. O’Brien can be heard saying, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them… The Nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” She implicitly — by her gracious example, and in contrast with her husband — commands love.

There has been much critical discussion about the use of nature and grace in the film. I want to suggest that Malick is not depicting a simple dualism whereby nature is bad and grace is good. I think it reasonable to assert that in the film, “nature” is nature without grace, but grace is almost certainly not grace without nature. Grace is never disembodied, and I’m not sure what would lead one to think Malick wants anything to do with a disembodied grace. Rather, it seems more likely that the rupture between nature and grace leaves all of nature in a state of disarray that needs to be restored.

While there is certainly a human side to Mr. O’Brien — he thinks he is doing what is best for his boys, seeks to provide for his family, and exemplifies a strong work ethic — his interactions with his family consistently lack the character of grace. The consequence of his self-centeredness is perhaps nowhere more acutely felt than in the scene where one of his sons — possibly speaking for a family fed up with his disciplinarian ways — dares to defy him at the dinner table and ever so quietly tells him to “be quiet.” Mr. O’Brien’s response is not to punish the child in a way that we might imagine. Instead, he clears every member of his family out of the room and furiously eats dinner at the table, alone. His dis-grace is apparent: the desire to be a self-made man has produced in Mr. O’Brien a prideful desire to be the all-in-all of his own existence.

Jack, who receives the brunt of Mr. O’Brien’s hardness, struggles at first over whether to be like his father or his mother, but bitterness toward his father leads him to become increasingly violent and demanding. He is slowly beginning to want what his father wants for him: to be his own boss. A defining scene in which Jack begins to mirror the alienating ways he has observed in his father is when, after trespassing and stealing from a neighbor’s house, Jack shamefully returns home and does not want to look at his mother or be in her sight. His sin and shame create a distance between them. Whether it is Jack or his father, the implications seem apparent: sin, which we might call self-absorption, alienates the person from intimacy with other people. It is the antithesis of grace and love, which seek the good of the other by the creative giving of one’s self. Grace is creative, producing love and contentment; sin is anti-creative, producing alienation and self-destructiveness.

However, there is another memory which may allow Jack to reunite with grace, to feel at home again. After maliciously shooting his brother in the finger with a pellet gun, Jack feels shameful again, but this time he seeks a punishing form of penance from his brother: Jack gives his brother permission to hit him. His brother thinks about it, but instead of perpetuating violence, he undermines it by offering Jack forgiveness. That term — for-giveness — is an interesting one to consider, for it implies that to pardon another person freely is to make that individual whole again. It is to return the dis-graced back to the state of givenness. It is this particular memory of his now-deceased brother offering him forgiveness — coupled with Mr. O’Brien eventually asking for his forgiveness as well — that seems to set modern-day Jack on a path toward “home.”

The ending of the film has been much debated and widely panned. Portions of the film’s conclusion do fall flat because, for many people, it features some form of an imagined afterlife. What was disappointing about this presumed afterlife was that, visually, it did not compare to the sight of Malick’s real world. That is to say, Malick’s films tend to depict Creation in such a way that it is as if we are being introduced to what the New Earth will look like. If his afterlife simply features aimless people on a beach, then the sight pales in comparison to the luminous imagery we typically enjoy in his films.

But if viewed metaphorically — not as a metaphor for the afterlife, but as a metaphor for Jack’s coming to faith — these scenes take on a more satisfying significance. Preceding this scene on a beach, Jack is shown wandering alone through a desert. There is a sense in which this is his alienated life in the modern world, a metaphor for his lost soul. Continuing that metaphor, Jack’s walking through an open door, climbing a ladder, and joining his family and a host of others on the beach would all seem to indicate a step of faith — and perhaps a more cosmic form of forgiveness. The metaphorical mask of the self that Jack has created with disregard for grace has been discarded; the disguise created in his dis-grace has been disrobed. Jack has indeed returned to grace — a restoration of his true nature.

And two of the film’s final shots seemed essential to understanding the relationship between nature and grace that I believe is depicted in the film. One shot focuses on a skyscraper reflecting the majestic sky above, while the very last image we see is of a large, modern bridge depicted in a way that highlights its role as a way of passage. In these shots, we do not see grace triumphant over nature. Rather, we see grace reflected in nature, and are left to wonder at the coming reconciliation of all things created.

Many critics — myself included — have used the word “impressionistic” to describe Malick’s aural, visual, and intellectual feast. The most lasting impression that the film inspired in me was a sense of awe at both the beauty of creation and the inherent contingency of my own existence upon that creation. I’m quite certain that this film will leave a wide variety of impressions amongst its viewers. It is certainly a film that inspires intensely personal memories, reactions, and emotions. Malick invites us to bring our own unique experience of family life, and we’re left to wonder to what extent nature and grace has been cultivated in our own lives. Have we failed to “notice the glory” like Mr. O’Brien? Or has the symphony of grace all around us de-centered our tendency to live a self-focused existence?

If Malick’s film is as centered on “Gift” as I believe it is, then evangelicals would do well to reconsider the propensity to underestimate the role and power of grace in all of life by narrowing it to its specific role in the salvation process. By doing so, we actually undervalue the power of salvation or new birth. In a complaint that is relevant both to salvation and to the question of God’s whereabouts in our suffering, some Christians have criticized the absence of Christ in the film. (As if He must be explicitly mentioned — was He in Job?) And yet, if they were to look closely, in the scene depicting a preacher giving a sermon on Job, the camera lingers, if only for a fleeting second or two, on a stained-glass portrayal of Christ. And at the end of the film, when we hear “I give you my son,” we are moved not just by Mrs. O’Brien’s willingness to accept the suffering that has befallen her, but also by the parallel reason as to why we can take comfort: we have been given His Son. Where is God when we suffer? He is here among us — not just with us in our suffering, but having suffered for us. For those of us in the Faith, the memory of this cosmic form of grace and forgiveness is sufficient for our “nostalgia for the absolute” to be a forward-yearning — together a great family of not only memory, but also Hope — until we are Home in the fullest sense.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://blog.christianitytoday.com/women/2009/03/karen_swallow_prior.html Karen Swallow Prior

    This was really thoughtful and insightful, worthy of the movie itself which, too, is rich, contemplative, and probing. Thank you for treating with such love and care a film well-worthy of that.

  • http://www.experiencepoints.net Jorge

    I had tweeted a few weeks back about wanting to see what Christ and PC would say about ‘Tree of Life.’ This is an excellent analysis of a fantastic film. It was well worth the wait and I’m glad I hunted it down well after it was posted. Keep up the good work.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks, Jorge. I appreciate it – glad you enjoyed the review, but, more importantly, the film!

  • Justin

    Excellent take on ‘Tree of Life.’ Looking forward to reading some more of your reviews.

  • Michael

    I really appreciated your thoughts, Nick. I thought it might interest you to know that the text of the pastors sermon an hour into the film is taken directly from Soren Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourse “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” published in 1843. I noticed his use of the word “disquietude” the first time I saw the film as sounding very Kierkegaard like and looked it up after seeing it a second time. If you’re interested you can find that discourse in Howard and Edna Hongs translation of K’s discourses, “Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses”.

  • Nick

    Thanks for reading, Justin (and, wow, I need to check comment streams periodically)!

    Michael, thank you, too. I had no idea that the sermon was from SK’s Upbuilding Discourses, and, yes, I find that fascinating. I confess that it makes me feel a little better about bringing SK into the discussion. As you can tell by my prefacing and asides above, I was a little nervous about doing that.

    It also makes me want to watch again, because I’ve read one or two critics comment on The Tree of Life as having “stages” that are marked by that light of sorts that appears a couple of times.

    I’m eager to read the specific discourse now, and yeah, the Hongs are the best way to go as far as translations go. Thanks for the heads up!


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