“Arrival” (November, 2016)

This review originally appeared in the FYP Newsletter, Spring 2017. Read the complete issue here.

I hope that it might be possible to recommend the recent film Arrival (2016) to readers of this FYP Newsletter, despite its falling into the broad category of what we know as “science fiction”.  Also — this is not really a “spoiler alert” — since this is how the film opens — it needs to be said that story has a very sad “beginning.”   Arrival can, however, be warmly recommended since it deals with complex questions concerning language and communication, and the narrative is supported by breathtaking shots of Montana, and by an extraordinary and haunting film score.

We do not read Heinrich Heine in FYP, but he was broadly influential for some of the great figures of the nineteenth century that we do study.  One of his most famous poems, “Loreley”, presumably has found some purchase in our popular culture through the seven seasons following the vicissitudes of Lorelei Gilmore.  The name “Loreley” apparently means “murmuring rock”, since the original “Loreley” was a siren, who brought sailors to their ruin as a result of shipwrecks on the River Rhine.

It is thought that Heine exercised a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche.  In a work of Heine’s, which Nietzsche possessed, Heine speculates that since “time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite… these particles, these atoms have their determinate number… [so that] according to the eternal laws” the same configurations of matter will reappear, and the individual situations in which we find ourselves will (inevitably) be repeated.  Obviously, Nietzsche’s discussion of “the eternal return of the like” goes a long way beyond this bizarre speculation, but I was reminded of it while watching Arrival.

In the film, Louise, the heroine (and linguist) tells her daughter:

So, Hannah, this is where your story begins…. Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.

I want to stress that there is no way in which Hannah’s mother is a Nietzschean; but her statement does carry within it something of the positive dynamic of Nietzsche’s fundamental project to find an answer to pessimism.  Nietzsche’s affirmation of life, as it is, and as it is lived, finds a certain kind of echo here.

Louise asserts (in the film) that the life she has together with Hannah, be it long or short, infinitely surpasses and exceeds any of the human tragedies which will inevitably occur, and which provide the defining conditions under which, and only which, human life can be lived.

Just a few months before his death, Hegel, the famous Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin (and the object of Nietzschean polemic), wrote a letter of condolence to his friend, Heinrich Beer, having just learned late on the same day of the untimely death of Beer’s son.

Hegel, of course, says that he wished to have been with his friend, to offer sympathy and to be present in the face of this insupportable loss of a beloved son.  But then Hegel continues, had he learned the news earlier:

I could only have asked you what I myself asked my wife in the face of a similar though early loss of what was then our only child.  I asked whether she could bring herself to prefer never having had the joy of knowing this child at all to the happiness of having had such a child at its most beautiful age and then losing it… Your joy has now passed.

I often think of this passage, and believe it contains that same principle of “life affirmation” that so recently (and helpfully) surfaced in a popular and successful American film.

Goethe 1982 Andy Warhol 1928-1987

Goethe (whom we do read in FYP) and Hegel met probably a dozen times or more, and perhaps there was an occasion in which Goethe had the opportunity to convey to Hegel his chief principle:

Nothing is worth more than this day

… which is to say, that there is nothing (in this world or out of it) that can take precedence over having lived, and living now.

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