Andrei Tarkovsky is considered by many to be one of the most important movie directors of all time. Andrei Tarkovsky’s work is often seen as a continuation of the great literary traditions of nineteenth century Russia, such as the works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Similar to these works, Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies have a strong philosophical connotation and they reflect the unique philosophy of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Although Tarkovsky did not often reveal the philosophical meanings of his movies, he did share with us some of his most important philosophical insights in his autobiographical work Sculpting in Time. In this article I will summarize and discuss Tarkovsky’s most important and interesting philosophical ideas. In the end I will discuss how these philosophical insights impacted Tarkovsky’s movies
The purpose of art
Tarkovsky attempted to acquire a better understanding of the meaning of man’s existence: “Even if the path towards knowledge is unending, no step that takes man nearer to a full understanding of the meaning of his existence can be too small to count.” (p.13) In order to do so, Andrei Tarkovsky did not believe that it was necessary to make far-fetched movies, instead, Tarkovsky believed that movies should be as close to real life as possible: “I am all for cinema being as close as possible to life – even if on occasion we have failed to see how beautiful life really is.” (p.22)
Andrei Tarkovsky believed that the main goal of all forms of art should be to explain to us the reasons for our existence: “The goal for all art – unless of course it is aimed at the ‘consumer’ […] is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.” (p.36) Tarkovsky observed that this is necessary because man is often occupied by the pursuit of an unattainable goal:
“Again and again man correlates himself with the world, racked with longing to acquire, and become one with, the ideal which lies outside him, which he apprehends as some kind of intuitively sensed first principle. The unattainability of that becoming one, the inadequacy of his own ‘I’, is the perpetual source of man’s dissatisfaction and pain.” (p.37)
Tarkovsky believed that art can be used as a means to, temporarily at least, escape from this unending struggle. Here we can also see an interesting connection between Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophy and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (You can find more information on Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy here: The Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer) Similar to Schopenhauer, Tarkovsky argued that art is a way to temporarily escape from the continues pursuit of happiness or certain other ideals. As Schopenhauer indicated in his book The World as Will and Idea, art is unique because it shows an object or event as it really is: “It plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it.” (p.108)
Art and Sacrifice
To be able to do so, art, according to Tarkovsky, requires a certain sacrifice from the artist: “In artistic creation the personality does not assert itself, it serves another, higher and communal idea.” (p.38) Modern man, however, according to Tarkovsky, is less and less willing to make such a sacrifice: “Even though true affirmation of self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of our human calling.” (p.38)
This self-sacrifice is necessary, according to Tarkovsky, because it is necessary for art to transcend the individual. In a sense, art will go on to live by its own laws, it will acquire its own meaning. This is a process which is only possible if the artist surrenders him or herself to his or her own creation. Andrei Tarkovsky used Leo Tolstoy’s works as an example. According to Tarkovsky, we can see that, whenever Tolstoy attempted to create a literary work which was supposed to fit into a certain framework, his own work often ended up contradicting his own framework: “We see how, every time, the artistic image he [Leo Tolstoy] has created as it were pushes aside its own ideological frontiers, refuses to fit into the framework imposed on it by its author, it argues with them, and sometimes, in a poetic sense, even contradicts its own logical system.” (p.41)
In this sense, according to Tarkovsky, art is a journey, a journey wherein one, at the beginning, does and should not yet know where it ends. Tarkovsky has a similar approach to happiness. It might be a bit of a cliché, but for Tarkovsky, happiness truly is a journey instead of a destination. Tarkovsky even argued that happiness cannot be anything but a journey, for, if it is attained, the individual might cease to exist:
“Real happiness, happy happiness, consists, as we know, in the aspiration towards that happiness which cannot but be absolute: that absolute after which we thirst. Let us imagine for a moment that people have attained happiness – a state of complete human freedom of will in the widest sense: at that very instant personality is destroyed.” (p.53)
Tarkovsky believed that the consequences would be far reaching: “Man becomes as solitary as Beelzebub. The connection between social beings is cut like the umbilical cord of a new-born infant. And consequently, society is destroyed. With the force of gravity removed, objects go flying off into space.” (p.53)
Similar to Carl Jung, Andrei Tarkovsky saw a certain value to the struggles which man may have while undertaking this journey. In particular, Tarkovsky observed that a spiritual crisis can often turn out to be beneficial:
“I believe that it is always through spiritual crisis that healing occurs. A spiritual crisis is an attempt to find oneself, to acquire new faith. It is the apportioned lot of everyone whose objectives are on the spiritual plane. And how could it be otherwise when the soul yearns for harmony, and life is full of discordance. This dichotomy is the stimulus for movement, the source at once of our pain and our hope: confirmation of our spiritual depths and potential.” (p.193)
Time and Memory
Andrei Tarkovsky also had an interesting perspective on time. According to Tarkovsky, time is necessary for man, because it is an important concept for him to develop his own individuality: “Time is a condition for the existence of our ‘I’. It is like a kind of culture medium that is destroyed when it is no longer needed.” (p.57) Moreover, Tarkovsky saw time not as lineal concept, instead, Tarkovsky considered time to be state: “Time is a state: the flame in which there lives the salamander of the human soul.” (p.57)
In this light, Tarkovsky considered memory to be a concept inseparable from the concept of time: “Time and memory merge into each other, they are like the two sides of a medal. It is obvious enough that without Time, memory cannot exist either.” (p.57) At the same time, Tarkovsky argued that memory has some important spiritual attributes:
“Memory is a spiritual concept! For instance, if somebody tells us of his impressions of his childhood, we can say with certainty that we shall have enough material in our hands to form a complete picture of that person. Bereft of memory, a person becomes a prisoner of an illusory existence; falling out of time he is unable to seize his own link with the outside world.” (p.57)
As indicated, Tarkovsky believed that the linear attribute of time is of less importance. Tarkovsky continued this argument by observing that the past is, in a sense, more real than the present or the future: “What does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present.” (p.58) this idea adds to the argument of Tarkovsky that time is a ‘state’: “I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implications is in fact turned back. Time cannot vanish without trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.” (p.58)
After conflicts with the Soviet authorities escalated, Tarkovsky had to live and work the last years of his life in exile in Western Europe. Tarkovsky had experienced both types of ‘freedom’, the one from the West and the one from the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky criticized both, arguing that true freedom can only come from the individual: “In order to be free you simply have to be so, without asking permission of anybody. You have to have your own hypothesis about what you are called to do, and follow it, not giving in to circumstances or complying with them.” (p.180) However, Tarkovsky acknowledged that it was not easy for an individual to acquire such a form of freedom: “But that sort of freedom demands powerful inner resources, a high degree of self-awareness, a consciousness of your responsibility to yourself and therefore to other people.” (p.180)
Therefore, Tarkovsky admired any individual who was capable of reaching this form of freedom: “I am drawn to the man who is ready to serve a high cause, unwilling – or even unable – to subscribe to the generally accepted tenets of a worldly ‘morality’; the man who recognizes that the meaning of existence lies above all in the fight against the evil within ourselves, so that in the course of a lifetime he may take at least one step towards spiritual perfection.” (p. 209) This argument relates to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche as well; Nietzsche also stressed the importance of the individual’s own private journey.
Similar to Nietzsche, Tarkovsky considered the only alternative as one of the worst possible outcomes for the individual: “For the only alternative to that way is, alas, the one that leads to spiritual degeneration; and our everyday existence and the general pressure to conform makes it all too easy to take the latter path.” (p.209)
Andrei Tarkovsky further believed that modern man, and perhaps society as a whole, stands at a crossroads:
“It seems to me that the individual today stands at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, a way that ultimately might mean not only his personal salvation but also the saving of society at large.” (p.218)
This crossroads can also be observed in the cinema, when one compares the movies of great artists such as Tarkovsky, whose focus lies on the exploration of the spiritual world of the individual, to those movies whose main objective it is to entertain and earn money.
According to Tarkovsky, man must make his own decision, however, the fate of the entire society might rest upon this decision, for it might bring an individual into a position from which he or she can help society: “He has to resolve this dilemma for himself, for only he can discover his own sane spiritual life. Resolving it may take him closer to the state in which he can be responsible for society. That is a step which becomes a sacrifice, in the Christian sense of self-sacrifice.” (p.218)
The importance of the Individual
From this discussion we can conclude that Tarkovsky attached great importance to the individual. Tarkovsky argued that the individual has an almost impossible responsibility, and that he or she should be wary of any other individual or institution trying to help the individual by taking over this responsibility. Andrei Tarkovsky refers to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (you can read more about the Grand Inquisitor here: The Grand Inquisitor), who argued that he was doing mankind a favour by taking upon himself the responsibility for the happiness and freedom of the individual. This might seem like a good deal, however, Tarkovsky argued that this has far-reaching consequences for the individual and for society as a whole:
“We ourselves have seen how the assertion of class or group interests, accompanied by the invocation of the good of humanity and the ‘general welfare’, result in flagrant violations of the rights of the individual, who is fatally estranged from society; and how, on the strength of its ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ basis in ‘historical necessity’ this process comes to be mistaken for the basic, subjective reality of people’s lives.” (p.232)
Tarkovsky believed that, as a result of the way in which society has developed; headed by the ideas of the ‘grand inquisitors’, man has lost touch with the role he has to play in society, and he has, according to Tarkovsky, come to the false conclusion that he does not have an important role to play: “He has been conditioned into the belief that nothing depends on him and that his personal experience will not affect the future, he has arrived at the false and deadly assumption that he has no part to play in shaping his own fate.” (p.235) Tarkovsky observed that the bond between the individual and society has been damaged to such an extend that man has to make a radical shift, and should one’s again return to his own soul:
“This requires that man should go back to believing in his soul and in its suffering, and link his own actions with his conscience. He has to accept that his conscience will never be at rest as long as what he does is at variance with what he believes; and recognise this through the pain of his soul as it demands he acknowledge his responsibility and his fault.” (p.235)
Tarkovsky concluded this discussion by arguing that any solution to this problem will demand a return to the idea of ‘personal responsibility’: “I am convinced that any attempt to restore harmony in the world can only rest on the renewal of personal responsibility.” (p.235)
The Connection between Tarkovsky’s Movies and his Philosophy
After discussing all these philosophical insights of Andrei Tarkovsky, it is of course interesting to discuss how these ideas had an impact on Tarkovsky’s movies. We have seen that Tarkovsky focused a lot on the importance of the individual. We can also observe this focus when it comes to the way in which Tarkovsky believed that the inspiration for movies should be found. Tarkovsky believed that this inspiration should come entirely from the individual, and that the inspiration should in no way be influenced by business considerations: “The artist’s inspiration comes into being somewhere in the deepest recesses of his ‘I’. It cannot be dictated by external, ‘business’ considerations. It is bound to be related to his psyche and his conscience; it springs from the totality of his worldview. If it is anything less, then it is doomed from the outset to be artistically void and sterile.” (p.188) In short, Tarkovsky believed that art can never be business.
Tarkovsky argued that many modern artists are pursuing the wrong goals: “Why are we afraid of being called to task when we embark on a film? Why do we start by taking out an insurance so that the picture will be as innocuous as it is meaningless? Is it not because we want to receive instant remuneration for our work in the form of cash and comfort?” (p.188)
When one watches Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, it is clear from the outset that they are not motivated by these reasons. Tarkovsky’s movies often have a unique pace, dialogue is scarce, and they address some complicated topics. Despite these characteristics, which might make it easy for one to argue that Tarkovsky’s movies are complicated and difficult to understand, Tarkovsky strongly opposed this viewpoint. Instead, Tarkovsky believed that no one is in any position to judge what the audience will or will not understand: “I have always been infuriated by the formula, ‘people won’t understand’. What does it mean? Who can take it upon themselves to express the ‘people’s opinion’, making declarations on their own behalf as if quoting the majority of the population? Who can know what people will or won’t understand? What they need or what they want?” (p.172)
The movies made by Andrei Tarkovsky are in many ways unique. When we study Tarkovsky’s philosophy carefully we can conclude that this is not a coincidence. Tarkovsky did not make movies to simply attract a large audience or earn a lot of money, instead, he wanted his audience to carefully reflect on their own individual lives: “I see it as my duty to stimulate reflection on what is essentially human and eternal in each individual soul, and which all too often a person will pass by, even though his fate lies in his hands. He is too busy chasing after phantoms and bowing down to idols.” (p.200)
Tarkovsky stressed the importance of the individual, and, as we have seen, argued that we should continue to stress the importance of the spiritual world of the individual, as well as the responsibility of the individual towards him or herself. According to Tarkovsky, no other individual or institution should take over this role from the individual. If this happens, society will move in the wrong direction, and the individual will inevitably lose his or her sense of meaning.