The latest issue of Precipitate: Journal of the New Environmental Imagination — which looks like an excellent issue — includes a review of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” that reminds me how important it is to pay attention to the dialogical and heteroglossic texture of Malick’s films, and how easy it is to lose the path when one puts too much weight on a single line of text.

The line in question is one of the first in the film, in which Jessica Chastain’s voice says, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.” Normally, when a filmmaker dangles a heavy-handed trope like this in front of the audience in a film’s first minute or two, the audience can be reasonably sure that the line will explain what the film is about. In this reviewer’s (editor Gwynne Middleton’s) interpretation, that line makes the film about the “self-oriented” and the “other-oriented,” “animal desire” versus “spiritual maturity.” In almost all the reviews I’ve read, “nature” is represented in the film by Jack’s self-possessed, hypocritical, and occasionally abusive father (Sean Penn), and “grace” by his selfless mother (Chastain).

But with Malick, things are never so simple. All of his films include voice-over narrations, sometimes by multiple voices, and sometimes (as in The Thin Red Line) by voices whose characters aren’t even clearly identifiable. These textual fragments rarely weave themselves into a singular and coherent commentary: they almost invariably clatter and clash against each other, revealing significant ellipses in the space between them and resulting in what Bakhtin called heteroglossia — a multi-voiced, polyphonic text in which the meaning emerges over time, in and through the differences, tensions, and diffractions/refractions between the individual lines. In fact, it’s not just the lines of text — it’s the images and emotional tones that play into this polyphonic, or heterophonic, tapestry of a Malick film.

So when Jack’s mother tells us of “the way of nature and the way of grace,” we ought to be prepared for that line to be contrapuntally outmaneuvered by others to come, such that grace and nature will be revealed to work not only on the side they are apparently being ascribed to (grace=mother, nature=father) but also on the other side, or that the duality comes apart upon closer inspection, and in any case that truth will emerge ambiguously through the quest for meaning that rises up out of the confluence of multiple currents of thought and expression.

Middleton recognizes that these things get reconciled (sort of) in the ambiguous final scenes at the beach. But the point for Malick, I think, is that the reconciliation is occurring through the film and long after it ends. It is a process that we ourselves are involved in, and like nature itself (with its dinosaurs and asteroids), it works organically (it is, after all, a Tree of Life) and unpredictably. It is openness. And the effort to seek reconciliation between the forces that always “wrestle within me,” as Jack puts it in another voice-over, is the growth of the titular tree.

So nature is opposed to grace only in the sense that life itself is made of tensions always in the process of wrestling (= secondness) and becoming reconciled (= thirdness). Without those tensions, no life, no process. All life is such relational process. Life itself is that. (In fact, apart from life itself, I’m not sure what else there is. Call me a vitalist, but one who acknowledges that organic life is only one form of livingness.) “Nature” is its arising as qualities and as the wrestling between them when they are actualized; “grace” is the dawning meaningfulness that emerges within the Open, the gap between one line and another, one image and another, one effort and another. It (grace, meaning, thirdness) is out of our hands, yet very much in their midst if those hands are open.

(Okay, so I’ve got a five-and-a-half month old son.)

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