The Miracle of Gravity

You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?

As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.

The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.

Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.

Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.

It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.

As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.

If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.

Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”

As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.

So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray. 

This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.

The Tourist and the Pilgrim

Perhaps it is not the soul of the one whose photograph is taken that the camera steals, but rather the soul of the one who takes the picture.

What does it mean to be a tourist?

I thought about this often while spending two weeks out of the country being just that, a tourist. Sitting in front of one more cathedral, I think it was, having assaulted the structure with my camera and waiting to move on to the next target, I wondered whether someone had written something like a philosophy of tourism. I was certain someone must have; Alain de Botton surely. Every book I’ve ever imagined turned out already to have been written, often numerous times over.  I was sure this one was no exception. In any case, I didn’t plan to write that book. It was only a question occasioned by the nagging feeling that there was something fundamentally disordered about the experience we call tourism.

We know, of course, that there are many kinds of tourists ranging from the obnoxiously oblivious who seem to gleefully embrace the worst elements of the stereotype, to the ironically self-conscious who take pains to avoid appearing as a tourist at all. Most of us, as tourists that is, probably fall somewhere in between. For my part, I had little interest in pretending to be other than I was. And I certainly was not going to stop taking pictures in order to avoid appearing as a tourist.

In fact, I suffer from a severe case of camera eye. I would not claim to be an amateur photographer, as that might imply too high a level of photographic savvy, but I do enjoy taking pictures — many, many pictures. My wife tells me that she knows before I pull out the camera that I am about to do so because I get a certain look on my face that says, “That’s a good shot I’ve got to have.” I have no doubt that this is the case. I’ve frequently used the experience of walking around with a digital camera as an illustration of the way a technology can alter our experience merely by having it in hand. I use this example principally because I know its existential force all too well.

This photographic compulsion led me to think of being a tourist as a spectrum of activity defined by the degree to which the eye dominates the experience. On one end, seeing is all; the other is multi-sensory. Perhaps it is toward the visual end that most tourists naturally gravitate. You go to see sights. You are told that you must see this, that, and the other thing. You haven’t really been to X if you haven’t seen Y. And so on it goes. It is, more often than not, sight that first mediates our experience of any place. Further, if what there is to see is new or strange or majestic or stunning, we will continue to equate being there with seeing. And wanting to render the ephemeral visual experience durable we will seek to capture it with photographs burdened all the while by the realization that our pictures will always disappoint.

Clearly, then, I tend toward this end of spectrum. But even I recognize that seeing is not the only way to experience a place, or even the best way. And so I try to listen and to smell. From time to time I will touch a building to feel the place. And, of course, there is the tasting. The camera captures none of this, and so there is nothing to do but to put it away and sit and observe, with all the senses, this place and these people and the dynamic reality we call culture that emerges from their interaction. To “take it all in” as is it is sometimes put.

But even at this multi-sensory end of the spectrum, there is something that did not quite sit right with me. I kept thinking that in the end it is all still driven by the impulse to consume, precisely to take in and take away. It was as those tribesmen feared; with the camera I was hunting for the soul of the place, somehow to disassociate it from the material space and absorb it into myself. And even when I set the camera aside and sought to capture the full sensory experience, the impulse was still the same. How can it be otherwise? The essence of tourism is not merely spatial; it is also temporal. A tourist is not simply someone who goes to a different place, but someone whose experience of that place will be temporary. The experience of tourism is always defined by the nearness of its end. And so always conscious that I can be in this place only so much longer, I try to hard to take it in, which is to say, to consume it.

In this mode, there is little thought for what one might give to the place or how one might spend themselves in the place/for the place, or for the people of the place. There is little thought for how the place might transform the traveler either. The place is assimilated to the self and it becomes another vehicle of self-expression and self-fulfillment.

While thinking about what a book on the philosophy of tourism might encompass and what historical antecedents it might survey, it seemed obvious that it would have to reckon with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage had already been on my mind. In fact, pilgrimage is never far from my mind as a resonant metaphor for the religious life.  But the idea of pilgrimage was nearer than usual after having serendipitously watched The Way just two days before embarking on my own less symbolically fraught journey.

The Way is a 2010 film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. The father and son pair play a father and son. Early in the film, Sheen’s character travels to France to recover the body of his son played by Estevez. Upon arriving in France, he discovers that his son died while having just begun the famed pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain where the body of the Apostle James is reportedly buried. This discovery propels Sheen’s character to undertake the same journey with the ashes of his son in tow. Along the way he is joined by an unlikely set of three fellow pilgrims and the film tells the story of their transformation on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

It is not a profound film, but that is the worst one can say about it I think. It is an earnest film that manages to blend lovely scenery and charming characters in its gesture toward the profound. Along their premodern pilgrim way, the characters flash their postmodern sensibilities by engaging in a running debate about what constitutes authentic pilgrimage. Does making the trek on a bicycle negate the authenticity of the journey? Does recourse to credit cards? The modern hiking gear?

As the film makes plain, many now undertake the pilgrimage with very different motives than their medieval predecessors thus raising the question of authenticity. We can imagine that those most eager to define the authentic pilgrim experience might formulate their concern as an effort to protect the purity of the pilgrimage against the tourist ethos that animates so many that are now on the way. The zeal for purity stems from a desire to shield the experience from the encroachment of commodification and the dynamic of consumerism.

In the end, the film seems to suggest that whatever one’s motives, the road will have its own way. None of the pilgrims whose paths the film follows receive what they expected or desired, but each is transformed. We might say that it is they who have been consumed by the journey. Thinking about the film, it occurred to me that the better, more interesting spectrum placed tourism on one end and pilgrimage on the other.

The way of the tourist is to consume; the way of the pilgrim is to be consumed. To the tourist the journey is a means. The pilgrim understands that it is both a means and an end in itself. The tourist and the pilgrim experience time differently. For the former, time is the foe that gives consumption its urgency. For the latter, time is a gift in which the possibility of the journey is actualized. Or better, for the pilgrim time is already surrendered to the journey that, sooner or later, will come to its end. The tourist bends the place to the shape of the self. The pilgrim is bent to shape of the journey.

Finally, it seemed to me that this was all about more than the literal trips we take for we are all, in a different sense, on the way. In our time of abandonment, home for most must now be a mythic place touched only by hope. We are untethered, unencumbered, uprooted. Under these conditions we have only to decide whether we are on the way as tourists or as pilgrims.


The opposition of consuming to being consumed is borrowed from William Cavanaugh. Hope in Time of Abandonment is the title of a book by Jacques Ellul.

Love and the Beauty of Our Lowly Bodies

“They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves.”
— Michel de Montaigne 

Wim Wenders’ beautifully wrought Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) depicts a world populated by human beings and angels.  We cannot ordinarily see or hear them, although children seem to be more attuned to their presence.  They see us and hear our thoughts.  They were here before us and they awaited our coming.  Now they watch and bear witness.  They, however, cannot touch or feel, taste or smell.  They have no weight.  In a particularly touching scene, Cassiel (Otto Sander), one of two angels through whose eyes we experience the film, is unable to prevent a suicide.  Driven by curiosity or empathy or more likely both, Cassiel imitates the fall but his weightless plummet can do him no harm.

Cassiel along with Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over East Berlin in the 1980’s, and through their witness to the lives of the human beings they are tasked to watch we are invited to pay lavish attention to the details of embodied life with all its attendant joys and sorrows.  Jeffrey Overstreet describes what he calls the “movie’s leisurely, telepathic stroll” which “takes us out of our pell-mell experience of life and all its worries, and it restores to us the balanced view of each moment, reacquainting us with the childlike joy of physical sensation and the holy contemplation of meaning in each tactile detail.”

The theme of childhood runs throughout the film which opens with a voiceover of Peter Handke’s “Song of Childhood”:

“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”

And so on it goes. At first thought, the theme suggests, perhaps, an innocence shared by children and angels. On second, wonderment. Wonder that leads to desire. Damiel expresses the correlation between desire and the body when he longs “to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck.” Earlier when comparing notes, as it were, with Cassiel, he reports:

“A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence…. It’s great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people.”

But this patient observation, this wonder yields desire:

“But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever.’ To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod…. Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat…. Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper…. To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to “suspect”, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’.”

Damiel desires the desires that can only be realized in the body. Again Overstreet:  “There is a woman, a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a traveling circus, who captures his attention. But this infatuation is more than most you’ll see in onscreen romances. Damiel is truly moved by her entire person: her innermost thoughts, doubts, struggles, and courage. But it’s not merely platonic appeal: she’s a beauty, no doubt about it.”  And so Damiel, with the unlikely help of Peter Falk (playing himself) falls. But his is not the usual sort of angelic fall. It is not a Luciferian fall away from God in rebellion, it is a fall into embodiment (quite literally depicted in the film).  It is not a fall occasioned by resistance to limits, but one that seeks to embrace them. Eric Mader-Lin’s reflections on the theme of falling in Wings of Desire is worth quoting at length:

In this dialogue, in its contrast between the two kinds of yearning, human and angelic, the film affirms a new kind of spirituality, one that is paradoxically both material and spiritual, an affirmation of the necessary and permanent tension between the two: the meaninglessness of the one without the other.

One of the motifs through which Wenders develops this tension is that of falling. We’ve always imagined that transcending the limits of our earthbound lives meant rising up: all that is banal or merely mortal would be left behind if we could only take flight ….

The angel Damiel, in his growing desire to fall into humanity, becomes more and more fascinated with Marion. We see her through his eyes and hear her thoughts through his ears. Eventually Damiel truly falls from his angelic state and comes together with Marion. What does it mean that the film’s last scene shows Marion again practicing trapeze while Damiel, erstwhile angel, holds the rope that anchors her to earth? She didn’t need to renounce her art after all. A new balance between heaven and earth has been established, a balance which, this time, is effected through the love between man and woman.”

Damiel’s fall into enbodiment prompted by desire is an evocative reminder of the beauty and love proper to the life of body. And from time to time we do good to remind ourselves of such things, particularly in an age that in its rhetoric and practice too often disparages the humble body and its limitations.

Midnight in Paris: Learning to Live With the Past

The past may be a foreign country where they do things differently as the L. P. Hartley line has it, but it is one to which many would readily immigrate given the opportunity. If you are among them, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris will likely enchant and delight you. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.) Gil, the main character played charmingly by Owen Wilson, and his fiancée tag along with her parents who have come to Paris on a business trip. She and her parents are crassly materialistic, he is a romantic — a romantic in love with the city, particularly its Jazz Age past. Having been a successful, but disenchanted Hollywood film writer he is determined to write real literature, even if it means surrendering the upscale lifestyle his fiancée craves. While they shop for chairs that cost as much as a moderately priced four-door sedan, he frequents outdoor shops that sell vintage vinyl records and works on his novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. The theme of his would-be novel tracks closely with Gil’s own sensibilities. He obsesses over the past and its artifacts, and his obsession is an index of his dissatisfaction with the present.

Without even a gesture toward explantation, and all the better for it, a vintage Peugeot filled with revelers stops to pick up Gil just after a clock has struck midnight. Gil, with some hesitation, joins the merry crowd and finds himself transported back to the 1920’s and the Paris of his dreams. Endearingly awestruck throughout the experience, he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, and a host of other luminaries just entering into the fullness of their legend. Each night he rides into the past, and each morning he finds himself again in the present, a progressively unfulfilling present.

When he is in the past, Gil comes alive. The characters are inspired: Adrien Brody plays a delightfully quirky Salvador Dali and Corey Stoll is almost absurdly intense as Hemingway. Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein provides Gil with straightforward counsel regarding life and writing. Gil, as he becomes increasingly at ease in the past, offers Luis Buñuel a suggestion for a film in which guests find themselves unable to leave a room. Buñuel, perplexed, wonders why they cannot simply walk out.  He also finds in Picasso’s lover Adriana, a woman who stirs his heart and a kindred spirit. Simply put, the past rekindles Gil’s passion.

Yet, Allen finally wants to critique nostalgia and reaffirm the present. The film builds up to an overly didactic moment when Gil, realizing that he cannot remain in the past indefinitely, launches into a not quite moving appreciation of the present. Allen foreshadows the moment throughout the film. While delivering one of his impromptu lectures, Paul, a pedantic intellectual and friend of Gil’s fiancee, pontificates about the “Golden Age Fallacy,” the unsubstantiated belief that the greatness  of some prior historical era eclipses the present, a chronological version of the grass is always greener. The character of Adriana is herself unimpressed with the ’20s and nostalgic for 1890s Paris, La Belle Époque. When Gil and Adriana, Inception-like, delve even further into the past via horse-drawn carriage they meet up with Degas, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec just as La Belle Époque commences.  But we find those  artists similarly dismissive of their own age believing it pales in comparison with the Renaissance. And it is then that Gil realizes the futility of inordinately longing for another age.

He returns to the present, reorders his life, and walks off happily ever after in the Paris rain. And we, likewise, leave the theater, returning to our own present, cured of our nostalgic longings, and determined to seize the moment. Yet, the film lingers in our minds and as we revisit it, we find ourselves charmed. It works its magic as we turn it over in our memory. Wasn’t the “Golden Age Fallacy” introduced by the most unlikeable, pompous character in the film? Wasn’t the past portrayed in delightful, vivacious, enchanting fashion? Wasn’t Gil, in fact, nourished and invigorated by his dalliances with the past? While Gil chose to return to his present, did not Adriana choose to stay in La Belle Époque? Finally, wasn’t Gil’s other climatic epiphany (that I will not spoil) revealed in the past?

Certainly, the past is shown to be complex and disordered in its own way. In one of the few more sober scenes, Gil and Adriana, on a moonlit stroll through the city, come upon Zelda Fitzgerald very near to taking her own life. Yet, even here there is ambiguity. Gil offers Zelda Valium which we learn he has been taking to cope with the anxieties of an impending wedding. Are we to conclude that while the past bequeaths great art and literature to the present, the best the present can offer the past is Valium? Not quite I suppose, I do recall penicillin also being mentioned at some point.

Midnight in Paris takes nostalgia as its theme, but the difficulty with any exploration of nostalgia is that in common usage the word indiscriminately names too many sensibilities, unfortunately dismissing appropriate and enriching ways of being with the past. Altogether, the film helpfully suggests that there is more than one way to have a disordered relationship to the past. We may succumb to the “Golden Age” fallacy and refuse the present, or we might also reject the past altogether uprooting ourselves from that which gives depth of field to lived experience. While Gil chooses the present, it is clear that the past nourished and educated him. While he has chosen not to live in the past, he has not abandoned it either. He will not live in it, but he will live with it.

It was Buñuel who wrote in his autobiography,

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives.  Life without memory is no life at all …  Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.  Without it, we are nothing.

Thus we may turn the commonplace on its head and suggest that the past is the only place we can live.