Down-and-Dirty Landscapes with Tarkovsky's Stalker and J.M.G. Le Clézio

I went to a large high school with multiple gym teachers and two campuses.  On the freshmen-sophomore campus, the favorite tended to be Mr. Walker, who didn't seem to enjoy shouting and would often allow us to do guided meditation during class.  He would be the guide, walking us through a gradual toe-to-head muscle relaxation process, and then invite us to imagine that we were in a relaxing place all our own.  I have no idea what my classmates were imagining.  Maybe beaches, resorts, country mansions, etc., and I tried to imagine these things, too.  The place that my mind always went, though, the place that I would invariably find the most relaxing, was a sort of swampy, dirty, backwoods scene.  The sky would be dull and opaque.  Weeds all around.  Pieces of pipe and old tires and other discarded remnants of human civilization scattered nearby.  It was the kind of place I would never intentionally go by myself in real life, the kind of place I had hardly ever been, possibly just glimpsed out the window on car trips through the rural Midwest.  I probably would not have wanted to live there, but there was something about spiriting myself away for a few minutes and allowing myself to exist in such a setting that was therapeutic.  Invigorating, even.

When I recently saw Tarkovsky's Stalker for the first time (which in some ways resembles a guided meditation of another kind), having heard many things about it over the years and even seen a few clips, I had the impression that it was going to be a lot creepier of a film.  That it was going to be an ill-advised journey through an alien landscape.  In many ways it is haunting, and there are some moments where I found myself dreading what was ahead, but overall, the backdrop of human wreckage along with nature seemed familiar.  Comforting, even.  

Site in Estonia used for filming Stalker.

I took a lot of hikes with my dad when I was a kid, but since we lived in Illinois, few of the places we went were truly uncorrupted by human filth.  There was often garbage to be found along the trails as well as items that appeared to have been accidentally dropped.  But we frequently went to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, where nature was maintained, clipped and cropped to human standards.  In a setting like this, it is easier to understand the beauty of people leaving their mark on the wilderness.  With littering, obviously, less so.  And yet, environmental concerns and resulting odors aside, I think places that have been abandoned by humans and left in wreckage can have their own peculiar beauty.

A few years ago I saw the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, a film in which you get to see photographer Edward Burtynsky traveling the world to take artistic pictures of industrial waste and other impacts of industrialization on nature.  As mentioned before with regards to the environment, it can sometimes be difficult to understand how much we should be able to appreciate beauty when ethical questions arise.  While it may not be an answer to the question, or a solution, I was intrigued by something the writer J.M.G. LeClézio said in an interview about how in a sense everything is nature, including towns.  In a sense, everything is biological, and the fact that humans stop and ask whether or not the environments we create or cause to exist should be there doesn't change the fact that global warming, oil spills, and Chinese manufacturing are all a part of nature.  That's not to say that these things should exist or we should support their continued existence, just that the simple, blanket argument that something is not natural doesn't hold much water on its own.  I would even go so far as to say that in order to be responsible with regards to nature, the environment, etc., it's necessary to first understand how complicated of a matter drawing the line is.  Will looking at mountains of Asian garbage facilitate that process?  I don't know, really, but I have a hard time believing it could hurt.

Just about anyone living in the civilized Western world, and many people living in other places, have benefited from forces that have been destructive to the environment and other people in a larger sense.  I have a hard time believing that this does not, in some way, create a disturbance in the collective unconscious, and I don't think it's insane to imagine that guilt may generally cause us to do bigger, badder, stupider things.  So it could be that looking at the havoc we've wreaked might have a therapeutic effect on our minds and might help us understand it.  Like it or not, it is a part of who we are, continually swept under the carpet.  The sheer amount of things we throw away, the sheer number of things in our lives that become disposable or even start off disposable, is astonishing.  This is something that we have been told time and time again, nearly always with an eye toward the environmental impact.  But if you allow yourself for a moment to consider the phenomenon just in and of itself, pretending that it's not hurting anyone or anything, it's still astonishing.  And honestly kind of weird.  

It takes a lot to maintain human life.  No matter how environmentally conscious you are, no matter how little you eat or how little electricity you use, you still have HUGE physical, mental and emotional needs when it comes to having a reasonably good, fulfilling life, and many of them may never be met.  Throwing more guilt on the pile is something that we either do or resist doing nearly every day, but we are rarely encouraged to consider the enormity of us as a species and how this is what has put us in this weird situation in the first place.  Not only do we need food and shelter, but we have these bizarre needs to be understood, to form lasting bonds with other people, and at the same time have privacy and pursue ambitions and organize and maintain it all in such a way that does not result in a nervous breakdown. We are part of nature, so when we put environmental preservation into action, we are not exactly trying to give back to, protect, or maintain nature, we are trying to control it.  And trying to control nature in general means trying to control our nature.  If we understood this fully, we might be more successful at actually doing it.

I would like to return for a moment to Le Clézio, if only because I'm translating one of his stories right now for fun and it is at least in part what sparked this whole thought process.  The story is an early one, entitled Il me semble que le bateau se dirige vers l'île (It Seems to Me the Boat is Heading for the Island).  It resembles Stalker in that much attention is lavished on junkyards, garbage, and fictional found objects.  Also in that the entire story can be broken down into what is essentially a long walk taken by an unnamed character, and the nature present is not only blended with urban wasteland, but the two are actually treated as one and the same.   

At one point during his walk, he muses on what becomes a ridiculously specific imaginary walk which he might have taken if he lived in a neighborhood that was more suited to him.  
During this conditional sub-walk, he tells us how he would descend a flight of steps between a couple of houses, and on one step find a column of fleeing ants as well as a piece of paper, ostensibly dropped by a schoolboy, which would have various historical and cultural facts copied down on it in strange juxtaposition.  These details grabbed my attention not just for their oddity (why would anyone imagine such a thing?), but for their vividness.  The piece of paper, which even in an imaginary world is found lying in the gutter, is still important.  In the narrative, the character seems to be outlining how he would take pleasure in the process of gradually moving in a populous area from the outskirts of the town, and the schoolboy's note comprises part of that enjoyment.  It reminds me of my own (and what I suspect may be other people's) relationship with humanity as a general stamp on the world; there are people that I know, and the rest I can't know entirely, but there are constant "natural" reminders that I live among people, and this makes up part of the landscape of my mind.  They are not always decipherable, and they are not always friendly, but there they are.

(Picture by Hannu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another fresh, provocative essay. I loved the way the opening pulled me in and led in a surprising direction.
    I have not seen your key point here expressed elsewhere and I think it really deserves serious consideration by more folks than will find it here.