The Astronomer’s Dream: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life


Stuck in the aesthetic trenches of postmodernity, we are, claims Fredric Jameson, overwhelmed by ‘the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.’ The ‘real’, pre-empted by a perceptive faculty that reflects on its own fictiveness, can no longer support meaning, becoming instead a dense concomitance of ciphers competing for a transcendent guerdon both arbitrary and absent. When searching for the materials with which to generate a theoretical and/or artistic terrain, we find ourselves grasping at mere forms that are all too concrete in their constitution (they are governed by codes that precede their expression) as well as illusionary in their epistemology (what, in fact, are they?) The act of transforming the ‘real’ into an imaginative space becomes problematized, as it already is at the terminal point of all its possible transformations. Though we might be able to locate and chart ‘value’ (whether in an economic or formalist sense), it is no longer possible to define it. The problem, then, is not solely one of representation, but also one of historicity, as there is no longer a workable model or structure that can overarch and govern the flows and meanings of ‘value’, without reducing it into knowingly glib forms of belatedness and failure. Modernism can be seen to be the last movement that can claim to have a meaningful relation to history, partly because history still retained stable meanings, and partly because it did not have to overcome the conditions of history (historicity) itself. In our current moment the challenge becomes how to conceptualise a relationship to these conditions of history that can in turn rejuvenate our understanding of the everyday. Exploring potential modes that have sought to erase and overcome this quandary, this essay will come to focus on Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life suggesting that it offers numerous pathways into a genuinely aesthetic future.


Turning the terms of history inside out and against themselves and presenting reality as a plurality rather than singularity, the most courageous responses to the radically foreclosed future of the postmodern have attempted to outline solutions to, and transcend, their cultural moment, moving out of the historical. Often simultaneously devastating and potentially utopian, both politically and narratologically, these works have pulled on a newly malleable conception of history, and newly concentrated and deeply humanist sense of an internalised narrative voice. Reorienting the workings of history around the individual human subject, afloat in a tide of dead yet dominant narratives of the past, they have sought to create regenerative aesthetic models that nonetheless feel strangely and eerily representative. David Markson’s terse, fragmented, and minimalist Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), a first person narration of a post-apocalyptic world in which the possibly mad female narrator is the sole survivor, veers between, and meditates on, the imaginative spaces created by the Trojan War, modern warfare, and the masters of Renaissance and post-World War Two literary art. Hypnotically generating an internal, linguistic order of meaning, with the constituent parts of sentences acting like variables in an equation, echoing and reformulating one another, it incorporates historical truth into its own system of meaning. Similarly, in the work of W.G. Sebald, particularly in Austerlitz (2001), the topographies of a spectral and half-realised European past are shaped by the reflections of almost indifferently blank protagonists who find themselves incapable of self-recognition, with any truth always own step beyond the capacities of the fictive and the cognitive. The historic, though perpetually manifest, whether in art, sculpture, architecture, maps, is relativized into spectral fog-like presence that crests on the verge of the transcendent. We could also point towards Mathias Énard’s 500 page single sentence reflection on the horrors of recent Middle Eastern history in Zone (2008), Lisa Robertson’s reclamation of old scientific discourse in The Weather (2001), Patrick Keillor’s quietly prophetic film Robinson in Space (1997), Thomas Pynchon’s historical fantasia Mason & Dixon (1997) and Alexander Sokurov’s visionary and hallucinogenic work Russian Ark (2002). Though saturated in the past, these works attempt to be not in thrall to it, to try and set the conditions by which their characters can leave history behind and shape it, actively creating the temporal. That these conditions are never fully established means that these works tend towards the tragic mode, still trapped by the terms and scales of the historical.


Possessing an intellectual heritage that is part German phenomenology and part American Romanticism, the recent films of Terrence Malick have engaged with similar subjects and sought to relocate the artist / camera / character within history, favouring the peripheries and the dignity of individual experience. The Thin Red Line (1998), a brooding and haunting meditation on the rule of death and violence in nature, entered the Second World War through the consciousnesses of individual soldiers participating in the offensive at Guadalcanal. Containing lyrical reflections on the senselessness of war, the futility of empire and property, and haunting visuals of the earth in the magic hours, it changes a historical terrain into a densely abstract sight for aesthetic transformation. Moving away from teleologically convenient accounts of progress and American foreign policy, history is rendered through a highly abstracted visual imagination and by men on the margins of the rescuable past. Similarly, The New World (2004) reoriented and recharged the story of Pocahontas and the Jamestown settlers around an axis that was sceptical of empire, and a land haunted by the shadow of a subjunctive future that has never been realised. With invocations of spirits and Gods, Malick’s American cartography becomes newly mysterious, a mournful formation that is shaped by a despairing search for remnants of an originary innocence, with all covered in layers and layers of shadow and shining radiant light. Occupying, to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne on romance, ‘a neutral territory, some between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet’, his subjects, both literal and thematic, ‘are so spiritualized…that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect.’ These works, though, still remain stabilised by narratives of empire and history, even as they create a niche for an individual aesthetic within these narratives, regenerating stories that were long thought mined out and exhausted. Still governed, then, by a pre-existent ironic external taxonomy that seeks to reduce their meaning, the search for a mode that can adequately contain the transcendent was ultimately unrealised. As the final, cresting shots of boats, trees, and sunlight closed The New World, there was a sense that Malick had reached what could either be a terminal point for his art, or a transformative node that would take him on to the next stage of his career, and, indeed, the next stage of cinematic art.


Rumours of The Tree of Life began around four years ago, with Malick fanatics tantalised by intimations of dinosaurs, dream sequences, depictions of the birth and death of the universe, and mystical trees being planted in endlessly expansive Texan terrains. Shrouded in characteristic Malickian mystery, with plot details kept at a minimum, it nonetheless became clear that this was to be his most ambitious and philosophically rich film yet. Having now seen the film on several occasions, it still remains difficult to describe what the film is ‘about’, mainly because of a newly enlarged temporal and cosmological scale that it utilizes. Opening with an epigraph from The Book of Job and a wavering mystical flame on screen, the film takes us on a journey into the origins of the universe. This enlarged cosmic scale immediately undermines any attempts at a casual plot summary, governing all the narrative meanings of the work, whilst simultaneously resisting the tangible language required for interpretation and representation. Though most of the action takes place in suburban 1950s Texas, with the viewer granted an intimate insight into the childhood growth of central character Jack’s mind, reacting to his militaristic father and etherealized mother, the film contains a raft of competing temporalities that disallow a description of a central narrative strand and unsettle the entire film, even on the level of camerawork and editing. Confronted with the embittered reflections of an elder Jack, a dissatisfied architect still mourning the early death of his brother, depictions of this brother’s funeral and the reaction of his mother, Fellini-esque wanderings through a surreal oceanic purgatory, as well as planets orbiting at the moment of the universe’s creation and dinosaurs walking the earth, the entire film occupies a destabilised temporal cosmos, endlessly interchangeable and iterative. Rather than spiritualizing a historical and locatable terrain, as he did in his earlier work, The Tree of Life transforms the spatial into an experience of a redeemed and completed time, refusing to provide a stable cartographic point for rationalising its meanings. As you watch dark shadowy planets circulate, stars emerging into the ether, and strange wave-like symphonies of cosmic light unfurl onto the screen, all with Zbigniew Preisner’s ‘Lacrimosa’ pushing through the speakers, you are overwhelmed by a dreamlike rendering of the temporal that obliterates purely mimetic representations of the ‘real’. What is left, as the film ends with images of sunflowers, bridges, flames, and oceans, is a genuinely avant-garde document that takes place on the grandest scale possible, and which refuses the mooring that a term like ‘experimental’ might provide.


The cosmological method that Malick employs offers, then, a potential solution to the linked problems of postmodern historicity and perception. Events that unfold in 1950s Texas are imbued with a meaning that the characters themselves cannot be aware of, but which nonetheless infuses their experiences with a potentially transcendent richness and beauty, and their thoughts with an enlarged frame of reference and even deeper dignity. Enacting a transition away from the ordered postmodern spaces that Jack as an architect seeks to enframe and design, and from capitalist property-driven conceptions of the land that his father enforces, into an alternate realm characterised by an abstract and almost completely internalised vocabulary, Malick’s cosmology obliterates historico-spatial correspondences. Exposing the language of historicity as fictive in and of itself, reducing it to a set of directional ciphers whose own hollowness undermines the very hollowness that they themselves inscribe, it grants us an insight into a different version of reality, one shaped by a deeply relative but still ontological sense of motive in the universal. The surprise is that the enlargement of scale does not reduce the role of the human, but rather reemphasizes it, exploring the depths of interiority, with every single shot almost overbrimming the frame that ought to support it. The eerily disembodied voices, rife with vague but full ‘I’s, ‘you’s, and ‘he’s, participate in a Whitmanian universality, but rather than seeking to represent the democratic spirit of a nation, they attempt to track the hidden patterns of the cosmos as manifested in the human. The closing shot of a bridge, extending into infinity, conceptualises this desire to provide a meeting point between two incommensurate sets of languages, sets of meanings, and sets of temporalities. As in the final pulsing stanzas of ‘Atlantis’ in Hart Crane’s epic The Bridge, we are provided with a node that offers a tantalising and transformative glimpse of an order that is forever one surge beyond the imaginable.

Unspeakable Thou Bridge to Thee, O Love.
Thy pardon for this history, whitest Flower,
O Answerer of all, – Anemone, –
Now while thy petals spend the suns about us, hold –
(O Thou whose radiance doth inherit me)
Atlantis – hold thy floating singer late!

So thine everpresence, beyond time,
Like spears ensanguined of one tolling star
That bleeds infinity – the orphic strings,
Sidereal phalanxes, leap and converge:
– One Song, one Bridge of Fire! Is it Cathay,
Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring
The serpent with the eagle in the leaves…?
Whispers antiphonal in azure swing.


But does this only amount to a mystical recasting of modernism? The fragmented style of narration, the destabilised upwards-tending camera, and, of course, the central ordering trope of the tree of life itself, all suggest a desire for a transcendent and mythical order that precedes and shapes the text, and which gives meaning to internal monologue. Similarly we could comment on the tendency towards the temporal rather than the spatial, towards subjective memory and minute reflections on the representations of experience, which offer the predominant thrust of the narrative. Yet this seems insufficient to me, as the cosmological scale actively does, and seeks to do, something different and radically new, in a time when theoretical physics is altering our sense of what the universe both is and might be. Where modernism sought to map everyday experience around a pre-existing and valorised historical superstructure, Malick is able to incorporate this history into his own self-sustaining aesthetic monument. Or, in other words, where the modernists found themselves trapped, ultimately nightmarishly, in the involutions and cables of grand, national traumas, Malick has found a way to leave history behind, to somehow go outside of it, to become an aesthetic and redemptive guiding principle of it. The Tree of Life, then, represents a triumphant overcoming of history and recasts and realises the wonders of the ‘real’, no matter what that might mean, and is, undoubtedly, the most important cinematic event of the young century.