'We couldn't save the Pieta,’ says Colin, ‘It was already smashed by the time we got there.’
— screenplay: Children of Men
While searching online for a painting depicting King David’s dance-fueled return of the Art of the Covenant to Jerusalam, I happened by chance to come across a still from the 2006 film Children of Men. Having seen the film a few years after it was released, I was arrested again by this image of Michelangelo’s towering nude of the shepherd (and future King) David set in dramatic antithesis: dogs lounging insouciantly at its base, backlit and framed by the hard angles of modernist architecture, and approached mysteriously by a suited man in silhouette. A few online clicks led me to stumble on a short video of philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on the film:
"I think that the film gives the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism, of a society without history. This I think is the true despair of the film. The true infertility is the very lack of historical experience, and that’s why I love this elegant point in the film of importing all the works of art. All those classical statues are there, but they are deprived of a world, they are totally meaningless—because what does it mean to have a statue of Michelangelo or whatever? It only works if it signals a certain world, and when this world is lacking, it is nothing."
Zizek goes on to offer some sharp commentary on a few other aspects of the film—the significance of the story being set in England; the impotence and failure of 60s radicalism—most of which I find myself agreeing with. At this point, Zizek offers an interpretation of the symbol of the boat at the end of the movie: the boat floats on the water, without roots, carrying the woman and the life she carries in her womb to safety, because, “The condition of the renewal means that you cut your roots. That is the solution.”
Whether this is Zizek’s personal viewpoint, or simply his reading of the viewpoint of the filmmaker, remains unclear. We could of course just as easily read the boat gliding to safety over the water as a symbol of the new man traveling through the waters of birth (or re-birth)—birth being a process which is at least as much about connectivity and dependency, as it is about any sort of cutting of ties.
If I read Zizek correctly on these last points—if he does believe man’s way forward necessitates a cutting of roots—then I must declare myself as holding rather the opposite position. Without roots, man has no memory beyond the confines of his own narrow experience, place, and time. Without memory, man loses both his collective identity (culture) and his self identity (consciousness). Man’s rediscovery of himself must come then not through the cutting of roots, but rather through their reconnection. Man’s rediscovery of himself must come by rediscovering the longer line of his collective memory.
Memory as central to man’s identity and consciousness: this was a major theme of the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict, both from his days as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as through his pontificate as Pope Benedict XVI. In Lumen Fidei—a joint work by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis—the theme of memory is given central place vis a vis the questions of truth and faith:
"The question of truth is really a question of memory…for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path."
But the development of this theme here must remain a subject for another day. This is just a simple posting: Michelangelo’s David sculpture, missing part of its leg, set in a glass terrarium.
Oh—and a Pieta, shattered somewhere off-camera.