Malick & Heidegger: Shepherds of Being

Man is the shepherd of Being. 
- Martin Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism"


This is the word I've so often heard launched at reclusive director Terrence Malick - and not just by moviegoers, either. In one interview, revered actor Christopher Plummer says: "He insists on writing, and overwriting, and overwriting, until it sounds terribly pretentious...I'll never work with him again."

The origin of this resentment, I think, is not Malick's films, but his biography. The industry is well aware that before he wrote and filmed Badlands, Malick graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, went off to Oxford to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and then off to MIT to teach. He was a Rhodes scholar who translated German phenomenology before he ever picked up a camera. (Cue Matt Foley.)

The charge that Malick's films are pedantic is completely at odds with the plain experience of them. They're not over-intellectualized; if anything, they're under-intellectualized. They remove the linear plots and conventional character developments the left brain craves. Well-educated viewers are stunned time and time again by the stark simplicity of the experience. "What was this even about?"

When the pretentious charge falls flat (as I think it does), critics often call his films "obscure"; that the films say too little, not too much; that they represent the worst kind of mindless, art-house navel-gazing. This too, I think, stems from the knowledge of his philosophical training. It's a common canard that being philosophical means being, at best, "deep," at worst, totally unclear.

To appreciate Malick in a left-brained way, I think it's necessary to understand just what kind of philosophy he spent much of his life studying - to understand the basics, without going into the mind-bending minutia. And in looking at Paul Maher's excellent book One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick, we find the key name time and time again: Heidegger.

In One Big Soul, we get one of the earliest glimpses of Malick at Harvard from William Weld, who recalled that Malick seemed "somewhat on the vague side"; that he "spent most of his time drinking coffee, talking about Wittgenstein and Husserl."

In the early 20th century, Husserl founded a school of philosophy known as "phenomenology" - which essentially means the study of the structures of consciousness, of the "intentional" (directed-toward) experience of objects in the world. "To the things themselves!" Husserl cried; in other words, focus on the phenomena of existence as we experience them from our first-person point of view.

Phenomenology - an ancestor of Sartre's existentialism and Derrida's deconstructionism - arose, in part, as a reaction against the great split in philosophy between idealism and realism. To put a thorny issue spanning centuries of epistemology and ontology as briefly as possible, idealism put the locus of truth and reality in the mental world, sometimes at the expense of tangible physical reality, while realism put the locus of truth and reality in the physical world, sometimes at the expense of tangible mental reality. Phenomenology - although it put a primary emphasis on consciousness - sought to account for both realities by focusing on phenomena as we experience them.

Paul Maher explains some of the connection between Husserl and Malick's films:

Of Edmund Husserl, Malick was especially taken between the distinctions of "proper" and "improper presenting." Husserl explains that if one stands in front of a house, you are then experiencing a direct "proper" presentation of this house. If you are looking for this house and someone then gives you directions to it, you are then experiencing an indirect "improper" presentation. The house has to be actually present in order to experience "proper presenting." If it is only experienced via symbols and/or signs, it is then considered "improper" or "symbolic." This distinction is important when one weighs it against Malick's creative process...when Malick is filming, rather than creating a scripted scenario via storyboards, lighting and so on, he seeks to confront his scene by keeping the cameras running at all times in the hopes of directly experiencing what he wants to accomplish. Anything short of this did not satisfy him.

Husserl, however, is not the key that unlocks Malick's films - for Malick, as we'll see, is very much concerned with the world and our actual living-and-breathing life within it. Husserl's Ideas I, in contrast, took a transcendental turn (i.e., a turn toward idealism). He began to undermine the objective-world realism that many phenomenologists had hoped would remain a fundamental part of their enterprise. As a result, several of Husserl's followers broke away, including Martin Heidegger, who along with Edith Stein was one of Husserl's assistants.

The name "Heidegger" calls to mind different things for different people. Many, including most philosophers, will first reference his 1927 magnum opus, Being and Time, which was published hastily before completion. Some are familiar with Heidegger after "the turn" (die Kehre) and his essays on art and technology. Still others are familiar with Heidegger in terms of his infamous and shameful affiliation with the Nazi party. (A brilliant BBC Documentary provides the full treatment of Heidegger's political life, and how it led him to turn against Husserl and remain silent after the atrocities of the Holocaust.)

Heidegger's nefarious support of the Third Reich and his post-war silence is unforgivable - yet, when we encounter his work on its own terms, we discover that, as Richard Rorty put it: "you cannot read most of the important thinkers of recent times without taking Heidegger's thought into account." Being and Time is not Mein Kampf or even Beyond Good and Evil - it is not concerned with politics, ethics, or culture, but rather metaphysics.

The goal of Being and Time is "recovering the question of the meaning of 'Being'" by deconstructing the history of ontology (the study of being), reconceiving of truth as the unconcealmeant of what is (a sort of open receptivity to Being), and analyzing that creature that "in its concerned about its very Being'": namely, Dasein ("there-being") or the human being. Unlike Husserl, Heidegger saw phenomenology as "the science of the Being of beings - ontology." He does not maroon man in his own consciousness, but wants to focus instead on our "Being-in-the-world."

As David Farrell Krell writes in his introduction to Heidegger's Basic Writings:

"Heidegger resisted the traditional ways of talking about the Being of man in Christian dogma, Cartesian subjectivism, or the disciplines of anthropology and psychology, in order to concentrate on man's character as the questioner. Man questions his own Being and that of other things in the world. He is always - in no matter how vague a way - aware of his being in the world." 

Heidegger's wider cultural impact came through his analysis of Dasein, which he saw as the necessary path toward recovering the question of the meaning of Being. Dasein, as Heidegger saw it, is a creature oriented toward its own death, particularly through anxiety - a state in which Dasein "finds itself face to face with the 'nothing' of the possible impossibility of its existence."

There's a noteworthy scene in the film Harvard Man contrasting this sense of "dread" in Heidegger with mere phobia. Needless to say, the ideas expressed are condensed and a bit confused (Heidegger's anxiety is not a step toward closing oneself off from the world (psychosis), but a call to authenticity and openness to Being); still, the central notion - anxiety as the fear of the nothing - is there:

Maybe it was just such a lesson at Harvard that piqued Malick's interest. Whenever or however it started, we find friends and professors throughout Maher's book attesting to the influence that the German ontologist had on the undergrad.

Harvard classmate Sam Todd offers us a glimpse into the origins of Malick's philosophical work:

Terry was interested in Martin Heidegger and his concept of "Being" and "World." I don't know how he arrived to Heidegger, except that [Malick's professor] Cavell was also a disciple of Heidegger. Terry was interested in everything, he seemed to have a natural grasp of learning that allowed him to not only read books and retain what he read and then to evolve from that to another higher level of thinking. He wasted no time.

Malick was so enthralled with Heidegger's thought that he went to Germany to meet the great professor. About Malick's time in Germany, friend Paul Lee had this to say:

Terry located him in his famous Heidegger Hut in the Black Forest which a friend of mine and I tried to find and failed years later. I don't know what went down when he got there, but Heidegger gave him an autograph and Terry then gave it to me...I do not know what transpired at the hut, he never told me.

Stanley Cavell confirms that Malick excelled brilliantly in his work on Heidegger:

Those closer to me included Terrence Malick...whose expert honors thesis on a text of Heidegger's I would be assigned to advise. Malick had taken a semester in Germany to attend Heidegger's classes, and he knew, and we discussed the facts before he began writing, both that he had read and studied more Heidegger than I had and at the same time that I was the only member of the philosophy faculty at that time who respected and had studied any at all of Heidegger's work, hence that he was likely to receive an unsympathetic judgment from the two readers who would be assigned to examine him, having in effect to be instructing his instructors, something I was hoping his thesis might itself recognizably begin to accomplish.

Malick eventually went off to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where the focus of his studies was met with some serious resistance. Jacob Brackman explains:

Malick studied under senior adviser Gilbert Ryle...Ryle was largely ignorant of Heidegger and thus, was of little help in enabling Malick's exploration of his thesis subject. Gathering his Heidegger notes, Malick began translating one of the philosopher's lectures from 1929, "vom Wesen des Grundes" ("The Essence of Reason").

Hubert Dreyfus elaborates on Ryle and Malick's disagreement:

Terry, when he met with his advisor Gilbert Ryle, explained that he wanted his thesis to be on "World" and Heidegger and Wittgenstein. I think also, Nietzsche. Ryle's response was something like, "you can't do that." Heidegger still wasn't taken seriously by the academics, so he told Terry that his thesis wasn't "philosophical" enough. Terry's response wasn't compromise, but he turned his back on it.

This little episode between Ryle and Malick is reminiscent of Carnap and Heidegger, Searle and Derrida, and countless other squabbles between Anglo-American "analytic" philosophers (allied with the sciences) and German and French "continental" philosophers (allied with the humanities). Malick, writing on Nietzsche and Heidegger, was embarking on a "continental" journey - one which Ryle likely dismissed as nebulous, poetic, and out-of-touch with the more rigid, scientific view of philosophy taken by analytic thinkers.

Despite not finishing his PhD, Malick went off to MIT try his hand at teaching - and again his subject was Heidegger. Dreyfus remembers:

He was teaching my Heidegger course at MIT at one point and got to the part on anxiety and discovered he wasn't experiencing anxiety, so he couldn't talk about anything. He just stared off into space for about ten minutes, making the class and me as his auditor at that point very nervous. So he gave up teaching that day and became a movie director because he felt that to teach Heidegger you had to actually be experiencing what Heidegger was talking about if you're going to do the phenomenology right and that's more than he could do and certainly more than what I can do.

Paul Lee reflects on Malick's transition from Heidegger scholar to filmmaker:

Terry told me that he had completely lost interest in philosophy. I did not know how to respond to that remark, having become interested in philosophy partly due to his influence. Still, I think it is no coincidence that one of the great directors of my generation studied with and was friends with Stanley Cavell. When Terry told me he was going to go into film (on a street in Cambridge almost to the spot where we met), I had the impulse to hit him. I told him. "You want to forsake a career in philosophy for film? You translated Heidegger! Are you fucking crazy?"

To go beyond experiencing Malick's films for their aesthetic beauty, and to understand their deeper aims, it's helpful to keep the notion of phenomenological "seeing" - especially Heidegger's way of seeing - in mind. From Badlands to The Thin Red Line to The Tree of Life, the unconcealmeant of the grandeur and the mystery of the world around us, the emphasis on Dasein as a creature anxiously oriented toward its own death, and the exploration of the question of the meaning of Being are all discernible themes of Malick's films.

These themes are especially at play in Malick's magnum opus, The Tree of Life - and it's no wonder to me that Roger Ebert recently added it to his list of the top 10 greatest films of all time.

To go into a film like The Tree of Life with an open eye and an open heart is enough; there is nothing especially highfalutin or academic about it. There is no "prerequisite course" required. But appreciating the Heideggerian notions that Malick is working from keeps the left-brained among us from scoffing in the director's direction and dismissing him as a softy with no idea what he wants to say.

Most importantly, I think we find that Malick has more to offer us than Heidegger in terms of answers to these great questions. Camus wrote about Heidegger in this way: "He persists in this absurd world; he stressed its perishability. He gropes his way amid ruins." This might just be the French roast and cigarettes talking, but it's not entirely unfair. Heidegger does seem to leave us with a set of unresolved frustrations and questions. The Tree of Life, though - in our reading of it - hands us the questions and glimpses the answers; it draws Heidegger's phenomenology into a grander school of thought - one that originates not at Cambridge or Freiburg, but in Bethlehem.