Andrei Tarkovsky in his father Arseny's arms.

Andrei Tarkovsky in his father Arseny’s arms.

In concluding Chapter One of Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky makes a subtle gambit to interest readers with their wits about them. He offers a conclusion that does not follow from anything discussed in the chapter.

In what might seem a mere throwaway line, Tarkovsky reveals a second purpose of his book. Since no intelligent person who spends 15 years composing a book litters it with careless chatter, we can assume this is the book’s primary purpose.

With this quiet grin, then, Tarkovsky clandestinely calls attention to the difference between objectives which a writer might broadcast in a prominent way and those which he or she might prefer to obscure. In other words, some objectives are stated as if the author was posting a sign on the front lawn while others are obscured by the shade of pots in the backyard.

Of course, to raise this first distinction also silently raises a third category: objectives that the creator does not raise overtly at all but which must be deduced while studying his or her work. These secret objectives can only be found by wandering through the garden and noticing that some tree is out of place or has gone missing. Those without the necessary wit and curiosity will wander past without being any the wiser; nor will they become the source
of any threat to the creator.

So Tarkovsky ends Chapter One with this revealing declaration,

I shall conclude this chapter by revealing the clandestine aim of the book: my hope is that the readers I manage to convince…may become my kindred spirits, if only in recognition of the fact that I have no secrets from them.

By referring to secrets here, Tarkovsky silently confirms that he, too, actually has in mind the third category: objectives which seem secret because they have not been revealed outwardly or openly, but not because they can never be discerned. He has no secrets of purpose from those able to become his kindred spirits: namely, students whom he has mentored to become his equals. People like us. But, apparently, we kindred spirits in becoming Tarkovsky’s companions also must have secrets from some people.

Again, Tarkovsky’s statement is a complete non sequitur. Yet, a non sequitur is a comment that, because of its lack of meaning relative to anything that went before, seems absurd, humorous or confusing. Therefore, the Oxford Dictionary explains, “It is a literary device often used for comedic purposes.” But Tarkovsky is not just being playful. There is, as the saying goes, method in his madness.

We can contrast this second statement with the bold announcement of a different purpose in his Introduction. There, Tarkovsky had announced,

This book…is intended neither to teach nor to impose my point of view… Its main purpose is to help me find my own way…

If true, this would make him the least threat imaginable to the underlying political system. People minding their own business seldom attract interest from the secret police.

Viktor Chebrikov

Viktor Chebrikov, key “anti-corruption” figure in the Soviet secret police when “Mirror” came out and head of the KGB when Tarkovsky defected, and when Tarkovsky made “Stalker.”

As it happens, Tarkovsky was so convincing in his protestations about having no desire to teach or to lead (motivate) that, in a major study of Tarkovsky’s work, Professor Robert Bird has written,

To look in Tarkovsky’s films for sibylline predictions is sorely to mistake their nature. Tarkovsky sought not to impose an interpretive scheme on reality but to imprint or record it together with all its contingency and potentiality; Tarkovsky was not an orator, but an observer and a listener.

Professor Bird is right about the sibylline prediction part. However, he is dead wrong about Tarkovsky’s true objectives. Tarkovsky uses observation and listening to make a diagnosis. Then, like a doctor, he intends to teach us about the problem. Having enlightened us about the sickness, he hopes to inspire us to take the necessary corrective action to restore our health. In other words, he actually hopes to become the most extraordinary kind of orator: one who motivates people to act. Either to act individually or to act in a way that influences their community. This is a very noble desire, one worthy of a great soul. But it is also very dangerous.

While Tarkovsky deceptively passes himself off as just a man trying to make good movies, we now know he was, in fact, the most dangerous kind of citizen. He was a thinker who had reflected on the current state of the human condition. These reflections had led him to believe that we live in a sick society. And, not only Russians, but the rest of us as well. In addition, and this is what made him dangerous to the guardians of the regime, he believed there was a cure, that he knew the cure and that he could inspire us to move in the right way to bring it about.

It is easy enough to confirm that Tarkovsky understands his role just as we have explained it, as that of a physician to the human spirit. We have simply to watch Mirror. As we observed in our note on the Introduction, Tarkovsky intends Mirror as the true introduction to his work, to his method and to his interior universe.

Like Sculpting in Time, Mirror has two beginnings. Each contains a doctor. The first doctor hypnotizes a youth and heals him with some magic words. Every poet has the same fantasy about the hypnotic and healing potential of his or her work. So Tarkovsky is making an inside joke, inviting us to laugh at this pretentiousness. The second doctor, however, uses a non sequitur to make a joke in the very sequence where the director makes his contract with the audience. What the director promises the audience through this second opening scene is a true comedy, one with a prescription for a better village once the imposters have been thrown out of office.

Moreover, this second doctor appears right where we were led to have expected Tarkovsky’s father to appear. This invites us to suppose that it was the father who made a gift of the healing art to his son, and which the son now wishes to share with those capable of also becoming “kindred spirits.” In Mirror, the creator himself is sick and in need of a doctor. Finding a cure, then, is the whole theme of Mirror.

It should go without saying that artists working in repressive political or religious regimes face special challenges. Such regimes commonly punish or otherwise dishonor those who disagree with the official views, sometimes they also punish at random to instill fear. However, this does not defeat great artists. Great artists are a force of nature driven by their gift or the strength of desire they feel in their calling. They will be determined to express their own views about what is pleasurable, true or right no matter the authorities.

The walls thrown up by regime leaders suffering distemper merely force them to become more imaginative: to design subtle art, masterpieces which speak selectively to different audiences. In the end, no one remembers the ugly regime but everyone will remember the haunting melody of the songbird that rose from the fire to give us a gift from his or her soul, a free soul which no earthly chains could bind. Laughter is the sound of victory and Mirror is Tarkovsky’s trophy.

As a man whose father had been sentenced to death for writing a poem, Tarkovsky would have taken for granted these dangers and the challenge of the artist living in repressive conditions. These considerations would have been ingrained in his soul and in every part of his work. Deception would have become second nature, just as it must be to every general who sets foot on the battlefield. Those who would become “kindred spirits” must keep this in mind, with respect both to his movies and his book.

Of course, it is not only artists forced to work under repressive conditions who create subtle works of art which say different things to different audiences. Great artists often choose this discipline willingly and necessarily: because all people are not equal. It is both wise and just, therefore, to treat people differently according to their abilities or needs; and to deceive where deception is necessary or compassionate.

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