As part of our As part of our ongoing colloquium series, Dr. Vernon Cisney will be giving a talk that explores some films of Terrence Malick through the lens through Kierkegaard. After the talk, there will be a Q&A.
Abstract and Speaker biography:
This talk engages with the themes of sacrifice and suffering in the films of Terrence Malick – in particular, his 2011 film, The Tree of Life, and his 2015 film, Knight of Cups – through the lenses of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Using an analysis of the Genesis story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Kierkegaard argues that it is only through the sacrifice of the temporal that one can truly gain the temporal at all. Until the moment that Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac, he experiences Isaac and his love for Isaac only as entitlement, as property that belongs to him. Through his “sacrifice,” Abraham comes to experience Isaac instead, and with him, the whole of the temporal realm, as a gift. This is the line of inquiry that will guide my readings of these two Malick films.
The Tree of Life deals directly with a parent’s loss of a child. Mrs. O’Brien’s commitment to what she calls “the way of grace” is tested nearly to the breaking point when her adult son, R. L., dies from unexplained causes. Her anguish is only allayed when she comes to recognize that her “way of grace” is not distinct from the “way of nature,” at which time she becomes equal to the necessary task of “sacrificing” – which is to say – to give willingly, what was taken from her. Only then can she come to experience his life not as her entitlement, but as a gift of grace itself, and only then can she make her peace with his death.
Knight of Cups advances upon this argument. The ultimate sacrifice that one can make, one that is made when we sacrifice anything, up to and including those that we love, is the sacrifice of ourselves. While this is implied in Kierkegaard’s line of argumentation, Knight of Cups makes it explicit. Rick, the protagonist of the film, lives the life of an aesthete, taking pleasure in superficial experiences – even loving only superficially. As one of his love interests says to him, “You don’t want love, you want a love experience.” This commitment to the superficiality of the temporal binds Rick to an abiding existential longing and despair. It is only with Rick’s realization that suffering “binds us to something higher than ourselves,” that Rick is able to embark upon the path of selfhood. In other words, Rick must sacrifice his sense of self, in order to truly become a self.
Vernon Cisney is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. Since earning his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2012, Dr. Cisney has published prolifically in areas of continental philosophy. He has published two monographs: Derrida’s Voice and Phenomena: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press) in 2014, and Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative coming out in 2018 with Edinburgh University Press. A third monograph, Literature After Deleuze, is in preparation with Bloomsbury. He has co-edited four additional volumes on Pierre Klossowski, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Terrence Malick during that same time period. Dr. Cisney has also published several journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and translations. His most recent works have focused on philosophy of film, philosophy of literature, and gender theory. More information about Dr. Cisney is available at vernonwcisney.com.
Location:PSY 226: Psychology Building Room 226