Lost in the Desert

The Sheltering Paw

There isn't a large crowd enamored with Bertolucci's film version of The Sheltering Sky. I love it despite its shortcomings, particularly when measured against the book. There are two moments in particular that are glued to my mind. One is Port and Kit, jaded and affluent, reprimanding Tunner for using the term 'tourists' when, instead, they consider themselves 'travelers'. The other is the couple lying down and staring at the vastness of a lusciously photographed desert, right after a tryst, their eyes pregnant with a desolation rooted in their inability to comprehend the immensity of it all. There is a breathtaking desert right in front of their eyes and another one inside --and between-- them. The Sheltering Sky is a sybarite Trainspotting, lacking in heroin and Scots but generous in poetic, serene oopmh. If I evaluate the film by the feeling it leaves inside right after the credits roll, this one ranks up there in melancholy right next to Only God Forgives.

Nietzsche famously wrote that we have art so that we may not die of truth. There are various interpretations of this particular phrase --as it is the case with all quotable Nietzsche. I will venture a summary in the following manner: as we come from nothing and we will go back into it, the realization of the truth in death can only bring pain, and art allows us to handle the truth not by escaping from it but by imbuing it with beauty, here and now. This sounds very straightforward and, pardon the cliché, nihilistic. But Nietzsche himself tried to overcome the latter. As a matter of fact, he eventually went full syrupy by affirming that the remedy to the negation of life is art itself, i.e. the most sublime endeavor, one that is above knowledge and ethics. What I choose to keep from Nietzsche in this regard, though, is the idea of art as a metaphysical aspect of nature, one that enables its transcendence. I am fond of the idea of art as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical. In a way, it is feasible to extrapolate this view into a concept of art as a negotiation between what is known and what is not; right in the border between, on one hand, Being in the confines of what can be experienced and, on the other hand, what is beyond, obscure and indiscernible.

Under this light, Port and Kit have the intuition that within (and between) them there is a certain longing, a foxhole without a fox that lingers until the branches inside it dry, fissure, and the resulting powder is left at the mercy of any wind. It is not a jolly suspicion, mind you, yet it is all that they have and hunger knows no friend but its feeder. In an inner world of disorientation, their inkling is the only lighthouse in sight. And this is where the quivering gorgeousness of Bertolucci's images sets in, uncertain as what is trying to say but valiantly negotiating between the few certainties that the characters have and the unexplored territory that lies before them, inward and outwardly. I can only speculate in the sense that the melancholy of those two images is originated by the unreliability of the answer to their questions. And that is what is drawn so masterfully by the images of the film. They are tourists after all. We all are.

But, why am I writing about this? First, out of sheer pleasure. And, second, because I find these thoughts capable of doodling a metaphor of the convulse social times in which we are living. On one side we have those who cling to the Enlightenment values and, on the other, there's a horde of relativists whose nihilism has made them captives of collectivist ideologies peppered with identity politics. Through different paths, they have lost the tools, words and eagerness to negotiate the divide between what is known and what is not, hence they have lost art in the process. An interlude is needed here, though. It is very confusing to speak about liberalism because Europe and the U.S.A. use the same word for things that are completely different. The European liberal is, bluntly speaking, an individualist, while American liberalism, due to the vicissitudes of history, ended up in what is called progressivism or, to call a spade a spade, collectivism. Therefore, an American liberal is closer to Marx than to a European liberal, who may be closer to an American libertarian. Therefore, let us speak, as hinted above, of individualists and collectivists. The individualist is a believer in progress, scientific rigor, the objective world, and the power of reason to overcome barbarism and achieve equality, tolerance, and affluence for all. The collectivist, on the other hand, responded to modernism with anti-realist metaphysics, socially subjective epistemology, an egalitarian ethical stance, and the conception of human nature not cemented on naturalism but on social constructionism. In part, this was connected to the errors,failed predictions, and ultimate fall of marxism; and, thus, the need to shed its positivistic, rationalistic and internationalist stance, creating what we now see in an atomized world based on ethnic, sexual, and racial groups in continual struggle, all nested in a paranoia of pervasive power struggle.

So, the individualist is so invested in reason and objectivity that there is no space for the transcendent. The collectivist, on the other hand, lacks the methodological chops to even recognize that there may be something outside of the social. These versions of willful blindness, like Port and Kit, make the recognition of a border between the known and the unknown untenable. And, if for some reason the latter is grasped tangentially, it is anathema for both to negotiate a transition between tourist and traveler within the framework of a greater narrative. When Nietzsche "killed" the divine, the unintended consequence was the destruction of the bridge between what is known and what is not, scrapping in a single sweep the possibility of a true, artistic interpretation of the continuous tightrope act of autonomous consciousness.

Art is not entirely nature --which is Kit. It certainly isn't all about Port (or nurture) either. It is the border between and in front of them when faced with the enormity of a majestic desert surrounding them.