Accidental Metaphysics: How Movies Hit On Philosophical Truths

Plato suggests that some buried part of our souls knows the ultimate truth about all things pertinent to human existence. His metaphysical explanation is that we are our souls and our souls are eternal. Our souls have seen all truths which he describes as the Forms and at least had a partial glimpse of the Form of the Good responsible for the creation of all the other Forms and the rest of reality. Before we are born we go through the River of Lethe, “Lethe” meaning forgetfulness, but we can be reminded of what we once knew by things here on Earth, though Earthly things are only approximations of heavenly perfections, the Forms themselves.

A still from Solaris.
A still from Solaris.

Thus Plato subscribes to reincarnation. Presumably part of the reason for the River of Lethe is so we forget about our past lives and loves and losses so we can focus on what we need to do in this life time. But the really big forgetting might be necessary for our existence as individuals at all – namely that we are really indivisible from God, with enlightenment being the ultimate goal of human existence – to wake up from the dream of separation and to find oneself as God and God’s love.

I like to imagine that these metaphysical truths are why certain things sound true and why we believe them even though we have no definitive proof, i.e., it’s the justification and ground of faith.

Groundhog Day, Solaris and Wings of Desire are movies that may contain elements of truth and reality that were not necessarily intended by their writers and directors.

Groundhog Day is the most profound and complete of the films. I suggest that it is actually a description of human destiny. That is that we begin as unenlightened souls with little understanding but by going through a series of incarnations on Earth over thousands of years we slowly climb towards moral perfection. This mirrors the evolution of the universe as an emanation of the divine that begins in darkness and oblivion but evolves from the Big Bang to cosmic dust, to stars and then solar systems and to the emergence of life and then life forms that are capable of bringing the whole process into conscious awareness.

The universe awakens from its slumber and becomes self-aware; aware of its true nature as a spiritually derived reality. It first becomes aware of its physical structure but becomes truly self-aware through the minds and experiences of the mystics though these mystics are few in number. This process can be thought of as creation seeking its maker.

Human beings are part of this process. A single lifetime is not sufficient for this realization so reincarnation becomes a theological necessity, with the afterlife being a time of learning and study with earthly existence as a kind of school, or trial by fire. The process is guided by suffering and the suffering is caused by ignorance and mistakes concerning the nature of the good, i.e., what will make us happy.

I’m not sure how literal Danny Rubin meant his film to be, but I interpret it to be an accurate artistic depiction of the purpose of human existence and the general shape of the life of the soul. Rubin imagined the action of Groundhog Day as lasting for ten thousand years, though he hid that fact out of concern that the audience would be put off by the mind boggling nature of that time frame. So Groundhog Day is probably the most metaphysically accurate and complete of the three pictures and possibly the least ‘accidental’ of the three.

Solaris is about a planet which seems to be a giant mind. The planet is inscrutable, and direct communication is not possible. The planet captures the mysterious nature of the divine and the film by Tarkovsky depicts Solarians as having differing theories about the planet in the manner of different schools of theological thought, including an atheistic response.

There is a space station circling the planet where scientists have attempted to study the planet, with little success. Partly in frustration they bombard the planet with X-rays and Solaris has responded, but again in inscrutable fashion. The scientists find that their innermost torments, the sins and crimes for which they feel most guilty, have been made into physical beings. These beings are their guilt made manifest for all to see. They are ashamed and attempt to hide these creatures from each other, though no one is exempt, so they all know that each of them (and us) have these hidden crimes.

In some accounts of the afterlife it is claimed that there are no secrets or lies possible in the afterlife. The state of one’s soul and the level of one’s development is on display for all to see. Fakery and deception are not possible. Lack of spiritual development cannot be hidden by fine clothes, influential witnesses falsely testifying to one’s good nature, nor an elevated social position. I suspect that Stanislav Lem, the writer, has accidentally depicted a truth about the afterlife and that this contributes to the power and emotional depth of the film. We respond to this truth in the manner of Platonic beings, recognizing a reality and responding to it emotionally without quite knowing why.

The response of the scientists is one of embarrassment and denial. They want to return to their previous state of hiding. Any attempt to kill the creatures fails as they are simply resurrected. This attitude can be contrasted with Kafka’s story The Penal Colony in which the crimes of prisoners on an island are inscribed on their chests with giant stabbing needles, as they are put to death. The commandant of this island loves his job because each prisoner dies in a state of ecstasy. They are ecstatic because instead of bearing a guilt but not knowing what it is, they finally come to self-understanding. They are guilty but coming to recognize this provides the opportunity for self-transcendence, just as Flaubert persecutes his character Emma Bovary, as René Girard points out, punishing her for her stupidities, only to recognize finally that what he hates in her are his own failings. “Madam Bovary, c’est moi.”

Similarly, as Girard also mentions, Cervantes has Don Quixote beaten and humiliated for hundreds of pages, only to come to a similar point of self-transcendence and acceptance instead of denial and self-deception. And it’s why The Trial is not about the persecution of an innocent man by a faceless bureaucracy. It’s the story of a guilty man under the delusion that he is innocent. It’s only horrible when perceived as an injustice. If the man were to understand the true nature of his situation he could accept it with equanimity as an entirely appropriate punishment.

Finally, we have Wings of Desire. This is my least favorite of the three movies. The movie is ruined partly by an overly long depiction of a trapeze artist. The actress had risked her life learning to perform these stunts, and partly because Wim Wenders was having an affair with her, he felt obliged to leave every second of her act in the film. His kindness to the actress is a moral outrage against his audience and a sin against the film. Thousands have been tortured by an overly long scene and it only harms the film.

In listening to the commentary, if I remember correctly, I think Wenders had no intention of depicting a metaphysical reality. I do not think he believes in angels or in spiritually more developed beings who look out for us and are intimately concerned with our spiritual wellbeing. I think he intended the angels only as a conceit. He was very surprised to find such a mass welling up of interest in his film. People from all over the world have turned the movie into something of a cult classic, or at least an art house favorite.

It is my contention that we really do have spiritual guides who are paying attention to us and whose mission it is to facilitate our spiritual development. They don’t of course have wings but they are angels in the sense of daemons – spiritual beings forming a superior stage of development between ordinary human beings and God. This is connected to Plato’s notion of plenitude – that everything that can exist should and does exist. There is metaphysical room for creatures below God and above Man and so there really are.

In Michael Newton’s Journey of Souls and Destiny of Souls these ‘angels’ are souls that in most instances have been incarnate humans or similar creatures. They may have their own mentors and caretakers, and they certainly have their superiors. Some guides have a very hands off approach and want us to develop as quickly as possible by fully experiencing the consequences of our mistakes. Other guides are more protective and concerned about us becoming traumatized and this impeding our progress. But all of us do in fact have these guardian angels.

So, in Platonic fashion, the audience members know this somewhere in the depths of their souls and they recognize its truth on a subconscious level. They respond to the movie as a calling to mind of forgotten truths and a depiction of the real spiritual reality. This response baffles Wim Wenders who imagined that he was engaging in whimsy and artistic pretense. Wenders has hit on the truth, depicted it in cinematographically beautiful form for at least part of the movie and has been a vehicle for the transmission of this truth without in fact intending it. I find this notion of the unintentional uncovering of metaphysical truths really quite interesting.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.


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