Guardians Of This Refuge: Tarkovsky, Nerval, And Our Personal “Gods”
Not long after I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s mesmerizing Stalker last year, I read Aurélia, Gérard de Nerval’s “memoir of his madness” (madness meant literally). At the time, I didn’t make any connection between the two. It took a chance revisiting of Nerval’s story, after recently writing about Tarkovsky’s film, to realize their uncanny similarities. Nerval makes the connection to the somewhat intangible inspiration I found in Stalker even stronger than I had realized.
As I mentioned before, I took a lot from Stalker, but most importantly this tandem: an appreciation of the specificity of environments combined with a healthy open-mindedness toward what progress has largely left behind. I find that concept crystallized in what the Writer (a character) says early on: “In the Middle Ages, life was interesting. Every house had a goblin, each church had a God. People were young. Now every fourth person is old. It’s boring, my angel.” But even as I remember those words and the way they enchanted me, and as much as I’ve already tried to explain it in writing, the element of why still begs further elucidation.
Nerval’s words, quite coincidentally, seem to do a good job of further answering that “why.” Aurélia, like much of Nerval’s work, combines a fascination with different historical periods and a Jungian approach to the importance of dreams (“Dream is a second life….”) into a fascinating story. At a point in the story similarly (and strangely) early to the one in Stalker, Nerval plays out a condemnation of progress – not so much of progress in general, just in the progress that we’ve made – even gloomier than that of the Writer’s. From a mental hospital of some sort, Nerval draws (literally) images and words to write his own creation myth. Here is a taste:
These strange mysteries took place in the center of Africa, beyond the Mountains of the moon and ancient Ethiopia: it was there that I long suffered in captivity, along with a portion of the human race. The woods that had formerly been so green to my eyes now offered nothing but faded flowers and withered leaves; the land was ravaged by a relentless sun, and the feeble offspring of these never-ending dynasties seemed to stagger under the burden of life. […] The elders languished under the weight of their crowns and imperial ornaments, surrounded by doctors and priests, whose science guaranteed their immortality. As for the general population, forever caught in the cogs of the caste system, it could no longer hope for life or liberty. At the feet of trees stricken with death and sterility, at the mouths of fountain-heads which had run dry, one could see sallow, listless children and young women withering on the scorched grass. The splendor of the royal chambers, the majesty of the porticoes, the brilliance of the vestments and adornments offered meager consolation for the never-ending tedium of this wasteland.
Although things eventually take a sort of upturn, this period in Nerval’s creation myth – the “faded flowers and withered leaves,” the “weight” of crowns and science, and the “cogs of the caste system” – seems to echo life outside of the “Zone” in Stalker: boring and dying in the face of order and progress. (In a strange way, Nerval’s vision also serves as an apocalyptic, Chernobyl-esque sequel to Stalker: seven years after the film came out, the Chernobyl disaster created a real “Zone of alienation” and actual “stalkers” to take care of the abandoned power plant. Tarkovsky and crew had shot part of the film at deserted power plants and old chemical factories, which may have led to early, cancer-related deaths, including Tarkovsky’s.)
But then later in Aurélia, as Nerval’s madness shifts gears to a more “realistic” autobiography, we find this poetic account:
I grew up in a region that was full of strange legends and bizarre superstitions. One of my uncles, who had an enormous influence on my early education, collected Roman and Celtic antiquities as a hobby. Now and then he would find images of gods and emperors in his own or neighboring fields, images which his scholarly admiration caused me to venerate and whose history I learned from his books. A certain Mars cast in gilded bronze, a Pallas or armed Venus, a Neptune and an Amphitrite sculpted over the village fountain, and above all the fat, friendly face of a bearded Pan smiling through the ivy and yellow creeper at the entrance of a grotto – such were the guardians and household gods of this refuge.
This fascinating passage very similarly (again, strangely similarly, as I happen to encounter both the book and the film at the same time on two separate occasions) foreshadows the Writer’s admiration for the practices of the Middle Ages. For Nerval as for the Writer, goblins and Gods (and other figures), and not order and progress, make life interesting.
Nerval’s description of his childhood also brings the whole story “home” for me. Since inhabiting the old house in Vermont, we’ve found a lot of interesting “images” – everything from a tintype of a mysterious woman found in the garage (top image above) to a scratchboard etching of Peter Lorre that my mom made years ago – but one of the most striking, literally, “guards” our front door: an iron knocker featuring a bearded man with goat horns, much resembling the god Pan (directly above). I often forget about this mysterious welcoming device perhaps left over from the building’s days as a Masonic hall, and maybe the way it sinks into the back of my mind fits this story well. From time to time, it pops up, like the Writer’s goblins and Gods and images from Nerval’s childhood, as the guardian “of this refuge.” And in that way, it does make life interesting.