In his book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents us with the following scenario:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
This is what happens to Dr. Louise Banks, the linguist invited to decode the language of mysterious visiting aliens in the just-released, 2016 film Arrival. In her loneliness, these aliens (which some in the film certainly perceive to be demons of sorts) give her the gift of a language that enables her to experience her future as though it is also already her past. This reality, however, is not presented to us as nightmarish but as desirable, almost eschatological.
Arrival stretches the theory that the language we inhabit forms the way we think (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) beyond the known boundaries of human thought. The language of the heptapods, as the aliens come to be called, is non-linear. As Louise begins to decode this language, she increasingly comes to inhabit it, begins to dream in it, and begins to think differently as a result. Specifically, she comes to know her own future. The future becomes the past; there is no difference between memory and expectation. While she cannot exactly transcend death, the alien language enables Louise to transcend the usual barriers to knowledge that result from the difference between past and future. And, in a sense, this is a sort of transcendence of the limitations given by death.
There are two approaches to objects that unfold in time: a synchronic perspective and a diachronic one. A poem or a piece of music, for example, can be approached on the one hand in terms of the whole, laid out on a page. This is a synchronic perspective because all connections are visible at once. The object appears in terms of its wholeness, its unity, its harmony. However, a truly synchronic understanding of how the pieces fit together requires that one has already read or listened through the piece at least once. This other experience of encountering the object through time, diachronically, is the way that one first experiences any object that unfolds in time. Its future is unknown and as such it includes surprises, perhaps even experiences of discord. Usually, both perspectives are necessary in order for one to really understand such an object.
Our own lives are an interesting exception when viewed from this perspective. While my life is perhaps like a poem or a piece of music in that it is arguably a kind of whole that unfolds in time (whether or not it is a very coherent whole is of course another question), I can never experience my own life synchronically. We cannot step outside our lives to see the whole at once. We can attempt this perhaps with respect to our past, and others may attempt this for our whole life after we have passed, but we cannot ourselves see this whole synchronically.
However, this is precisely the gift that the alien language gives to Louise. She is able to inhabit both a synchronic understanding of her life in which the whole is available to her, and the typical diachronic orientation in which she lives through each moment as it passes, more or less simultaneously. Depending on how one understands God’s relationship to time, this is arguably a sort of divine perspective.
It is also one possible way to interpret Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same. If the boundaries between past and future were collapsed so that time was no longer linear, we would experience everything as though it had already happened and everything that had happened as if it will always continue to be happening. I think Nietzsche is right to observe that many of us might find this horrific, but Arrival presents this situation as almost utopian. Louise embraces it, all the joy and all the pain. She says “despite knowing the journey and where it leads” she will “embrace it and love every moment.”
Part of the reason for the desirability of this situation is that there is more involved here than merely time. The unification of time also enables the unification of society. Ultimately, the film is about communication and the intimacy between people that communication makes possible. Indeed, the film not only follows attempts to communicate with the aliens but the barriers to communication that exist between human cultures. The argument that eventually comes through is that the unification of these human cultures is finally only made possible when time itself is unified. The unification of time enables the unification of peoples, and perhaps of all reality.
Arrival taps into an ultimate human desire, the desire to approach reality synchronically, to see the connections between everything, the harmony of everything, rather than simply being at the whim of meaningless, unpleasant surprises. Through philosophies, scientific theories, and religions, which in their various ways attempt to give an account of reality as a whole, humans constantly demonstrate their desire for unity and coherence and do their best to somehow discern it from their limited perspectives. Arrival satisfies our desire to transcend these limits while also respecting the human realities of pain and death, which is by no means an easy balance to attain.
Christian liturgy addresses this same desire, this same tension. On the one hand, we do not know our futures, we experience time moment by moment as it passes. This limitation is part of human creatureliness and it is not something we overcome as Louise does. Nevertheless, embeddedness in liturgy does give one a second, synchronic time. The same events are lived every year; in a sense this too is an eternal return of the same. We know exactly what the future will be, liturgically speaking, enabling us to locate events within the harmony of a larger reality, though this does not negate the pain and death that are part of our experience of creatureliness.
Critics have noted the timeliness of Arrival, coming only a couple of days after the American Presidential Election. Given recent moves towards nativism and isolationism, the vision of global unity portrayed by the film is timely indeed. There is, however, another matter of timing that has passed by largely unnoticed, a matter of liturgical timing. The film’s title, Arrival, is a synonym for advent, for something imminent. As with the coming of Immanuel, who transcends earthly reality, the arrival of the extra-terrestrial brings a kind of salvation – a gift for the unification of humanity. Advent is a liturgical season of expecting an event that both has and has not already happened. Arrival is likewise a messianic vision of unity within and beyond humanity in which there is no past, present, and future, only eternal return. There is no question that Arrival presents an eschatological vision. The question is: to what degree is this a Christian eschatological vision, a Nietzschean one, or some combination of the two?
 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and others, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 194.
Categories: Language and Communication, Philosophy, Theology
Thanks for this thoughtful post. A friend and I were talking recently about the issue you bring up at the end – is this a Christian view of reality? One thing I took away from the film is its apparent agreement with a theme I’ve noticed in various contemporary stories and worldviews, which is that life is valuable precisely because it is temporary – so Louise accepts the reality of her child’s death and chooses to have her anyway. I don’t know whether this is compatible with a Christian eschatology at all: we believe that all things are redeemed and made permanent, but at the same time there is something important about our mortality and finiteness within the wider frame of redeemed eternity.
I hadn’t thought about the Arrival = Advent connection! Scifi is so often about religion in one way or another that this does seem intentional.
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You’re right – I have also noticed that theme. But also, I’m not sure that this is a simple valuing of things because they’re temporary. If time is not linear, I’m not sure the idea of something being temporary even works. In one sense, the child’s existence is eternal. But, and this is perhaps the scarier part, the child’s death is also eternal.
We have the same tension in Christianity. Do we really believe that all things are permanent? Is that what redemption means? What about all the microbes and skin cells? Does this mean we believe there will be no change at all after redemption? I’m not so sure.
Although Nietzsche’s thought eternal returning of the same has been somehow expressed in this movie, the truth of this thought can not be experienced without considering our understanding of Being. We percieve Nietzsche’s word as far as we “are” and the we tremble as such.