Throughout his life as Russia's leading film director, Sergei Eisenstein always wrote theory and criticism. His essays on film structure and montage are still mandatory reading in world film circles. However, he didn't find the time to write what some consider his magnum opus, "Nonindifferent Nature," until a second heart attack in 1946 forced him to suspend film making and begin an extended convalescence.
This book is challenging, important yet flawed, especially at the beginning and the end. But the translation by Eisenstein's first English student, Herbert Marshall, is precise and impressive, a labor of love--as are the extensive glosses by Harvard's Roberta Reader. And the introduction by Herbert Eagle (whose anthology "Russian Formalist Film Theory" is itself a welcome addition to American film scholarship) vividly describes the artistic and intellectual milieu in which Eisenstein lived and worked.
Any work by this great Soviet film master made available to the English-speaking world will be, by definition, a contribution to our better understanding of the cinema--and in this case, of the experience of art in general. In Russian, Eisenstein's work runs to five volumes. "Nonindifferent Nature" comprises most of Volume 3. It is an ambitious work--a virtual field theory of the cinema and representation. Yet precisely because of its titanic scale and its totalism, the work seems unsustained, especially when read against the very background of the fields of structuralism and semiotics that it helped advance.
For Eisenstein, nature is nonindifferent (that is, she or it cares) because she (or it) constitutes the very genesis and determines the formation of what he believes to be the basic source of meaning in art, pathos . The argument tracing the evolution and structure of pathos is extensive and complex, but the chief criticism to be made against it is Eisenstein's attempt to tie pathos to what he terms "the principle of organic unity," or "the law by which natural phenomena are structured."
For however attractive and reassuring it may be to find such a link, as the Greeks did, order and unity seem no more inherent in nature than are chaos and indifference. Indeed, both structuralism and semiotics--to say nothing of quantum mechanics and modern physics--have developed toward this conclusion.
For both Saussure and Levi-Strauss, meaning comes not from any innate relation of elements to a natural order; but, to the contrary, precisely and only as a result of a relation between otherwise meaningless elements. For both structuralists and semioticians, meaning is derived not from "organic essences," but from a system that was structured to produce meaning. Had Sergei Eisenstein submitted "Nonindifferent Nature" to Roman Jakobson or Viktor Shklovsky (and one wonders why he didn't), they would have blue-penciled all the stuff about the Golden Section and other vestiges of his nostalgia for Attic classicism and organic order.
However, none of this gainsays the brilliance of his discourse. His analyses of Zola and "knotted" narratives are truly gifted. His discussion of plot as pursuit (the hunting impulse) and of narrative interweaving (related to constructing baskets) is remarkable. We can imagine Eisenstein working on this book, seated usually in his pajamas, either in the famous yellow study of his book-lined Moscow apartment, surrounded by his treasured artifacts, or at his dacha in the outskirts. Like Freud, whom he much admired, Eisenstein liked to combine tribal objects with refined etchings in the same room, if they commonly expressed pathos . He drew his examples from both Occident and Orient, from Italy to Bessarabia to Mexico and Japan.
In Western scenography, Eisenstein especially cherished those pictures (Piranesi's series, "Dungeons," or El Greco's "Storm Over Toledo," for example) that seemed "to 'explode' out of (their) naturally suggested scale into a qualitatively different scale--into a scale of heightened intensity . . . exploding 'out of itself' from the normally presumed spatial recession."
Drawn to the Gothic all his life, Eisenstein was radicalized early on by a revolutionary avant-garde that argued against the "transparency" of depth in realism and for "defamiliarization," "deformation" and what Brecht would later call a deliberate "making strange" in art. Indeed, Eisenstein's early critique of "spatial recession" here foreshadows current work in film theory on the camera as an ideological apparatus.
He termed this explosion "out of itself"--both when it occurred in making art and in the human experience of art--literally ecstasy, from the Greek ex stasis . He felt "intoxication" to be basic to what we call the artistic, but traced its origins to the genetic and prelogical.
Eisenstein's attraction to what he saw as the organic unity of the biophysical, of the prelogical and of primitive art turned him finally toward the study of "inner speech," the syncretistic patterns and "leaps" which he felt might justify his argument for universal sources. Yet, his application of "inner speech" pales by comparison with Vygotsky and Piaget, whose work did not share the burdens of a totalistic impulse to connect all human endeavor and expression with order and "organic unity."
Clearly, much more can and should be said about this eccentric, digressive but brilliant book than this brief review permits. By the end of his life, Eisenstein--Russia's greatest film director and theoretician--was humiliated, even if unbowed, by Stalinist attacks against him and his work. In the closing chapters of this book, Eisenstein describes his work as being in a country where "the builders of real life outstripped the creators of artistic values" and where "our cinema, as the most progressive of the arts, has this great task before it: to reveal in its works that profound unity and harmony, and that profound world-view that our socialist era has brought to humanity."
This shibboleth seems out of step with the power and style of the sinewy main body of this work. Whether his goal is simply to appease his Stalinist detractors, such sloganeering by a man of Eisenstein's elan reveals this pat disclaimer to be part of what is finally tragic in his life: a forced, submissive testimonial conceded from the sidelines by a battered star, in his descent, still hoping to be permitted one last play. By 50 he looked 70. It is no wonder associates called him "the old man."
The same Stalinist pressure that had produced Prokofiev's vertigo and hypertension must have certainly broken some of Eisenstein's spirit and his concentration, to say nothing of his heart. It is no wonder he dedicates "Nonindifferent Nature" to Pushkin's "poor Salieri." But Eisenstein felt he shared the destiny of both Mozart and Salieri. In his dedication he salutes "the tragic memory of the searcher, Salieri," and "the memory of Mozart's spontaneous joie de vivre ." Both shadows are cast across this gifted and ambitious book.