Simon Critchley on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

In his new book, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley talks about death in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (you can read Critchley’s earlier essay “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line” here)—

So, the hero of The Thin Red Line is this character Witt. And we meet him for the first time on the beach meditating about his mother’s death, imagining that he could meet death with the same calm that his mother seemed to meet it. We then get this romantic flashback: it’s somewhere in the Midwest; he’s touching his mother’s hand; then the hand is pulled away and she’s gone. That’s the fantasy of the authentic death. And Witt, according to Malick, fulfills the fantasy: approaching death with calm — this is Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza. Interestingly, when I was looking at the sources — he’s very faithful to Jim Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line — he inserts the word ‘calm’ into the passage, it’ s not there in the novel. It might or might not be an allusion to Heidegger, where Heidegger, where Heidegger talks about anxiety as an anxiety towards death as an experience of calm, or peace: the German is Ruhe. This is a Romantic ideas of death. For Heidegger, if human beings are authentic they’re heading towards death; if they’re inauthentic they experience demise, which means that we just pass out of existence. But only animals and plants perish, and that just seems to be ridiculous. Human beings perish all the time, can perish, and there are examples like in Kafka’s Trial where one dies like a dog. Human beings die in all sorts of ways, in a permanent vegetative state or whatever.

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