Malick’s quotations of Augustine and Kierkegaard

Christopher Page helpfully provides a transcript of the sermon at the center of The Tree of Life. (When compared against the Blu-ray, it is complete except for the line, “We run before the wind. We think that it will carry us forever. It will not.”)

The syntax at the end of the sermon is so rhetorically distinctive, in a higher register than the rest of the sermon, that I wondered if Malick had written this sermon himself or whether it was taken from another source. A cursory search of Google Books reveals the answer is both. Most of the sermon appears to be original but Malick also quotes Augustine (with modifications) and Kirkegaard (directly).

This selective quoting of eclectic sources seems to be Malick’s method throughout the film, because John McAteer has pointed out that Jessica Chastain’s whispery distinction between Nature and Grace that opens The Tree of Life is a paraphrase of Thomas a Kempis (Imitatio Christi, Book III, chapter 54).

In any case, here are the passages Malick adapts, as they appear in the film then followed by their sources, with direct quotations in bold.

Priest’s sermon:

Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health?

Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, chapter 4:

Is the body of the wise man exempt from any pain which may dispel pleasure, from any disquietude which may banish repose? The amputation or decay of the members of the body puts an end to its integrity, deformity blights its beauty, weakness its health, lassitude its vigor, sleepiness or sluggishness its activity,—and which of these is it that may not assail the flesh of the wise man?

[Trans. by Marcus Dods, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Volume II—St. Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. by Philip Schaff (1887), p. 401.]

Priest’s sermon:

The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

Søren Kierkegaard, “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”, Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843), IV, 19–20:

The very moment everything was taken away from him, he knew it was the Lord who had taken it away, and therefore in his loss he remained on good terms with the Lord, in his loss maintained intimacy with the Lord; he saw the Lord, and therefore he did not see despair. [IV, 19] Or does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn his face toward him, or does not also he see God who sees him turn his back, just as Moses continually saw nothing but the Lord’s back? [IV, 20]

[Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 121.]

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2 thoughts on “Malick’s quotations of Augustine and Kierkegaard

  1. paulmaherjr says:

    This is very insightful and illuminating – The Tree of Life is a visual experience that allows one to constantly peel back layer after layer, distilling it further, yet is still incapable of being reduced completely.

  2. cinemike says:

    I concur. This allows us less erudite souls to see even more wonder in Malick’s masterpiece. Thank you, and keep watching the masterpieces.

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