The Endless (2018) – Sacred and Profane Time
Phœbus in the western main / Sinks; but swift his car again
By a secret path is borne / To the wonted gates of morn.
Thus are all things seen to yearn / In due time for due return;
And no order fixed may stay, / Save which in th’ appointed way
Joins the end to the beginning / In a steady cycle spinning” – Boethius
When I first watched ‘The Endless’ (2018), shortly after the film had been released, I enjoyed it for the lovecraftian sense of Cosmic horror, but I also remember feeling deep sympathy for the members of the desert cult and the monster/deity that was leading them.
I re-watched it today and enjoyed it just as much as the first time, if not more. I still could not agree to the conclusions it presented, but I get the sense that the film managed to zero in on some things of great significance and timeless quality.
The film is specifically about timelessness, or the contrast between linear profane time and the cyclical, sacred time of the gods. The protagonists are two brothers, Justin and Aaron, orphaned in childhood when their parents died in a car crash, rescued and raised by the members of a desert cult, Camp Arcadia. Having grown up, they had decided to leave the cult behind, smear it in front of the press and return to wider society. After ten years, realising they still failed to adapt to contemporary society, despite periodic therapy sessions and failed attempts at socialising, Aaron receives a video cassette from Anna, an attractive female member of the cult, luring him and his brother into visiting Camp Arcadia once again. They decide to do it for one day only, just so they can find closure and leave that chapter behind them.
After arriving at the camp, the pleasant activities, the friendliness they experience, as well as the slow rhythm of life and the promise of divine revelation makes Aaron want to re-join the cult for good. I will not go into the details of the plot, for those who haven’t seen it. Instead I will focus on the philosophical themes brought forth by the filmmakers. On the second evening of their stay, as they are gathered around the campfire, the two brothers overhear Shane, one of the cult members, saying: ‘You know, Tolkien said it, Lewis said it, Lovecraft perverted it, and we just take the definite face off of it and we just say, “Hey, here are the tools, but you make it what you want.”‘
It appears Shane was referring to the ancient definition of the Sacred or the Archetypal, as the eternal, cyclical time-space of the gods, in which mortals can partake through rites of initiation, sacramental communion and sacrifices. All these elements are there in the film; the members of Camp Arcadia had waited for the two brothers to fully mature before they could be approached by the daimon of that place; the god (or monster, depending on your perspective) that clearly references the ancient Roman notion of ‘genius loci’ or its Norse equivalent, the ‘Landvættur’. The deity communicates with the cultists through visual representations – literal footage or photography that shows them what it sees through its very own eyes. The visuals come in pairs, with the first focusing on the person being watched, while the second pointing to a place of pilgrimage, some tent, camper van or other facility where the person is supposed to discover their purpose in life, in relation to the community.
As one may recall from Eliade’s work, all ancient myths revealed the primordial establishment of archetypal activities, of work and leisure, of hunting, cultivating the land; marriage and child birth, war and peace. For the ancients, life had meaning to the extent to which their mundane activities were reflections of these primordial founding acts; in other words, to the extent to which the profane was infused with the sacred. As Aaron notices at the camp gathering, everyone there had a thing (or two or three) like a hobby that they practiced and perfected over time. This hobby is implied to have been revealed to each member by the Deity itself, establishing their role within the community. While Aaron appears enticed by this meaningful existence in connection to the Sacred, his brother Justin cannot shake the suspicion that underneath all of this lurks a horrible, monstrous truth, which he is about to discover.
The Modern Rejection of the Sacred
The small mindedness of modernity rears its dreary head in the film’s casual critique of the Sacred. It appears [post]modern man is capable of singing one very predictable tune – that of radical autonomy as the crowning of the human condition. Even Hal, the alleged cult leader, though fully devoted to the local deity, asks himself in a moment of doubt: “Can you have power over yourself if you give up any amount of authority to something else?”
The modern mind is incapable of conceptualising powers and principalities; esse and essence; head and body, or participation in a higher whole. Hal himself confesses that if he weren’t so left brained (literally his words!), he might have realised the problem he was trying to solve was not a matter of either/or. The left brain likes to conceptualise the human being as radically self-willing and autonomous, determining every outcome through the laser beam of its focused attention. Whatever parts of our psyche (or outer world) lie OUTSIDE of this laser beam, they are simply labeled as ‘non-existent’ and denied vehemently. It thinks that once it turned off the lights on the stage, the furniture layout simply ceases to exist. The left hemisphere’s wilful denial is made apparent by its obfuscation of its very inputs received from OUTSIDE its own realm. In other words, the modern conceptualisation of the individual as a self-enclosed Universe with natural rights and the incentive to pursue happiness – is not only a delusion of grandeur, but a self-refuting proposal and a reliance on the very thing it wishes to deny. A child mistaking his pocket money for his own hard-earned income.
No object of perception can be declared autonomous or entirely sovereign; everything participates in a higher fabric of reality. Our thoughts, our impulses, our moral imperatives, are not willed into existence by the I or the Ego; they have a numinous character and a life of their own. Our goal is not to become fully autonomous (i.e. to will every minuscule aspect of our pop culture Golem identity, or sever ourselves from anything that is not willed directly in this manner), but to participate in various patterns of being-there. Conceptualising humans in this way helps us understand them not as atomised, self-contained Universes, but as participants (holons, fractals) in patterns greater than their nodes. What are these patterns? is the question we need to ask ourselves. The ancients called them ‘principalities’, ‘gods’, ‘essences’, ‘angels’. One’s entrance into one of these greater patterns is the ascension into the Sacred; the transition from linear, profane time, to cyclical, endless time. The transition from Chronos – the dull time measured by the clock and the pursuit of base desires – to Kairos, the mythopoietic, timeless state of aesthetic contemplation.
When viewed from this perspective, the lines of dialogue between the two brothers make a lot more sense, especially where they are wrong:
Justin: You want to die over and over and live your life on repeat!
Aaron: You act like i’m the first person in history that actually wants to live forever with people that like him! There’s not much difference between being stuck in a loop and repeating the same shitty day over and over like back home until I die.
Justin: but back home anything could happen. It could be so much better than the camp!
Aaron: Yea, we tried that, man. For almost a decade. And I’m ready to go back to not hating my life! Dying just takes a second, and a shitty life is long!
Justin: Aaron, I think you are making a very, very big decision with very little thought. And you realise that you do this once and you can never leave?!
Aaron: Anything is better than the life you make me live!
When the self-interested, left brained modern individual (‘homo incurvatus in se’) attempts to conceptualise kairos, he thinks of a nightmarish loop of boredom and despair. Aaron notices that his actual self-centred life is already IN that hell, thanks to his patronising left-brained elder brother, not the cult. We can all empathise with Aaron while we witness modernity destroy every vestige of meaning, of truth, goodness and beauty, in the name of abstract imperatives of self-willing, self-determination, radical equality, radical self-interest. While every escape from the hall of mirrors is ritually demonised and brutally severed by the priestly caste of utility, efficiency and linear teleological progress, we are arriving at the sobering realisation that we are about to enter a cyclical hell of addictions, compulsive consumption, Sisyphean texting, scrolling, arguing and sharing. We ARE being harvested and sacrificed on the altar of a disturbing principality, a spirit of a place we cannot comprehend; a monster whose outer shape we can barely start to discern.
When a modern intellectual is brought to this realisation, instead of opening up to the importance of the metaphysics of participation, he dodges the epiphany by instead embracing yet another clicheic punchline: ‘it was Justin’s fault all along, man’! The ‘Big Brother’ category lights up in his mind, and that is the end of his intelligent thought. The following lines from the film are as boring as they are self explanatory:
“Let him drive the fucking car. […] Big brother messes up everything. […] But you’re family, and that’s what family does.
Aaron: All I ever wanted is mess up our lives just as much as you do.
Justin: I’ll feel guilty for the rest of my life if I leave you here, so I guess I’m staying too.
Aaron: You’re respecting my decision to stay? Alright, let’s go. All I ever wanted was…”
No, you sorry loser! You think you wanted to self-will your life; to self-determine your identity. If only YOU could call the shots instead of the tyrranical Big Brother cliche, or other social squabbles you invoke like a fucking spastic whenever you’re on the brink of escaping the modern hall of mirrors. Like the philosopher Jagger once said, ‘You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometime you find / You get what you need’. Sorry to burst the bubble, but more modernity will NOT get us out of the hall of mirrors. A few days ago when I was planning on rewatching’The Endless’, I could not remember its name, so I had to scroll through my Watch history on Amazon Prime in order to find it. Although the endeavour was fruitless, it made me realise I have virtually no significant memories from the past 5 years. All days blend into the same monotony. No highs, no lows; the flicks I watched blend into one another seamlessly; a feeble quest for kairos, for the Sacred, lazily attempted through consumption and facile gratification. It doesn’t work this way and none of us is far from Aaron’s realisation.
The only significant question left to explore – never discovered by Millenial bugmen lost in the endless labyrinth of giants and their kin – is the nature of these Principalities, genii loci or landvaettir. What are the patterns we should seek to participate in? What types of sacrifices should we perform in this endeavour? What is the nature of the sacraments they demand from us? Remember kids, if you don’t ask this sort of questions, you will still participate in something; it better not be a downward spiral of death and despair. And if you compare the two protagonists with Hal, the thoughful, respectful leader of Camp Arcadia, it’s not hard to tell who manifests virtues and who doesn’t. But it’s always easy to smear Hal once you have left Arcadia, to portray him as some humourless, castrated cult leader, while you greedily guzzle your Twitter views and social media influence.
Hal: What we do know is that it shows us what it sees. It has a powerful elegance to it.