“How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?”
Youth Without Youth takes us through a strange loop that demands us both cognitively and visually to ask similar questions about love, memory, and death. The film begins with the familiar image of an anxiety-ridden intellectual who, failing (or finally succeeding?) to fall asleep, enters a dreamlike state that eventually, at the end of the film, culminates in his death. The loop effect is heightened by the film’s frequent use of canted angles, flipped images, deep color contrast, and haunting chants in ancient tongues that leaves us constantly wondering where and when the dream begins and reality ends. In fact, the viewer is never, to my knowledge, reassured that the film did indeed begin with the “real” Dominic Matei, the protagonist, who comes to fantasize about a younger, virile version of himself and his wonderful yet futile quest for the origins of language and consciousness.
Our musings about the “reality” of Dominic are thrown further into a loop as we approach the closing moments of the film. There we find Dominic, back home in Romania, rapidly aging and returning to his old self as he shares his views with us, the viewers, and his old friends about the famous dream of Zhuang Zhou (or Zhuangzi), the man who wasn’t sure whether he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he had been a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he had become Zhuang Zhou. As if to adumbrate the possibility that Dominic may have awaken from one dream to find himself in another, the film ends with a stunning close up of the third rose—Coppola’s MacGuffin—magically appearing in the hands of the lifeless and “real” Dominic lying face down in the fresh snow. (Two earlier roses, you may recall, were used by the rejuvenated Dominic as a means to test the “reality” of his double, or vice versa.)
These doubts about the neat transition from dream space to the space where the reality principle reigns supreme bring us to an important question: Is Youth Without Youth a tragedy or melodrama? Let us begin with the possibility that Dominic’s death did occur in reality. Many, I suspect, will then be tempted to read into the character of Dominic Matei the desires, aspirations, and existential despair of his creators, Eliade and Coppola. Is it not tempting, for instance, to read Dominic’s failure to complete his life’s work and his lonesome death as an allegory of the tragic fate that awaits all great minds? Conversely, is Dominic’s dream of his rebirth and seeming apotheosis not the fantasy of the obsessive genius (whose only desire is to have a “second chance”) par excellence?
On the other hand, there will also be an equally strong tendency, I think, to offer a more positive, but no less tragic, reading of his death. What Dominic’s decision to forgo his quest for the sake of Laura’s well being—that is, the shift from his symbolic mandate (his life’s work) to the stubborn remainder that resists this mandate (his passionate attachment to or love for Laura)—might represent is Dominic’s freedom from the mandate that compels him to sacrifice everything that he holds dear. His death would, then, be a sign not of the tragic fate of failing to live up to his symbolic mandate but of freedom (a freedom, for Eliade and Coppola, to pursue their idiosyncratic interests without being affected by peer critique). In fact, does it not signify the elevation of Dominic to the status of the detached sage and hopeless romantic of epic proportions (i.e., the perfect historian of religion)?
But whose freedom is in question here? Is it not Laura (now reincarnated as Veronica), rather than Dominic, who is freed from the burden of unlocking the mythic origins of history and thus her immanent death? (Veronica, of course, cannot free herself.) What makes Dominic’s choice to free the rapidly deteriorating and aging Veronica no less tragic (nor more free) is the fact that Dominic—like poor Oedipus—tries to avoid his fate of losing Veronica (or Laura) by escaping to a seaside villa in Malta with her but, in so doing, ironically fulfills his fate and dies alone.
But can we not produce an even more positive and, dare I say, melodramatic reading of Dominic’s death? What if Dominic “awoke” to find himself, though old and senile and on the verge of death, in another dream or fantasy? What if there was no higher purpose, love, or mandate for which Dominic had to sacrifice his attachment to Laura but he did it anyway? This would make his death neither tragic (there is no guilt) nor heroic (there is no justification). Just necessary.
Why necessary? In our film, death seems to serve as the inevitable consequence of revealing the truth (how else are we to understand Veronica’s rapid loss of youth and beauty as she approaches the origins of language and consciousness?). For the truth to be revealed (and for us to awake from Dominic’s dream) someone, in other words, had to die and that someone, needless to say, had to be Dominic.
Allow me to entertain this hypothesis a bit further. Firstly, it must be borne in mind that in our film, History does not necessarily appear where we think it should. It appears not in reality but in fantasy. The cold reality of war, espionage, and science (for which see Kripal’s post) occupy almost every square inch of Dominic’s dream space, and it is only as a temporary escape from this reality that his futile quest for sacred origins (the fantasy within fantasy) has meaning. When Dominic slowly comes to wrestle with the painful truth that there is no escape from this dream (this coincidentia oppositorum)—that he may be a butterfly dreaming he was Dominic—at Cafe Select, surprisingly and in spite of the disbelief of his friends, he does not resist it. He accepts it. (It is, I think, to Coppola’s credit that we find no obvious moment of awakening in the elegiac cafe scene where Dominic comes to identify himself with Zhuang Zhou.)
Secondly, it must also be borne in mind that the truth is repeatedly, in bits and pieces, disclosed in the film as being utterly banal and the only one who seems to be unaware of this fact is Veronica. We see this banality in everything from the Chinese character for dream (meng) floating on the screen and the recitation of the Heart Sutra to the eminent Orientalist polyglot and Fascist sympathizer Giuseppe Tucci’s explanation that māyā (“illusion”) “is not a dream but takes part in the illusory nature of dreaming, because it is the future, therefore time—now time, is par excellence, unreal.” Had Veronica actually traversed far enough back in time to reach the truth, we would have walked away from the film, I think, with the kind of disappointment that we experienced when George Lucas finally revealed the rather profane nature of the Force. (And precisely for this reason I appreciate the harrowing and, admittedly, contrived moaning and groaning—the anamorphic portrait of the truth—performed by Alexandra Maria Lara.)
There is a lesson for us, students of religion and modernity, to learn from the melodramatic performance of Dominic. Knowing full well that awakening is just another dream (that God is dead), we must, like Dominic, carry on with the sacrifice of our most passionate and profane attachments. Doing so, we know, will neither make the truth any less banal nor will it allow us to sit on our moral highhorse and “do the right thing.” But this unconditional sacrifice of the instrumentality of sacrifice (be it of our life’s work or our true love) must be made. Though empty of meaning, the show must go on. Otherwise, we will, I fear, come to share the fate of the undead—consider the “rebirth” of Dominic and Laura—who cannot die, for they can never reach the nonexistent end that will eventually justify their endless sacrifice; hence, I add, the importance of Dominic’s death.
Like Dominic, I would like to close with a quote from the Zhuangzi:
He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman—how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too.
This is not to say that everything must therefore melt into thin air. Melodrama is not moral relativism. Surely, Zhuang Zhou concludes, between himself and the butterfly “there must be some distinction!” This, he claims, “is called the Transformation of Things.” Or, to put it crudely, to awaken to the fact that everything is a dream, a melodrama, makes everything all the more precious, all the more sacred.