This week I watched Andrei Rublev, the black and white masterpiece created in 1965 by Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky. The film depicts a series of vignettes featuring Rublev, the 15th century painter of iconography and one of Russia’s most famous artists. Tarkovsky was apparently a deeply religious man, who had an ambivalent relationship with the Soviet state in which he lived, although he volunteered for service and fought in the Second World War. I have never been moved by spiritual concerns, but found Andrei Rublev both deeply affecting and urgently relevant, in no small part due to its establishing of what I understand as a dialectical synthesis between what the sociologist Max Weber called instrumental-rationality and value-rationality.
The film depicts Rublev as a genuinely spiritual man and brilliant artist. The story, set in medieval, rural Russia, begins with a curious scene of a man flying above the earth, suspended by a sort of hot-air balloon. Rublev, too, concerns himself with an ethereal, rarified domain. In the middle parts of the film, though, these preoccupations are turned on their head. A Tartar raid leads to murder, torture, and rape in the small village in which Rublev is based. Amidst these scenes, Rublev kills a raider who would rape a helpless and simple woman—one of “God’s fools”. For having committed this sin, Rublev thereafter takes a vow of silence and ceases painting. As well as his own sin, it seems that gentle Rublev is so horrified by the baseness of his fellow man that he cannot help but turn his back on the grubby material world.
The film abruptly switches to the perspective of a teenage boy, whose family have all been killed or abducted. He apparently holds the secret, inherited from his dying father, of how to cast the massive copper bells which were essential to the proper functioning of Orthodox churches. Desperately struggling first to be believed, then to be employed to fashion an enormous new church bell, the boy fights, at every step of the way, with an ugly, material reality, and is ultimately successful. Unlike the ethereal scenes with which the film began, the boy literally crawls through the mud, seeking to find the appropriate clay to use to create a massive mould for the new bell. The boy has never made a bell before and, as we later learn, never actually inherited the secret for the correct admixture of metal elements for casting. Now, though, this teenager somehow manages to command a team of men and lead a project commissioned by a Prince. Failure will lead to the boy’s flogging, or worse.
These scenes are difficult to understand, as they occur, but the film eventually builds to a dialectical synthesis. The enormous bell emerges, successfully moulded, from its clay encasing. It is lifted, through the exertions of dozens of men pulling on ropes, into the air. The boy, we learn, does not know at this point if the alloy he used will actually produce a properly resonant bell, that can ring with the peals that mediate between the heavenly and earthly domains. After building tension, the bells finally are rung. They resound. The boy collapses in the mud, overcome with tears of relief, and anger at his dead father. Only Rublev comforts him, breaking his own vow of silence to encourage the boy to continue to use his very effective practical gifts. Rublev himself is changed by this moment, and indicates he will return to his iconographic painting. The bell, then, marks a dialectical synthesis of a dirty material world and a higher world, of the profane and the sacred. Rublev, too, arrives at this synthesis, having realised that he cannot turn his back on the ugly, sometimes horrific, social-material world. The boy, meanwhile, whose efficiency and effectiveness caused him to have his assistants in the project sometimes whipped, is moved to realise that he needs a higher cause to guide his instrumentality.
The Dialectic of Two Rationalities and the Neoliberal University
Weber suggested that, in Western European modernity, instrumental-rationality—that efficient, calculative, means-dominated mode of action—comes to predominate. Consequently, modes of action based on feeling, tradition, or what he called value-rationality—action oriented towards a value, ethic, or ideal—fade into obsolescence. Lukács (to whom the Past & Present Reading Group will turn at the end of the year) and later the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, famously aligned Weber’s critique of instrumental-rationality with Marx’s critique of commodification and alienation. It is hard, in the present moment, not to see everywhere Weber’s “iron cage” of rationalisation, including in the neoliberal university. There, instituting efficient means to achieve ends—ends that are structured directly by the market and indirectly by the capitalist regime of “value”—seems such a necessity that the possibility of maintaining pure commitments to scholarly and educational values or ideals can seem foreclosed.
Andrei Rublev powerfully conveys the intensity of the conflict, inner and outer, that can arise when one maintains a commitment to value-rationality, to acting in accordance with values and ideals (regardless of whether they are religious, political, or ethical), rather than based upon calculations of the likelihood of success. I am tempted, like Rublev, to monkishly turn my back, in disgust, in this case on the grubby world of the commodified, reified neoliberal university. Yet, Andrei Rublev shows that even a commitment to value-rationality must be synthesised with the instrumental, that we cannot turn our backs even on that which we find debased. Having less faith than Rublev, or Tarkovsky, though, I cannot help but think that the dialectical synthesis of instrumental-rationality and value-rationality leads easily to the ideological manifestation of the former as the latter, of capitalist “value” as values.
Ces Moore | Jul 8 2020
Always pleased to see Tarkovsky used to unlock interesting questions about dialectics. There is some excellent work in Russian Studies, on the Russian aesthetic and hermeneutic traditions, and in Cultural and Film Studies on Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky also wrote some interesting pieces which are well worth reading. This is a terrific piece, which really should be developed by the author.
Seamus Barker | Jul 9 2020
Thanks for the suggestions and encouragement, Ces. I look forward to checking them out.
Ces Moore | Jul 21 2020
Amongst many others I found work on Tarkovsky by Mark Le Fanu, Vida Johnson and Graham Pétrie, Robert Bird, and Maya Turovskaya to be of use, along with wider work on Russian cinema by David Gillespie and Ian Christie. I’m sure many others have written more recent works. Tarkovsky wrote Sculpting in Time, and his diaries, Time within Time, as well as his screenplays. Do let me know if you develop the idea and keep up the good work, Seamus.