Lessons to be learned from The Red Turtle
He’s drowning. In the ocean, tossing like a troubled conscience in the dark, nameless and anonymous. Somehow he is delivered onto a white beach. Beyond the gray rocks is a green forest. He climbs a hill and discovers himself on an island.
He rests. He eats. He rebuilds his strength. He lashes together a raft from felled bamboo. He means to escape. He floats out beyond the breakers.
Something attacks his craft, destroys it. He barely makes it back to land. Rest. Rebuild. Repeat. It happens again. Yet he persists.
The third time, he sees the monster. It’s a sea turtle.
Shipwrecked again, he makes it back to shore and sees the turtle crawling onto the beach. In his fury, he runs down and beats the turtle with a stick. Then he pushes it onto its back and leaves it in the sun to die while he starts to build another raft.
After a while, he feels bad about the turtle, which was only following the imperatives of its instinct. He tries to turn it back over, but it’s too heavy. He tries to feed it a fish, but he discovers it has died. He is sorry, and he sits up with the dead turtle.
That night, the turtle’s shell splits. And in the morning a beautiful young woman is sleeping inside the turtle’s shell.
This is the first act of a tender, beautiful film screened for my Lifequest students in July. It’s called The Red Turtle. It was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar earlier this year. You should see it, it’s on DVD now.
It was made by Michael Dudok de Wit, a Dutch animator based in London. He won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2000 for his eight-minute film Father and Daughter (it’s on YouTube). I can just about be moved to tears thinking about his work.
You might think that’s silly, and that’s fine. Some people don’t care for poetry, they prefer more practical arts. One guy at a screening of The Red Turtle thought it didn’t make any sense. Dead turtles don’t turn into beautiful young women. He’s right about that, and maybe you could skip the movies altogether because they’re mostly made-up stuff. Fake news. All pretend.
The way I look at it, The Red Turtle is our story—we’re all born half-drowning in the tumult, we’re all stranded in our own consciousness. We have our dreams thwarted. We kill our turtles. We’re all trapped on this rock. We don’t really know why.
Yet somehow we have everything we need. Our rock provides, or at least it has so far.
We scrabble up the mountain and look around and imagine that we’ve fixed ourselves in the cosmos.
I think the big shift came when we began to tell ourselves stories, when we began to recognize patterns in the maelstrom, the cycles of day and night and winter and summer and life and death and the inevitability of our own extinction. You start to realize that you’ve got an expiration date, maybe it concentrates the mind.
That is what distinguishes us from the less-complicated beasts, the knowledge that we’re only here for a short while. Nature is innocent in its gore, but we are alert to our limits. We can to some degree plumb the world beyond our rock. This leads us to force meaning into our experience, to try to connect with each other and the universe at large.
So we invent language. We’re magical. We can read each others’ minds.
And our words have definitions, but they also have shadows. They have a hauntedness—connotations and discrete shades of meanings. There is no such thing as a synonym—the “dark lands” are not the same as the “dim territories.” Precision is of paramount importance, tolerances are extremely tight.
You know this, maybe in your bones. Or maybe not. It seems lots of people these days deny the power of words. They use them casually, without much regard to their potential. We have denatured “awesome,” we conjure “alternative facts” and “reality TV” (which is the fakest kind of show). Newt Gingrich tells us it is not what is that is important, it’s how you think you feel about the rhetoric of salespeople. Rudy Giuliani reminds us everyone who’s able is unfaithful now and then. People nod their heads in assent.
You have the right to believe whatever nonsense flatters you or makes you feel like a character in someone’s movie. You can make up the world you want to live in, the world you want to campaign against.
Nihilism is a habit of mind for some, a revelation for others. The notion that nothing matters seems self-evident to some of us; those who sense an emptiness at the core of life which after all is short, absurd and painful. No one will remember us in the far distant future; maybe no one will remember us next week.
So why not get what you can while you can? Why not play the game with ruthless gusto? Why not scream your name into the void, scrawl it on the wall or tack it onto skyscrapers? Why not do the drugs and trash the planet? Why not take their money and do their bidding and promulgate the cover story? Why not embrace cynicism? Why not treat other people as objects for your amusement? To be “virtuous” is simply a arbitrary choice that has no empirical effect on a world that will continue to spin until it fails and cools to a lifeless rock. To what it was before this brief chaos.
Maybe because we don’t have to live like that. Because, whether it’s true or not, we can imagine we have been sparked by the divine.