You can revisit Part 1 here otherwise, welcome to Part 2!
While all this may sound like a further deepening of the distinctions between the English and the Powhatan, the “easy” morality Stephen Hunter sees in the film, past the surface appearance the film is really more interested in drawing those distinctions in order to reveal them as illusory. Malick is after a view of the world which erases separation and recognizes oneness. In a (very!) rare interview before a screening of The New World, Malick suggests the film is more about asking questions than providing answers: “It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself, figure things out yourself.” This is a common strategy across his films, as in The Thin Red Line, Malick is careful to suggest that war isn’t just a disease in humanity which is foreign in nature, nor is war simply the state of nature. Likewise, in The Tree of Life, the film focuses on healing the gap between the gentle world view of Jack’s mother, and the harsh, aggressive world view of his father, rather than making either one of them wrong. In direct contrast to Hunter’s assertion, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests the very opposite: “Where most historical films of this type tend to fixate on the boundaries between people and cultures, the differences between them, The New World is different because it is more about the porousness of those boundaries, or perhaps the non-existence or irrelevance of those boundaries in the greater scheme of things.” After all, the desire for oneness – with others, nature, God – is perhaps the central motivation driving both the film and its characters. And while Hunter may be right about the “easy” devision on the level of bios, as Seitz emphasizes “in the greater scheme of things” these “easy” boundaries disappear.
To Seitz’s point, Smith eagerly crosses the supposed boundaries between the English and Powhatan cultures, and in his relationship with Pocahontas demonstrates not only his desire for oneness, but his admiration for her culture. While the “prisoner” of the Powhatan tribe, he actively seeks to learn about their culture, he plays games with the other men in the tribe, and when he first meets the tribe’s Chief, he seems to intuitively understand the Chief’s questions. Smith also takes up, in small ways, their style of dress, tying feathers into his hair – which remains even after Smith returns to Jamestown. But, however much Smith desires the kind of hybridity between cultures that would make his love of Pocahontas viable in the long term, he does not see their relationship as a real option. After Pocahontas’s father exiles her from his camp for giving the English plant seeds, she begs Smith to “Come away” with her, Smith, ever the practical type, objects, “And where would we live? In the woods? On a treetop? A hole in the ground?” At one point he even suggests taking Pocahontas to England with him, but quickly brushes the idea aside as it’s “too far.” Unlike Smith, who seems to, at some point, accept the cultural boundaries between them as uncrossable, Rolfe successfully achieves hybridity. Rolfe does not live within the settlement borders as Smith did, instead he owns his own farm in a kind of “middle ground” between Jamestown and the Powhatan camps. Rolfe also genuinely respects the land, using it to grow tobacco rather than trying to subjugate nature, and he appreciates that Pocahontas “understands the culture of tobacco.”
And furthermore, the English are not shown to be innately corrupt. Mary, Pocahontas’s companion in Jamestown, teaches Pocahontas how to read, counsels her after Smith leaves Virginia – telling her, wisely, that he lied to her – and after hearing of Smith’s “death,” offers her advice in her grief which is not in opposition to Powhatan culture, telling her, “Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds. … We must meet misfortune boldly … and live our troubles down, my lady.” And Malick seems very careful to point out that the English tendency to ‘strip mine’ the earth is not borne of any malicious intent or innate evilness, but rather extends from their cultural perceptions and beliefs about nature – that they have inherited the earth from God who intended man to reign over and use nature. Pocahontas herself also represents an impulse towards porousness, as Seitz puts it, she has a “natural tendency to reach out, literally reach out with one’s hands, to other people.” Pocahontas saves Smith from death without hesitating, and eagerly learns to speak English. She also actively protects and supports the life of the settlers by giving them food and proper clothing during the winter while they are starving, and provides them with seeds for sowing crops in the spring. And when she moves into Jamestown she begins to dress as an Englishwoman. Yet she does not lose her Powhatan culture. Even after she has married Rolfe and lives in his house, she continues to pray with her outstretched hands towards the sun. And later, in England, despite her expensive dresses, eagerly wades in the Rolfe Estate ponds and climbs trees. Appropriately, at her baptism she is renamed “Rebecca,” a name from the Book of Genesis. The biblical Rebecca was the mother of Esau and Jacob and known as “the mother of two nations,” a name which suggests Pocahontas weaves cultures together, rather than abandoning one for another. In fact, Pocahontas prays in Virginia as well as England, and there is no evidence in the film that Pocahontas finds the manicured English gardens any less magnificent than the wilderness of Virginia, she finds connection with nature and the divine in both. England is not “spiritually impoverished,” the fault is simply in one’s perception which only comes to feel like reality because it circulates and self-validates within a particular culture.
It is also significant that during production Malick was rigorous about the film’s historical accuracy. Malick had the actors, and even the extras, playing Powhatans (who were themselves all Native Americans) trained by linguistics expert Blair Rudes to learn an approximation of the now extinct Powhatan language. Malick contacted ornithologists to request recordings of bird songs from every bird species who would have been present in Jamestown in the early 17th century, and in the case of birds who were now extinct, he asked for available bird songs as close as possible. The film was also shot at the Chickahominy River, very close to the historical Jamestown site. The English settlement and the Powhatan village were both constructed based on archaeological evidence. And even the biblical quotation in the film is taken from the 1599 Geneva version of the bible, which would have been the most widely used and available version of the Holy Bible in the early 17th century. It is then, perhaps, a little strange that after all the trouble to create a film as historically accurate as possible, Malick chooses to centre the entire film around a romance between Cpt. Smith and Pocahontas: probably the most historically inaccurate element in Jamestown’s history. Most historians agree that the alleged romance between Smith and Pocahontas is a myth. Even Smith’s narration of Pocahontas saving him from death, which he wrote almost 10 years after the alleged event, is controversial. Malick could hardly have been ignorant their romance is almost certainly false. This being the case, there is clearly something significant about this myth for Malick. This is, perhaps, a symptom of his preference for the zoe perspective. From the bios point of view, the historical accuracy of Smith and Pocahontas’s relationship is critical. But from the zoe perspective, the historical accuracy is less important than the story’s metaphoric meanings. In the bios reality of their relationship (in the film), the romance causes all sorts of problems for both the Powhatan tribe, as Pocahontas’s aid helps the settlers survive a harsh winter and thus helps them stay indefinitely, and also for Smith, who tells Pocahontas after he is ostracized from Jamestown by Argall, “I didn’t want to harm you. And now there’s disaster all around us. We should have stopped before it was too late.” But from the zoe perspective, there seems to be something redeeming about the myth itself, particularly from the point of view that the film explores the porousness of boundaries. From the zoe perspective, the romance between Smith and Pocahontas speaks to a desire for oneness between seemingly “different” people and cultures, but also points to how illusory those boundaries are from a boarder perspective.
The title itself connotes this porousness, as “the New World” suggests the colonial curiosity which inspires the crossing of physical and natural boundaries like the sea to discover new territories. And although the film contrasts the English and Powhatan cultures, neither is “pure”. While not explicitly explored in the film itself, it is a matter of history that even the “superior” English are products of hybridity: the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, and in the fifth and sixth century the island was again invaded and populated by Anglo-Saxons (themselves a hybrid race). Most ethnicities are far more interrelated than we usually assume, which is something present in the films subtext since Pocahontas, “the mother of two nations”, bears a “mixed” son, Thomas – to whom, incidentally, many families in Virginia can trace direct lineage. Formally, the dissolution of barriers is taken up in the film’s use of voice-overs. Most competent screenwriting books and teachers almost unanimously advise against voice-overs, a piece of advice made (in)famous by the (incredibly wonderful!) 2002 film Adaptation: the film’s main character Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is a screenwriter trying to adapt a “non-adaptable” book and in his anguish attends a screenwriting seminar taught by Robert McKee (a real screenwriting teacher played Brian Cox). In a scene which is dominated by Charlie’s obsessive thoughts in voice-over, McKee interrupts, yelling at the audience “And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends! God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” [Do yourself a favour, watch the clip from the film here and then go watch the whole thing]. So, it is perhaps no surprise that the heavy use of voice-overs in Malick’s work tends to annoy critics: for example, Claudia Puig calls the voice-overs “pretentious narrative musings,” and despite the illusion that voice-overs give access into a character’s mind, reviewer Todd McCarthy even ventures the voice-overs here are “unilluminating.” The reason The New World’s voice-overs may feel “unilluminating” is because Malick doesn’t use them to comment directly on the events of the plot. Smith, for example, clearly expresses how torn he feels between the pull towards living with and loving Pocahontas, and his sense of duty towards the success and survival of Jamestown and eventually the pull back to England, but how and why he comes to the conclusion to return to England is never made explicitly clear. The voice-overs in Malick’s films are not exactly transcriptions of a character’s “thoughts,” as Matt Zoller Seitz suggests, they are instead something deeper, the expressions of “the inner person,” perhaps the soul.
The voice-overs, really in all of Malick’s films, express the search within the characters for a connection with the divine, or some higher sense of “Truth.” Seitz describes this as the attempt to express “the inexpressible,” as the soul is beyond the reach of words. This, after all, is more important to Malick than the day to day particulars of someone’s circumstances. Pocahontas clearly expresses a desire for oneness in her voice-overs, as she and Smith spend time together in the Powhatan camp, she says, “Oh, to be given to you, you to me. … Two no more. One. One.” Later, shortly before the conflict breaks out between the settlers and the Powhatan, Pocahontas again expresses a desired oneness with Smith, “Me… in your soul.” Smith values the sense of brotherhood he feels in the Powhatan camp, the sense that they do not treat him as an enemy, as separate from them, he says in rapt amazement, “I am not guarded. They trust me as a brother. … I am a free man now.” He also connects this sense of belonging, and his growing love of Pocahontas with a oneness with the land itself, “Now I live. You, my light. My America. Love.” Likewise, Rolfe also reaches for oneness as his love for Pocahontas recognizes she “weaves all things together.”
But not only does the content of the voice-overs express a desire for oneness, the formal use of the voice-over reflects this desire as well. In fact, the voice-overs explicitly suggest the non-existence of boundaries between individuals and the divine. Often, the voice-over of one character is interrupted, or interwoven, with the voice-over of another. As Rolfe begins to spend time with Pocahontas, in voice-over he reflects on his growing feelings for her, which is interwoven with a voice-over from Pocahontas: (Rolfe:) “This love has become such a labyrinth that I no longer know…” (Pocahontas:) “Were you sad…” (Rolfe:) “how to wind myself out from it.” (Pocahontas:) “to lose your wife and daughter?” In other instances, particularly in relation to Smith, several of Pocahontas’s voice overs seem to respond to things that are happening to Smith while they are apart. For example, following the Powhatan attack on Jamestown, Argall suggests to Smith they take Pocahontas prisoner in the settlement to keep her father from attacking them again. When Smith refuses, Argall taunts him with the suspicion he has feelings for her and Smith is quickly replaced by Argall as President. Argall has Smith whipped, put to hard labour, and hung by his heels at night as punishment for showing him “disrespect.” As Smith is whipped, in voice-over Pocahontas seemingly comforts him, “Come. Come near me. You touch me now. In all things may I stand by you.” This apparent ability of Pocahontas to “know” or “respond” to what’s happening to Smith, or even what he’s thinking, suggests their connection. Particularly in the instances where two voice-overs are interwoven, as voice-overs in Malick’s work are symbolic of the expression of the soul, not only are boundaries crossed between lives, but there are no real divisions between souls. Often, dialogue is interrupted by voice-over as well, and the liquidity between dialogue and thought further blurs the line between internal and external, that even the seemingly uncrossable barrier between the mind and the outer world is not at all real.
All of this boundary transgression is to suggest that the differencess between cultures only exist as far as the various characters in the film believe them to be real, and believe in the reality of separation. Some of the Powhatan, although they tolerate the English settlement at first, no less judge and fear the English than they judge and fear the Powhatan: the Chief’s advisor, upon Smith’s capture, urges the Chief “We must drive them away, while they are still few,” and even though another suggests they only want a bit of swampland, the advisor warns, “For now. But what will they take in times to come?” Even the Chief resolves, “If they do not leave, we shall drive them into the sea.” And later, the advisor urges the Chief to kill Smith rather than allow him to return to Jamestown as he now as knowledge of their camp and arms. So while Malick clearly “favours” the Powhatan approach to life, their culture is no less infused with false perceptions than the English. In fact, Malick, in true transcendentalist tradition, seems to be suggesting that culture itself is dangerous to the realization of oneness between individuals and the divine, and that to choose Love, or “the way of grace” is often at the price of alienation.
When Smith first arrives in Virginia it is under a death sentence for mutiny, and although he escapes being hanged, Captain Newport is adament that Smith remains “under a cloud.” Later on, Smith is again punished for disagreeing with Argall’s plan to take Pocahontas hostage in Jamestown. Argall strips Smith of his Presidency and pronounces him “unworthy of being a member of this colony.” Smith experiences harsh judgement in Jamestown for perceived crimes, and even for being the “low born son of a farmer.” This experience recalls Oscar Wilde’s essay De Profundis a piece he wrote while serving a prison sentence in which he describes his seeming exile from society and the harsh judgement of others. As Wilde is quick to point out, he gained nothing from his imprisonment but “bitterness and despair” rather than the atonement which stands as the counterfeit justification for imprisonment and punishments of all kinds. This despair which comes from society’s judgement serves as the foundation for one of the central lessons Wilde extracts from his imprisonment: “People used to say of me that I was too individualistic. I must be far more of an individualist than ever I was. I must get far more out of myself than ever I got, and ask far less of the world than even I asked. Indeed, my ruin came not from too great individualism of life, but from too little. The one disgraceful, unpardonable, and to all time contemptible action of my life was to allow myself to appeal to society for help and protection.” Wilde quite insightfully recognizes that the real source of his pain is his “appeal to society” for acceptance.
The potential toxicity of society to the individual is heavily explored in transcendentalism, which holds that the institutions which make up society, including religious institutions, corrupt the individual. Transcendentalism contends individuals are fulfilled only when they are truly self-reliant, which often means being outside of their respective cultures. To this end, the film borrows from the writings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger who wrote extensively about what it meant to be authentic. For Heidegger, a human being could only be defined by their relationship to and interaction with the world around them and the objects and other people in that world. Heidegger refers to “Dasein,” which literally means “being there,” to describe this. Dasein is either authentic or inauthentic. Heidegger argued that we are all born into a particular society whose role it is to elicit our conformity into its system of rules and expectations. Heidegger argued that it was entirely possible for an individual to live their entire life without ever making an authentic decision. As James Park puts it, “everything we do and say and think and believe have been done and said and thought and believed before. The activities we regard as worthy or our time and effort (learning, work, play), the ultimate values and meanings we pursue (achievement, love, children), and the particular styles and forms thru which we pursue these goals have all been provided by our various cultures.” However, Heidegger is clear that the culture at large, which he refers to suspiciously as “they,” “hide the process by which ‘they’ have quietly relieved us of the ‘burden’ of making choices for ourselves. It remains a complete mystery who has really done the choosing. We are carried along by the ‘nobody’, without making any real choices, becoming ever more deeply ensnared in inauthenticity.” These manipulative forces in one’s culture are not necessarily obvious, and instead tend to be unnoticed. As Park quite astutely puts it, “We may not be told which spouse to ‘choose’ or which job to take, but how free are we to reject both marriage and work as basic styles of life?” Truthfully, we aren’t free to reject them both, so long as we want to remain as members of our respective cultures. To be inauthentic in Heidegger’s sense is to live one’s life swept up in cultural conformity. Heidegger describes the feeling in someone who is inauthentic as “lostness in the ‘they.’” This concept of “lostness” haunts Smith’s struggle between his ideals and the reality of the culture in Jamestown. The English culture is rife with pressure to conform, and this is immediately directed at Smith in the film. The “justice system” in social structures is an obvious structure by which conformity to a certain set of rules and “laws” is enforced. Furthermore, Smith’s “crime” of mutiny, an open rebellion against authority, is itself an indication of the English culture’s romance with conformity.
However, while the Powhatan culture is much closer to the belief systems that support a connection with the natural world and thus with the divine, it still carries dangers of inauthenticity. Pocahontas, for instance, must also makes decisions about how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice to remain a member of her culture. Pocahontas’s father makes this choice explicitly clear: “Promise me you will put your people before all else. … Even your own heart. He is not one of us.” Pocahontas challenges the authority of her culture when she saves Smith from being killed, and again by convincing her father Smith is a good man and can be trusted to return to Jamestown and keep his promise to leave in the spring. And when she supports Smith and the settlers of Jamestown through the harsh winter that otherwise could have killed them, by providing them with food, blankets, and seeds to plant in the spring, she is exiled her from the community by her father.
Smith faces a similar ultimatum when he refuses to support Argall’s plan to take Pocahontas hostage. Argall accuses him of having “private reasons” for not wanting Pocahontas kept captive in the settlement and when Smith resists, telling Argall he’s committing “mutiny,” Argall strips Smith of his Presidency and announces that he is unworthy of being a member of the colony. Rolfe also faces the choice between being authentic to his feelings and being accepted in Jamestown when he decides to marry Pocahontas. Rolfe approaches the colony’s religious leader who chastises him for wanting a “strange” wife and insists he will only perform the ceremony if he writes a letter explaining the desire to marry Pocahontas is not “carnal affection” but a desire to “[convert] the naturals … for the good of the plantation, for the honour of [his] country and [his] own soul.” Rolfe laments that he is “Humiliated,” but adds “And yet it doesn’t touch me.” While Rolfe also suffers under the pressure of his culture to conform, and to be humiliated for deviating from those norms, he manages to find a balance which allows him to be authentic without being exiled the way Pocahontas and Smith are. Rolfe successfully lives between cultures.
Of the three main characters, Smith clearly struggles the most with authenticity. He certainly arrives in Virginia searching for a new way of being, and for a new social order. His intense longing for salvation and a new beginning also speak to Smith’s discomfort within the structures of his culture, which is clearly something Smith disdains. Smith’s desire to live in a “true commonwealth” is precisely what allows him to so value his time with the Powhatan, a culture he reads as “gentle, loving and faithful.” In particular, Smith finds the most loving and accepting part of the Powhatan culture personified in Pocahontas, as he describes, “All loved her.” And then, inexplicably, perhaps by his sense of duty to the settlers who he finds are struggling simply to survive upon his return, Smith quickly dismisses the Powhatan culture as “a dream.” Yet, Smith continually struggles with whether or not to stay in Jamestown or abandon them for a life with Pocahontas, as he puts it, “What else is life but living there.” Smith, though, continually makes the choice to remain at the mercy of the English culture and to live inauthentically. He does so by shaming himself as unworthy of the salvation he discovered with the Powatan, he continually rejects Pocahontas’s gentleness, telling her she should not trust him and doesn’t know who he is, that he has “never truly been the man [he] seemed to [her] to be.” After living with the Powhatan, Smith seems in constant internal conflict about what he truly wants, what he feels duty-bound to do, and his confusion over what is the right thing. Following the violent clash with the Powhatan, Smith wrestles with his desire to return to Pocahontas and the guilt over the violence, in his voice-over her laments to the other settlers, “Mad dogs, I hate your hearts!” And yet, in the next breath Smith shames himself: “You fiends! Yes, I deserve your contempt.” Smith, at heart, seems in conflict about who he is, and he asks himself as the English around him begin to eat the bodies of the dead, “What are your intentions towards her? Towards them?”
While Smith feels out of place in Jamestown, he seems unable to put his finger on his “lostness” in the English culture, he tells Pocahontas as they meet again after a long absence, “There’s something I know when I’m with you that I forget when I’m away.” Smith also seems aware that whatever the cause, he is living inauthentically in Jamestown as in his voice-over he searches, “That fort is not the world. The river leads back there. It leads onward too. Deeper. Into the wild. Start over. Exchange this false life for a true one. Give up the name of Smith.” But at the same time Smith seems either incapable or unwilling to let go of his perceived place in the English culture. Even as he expresses his deep desire in his voice-over to escape the English, even wondering briefly “Can I lead them off some other way?”, this voice-over is overtaken by what sounds like a conversation he has with the other settlers. In this conversation he finishes his private thought about how the river leads onward with a public ambition: “Or west of here, towards the mountains, or south, now that is something else. We can sail on, seek a passage to the Indies.” This seems rather amazing considering when Smith leaves the Powhatan tribe he explains that the Chief expressly tells him there is no passage to the Indies: “There was no sea beyond the mountains, only a land stretching away forever in great meadows. A land which had no end.” Smith knows there is no way to the Indies yet clings to the ambition publicly.
As Smith’s time wears in Virginia, and the salvation and acceptance he found within the Powhatan tribe fades to the condemnation in Jamestown, Smith not only begins turning away from Pocahontas, but increasingly hangs his self-worth on the success of discovering the Indies. When Captain Newport returns from England he entices Smith with the promise of cultural acceptance, glory, and recognition: “The king wants you to return to England to prepare an expedition of your own – to chart the northern coasts to see if you might find a passage to the Indies.” Newport pressures Smith with prominence within the English culture by mentioning the expedition is directly endorsed by the King himself. Newport continues, “The King has great hopes for you. Plans.” The expedition is positioned as a way for Smith to legitimize himself in his culture: while the historical Smith did have a lot of combat experience, it was not as part of the English military, but rather as a mercenary. This is hinted at by Wingfield’s early suspicion of Smith when he suggests “[Smith’s] right to the title of captaincy is dubious at best,” as Smith’s promotion to Captain came outside of the English culture while fighting with the Austrian Habsburgs in Hungary.
That Smith leaves Virginia in The New World to pursue the possibility of leading an expedition to find a new route to the Indies is absolutely critical. Historically, Smith did leave Virginia in 1609, but not with the promise of a new adventure. Smith left because he suffered a serious injury when a bag of gun powder exploded in his lap, and returned to England for medical attention. Given Malick’s almost obsessive attention to accurate historical detail in much of the film’s production, Malick’s decision to have Smith leave Virginia as the victim of his own ambition, rather than than an injury, underlines the film’s intention to distinguish between what it means to be authentic, a true individual in the transcendentalist tradition who stands apart, when necessary, even from their our culture, and what it is to fall prey to the pressures, expectations, and concepts of worldly glory and acceptance in one’s culture (often all a ruse simply to maintain social order). Finding the Indies in the film becomes for Smith the symbol of finding his much longed-for salvation, as it will legitimize him in his culture and, he hopes, bring him the peace of acceptance. Smith, of course, does not find the Indies, only another indigenous people “Far to the North” of Virginia.
Smith seems unable or at least unwilling to recognize that salvation and acceptance are in front of him. While Smith is at times able to see the wonder and divinity in the world around him, he is also, perhaps tragically, bound by his culture’s way of seeing. Outside of the Powhatan camp, Smith rarely experiences absolute presence with nature. When Newport returns with news for Smith of the King’s plans, Newport encourages Smith by suggesting “I remember when you had sight and ambition. Shall you not press on? Shall you be a discoverer of passages which you yourself refuse to explore beyond the threshold that is?” This pressure to continually be discovering and conquering is central to the English culture’s perception: nature is something to be colonized, controlled, and lorded over, not worshiped or revered. Smith also seems, at least by his actions, attached to the Indies as the answer to his problems, so much so that he blinds himself to the possibility of salvation literally on Jamestown’s doorstep. The fear itself is also culturally required, as to accept salvation and love is to be at peace with yourself, and in the English culture of past-obsession, God forsaken sinners and condemnation, the idea that one could be, at heart, worthy, is dangerous. While that kind of inner peace is held out as a promise for strict obedience to all the laws, rules and dogma of the culture and the church, actually achieving it would render the cultural institutions useless: attaining salvation is secretly forbidden. It is to this end that transcendentalism sees institutions as a corrupting influence on the individual.
While Smith certainly escapes his culture, it is tragically only temporary. He becomes prey to the demands of his culture as soon as he returns to Jamestown: not only is he immediately condemned by Wingfield as a traitor and a deserter and almost executed without having been present at, or even aware of, his own trial, he is quickly thrust into the culture’s other extreme, the prominence of public service when he is made President. His appointment as President requires him to veil his own perception with his culture’s. Suddenly, Smith becomes weighted with his perceived responsibility for protecting the very system which is silently corrupting him, requiring him even to kill members of the Powhatan tribe in battle who only months before had sheltered him and treated him, to his great surprise, as a brother. It also requires Smith to push Pocahontas away, for his boundedness to his culture forbids it: the very suggestion he has feelings for Pocahontas leads him to be stripped of his Presidency, revealing another point of hypocrisy in the English culture. While “worldly glory” is held as a worthy pursuit, the attainment of too much prominence likewise threatens your membership in that culture, as when Argall senses Smith’s romantic feelings for Pocahontas he shames him for wanting to be “King of Virginia” and exiles him. Authenticity is thus dangerous because it threatens to reveal culture as illusory: because authenticity recognizes the truth of oneness over the separation on which cultures are built. While the film certainly underlines “easy” divisions between the English and Powhatan cultures, Malick suggests these divisions are counterfeit, and that porousness, oneness, is the ultimate basis of reality.
According to Malick’s films, the quickest and most effective way to encounter the reality of oneness is by discovering an awe of nature. Wonder breaks the influence of culturally constructed ways of seeing and understanding the world. Aside from evoking the cyclicity of time in nature and stillness, Malick’s editing breaks conventional continuity, which is overwhelmingly syntactic, by being primarily paratactic. Meaning, many of Malick’s shots do not “follow” one another: successive landscape shots, for example, are related to each other only so far as they are edited to be side by side, in reality they may be miles apart, and their individual orientations to Jamestown and the Powhatan camps are unclear. This is a particular kind of montage pioneered by Vsevolod Pudovkin who used paratactic shots in order to jar the viewer to create a radically new perspective, a new way of seeing the world. As Pudovkin explains, “to show something as everyone sees it is to have accomplished nothing.” This approach lends itself well thematically to The New World as many of the landscape shots are motivated by Smith’s “discovery” of Virginia. But this technique also seems aimed at the viewer, who may well have forgotten the miracle that is a tree or a blade of grass. Resisting the Christian interpretation of the natural world as “fallen” and evil, in the words of Captain Newport, Malick seems to be reminding us, “Eden lies about us still.”
The ability to see the world anew is critical because we are all bound to our respective culture’s way of seeing and its assumptions about nature, and a deep sense of wonder supports authenticity because it is the recognition of oneness. The importance of recognition is underlined at the very outset of The New World, as the film opens with a quote from Captain Smith’s writings: “How much they err, that think every one which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.” Right away a distinction is made between the physical act of seeing, and the kind of perception which creates connection. Malick’s editing, the use of paratactic shots, and his tendency to allow the camera to linger on nature to create a sense of stillness, supports the kind of perception needed to realize oneness. Malick’s editing actively encourages not just seeing Virginia, but coming to know it, as Smith suggests.
Despite the insight of this opening quote, throughout the film Smith does not always recognize the presence of the divine and the wonder of nature around him. And even though the foundation of the Powhatan culture rests on recognizing the divinity of nature and living in the cyclicity and stillness of the natural world, Pocahontas isn’t constantly connected to the presence of Mother either. There is a crucial difference, however, between Smith’s and Pocahontas’s disconnection. This difference is seen in the contrast of their prayers. In his darkest moments, Smith prays for salvation and for the presence of God: “Lord, turn not away thy face. You desire not the death of a sinner. … Deliver us from evil that sit in darkness. … Cast me not away. Make me a clean heart.” Smith’s prayers suggest he fears the loss the God, and even doubts God’s presence, even while at other times he feels fully connected to a higher power. Particularly when Smith first arrives in Virginia, his sense of wonder at the landscape inspires his highest hopes for “a true commonwealth” and “a new start.” Smith here directly feels the presence of the divine, though perhaps without being able to consciously name it: “Who are you, who I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on?” However, Smith is quick to forget God’s presence once he returns to the drudgery of Jamestown.
Pocahontas also experiences moments of disconnection, and turns to prayer when she feels she has “sinned.” After bringing the English viable seed and provisions for the winter and seeing Smith again, she worries about the potential betrayal of her people: “Am I a deceiver? … I have two minds. Wait, should I tell Father? … Oh Mother, what have I done?” Later, when Pocahontas is brought to Jamestown, she worries about Smith’s sincerity and the trouble their relationship has caused even though her instinct is to love others, even the settlers: “What is right? Give. Wrong? Who is this man?” However, Pocahontas does not pray to be “saved” or to feel the presence of God, rather, Pocahontas believes absolutely in the constant, everlasting presence of the divine, and that her connection with that presence is simply a matter of whether or not she is willing to see, or recognize that presence. When Pocahontas arrives in Jamestown she affirms to herself, and Mother, she will cultivate the true perception which underlines connection: “I will find joy in all I see.” After marrying Rolfe, Pocahontas again prays to Mother, not for salvation, but the ability to recognize the divinity she knows exists but cannot always feel: “Mother, why can I not feel as I should? Must? Once false, I must not be again. … Can I ignore my heart? What is from you and what is not? … Mother, your love is before my eyes. Show me your way. Teach me your path.”
Pocahontas then offers a prayer which directly opposes Smith’s longing for a “clean heart”: “Give me a humble heart.” Smith’s desire for a “clean heart” is the desire for forgiveness. Smith believes he has sinned and been deceitful. He believes in the reality of his disconnection from God, as he laments in prayer “I have gone away from You.” Above all, Smith believes absolutely in his own wretchedness, calling himself “a monster unto many.” Ironically, it is this very belief which makes his salvation impossible, for it renders him unable to accept salvation. Because Smith is convinced of his unworthiness, he has blinded himself to God’s presence. Once Smith accepts the influence of his culture, that his past is real and his sins are grave, the wonder of nature, love, and the divine are no longer real in his eyes. While in the Powhatan camp Smith is able to accept Pocahontas’s love: “You, my light. My America. Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” Once he is back in Jamestown Smith begins to actively push Pochontas away, telling her solemnly, “Don’t trust me. You don’t know who I am. … You knew me as I was long ago. I have never truly been the man I seemed to you to be.” Because Smith believes in his wretchedness, that it is his essence, he cannot accept Pocahontas’s perception of him as a good man with a pure soul. As she tells him shortly before he returns to England: “You have no evil.” Smith traps himself in his belief in and experience of strict linear time where the past is real and your history is your identity. He has not really “gone away” from the divine as he believes, because it is ever present; instead, his mistake is failing to recognize the reality of his “oneness” with the world and the soul. Because he unknowingly blinds himself to the cyclical time of nature, the universe, and of the divine, he cannot free himself from his past and therefore his sins. Smith’s prayer for a “clean heart” is simply, and tragically, a failure of perception.
Pocahontas, on the other hand, though she also feels disconnected from the joy and love of God at times, never stops believing in Mother’s presence and prays instead to be able again to see. Her prayer for a humble heart is a prayer not to allow herself to get in her own way, as Smith does. The word humble comes from the Latin word humilis which is literally translated to “on the ground,” but its earliest root word is humus, meaning “earth.” Where Smith’s prayer for a “clean heart” necessarily divorces him from the time and presence of nature, Pocahontas’s desire for a “humble heart” is literally a prayer to reconnect with nature. The ability to discover, or re-discover, the divinity of nature is the heart of true salvation in the film. Awe not only heals, but sheds the false assumptions of cultures and connects one directly with God. After Pocahontas is told of Smith’s “death,” she is profoundly changed by her grief. She describes herself as being completely separate from her own mind, and the divine: “I am mad. Where is your love now? … You have gone away with my life. Killed the god in me.” She neglects herself, dressing only in a kind of sleeping gown which is often caked in mud, and she covers her face with ashes. Pocahontas only emerges from her grief once she reconnects with nature: she goes for a walk in the woods and examines a mushroom, she looks up at the tree under which she found it, and seems not just to see the tree, but to notice it, placing her hands on it and looking upwards in a shot that Malick floods with sunlight. Pocahontas, who smiles softly, rediscovers her wonder, almost like waking up. She then returns to the river and washes her face – perhaps symbolically cleansing the ashes of grief from her face – and prays.
Emerson explains that recognizing the divine in nature is the ultimate source of healing. In probably his most famous passage, Emerson explains the porousness between the self, nature, and God: “nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God.” Upholding the wisdom of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” J. Heath Atchley explains that believing in separation, from God, others, and the self, underlines all pain: “in the midst of wild Nature, the self becomes one with being and god; differentiation, alienation, and struggle cease.” Just as Smith finds freedom in the Powhatan culture which centres on living in the time of nature and in the reality of its divinity, Atchley emphasizes that recognizing oneness evaporates our habitual feelings of rivalry, competition, and separation from others. For Emerson, and indeed Malick, struggle is caused by a disconnection from the divine, and can only be healed by recognizing our eternal connection to it and each other. The problem is believing there is any other obstacle between you and God other than your own perception. The English make this mistake by believing in the existence of sin, the need for forgiveness and the absolute reality of the past. Smith makes this mistake by believing in his own wretchedness, that he is deceitful and untrustworthy, and believing that he could ever really be rejected by God. Salvation comes with simply seeing the world anew, recognizing the illusion of the past, the peace of stillness, and your oneness with nature and the universe. Recognition is the seat of authenticity, where you are completely free of time and its judgements, and are fully in the presence of love and the divine.
Recognizing oneness is the real salvation Malick’s characters seek, but while Smith prays for salvation and “a land where one might wash one’s soul pure,” and even encounters the absolution of genuine love with the Powhatan tribe who accept him as a brother without question or judgement, he cannot accept it’s reality. Smith convinces himself of his own wretchedness and therefore cannot accept salvation based on an intrinsic worthiness. Rather, Smith comes to believe his worthiness and ultimate salvation rests in the King’s “great hopes” and plans for him, that he may prove himself above his low-born past. Ultimately, the real tragedy in The New World is not Pocahontas’s death, but how easily we miss the peace, love, and salvation we most desperately desire. That Smith feels so bound to his culture and believes so deeply in his own wretchedness, believing his salvation was finding the Indies, sailed past the very love and salvation he prayed for. Smith even recognizes this: “Afraid of what I most desire, fool I was.” Smith, who turns his back on salvation for the chance at worldly glory, is not unlike Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, who laments “I wanted to be loved ‘cause I was great. A big man. I’m nothing. Look: at the glory around us. Trees and birds. I lived in shame. I dishonoured it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” The Thin Red Line’s Colonel Tall also regrets his choices, and struggles with the competitive culture of the military, “Worked my ass off. Brown nosed the generals. Degraded myself.” Mr. O’Brien, Col. Tall, and Smith all mistake love as admiration. But while they all in some ways cave to cultural pressure to give up love in favour of esteem, they all also sense their mistake, as Mr. O’Brien realizes, that in their race to be admired, they “didn’t notice the glory” around them whose existence is not conditional on their achievement. Recognizing his mistake, Tall grieves for the life he lost chasing a higher rank: “All I might’ve given for love’s sake. Too late.” Smith too comes to this recognition, as he visits with Pocahontas at Rolfe’s English estate, Smith acknowledges Pocahontas recognized his real self, and did not require him to “be great” in order to love him, asking her, knowingly, “You knew I had promise, didn’t you?” And when Pocahontas smiles and replies, “Yes. Did you find your Indies John? You shall.” Smith seems to recognize the redemption he hoped to find in the expedition bestowed on him by the King had been in the love of Pocahontas all along, and smiling painfully he realizes, “I may have sailed past them. … I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.”
Love, unlike cultures or institutions, does not recognize difference, it dissolves separation: “Two no more. One. One.” And so, love which crosses the borders set up by cultures becomes impossible as far as one wishes to remain a part of that culture, and because Smith cannot let go of his culture he is unable to love Pocahontas. Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Smith sees Pocahontas as the “embodiment” of his dreams, not simply of a romantic partner, but that there is a “life spirit that’s represented” by her, a spirit which exudes gentleness and love, and a lack of guile. For Smith, Pocahontas’s love represents a way of living, which comes to be a kind of betrayal of his own culture. While Rolfe is willing to suffer the humiliation from the English establishment in order to marry Pocahontas, Smith is not. One of the most unique points of view in Malick’s films is that being fully authentic may well require alienation, that it can be difficult, that it is not as easy as our culture’s obsession with “Be Yourself!” suggests, and that it is indeed easier to remain lost in “the they” of one’s respective culture. Malick no doubt urges us towards authenticity, but equally warns us of its cost. In The Thin Red Line, Private Witt is disciplined by the military for leaving his company to spend time with the local native community, which not unlike the Powhatan culture in The New World, Witt sees as symbolic of “another world” where “we were a family.” Like Pocahontas, Witt seems to naturally sense the connection between all people, as he cares for injured soldiers – as discipline for going AWOL – Witt offers “Maybe all men got one big soul, where everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man, one big self.” Witt is motivated by his sense of oneness with all those around him, which often causes him to run counter to military culture. When Witt returns from another “unauthorized” absence, Welsh asks him “Who you making trouble for today? … Isn’t that what you like to do? Turn left when they say go right? Why are you such a troublemaker Witt?”
The cost of authenticity makes it clear that in Malick’s universe love is not a platitude, it is not weakness, it is not the airy fluff of romance novels, nor is it exclusively romantic. Love is the ability, but above all the willingness and great courage, to recognize goodness in others and our inextricable connection with everyone – even our “enemies.” Love is the deepest rebellion possible, it is an act of revolution more radical than warfare. It is not a choice made easily or without sacrifice, and requires the purest form of authenticity. Love reveals the differences between cultures – and perhaps cultures themselves – as illusory. Love is not just the highest reality, but the path to true salvation. As love is oneness, and oneness is not simply the way to God: it is God. Malick may not adhere to conventional continuity editing, but it is in service of creating a much more expansive sense of continuity. Like his characters who challenge their respective cultures’ assumptions and rules, Malick departs from accepted wisdom on how to communicate with the language of film to a concept of continuity that actually creates oneness. Mirroring Pocahontas who “weaves all things together,” Malick’s editing structure braids cultures, people, and beliefs, intertwining individuals with nature, nature with the divine, even individuals across generations. At the end of the film, Rolfe explains in a letter to his son that Pocahontas does not mourn for the end of her own life, but “’Tis enough … that you, our child, should live.” Thomas not only unites the English culture of Rolfe with the Powhatan culture of Pocahontas, but can be traced as a direct ancestor to many families still living in Virginia. And Malick himself refers to Pocahontas as “the mother of us all.” But Malick’s continuity is much broader than lineage. There are no borders between the internal realities of characters and the outer, natural world. Malick weaves the pretences, failures, triumphs, and ambitions of human cultures trapped in linear time with the eternity of nature and the presence of the divine. Time slips in all directions at once – beginnings are endings, endings are beginnings and linear time gives way to stillness. True to Private Witt’s hope in The Thin Red Line, Malick creates films in which “all men got one big soul … one big self,” and where the mystery of the world is not “what we are doing here,” but rather, as Witt wonders, “What keeps us from reaching out?” As Matt Zoller Seitz points out, “reaching out” is precisely Pocahontas’s “natural tendency” as she represents a kind of “human nexus point.” Oneness is God, as Pocahontas herself discovers, at the end of the film, after a long search for Mother as she plays with Thomas in the English garden in a sequence Seitz suggests could be a beginning as much as an end, Pocahontas affirms in this moment of oneness in which cultures, people, and time are brought together, turning a cartwheel herself, “Mother, now I know where you live.”
As Smith makes the very mistake he warns us of in the film’s epigraph, missing “what Virginia is,” the film’s suggestion is, as Ty Burr astutely remarks, “it’s probably [our mistake] as well.” Malick’s films attempt to reacquaint us with “all the glory” in the natural world around us all of the time, in his thoughtful pauses on landscapes, and narratives which directly tie the yearnings of the soul with the fate of the world around us. Smith’s attachment to the culture of Jamestown, whose inhabitants continually die of starvation and disease cut off from the wealth of life outside their walls, quite literally illustrates Emerson’s description of “the state of man:” when we stop short of recognizing the presence of the divine because we are blinded by the false perceptions of our cultures we become the “poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snowstorm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door … On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying.” Malick’s point is that love and salvation cannot exist where one believes in separation. As Private Witt warns, “Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself, each like a coal drawn from the fire.” Witt recognizes that to look for salvation separated from others is “like a coal drawn from the fire” – it leaves the source of salvation and love because the source of salvation is oneness, with nature, with each other, and with the divine. Salvation is found by preserving your sense of awe and wonder, and being willing to, as Pocahontas, “find joy in all [you] see.” It is reaching outward, to others, with love, no matter what comes, and to accept the perception of yourself through the eyes of eternity: you are already in possession of love and salvation, they are not qualities you need earn. As Jack’s Mother counsels her sons: “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive. … The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. … Wonder. Hope.” The love Malick advocates is the understanding that divine energy is in everything, and everyone, and finding salvation is as simple and instantaneous as being willing to see that presence. To quote William Blake, Malick warns: “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” and his characters, like us, see only what we are prepared to accept, even if it means being blind to the truth, and to love. Malick’s films challenge us to risk the backlash of our own cultures in order to be authentic, in order to “rise to [our] true stature,” and to realize that the “kingdom of the spirit” we long for is about us in this very moment: like Pocahontas, we need only reach out.