Palindrome and film (The Mysterious Square, Addendum)
Something strange happened recently: views on this site spiked. Although spread across Medium and here, some of my more popular posts have a lot of views. The one on Icelandic magical staves, for example, has some 7,600. I’m also aware views do not equate to reads, which are likely less than half that, especially given my penchant for exploring arcane subject matter with some degree of abstruseness.
These views accrue quite slowly in general: Medium doesn’t promote content that isn’t monetized and I can’t be bothered fiddling with Google AdWords or any of that sort of nonsense. For example, the article I mentioned earlier was published in 2016, so those views are spread fairly evenly across more than four years. A few of my posts did get a lot of attention when they came out, such as those in my series on the mythmaking around Bruce Lee, because they were controversial.
So it was odd to see traffic to my site balloon to over 30 times its usual rate over the course of a few days. I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about this. As I’ve said, there’s no money in it for me and I’m not trying to develop any kind of following, but it’s still cool to see people interested in what I have to say.
I remember Art Spiegelman saying in a lecture I attended when he boiled down comics as a medium; it was images arranged in sequence to form a narrative printed on paper for mass distribution, and he could have simply drawn his deconstructive work in Raw on a piece of paper and showed it to the five people who would get it. While I have to admire the will to power that brought us Maus—likely the greatest anthropomorphized narrative of the Shoah—I have no such qualms. Publishing on the internet is cheap and easy. I don’t have to worry about wasting ink and paper or fighting for shelf space in a physical store. I simply write these missives and dispatch them into the intervoid, hoping they’ll be read and enjoyed by at least a few people who get them.
Looking into the explosion of views on my site, I could see they centered around the pair of articles I had done back in 2017 about the so-called Sator Square. There was no rise in likes, follows, comments, or even many views of other articles, so it was hard to tell how my writing was being received. Again, I’ve given up on the idea of any sort of community or interaction around these articles, instead spending time in some highly specific subreddits like /r/Etymology and /r/Cuneiform. Ultimately, these articles scratch an intellectual and creative itch. Indeed, it’s similar to my day job though exploring different realms; I’d also do that for free if not for the bills I have to pay.
Committing to (usually) monthly deliveries of complete articles ensures my exploration of the ideas they contain doesn’t simply remain as indefinitely open browser tabs. Instead, I carefully research, synthesize ideas, and try to write them all down in a coherent and hopefully compelling way. And so the work continues.
As this surge in views is centered on the Sator Square, I assume it has to do with the movie Tenet, which will have stoked interest in this rebus. I had already been intending to do a follow up to these articles, but I felt I should prioritize it, so with no further ado:
In 2020, during the early days of the plague, I remember seeing posters for a movie that featured the leading man, John David Washington, cutting a rather dashing figure in a suit and wielding a handgun. I was reminded of a recent groundswell of support for the idea of casting Idris Elba as the next James Bond—perhaps that was too radical a move for Hollywood, and they were serving up something merely Bondesque instead? Apart from this, there was nothing very remarkable about the poster except the film’s name, Tenet.
Of course this word is familiar to me in English as meaning “a belief”. And also the Latin word whence it comes, the third-person singular active indicative inflection of teneō, “to hold”, so he/she/it holds. But it seemed clear neither of these could be the intended sense. Was it the name (or code name) of the character on the posters? The spy or military group to which he belonged? There was one other possibility I thought was remote: was it a reference to one of the Sator Square’s lines?
I later learned Tenet was a Christopher Nolan film. His films are positively cerebral compared to the usual Hollywood fare; even his take on Batman had some pretty clever elements. The slim chance of the film’s name being related to the last of the above points grew, and I was still more intrigued to see whether Nolan was among the cognoscenti and, if so, to what degree. So in this frame of mind, I watched the movie.
One of the central tropes of Tenet is playing with the chronology of the narrative. The tradition of non-linear storytelling has been around at least since the Iliad began in medias res. Still, there was a time and place when it violated norms, as painter El Greco was to find out after painting The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice in 1582:¹
[I]n between the main figures—the main Christian Roman generals—are contemporary generals. What El Greco is doing here is making a very clever, concise, contemporary point about the fight against heresy, and linking the 16th–century struggle with the struggle of the early Christian martyrs. But in a way, he was being too clever, because in Counter-Reformation Spain, anything that transcended Christian orthodoxy was viewed with suspicion. And Philip II had real problems with this picture because time was conflated […].
Nonetheless, analepsis was a widely used trope appearing in the Mahābhārata as well as Arabian Nights tales such as “Sinbad the Sailor”. In Film, Citizen Kane in 1941 has the protagonist die in the film’s opening, with the remainder consisting of a series of flashbacks framed as interviews of those who knew Kane. And 1950’s Rashōmon (『羅生門』) shows us flashbacks of conflicting testimonies at a trial. Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, is generally acknowledged as having ushered in the current trend for slice-and-dice narrative structures.
Nolan certainly has explored the trope extensively; notably with the fractured narrative of Memento, the film that put him on the map, so to speak, in 2000. Indeed, I’d say he’s guilty of using it when it’s not needed, as in 2017’s Dunkirk. I definitely understand the instinct to try to spice up a distinctly British piece of jingoism about how a terrible military defeat could have been worse. Sure, it’s a very familiar tale with a plodding gait, but chopping up the timeline doesn’t fix it. Nolan’s penchant for inventive storytelling lets him down here: present is the disorientation caused by such chronological gimmickry, but there’s no clever reveal, no reconfiguration of narrative expectations—in short, no payoff. Still, I see that as a rare lapse among his films.
And so we move to Tenet. This film employs a different narrative strategy: the chronology, apart from a few occasional flashbacks, is straight; time itself is what’s distorted. Certainly there are many time-travel films—it’s nearly its own subgenre—but this is a bit different. Instead of time travel as such, people, things, and the events related to them are happening via time moving in two opposing directions. Furthermore, rather than avoiding the tropes that have arisen among these films, such as timeline damage or splitting and various other temporal anomalies, Tenet leans into them. In particular, the classic grandfather paradox is everywhere: characters meeting themselves going the other way in time impel their own actions.
This means free will is an illusion as everything has already happened in one time direction or the other, so in a sense, there’s no tension, despite the many action scenes and explosions. This isn’t to say it’s not an interesting watch. I have long believed that so-called spoilers should be no obstacle to the enjoyment of a story, as the storytelling itself should be what provides that. So with Tenet, seeing how we get to the various encounters with inverted people and things we’ve already seen from the other direction is an absorbing experience. The mental contortions needed to choreograph car chases and hand-to-hand fights that make any kind of sense in both directions are equally impressive.
And here we come to the connection between the film and the ancient rebus. The Sator Square seems to have been the inspiration for the film’s palindromic structure. In particular, the idea of the square being read in boustrophedon seems to be operative in Tenet, as the various characters change directions in time multiple times on screen—and many more off screen. Of course the Sator Square has more directions it can be read in, which are omitted by the film, as are the deeper resonances I’ve pointed out previously, but given the limitations of a medium that’s inherently linear, it’s a pretty good realization of a very tricky structure.
In case there’s any doubt about the film’s inspiration, it is literally spelled out:
- Rotas is the name of the security company that guards the free port, in which art, some of it forged, is also held, but also the location of a turnstile that reverses entropy, which in form and function is also a wheel.
- Opera is where the opening scene takes place in Ukraine, but also part of the name of the anti-terrorist squad, КОРД, (KORD), Rapid Operational Response Unit (Корпус Оперативно-Раптової Дії—it also works in Cyrillic) that the Protagonist (that’s really the main character’s name) acts alongside.
- Tenet obviously the name of the film, as well as a codeword the Protagonist is given early in the story.
- Arepo is the name of an art forger working with Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki), estranged wife of:
- Sator, first name, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh); the villain of the piece.
Tenet was clearly chosen as the film’s title because as the central line of the rebus it is also a palindrome itself. Just as with the correspondences above, there are many ways each word is realized, so there is a literal tenet offered in the film as well, by Neil (Robert Pattinson):
What’s happened, happened. It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world; it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.
This is essentially a recapitulation of paradoxical Calvinistic beliefs about predestination, which state briefly, while the ultimate fate of an individual is foreordained, they still retain moral agency and responsibility. Only more so in this case—these people already know exactly what will occur but must perform it nonetheless.
Regarding tenets, the beliefs the Protagonist and others who become embroiled in this story have about the nature of the world they live in at its beginning are slowly broken down over its course. What Tenet ends up reminding me of is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.² For a brief description of this short story, here’s psychology professor David Pizarro:³
It turns out that the minute that people become aware of the radical idealism of the fictional world, Tlön, that was supposedly the product of a real-world Uqbar, which was, in fact, itself a fictional world created by neoplatonic secret societies, […] the hardcore idealism of this […] meta—this third world—makes its way into our existence and starts changing reality because people believe it […] and therefore destroys [reality].
Note the sense of the term idealism here is not that of striving toward perfection, but the metaphysical concept there is no reality other than what one perceives.
Is it far-fetched to impute a Borgesian reference to Nolan? I think not. First, the director said in an interview:⁴
[…] I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well.
When you think “narrative freedoms”, you have to think of the avant-garde, where Borges’ influence is widespread. But if that isn’t compelling enough, consider Memoriam is an inversion of “Funes the Memorious”. And just as the Protagonist and other characters do in Tenet, Borges meets an older version of himself in a spatial-temporal anomaly in “The Other” in a way that nullifies time itself.⁵
More directly, in “Tlön”, there is a discussion of the various metaphysical doctrines on the fictitious planet of the same name:⁶
One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process.
Not only do these statements turn our perceptions of time on their heads, but the last sentence connects directly to the password given in the opening minutes of Tenet: “We live in a twilight world.” Twilight, of course, having a dual meaning as the beginning of the day and the end of it. But also this metaphysical concept from Tlön, which Nolan nearly plagiarizes, is we are actually permanently frozen in the temporal condition of twilight.
Borges was arguably one of the first postmodern writers, reacting, particularly in “Tlön”, to the horrors—including WWII, which had already begun at his time of writing—created by the rejection of history that was modernism. As he says near the story’s close:⁷
Our post-ironic times, too, are plagued with new forms of dangerous irrationality where conspiracy theories are embraced and facts denied. For this reason, Nolan chooses climate disaster, which we are rushing headlong toward, as the impetus for people from the future to infiltrate the past to attempt to rectify, though they must ultimately fail. Perhaps this film is in fact an expression of Nolan’s feelings of helplessness to stop what seems to be inevitable.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- “El Greco”, Great Artists with Tim Marlow, 2001.
- Jorge Luis Borges, 1940, translated by Andrew Hurley in Collected Fictions,1998.
- “Episode 154: Metaphysical Vertigo”, Very Bad Wizards Podcast, 2018.
- Geoff Andrew, “The Guardian Interviews at the BFI: Christopher Nolan”, The Guardian, 2002.
- Borges, “Funes el memorioso”, 1942 and “El otro”, 1972, both also translated in Hurley, 1998.
- Borges, 1940.