By Matt Boulter
Discussing Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet is a lot like discussing the book of Revelation: the “text” is so complicated and apparently convoluted that you are constantly wondering if you have any grasp of the basic contours of the plot or the point.
To quote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers’ “mostly spoil-free outline” of the cli-fi epic:
The… title refers to a shadowy organization meant to save the world from “something worse” than Armageddon. The Protagonist teams up with Neil (a slyly funny Robert Pattinson) to get to Russian oligarch Andrei Sator — the rare Tenet character with a first and last name — who’s entertainingly hammed into existence by Kenneth Branagh as a Trump/Putin hybrid of unleashed megalomania. Our hero takes his lumps to find and stop this demi-god, which allows star-in-the-making Washington (Black KkKlansman, Ballers) to strut his stuff in high style. (Dig those suits!) A former football running back, the actor brings a natural athletic grace to the stunts and hand-to-hand combat that forge a visceral bond between his character and the audience. The film itself becomes a series of dazzling distractions as the Protagonist zigs and zags toward his goal.
Another “text” of which Tenet reminds me is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Several years after its 1994 release I re-watched it, this time meticulously “re-chronologizing” its dischronologized scenes, arranging them from beginning to end in its putative sequence of reconstructed narrative events. Alas, no such feat is possible with Tenet, for its scenes do not take place on a linear timeline (dischronologized or not) in any ordinary sense. In my fourth viewing, in fact, I noticed that they can be arranged in a repetitive, chiastic pattern of A, B, C, B’, A’, with the events A, B, and (the “first” half of) C actually occurring in reverse (or “inverted”) sequence, from the future to the present:
A: the lavish vacation in Vietnam on Sator’s yacht
B: the attempted heist of a valuable artifact at an operahouse in Kiev
C: the Protagonist’s successful rescue of Sator’s wife, Kat
B’: the attempted heist of a valuable artefact at an operahouse in Kiev
A’: the lavish vacation in Vietnam on Sator’s yacht
At this point in this essay, dear reader, I have no idea if you are intrigued, bored, confused, or angry at this review so far. (I could say much more about Nolan’s ingenious presentation of inverted time sequence. Alas.) Perhaps the requisite line is in order: please see the film.
Actually, please see it again, for (at least) a second time.
In fact, experiencing it a second time (or an nth time) might be the entire point… just as it is for Augustine’s rehearsal of psalm reading in Book XI of the Confessions, in which he writes:
Suppose I am about to recite a psalm which I [already] know…. As the action advances further and further… the psalm as a whole [eventually] occurs in its particular pieces and in its individual syllables.
Indeed, of the plethora of issues raised by Tenet — not least its unique take as a subversive (yet bizarrely conservative) editorial on the environmental crisis currently confronting us all — it is precisely its view of time, history, and memory on which I’d like to focus. For this task I enlist the help not just of St. Augustine, but also the thought of 20th-century Catholic thinker Charles Péguy, whose philosophy of history — recently articulated by both Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank — can be summarized by the dictum, “For an event to happen once, it must happen twice.” In Péguy’s work, the paradigmatic example of a historical event is the French Revolution’s storming of the Bastille, an event which becomes memorialized and celebrated — that is, which literally becomes an event in the first place — only as it is repeated: repeated in folk memory, repeated in cultural imagination, repeated in civic celebration. Indeed, without such repetition, there is, for Péguy (and Pickstock and Milbank), simply no storming of the Bastille.
In contemporary cultural studies, this phenomenon is often associated with Freud’s work (undoubtedly influenced by Hegel) on trauma, in which it is only through the repetition of the “original” traumatic “event” — through recollection in the context of conversation with a therapist — that the original event is recognized for what it is; that is, given a coherent interpretation. Freud even coined a term for this retroactive recognition: Nachträglichkeit, or what one cultural critic translates as “belatedness.” Certain events — historically momentous ones, traumatic ones, even (in my opinion) revelatory ones such as Moses’ experience of the burning bush in Exodus 3 — can be understood only belatedly, only after some kind of retrospective, historical interpretation.
Again: in order for an event to happen, it must happen again in memory, in imagination, in linguistic interpretation. In other words, the present frames the past; the future frames the present. This, no doubt, is a central point Nolan is making in Tenet. It’s as if he’s translating a theoretically described process (Freud’s Nachträglichkeit, the diagnosis of trauma) into a physical story, an embodied performance in which events and objects from the present/future literally invade the past/present (in a way fundamentally different from other time-travel films such as Back to the Future or Terminator).
I hope the reader can see that what’s being developed in this essay is an incipient philosophy of history. And yet one must ask, “Why does this matter? Why should I care?”
So many reasons. I will develop just two.
First, and more straightforwardly for a Christian, there’s a point here about biblical history (the historia salutis), which is seamlessly connected to and includes eschatology, or end-time events. (Of course one must inquire deeply into the precise meaning of “end”: for more on that see my previous essay on eschatology.) Regardless of the details of one’s eschatology (and there are so many options here, among the “premillennialism,” “amillennialism,” and “postmillennialism,” to name a few positions debated mainly by Reformed, evangelical folks), an orthodox Christian must — it seems to me — admit that the “end of the story” has in some sense been revealed to us. For us, in other words, we have seen “the whole,” in the same sense that Augustine alludes to in his discussion of the psalm. Thus, regardless of the tragedy and trauma caused by the havoc of our climate catastrophes, we have real hope. We know how the (hi)story ends. We know Christ will return. We know he will somehow save us, along with God’s creation which is good, fallen, and redeemed.
Secondly, this incipient philosophy of history pertains (it seems to me) to contemporary controversies about slavery and Confederate statues, etc., in the American South. (As I write this essay, a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, is being removed.) If the past is framed by the present, if the light of our current understanding illuminates the past injustices of slave owners against African Americans in the American South, then our thinking around these issues should be framed by something other than a desire to erase the past.
Granted, in most cases, statue removals are not simply attempts to erase history, but rather spring from a judgment that these are not figures we should be celebrating. This is compounded by the fact that many of these statues were installed not in the aftermath of the Civil War, but as a Jim Crow-era reaction against advancing Black success. They were an attempt to reassert an Antebellum past. Yet, at the very least, such removal might result in such an erasure, in a kind of forgetfulness which only obscures our complicated American history, doing nothing to illuminate it. Historical trauma — no less than personal — must be brought to light and dealt with.
Let us consider a related context, dealing with a different controversial figure, St. Junipero Serra. Monuments to Serra abound throughout California, because the state’s history is thoroughly bound up with Serra’s legacy of establishing missions. And yet, we now recognize that he was complicit in the “enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women.” What to do with this legacy? To quote one thought leader:
If we remove the statue [of Serra], what happens when we erase those stories, and we never talk about it? That conversation often leads to a discussion of why we have to contend with our history, including the difficult parts.
Many creative alternatives exist to reinterpret the trauma of the past. These include include relocating offensive statues in local (and thematically relevant) museums or cultural centers, attaching plaques (possibly with a QR code) to the base of the statue with a fuller and more contemporary perspective, and erecting alternative statues which supplement the meaning of the original in ways that counter the glorification of abuse or undermine the hegemony of the privileged.
Instead of deletion, this approach would advocate reinterpretation. In this way, trauma would not be denied or repressed but dealt with in potentially therapeutic ways.
The fact of the matter is, for a considerable portion of our nation’s history, human beings were bought and sold as property; a considerable portion of our nation’s wealth is built upon their still-uncompensated labor; and after their emancipation, considerable portions of our population found monuments honoring those who were willing to kill and die to maintain the right to own their fellow-humans to be consistent with their values. We cannot and should not simply ignore that past, but neither should we allow it to stand unchallenged, as if we still view such examples as worthy of celebration and emulation. What might a reinterpretation of our troubled past in the U.S. look like?
Indeed, in the words of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, we remember the future; we imagine the past.
 For this reference I point the reader to the riveting “Why Theory?” podcast, on which much of this essay is inspired: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/why-theory/id1299863834?i=1000504166007
A great post! I have never noticed the significance of Augustine’s comment on the recitation of the psalm: thanks for that. I don’t know the Tenet film: sounds confusing! Bring a pencil for diagramming, no doubt. I wonder what you make of forgiveness and forgetting? I remember having a strong reaction against the idea that Miroslav Volf puts forward in Exclusion and Embrace, that forgiveness in some sense won’t be complete until the sin is forgotten, not only by victims and executioners but also by God. For my part, I think that when people say they forgive but don’t forget,… Read more »