What Do You Want?

stalker

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (2016), 27–29:

What do you want?

That, we’ve seen, is the question. It is the first and fundamental question of discipleship because you are what you love. But buried in this insight is an uncomfortable realization: you might not love what you think.

This discomforting epiphany is at the heart of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Stalker. The genre hovers between noir thriller and dystopian science fiction. Set in environs that at times evoke Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but at other moments feel like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the “plot” (such as it is) follows three men on a journey: Professor, Writer, and Stalker, who serves as their guide.

As we begin, the destination is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, but eventually we learn that Stalker is leading these men to the Zone, and more specifically to the Room within the Zone. The Zone has the eerie feel of a postapocalyptic oasis, a scene where some prior devastation has left ruins that are now returning to nature, cultivating a terrible beauty, a kind of “bright sadness.”

The Room is what has drawn them here, what has led them to follow Stalker’s promises. For in the Room, he tells them, they will achieve their heart’s desire. In the Room their dreams will come true. In the Room you get exactly what you want.

Which is why, when they are at the threshold of the room, Professor and Writer begin to get cold feet. Geoff Dyer captures the scene in his remarkable book about the film, Zona.

They are in a big, abandoned, derelict, dark damp room with what look like the remains of an enormous chemistry set floating in the puddle in the middle, as if the Zone resulted from an ill-conceived experiment that went horribly wrong. Off to the right, through a large hole in the wall, is a source of light that they all look towards. For a long while no one speaks. The air is full of the chirpy chirpy cheep cheep of birdsong. It’s the opposite of those places where the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing. The birds are whistling and chirruping and singing like mad. Stalker tells Writer and Professor — tells us — that we are now at the very threshold of the Room. This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true here.

Here we are. This is the place where you can have what you want.

Who wants to go first?

Professor and Writer hesitate because it dawns on them: What if I don’t know what I want? “Well,” observes Dyer, “that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals all: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.” A disturbing epiphany is creeping up on Professor and Writer: What if they don’t want what they think? What if the desires they are conscious of — the one’s they’ve “chosen,” as it were — are not their innermost longings, their deepest wish? What if, in some sense, their deepest longings are humming under their consciousness unawares? What if, in effect, they are not who they think they are? Dyer captures the angst here: “Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did they’d run a mile, would take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learned to sit quite tolerably all these years.”

Many of us can identify. If I ask you, a Christian, to tell me what you really want, what you most deeply long for, what you ultimately love — well, of course you know the right answer. You know what you ought to say. And what you state could be entirely genuine and authentic, a true expression of your intellectual conviction.

But would you want to step into the Room?

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