“Passionate indifference” is a phrase I’ve been passionate about for a while now. It came to me first after first watching Pulp Fiction. Here is a film that is cold, that seems to enjoy a casual brutality. We may feel for John Travolta but he gets shot, as an aside, while taking a shit. Uma Thurman takes a syringe to the heart. “Flock of Seagulls” is shot mid conversation.
And yet the film itself is absolutely passionate — every scene brims not with pathos but with vim, with verve, with vigor. It has a certain indifference to the plight of this or that character and an indifference to our identification. The film gives us something else: the passion of film making, the passion of the event, the passion of a humanity that is not mired in bathos but in the very flow of the world — or at least of the moving image.
The best of nature shows and nature commentators speak with passionate indifference. Nature, after all, is neither kind nor brutal: it just is. There is such intense drama — the large cat taking down a gazelle, hungry polar bears bearing the burden of an infinite winter, flora fighting for survival. And yet nature is absolutely, mercilessly, indifferent. We can hear this in the voice of the great nature documentaries we know so well thanks to PBS.
And we see it in the great new book by Matthew Deren, “A Forgotten Wilderness: Nature’s Hidden Relationships in West Central Idaho.” You can see this passionate indifference in the sub-title: the hidden relationships. For this is what Deren finds: a world that brims with ever-shifting relationships between animals, weather, insects, flora, man. There is no good or bad.
The ancient Native Americans, Deren tells us, came to the New World, found it over run with large beasts — mammoths and saber tooth tigers — and slaughtered them all in a matter of a thousand years or so. This, in turn, gave way to different environment where food was to be found in more elusive forms of deer and plants. Which, in turn, gave way to a culture of humility and interconnectedness.
Now, this is a beautiful argument. And one we are tempted to judge, to read through a moral lens. But Deren doesn’t do that: to him, it — nature — and a nature that includes man — is simply, or not so simply, an ever shifting set of relationships. These may not always be obvious unless you know how to look. His book teaches us to see everything — the berries and birds and beasts — with passionate indifference, with an unbounded love and respect but utterly free of moral judgement, of bathos, of cloying human sentimentality.
There is a certain coldness that is, in fact, sizzling hot. It is cold to the insularity of humanity and its self-absorbed sense of self. This perspective grasps the bigger picture: man as one beast amidst the beasts, amidst the fray. And as our gaze takes in these “hidden relationships” that teem, we experience a surge, a vitality, a passion — a passion that is indifferent to the bullshit and utterly alive to life.