In his article “Sympathy for the Devil,” Dr. Brian Mattson makes some dramatic claims about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, suggesting that the film actually presents a a subversive take on Noah that identifies the Creator with the Demiurge, the evil creator god of Gnosticism who created the material universe. That Mattson’s reading of director Darren Aronofsky’s intentions does not exactly square with how Aronofsky has presented his intentions in interviews is not, in and of itself, evidence against Mattson, though it does require us to believe, as Mattson explicitly does, that Aronofsky is interested attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of his audience. It’s a paranoid point of view, but it’s also true that, if Mattson is correct, Noah would not be the first time that an artist attempted to pull one over on his audience.
I don’t think Mattson is right, but let’s start with what Mattson gets right: Kabbalah undoubtedly has some influence on Noah. Not only has Aronofsky previously explored Kabbalah in his film Pi, he has been very straight-forward about consulting the prime Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, while researching rabbinical literature for Noah. So it’s not at all surprising that Mattson is able to identify features of the film that demonstrate some Kabbalistic influence.
Here are the key features of Aronofsky’s Noah that Mattson identifies as being Kabbalistic in origin:
- The luminous appearance of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
- A highly-valued mineral identified as “zohar”
- The redemption of the fallen angels (identified as the Watchers in the film)
- The serpent skin which has been passed down through the line of Seth and is stolen by Tubal-Cain
Most of these are admittedly very plausibly Kabbalistic in origin. Mattson cites a text from the Zohar which aligns almost perfectly with the film’s depiction of Adam and Eve as beings clothed in light. The name of the mineral “zohar” in the film appears to be an allusion to the Zohar, though it seems to me to refer to the tsohar, which is a feature of the ark in Genesis (tsohar has often been translated as “window,” and in rabbinic tradition has been sometimes identified as a glowing crystal that illuminated the ark, which closely aligns with the nature and purpose of the material “zohar” in the feature film). That the fallen angels could be redeemed does not seem to me to be an exclusively Kabbalistic idea, but it clearly aligns with Kabbalistic thought. As for the serpent skin, it may or may not have some Kabbalistic undertones, but I am not certain that the precise way in which Mattson understands the symbol suits either Kabbalah or the film itself (more on that later).
Of course, establishing that Aronofsky relies on Kabbalistic symbols and images is one thing, but it is another thing entirely to establish that Aronofsky not only intends these images to carry the same meaning they did in the context of their tradition of origin (in this case, Kabbalah), but that that same tradition is fundamental to understanding the film itself. Aronofsky brought together a great many sacred symbols from Christianity, Buddhism, and Mayan traditions for The Fountain, but did not preserve their original meaning; in The Fountain, these images of transcendence are reshaped into universal metaphors for material existence (Aronofsky, it’s worth noting, is an atheist). Additionally, Aronofsky’s source material and inspiration was scarcely limited to the Zohar. It’s evident that much inspiration came from the Biblical text itself and the traditions surrounding it. Examples include Aronofsky recreation of a Gustave Dore painting of the flood in one key shot in the film, or his utilization of 1 Enoch, which was the inspiration for the film’s “Watchers.”
So while I am convinced that Kabbalistic texts and ideas had some influence on Noah, I am considerably less convinced of the Mattson’s central thesis, which is that a specifically Gnostic ideology undergirds Aronofsky’s Noah. Mattson makes a significant error in conflating Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—and Gnosticism, which are separate belief structures and have divergent attitudes towards creation. The Demiurge of Gnosticism, the evil deity who creates the world, is not a central tenet of Kabbalistic belief, and so Kabbalah does not view creation as intrinsically evil, even if it understands that it is broken. In Gnostic belief, the goal is to escape from the material into the eternal. In Kabbalistic belief, the eternal is actually capable of sanctifying the material.
Further complicating Mattson’s thesis is that the film fails to support anything resembling a Gnostic attitude toward creation. Mattson alleges that
“The world of Aronofsky’s Noah is a thoroughly Gnostic one: a graded universe of ‘higher’ and ‘lower.’ The ‘spiritual’ is good, and way, way, way ‘up there’ where the ineffable, unspeaking god dwells, and the ‘material’ is bad, and way, way down here where our spirits are encased in material flesh. This is not only true of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but of fallen angels, who are explicitly depicted as being spirits trapped inside a material ‘body’ of cooled molten lava.”
As far as I can tell, Mattson appears to be deriving this “graded universe” largely from the film’s visual conceits. Spiritual beings, like the Watchers and Adam and Eve, glow brightly. The material world does shimmer in the same way, and in the case of the Watchers, the material world actually functions as a prison. But if the Watchers’ imprisonment on earth has the ring of Gnosticism about it, using their state as a metaphor for the spiritual state of humanity in Noah does not seem to match the film’s treatment of humanity’s place in the world. In Aronofsky’s film, Noah and the humans of the film were created to be a part of the earthly order (this is a clear component of the creation narrative that Noah imparts to his children while on board the ark), but the Watchers were never meant to be part of that realm. The Watchers abandoned their rightful place—Heaven—to enter into the earthly creation against the Creator’s wishes and were thereby entrapped in it. Noah and the other humans are not trapped by earthly existence: the earth is their home, and they know no other.
This sense of earth-as-home goes hand-in-hand with the film’s deep-seated concern for creation and stewardship. Noah’s care for the animals extends from his passionate belief that the creation is good and innocent, that they still exist as purely as they did in Eden. Only humanity has fallen, and that fallenness is identified by a failure to interact with the world and others in a moral way: violence and recklessness is now the way of man. Noah’s understanding of the original purpose of humanity is that of good stewardship, to guide and care for earthly creation. This is altogether very far from the anti-materialistic worldview of Gnosticism.
So what do we make of the light-infused forms of Adam and Eve, then? My suspicion is that Aronofsky is drawn to the image of light as a form of spiritual perfection, but that, rather than suggesting for him some kind of “higher plane,” it signifies a level of harmony with creation. At the very least, this is how Aronofsky utilizes similar imagery in The Fountain, where acceptance of individual contingency and connectedness to nature is depicted as a burst of light.
This same light unites Adam and Eve with the snakeskin passed on throughout the line of Seth, which shimmers at the touch. Mattson interprets the serpent as representing the Gnostic concept of Sophia (true wisdom), and specifies that the “true wisdom” it symbolizes is the awareness that the Creator is, in fact, the evil Demiurge and must be outgrown. What makes this reading problematic is that the faith in God that Noah claims throughout the majority of the film is inherited from his forebears. The passing of the snakeskin, a tradition in the line of Seth, corresponds with their faith, rather than standing in opposition to it. When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.
Further complicating matters is that Mattson’s conviction that Noah has “outgrown” God in the final scene makes exceedingly little sense. Throughout Noah’s conflict over the course of the film—whether or not humanity, deeply corrupted by sin, should be permitted to continue on after the flood—not once is the Creator’s legitimacy questioned, either in visual cues or in explicit dialogue. The despair which precedes the film’s final moments of benediction is rooted in Noah’s belief that he was too weak to carry out God’s judgment. Only Ila (whose name means “light,” which gives us some indication about the level of significance she carries) manages to change Noah’s mind, and she does this by informing him that he actually fulfilled God’s will by preserving humanity. Between this moment and the final benediction, with its replication of God’s command from Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” there occurs no instance where Noah appears to change his attitude toward God. So while Mattson is right that the final scene suggests a kind of enlightenment for Noah, it is the enlightenment of knowing the unity between God’s judgment and his mercy.
This emphasis on the harmony between divine judgment and divine mercy connects Noah far closer to the Old Testament, which is similarly preoccupied, than it does to the elusive and complex mysticism of Kabbalah and Gnosticism. If the God of Noah seems inscrutable, then he need not be the Gnostic Demiurge to be so. Consider the bewildering nature of the God of the Pentateuch, who commands Abraham to sacrifice his long-promised son, or who threatens to destroy his chosen people until Moses intercedes on their behalf. Perhaps the truly remarkable thing about Noah is not that it subverts the Pentateuch, but that it conveys something of its essence.