Terrence Malick is an amazing director, and his films—though long, often hard to understand, and occasionally seemingly pretentious beyond necessity—are always worth seeing; he focuses on the beauty and mystery of existence more than any other contemporary filmmaker other than perhaps Kiarostami, and I commend to the attention of anyone with access to the LRB Gilberto Perez’s recent review article on him. But this is not a cinema blog, and I will quote a paragraph from the article to point out that the English language can make clarity difficult to achieve (Perez is discussing The Thin Red Line; I could have quoted less of the paragraph, but I like the point about unschooled philosophies and their “eloquent colloquial poetry” so much I wanted to share it):
Fear is as central to Jones’s novel as to Malick’s movie, the fear all soldiers feel and each in his own way tries to deal with. Unlike the novel, however (and like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom!), the movie gives the characters not just sentiments and opinions but philosophies of life. These mostly unschooled, regionally accented, often ungrammatical and inconsistent philosophies, which some critics snobbishly belittle, are presented in the movie as an eloquent colloquial poetry we are to take quite seriously: living in the world, facing death in it, surely qualifies a person to express a worldview. In Malick’s introduction to his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons – Malick taught philosophy at MIT for a year before turning to the movies – he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in the terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’; and he added that we ‘share certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things’ but ‘sometimes we do not, or do not seem to, share such notions.’ In The Thin Red Line the soldiers put forward several such notions, which they may or may not share among themselves and we may or may not share with them. A movie constructs a world, gives the things it depicts measure and purpose and validity in its schemes, but The Thin Red Line offers various worldviews without deciding for us which serves us best to understand things.
What I want to focus on is the first quote from Malick’s introduction to Heidegger. In the first place, it’s a slight misquote (as Google Books tells me); Malick did not write “that in the terms of which we understand them” but “that in terms of which we understand them,” which makes the sense a little easier to grasp. But either way, I think it’s harder than it would ideally be, because of the inherent ambiguity of that. In normal usage, that can be a stressed pronoun (“that’s him”), a stressed adjective (“that tree over there”), or an unstressed conjunction (“he said that he’d do it”). The construction “that which” is bookish but familiar. But once you separate that and which by a preposition, as here (“that in terms of which”), it tends to require rereading. And when you preface it with but, you add in a separate source of confusion, since “but that” brings to mind constructions like the fairly archaic “I do not doubt but that he will recover” and the more common “moral skeptics hold not that no truth is known but that no ethical truth is known.” All this makes “but that in terms of which” a nasty stumbling block; I imagine that in some languages—certainly conlangs built to be logical—one could express the thought in a straightforward way, but English is not such a language.