The Shadow
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The Shadow

Pig (2021) and Empathy as Social Symbiosis

*Includes spoilers for Pig (2021)*

Truffles are symbiotic organisms. Embedded in the sunless soil, the truffle attaches itself to the roots of a tree and begins a process known as mycorrhiza. It provides the tree with soil-based nutrients which the roots cannot absorb without a fungal intermediary, while the truffle, which is unable to make compounds through photosynthesis, soaks up sugars and carbohydrates through its sylvan symbiont. As in Gilles Deleuze’s example of the wasp and the orchid, the resultant relationship is not a root benefitting a truffle nor a truffle benefitting a root, but something else. Adapting the Deleuzian heuristic, one could say that the root enters a state of becoming-truffle, and the truffle enters a state of becoming-root. The symbiotic relationship elevates the association above the sum of its parts, incorporating each constituent into its symbiont’s living system.

A model of mycorrhizal symbiosis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mutualistic_mycorrhiza_en.svg).

Truffle reproduction is also reliant on animals — usually pigs — which are able to detect a fungal scent that evades human olfactory organs and excavate the truffle, thereby distributing its spores into the surrounding earth. Root, fungus, and mammal intertwine in a unique reproductive process through which the truffle proliferates and eventually concludes its life cycle.

The truffle serves as a concise encapsulation of one of the central themes of Pig. The film focuses on the efforts of Robin Feld (Cage), a once-successful restauranteur who retreated into the woods outside Portland following his wife’s death, to retrieve his only remaining companion: a truffle pig who was stolen on the orders of a powerful businessman named Darius (Arkin). Pig emphasizes that human life, much like the process of truffle proliferation, relies upon a symbiotic social process. It argues that the creation and nurturing of this sociality is necessary in order to perpetuate edifying systems of living, between human beings as well as truffles, roots, and pigs. The film presents this argument by depicting conflict resolution through empathy, not intimidation or violence. Robin makes progress in his quest not by threatening people or breaking kneecaps, but by empathizing with his fellow human beings, thereby drawing out the pain which they hide behind distancing facades and engaging them in a process of difficult but ultimately edifying socialization. Even in the most painful cases, this socialization is a positive development, since the film shows that social detachment and emotional isolation actively strengthen rather than resolve the adverse symptoms of loss. The solution to emotional isolation presented by co-writers Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block is to give oneself over to the thriving symbiosis of sociality and, through an openness to its reciprocative social processes, enter a state of becoming-other — a state which is, in many ways, synonymous with empathy.

The characters of Robin, Darius, and Amir (Wolff) begin as monadic capsules of negative emotion, separated from sociality by respective facades of apathy, sophistication, and industriousness. Through emotional catharsis provided to them by entry into social symbiosis, however, they reach a state of becoming-other and achieve empathy through and with one another. In this way, the somber and understated Pig is a deeply hopeful movie. It centers empathy as the engine of human growth and as inextricable from the processing of seemingly indigestible trauma. In doing so, the film crafts an optimistic vision of social life through the achievement of what Prince Siddhartha (one obvious referent for Robin Feld) might call a “middle way” of sociality: neither a total urge to control surrounding living systems (as in the case of Darius) nor a desire to completely isolate oneself from them (as with Robin), but a conscious willingness, rooted in a deeply felt sense of empathy, to produce the most auspicious emotional advancement for all symbionts.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) behind Robin in the scene in Eurydice.

Grief is a social emotion. It emerges from the perceived abbreviation of a social relationship which one would have liked to prolongate, while the internal processing of grief is dependent upon a conversation of sorts with the memory of the lost loved one. The medical framework, as Nina R. Jakoby writes, “focuses on atomized individuals in a clinical setting and separates the experience of grief from the social, cultural, or historical background in which it is embedded.” Sociologists prefer a more holistic understanding in which “grief is integral to life and not a condition to be treated.” Nor is it a static condition consisting of comprehensible components which need to be isolated and clinically treated. Grief “is not a static condition [but] the story of loss where different parts…shape and reshape the meaning of the other.” This shaping and reshaping, Pig posits, cannot be undertaken alone. In order to process what Cathy Caruth calls the “unassimilated nature” of traumatic experience, one must commit oneself to the reality of social interdependency, shedding inauthentic facades and presenting oneself with an honest, truly authentic, truly pained openness.

In order to reach this understanding, one must realize the impermanence of human life and accept the universality of grief. The hopelessness that emerges from this recognition is common — but it does not need to be suffered through alone. In Pig, the image of water represents this impermanence in both its pessimistic and optimistic forms. While eating breakfast with Amir, Robin delivers an important monologue which establishes the centrality of water to Pig’s symbology:

We don’t have to care. People first came out here ten thousand years ago. We would’ve been under four hundred feet of water. Every two hundred years we get an earthquake right along the coast — one’s coming up. When the shockwave hits, most of the city will flatten. Every bridge will fall…so, there’s nowhere to go. Even if we could. Anyone who survives that is just waiting. Five minutes later, they’ll look up, and they’ll see a wave ten storeys high, and then all of this, everyone, it’s all going to be at the bottom of the ocean. Again.

This monologue establishes the cyclical nature of human endeavor, the coming into and passing out of sociality. But in this instance, the impermanence is not presented in a hopeful or empathetic way. When Robin delivers this monologue, he has not yet shown his authentic self to Amir, and Amir remains emotionally distant from Robin as well. Toward the end of the film, the writers give the symbol of water a more optimistic dimension. After returning to his shack in the woods, Robin washes his bloody face clean in the stream, a physical representation of his emotional purification through an acceptance of the impermanence of both his wife Lori and the truffle pig which served as his surrogate companion. Prior to this breakthrough, the memory of Lori dominated his life, and he was unable to reconcile himself to a worldview which both recognized the impermanence of his deceased wife and also saw the purpose in establishing other social relationships. Importantly, at the beginning of the film he shuts off the tape of Lori’s song after only a few seconds, severing the conversant aspect of grief and choosing to keep the flame of his all-consuming sorrow alight.

One important detail for understanding the nature of Robin’s grief is the name of the restaurant he once owned: Hestia, the Greek goddess of domesticity and the hearth. Hestia was eventually Romanized into Vesta, and her adherents were called the Vestals. Their duty was to keep Vesta’s sacred fire burning at all times: in other words, to tend the memorial to the goddess of domestic life. When Robin finally plays the tape of Lori’s song in the film’s closing scene, her choice of song has great symbolic resonance: “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. She is the sacred fire which Robin, the truffle-hunting ascetic, keeps alight at the expense of his personal progress — until the film’s conclusion, that is, at which point he plays the tape and gives himself over to the conversant necessity of grief.

Roman Vestals tending Vesta’s sacred flame (https://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/-roman-vestal-virgins-make-a-mary-evans-picture-library.jpg).

The playing of the song does not extinguish the fire: after all, he ends the film by returning to his shack in the woods outside Portland, the site of his self-imposed exile after Lori’s death. But by finally playing the tape and engaging in sociality with his wife’s memory, just as he had opened himself up to sociality outside the woods, he establishes the “middle way.” He accepts the necessity of external sociality while keeping the sacred fire alight.

Robin’s final exchange with Amir establishes this new equilibrium. After Amir asks if he is okay, Robin shakes his hand and says “See you Thursday.” This reply echoes Amir’s parting line during their first meeting in the film, in which Robin refuses to say a single word and Amir calls “See you Thursday, asshole” through the closed door. By choosing to present himself authentically and to encourage authenticity in others, Robin has established a new social symbiosis with the world beyond the woods.

This is similar to the dynamic that plays out between Amir and his hospitalized mother. When he visits the hospital, he speaks to her through a door and expresses his wish that Darius would let her die. Although it is never explicitly stated, the film implies that Darius’s tireless pursuit of profit strained their marriage to the extent that she attempted suicide, an attempt which has left her hospitalized in critical condition. Amir clearly believes that there is something unnatural about the preservation of her life. He is scared to face her because he does not yet have control over his grief. While conversing with the memory of a loved one is an important step that allows an individual to process their pain, the preservation of the loved one in their moment of dying is something much more harrowing, since it freezes the possibility of progress. Because she has been unnaturally preserved in her moment of dying, Amir’s grief is arrested, and he is unable to move on with his life. He buries his pain beneath façade, hoping to emulate his cultured father’s perceived strength by cultivating an image of faux-sophistication that he does not spurn until the end of the film, when he turns off the classical music on his car radio. Notably, Amir only achieves progress when he witnesses his father break down emotionally after Robin and Amir cook him the meal which he and his wife had enjoyed over a decade earlier. The expression of an authentic grief undermines Darius’s self-presentation and exposes its falsity to his son, who watches his father’s breakdown in an almost catatonic state.

The idea of authenticity — the vanquishing of façade and the inauguration of an honest expression of self — is central to Pig’s idea of sociality as becoming-other. This is depicted in both the climactic dinner scene and the conversation between Robin and Chef Derrick Fenway in the chic Eurydice restaurant. In order to learn who stole his pig, Robin decides to break through Derrick’s façade much like he does to Darius later in the film. He asks, with a palpable empathy, why Derrick did not pursue his dream of opening an English pub. He tells Derrick:

They’re not real. You get that, right? None of it is real. The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real, because this isn’t real. You aren’t real…why do you care about these people? They don’t care about you. None of them. They don’t even know you. Because you haven’t shown them. Every day you’ll wake up and there’ll be less of you. You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself. We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.

Derrick counters that a pub in Portland would have been “a terrible investment,” but his stuttering speech reveals that he knows he has betrayed his authentic self. Pig thus argues that when one hides one’s authentic self — in all its pain, contradiction, and impracticality — they become inauthentic monads cut off from the most worthwhile aspects of sociality. They become isolated from essential life-giving social processes which are necessary for the processing of grief. When people create facades, they become unreal, and because everything that results from the creation of that façade is an outgrowth of inauthenticity, it is unreal as well. Their interactions with others expand the unreality rather than proliferating empathy and understanding. They become truffles without roots, moldering in the lonely blackness instead of reaching toward the entwined social world of becoming-other — a world which, in the truffle’s case, ultimately opens into sunlight.

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