In the usual roadside picnic, travelers might spread out a picnic blanket, take out a hamper, and help themselves to lunch. In the process, they might carelessly discard a banana peel or two and then drive off. The Strugatsky brothers imagine such a situation, except the travelers are aliens in a spaceship and the “banana peels” they throw out have the effect of altering space and time in the immediate vicinity. Roadside Picnic details the unintentional consequences of this brief terrestrial visit. The Zone is the remnant of this sojourn. There is a place within it that makes the deepest wishes of someone come true. Unfortunately, like certain ominous fairy tales where, for instance, someone wishes that he might never die and is turned into a rock, since rocks do not die, human beings do not necessarily know what their deepest, darkest desires might really be, so there is a huge potential for things to turn out badly. Certain people known as “stalkers,” really “guides,” guide people through the Zone in order to minimize their chances of dying and to maximize their success. The after effects of the alien visit include pockets of intense gravity that will crush a man if he steps into the wrong area. In the novel, one of the stalkers decides to exploit a teenager for his own purposes. He reasons that the kid will be shallow and that his desires will be worthless, so, instead of protecting him, the stalker will use him in the fashion of a mine sweeper to protect himself, in direct violation of his duty to the kid. Stalkers are paid for their services. The novel ends with great pathos. The stalker watches in horror as the youth runs toward his goal shouting “Happiness for everyone,” not at all the selfish and stupid thing the stalker was picturing, only to see the boy’s spine twist and rupture as the boy enters a gravity field.
The movie Stalker ended up being so different from the script they were hired to write that the Strugatsky brothers asked to not be credited with the screenplay. Tarkovsky retains the idea of the Zone that contains within it a place where one’s deepest desires are made true, in the form of The Room, but in most respects the film is very different from its original inspiration. However, the plot of the Roadside Picnic is roughly summarized in an anecdote within the movie. STALKER’s teacher was TEACHER, who taught him to navigate the Zone. TEACHER lost his faith, became cynical, and started to hate the Zone, trampling on the flowers there in an act of spite. In this forlorn state, TEACHER was renamed PORCUPINE and decided to risk the life of his brother in order to enter the Room himself, instead of leading others there. His brother in fact is killed. Out of desperation, PORCUPINE enters the Room in order to save his brother, but instead of that happening, he becomes enormously wealthy. Apparently, his true ignominious desire was for money, not his brother’s life. In disgust with himself and remorse, PORCUPINE hangs himself.
In the film, STALKER is a tortured soul. He has been imprisoned before for leading people into the Zone, contrary to the law, but he sees it as his vocation to do so. He is to guide WRITER and PROFESSOR. Their vocations become their names in order to promote anonymity should the authorities catch up with them, one can infer, but it also makes them seem more like archetypes.
Tarkovsky clearly identifies with STALKER; someone who tries to guide people to the numinous, who bids them remember aspects of life, reality, and the divine that they too often ignore, or for which they even express contempt. It is the role of John the Baptist. He was not the Son of God, but bids us look and see Him. Can you suspend your disbelief, cynicism, and world weariness long enough to do this? STALKER is the Bodhisattva – the one who forgoes salvation in order to save others and lead the way; the philosopher who returns to the Cave in order to help those still imprisoned there rather than contemplating the Form of the Good. Tarkovsky also speaks through WRITER and ponders the life of an artist. WRITER wants to bring his readers to the truth, to transform them, but runs the danger of mutilating himself to please them. “For I wanted to remake them, but I myself was remade! In their own image.” A professor of mathematics once said, “Why hit your head against a brick wall? Just give your students what they want. Easy grades for no work.” In other words, make yourself as delinquent and bankrupt as your worst students and show disdain for the whole process of teaching and learning. Your teaching evaluations will be stellar!
At the end of the movie, STALKER complains to his wife: “They do not believe in anything. They’ve got the organ with which one believes atrophied through lack of use. My God, what kind of people they are…Haven’t you seen them, their eyes are empty. And they think every minute how not to be sold too cheap, how to sell themselves for a higher price! That everybody paid them for every movement of their soul! They know that “they are born to some purpose”! That they “have a calling”! For they live “only once”! How can such ones believe in anything? And nobody believes. Not only those two. Nobody! Whom should I lead in there? Oh, God… And the most terrifying thing is … that nobody needs it anymore. And nobody needs that Room. And all my efforts are worthless!”
WRITER is introduced in the film talking to a female companion. What he says reveals his complete disgust with life and ennui, and his need for redemption.
WRITER: My dear! Our world is hopelessly boring, and that is why there’s neither telepathy, nor ghosts, nor flying saucers … and there cannot be anything of the kind. Iron laws control the world and it’s intolerably boring. And these laws, alas, cannot be broken. They’re not able to.
(Writer talks nervously going around the Lady.)
WRITER: And so don’t hope for a UFO. That would be all too interesting.
LADY: And what about the Bermuda triangle? Are you also going to argue that…?
WRITER: I am going to argue. There’s no Bermuda triangle. There’s a triangle ABC, which is even to a triangle A′ [prime] B′C′. Do you feel, what a doleful boredom this statement contains? However, in the Middle Ages it was interesting. In every home there was a house-spirit, in every church its God… People were young! Now each fourth is an old man. Boring, my angel, oh how boring.
LADY: But didn’t you say yourself that the Zone is an outcome of a supreme civilization, which…
WRITER: That’s probably also boring. The same sort of laws, triangles, and absolutely no house-spirits and, of course, no God. Because in case God is the same triangle… hmm, then I simply do not know…
Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary is a scholarly and philosophical analysis of the significance of the division in the brain between the left and right hemispheres. He argues, in a similar fashion to Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, that Western civilization in the modern era has come to be dominated by the left hemisphere at the expense of the right. For 97% of people, the left hemisphere is a region of the brain that specializes in narrow focus and high resolution. The right on broad focus and low resolution. This division exists for survival purposes. If a bird is on the ground pecking at food, it must be able to narrowly focus on the items at hand. However, it is in great danger and must simultaneously remain broadly and open-mindedly aware of its surroundings, since it cannot anticipate all dangers, in case of predators. These two modes of consciousness are both absolutely necessary and absolutely incompatible and this is the reason for the hemispheres having their own specializations. Normally, these two kinds of consciousness are blended at a higher level so they appear unified to us.
The left hemisphere is the realm of the known, the logical, the narrowly focused, the light of day, black and white, simple repetitive rhythms, the mechanical and inanimate, flatness, the verbal, abstractions, the robotic, and it is where our ego resides. It is the aspect of ourselves that we are most familiar with since it is the known. The right hemisphere is the realm of the unknown, the mysterious, of creativity, imagination, intuition, problem-solving, humor, emotion, attending to the emotional meaning of words and behavior, color, living organisms, depth of field, the concrete. It has very limited language and can see gestalts – recognizing a face by its whole – while people who have RH strokes and rely mostly on the LH identify people by a nose, or eyebrow, being unable to see the whole. LH is the trees, RH is the forest. It is very hard to think about or write about RH phenomena since they are inherently mysterious. Humor is crucial to human existence but cannot be explained. A joke explained is no longer funny. A metaphor cannot function if its meaning is spelt out.
The modernist love affair with rationality means an exclusive focus on the known, the logical, the LH. The trouble with that is that what is known, “facts,” are inherently boring. A demand for empirical evidence, for instance, leaves one only contemplating that for which empirical evidence is possible. All that might evoke wonder and mystery is ignored. One might know everything there is to know about someone physically, and even observe his behavior assiduously, but his inner life and motivation, his feelings and his thoughts, will be ignored. It would be very close to studying a corpse instead of a person. WRITER: “Leave that crawling empiricism of yours, Professor. The miracle is not in the empirics. Remember how Saint Peter nearly drowned.”
The RH is best approached artistically and indirectly. There is an infinity within it; a connection with the Great Mystery. WRITER: “Oh, some psychological abyss. In the institute we are disliked, our expedition cannot be financed. So … let’s stuff our rucksack with various manometers and crapmeters, let’s get into the Zone illegally… And let’s verify all the miracles of the place with algebra. (Professor leans at a sloping wall.) Nobody in the world has an idea about the Zone. And there, of course, a sensation! Television, female fans dying at your feet, bringing crowns of laurel… (Stalker lies down on the rocks, coughs.) …our Professor appears all in white and declares: “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” And, naturally, everyone opens… (Professor is lying with his legs tucked.) …their mouths, shout in chorus: Nobel’s prize for him!..” To bring RH into the light of day would kill it. For the rationalist, the alternative is to ignore it; and even better, to deny it, as Peter denies he knows Jesus thrice. The moment of intensest life is on the border between LH and RH. Too far into RH, and something is wholly chaotic and unknown. Too far into LH, and it is dead and prosaic.
Philosophy begins and ends in wonder, wrote Plato. The outside of Plato’s Cave, involving Forms and the Form of the Good, is a transcendent world. RH phenomena inherently have a spiritual component. Creation is antithetical to the formulaic and routine; it has to come from nothing and be brought into the light; from the spiritual subjective to the measurable objective.
The Zone represents the RH. It is a world of danger because it is the realm of mystery. Dragons lurk in the deep sea, or lands of chaos, and strike unexpectedly. The RH has a connection with the Ungrund, the causeless cause that confers freedom. Without freedom, creativity is impossible. To mechanically produce what one is mindlessly compelled to produce by the laws of physics is the opposite of creativity. Free will also permits a choice between good and evil. Some products of the human imagination are good, and some are unspeakably evil. Society and the universe could only be “perfect” if imagination were eliminated, as pointed out by the novel We. But a society and universe without freedom would be Hell. A wholly “good” universe would be wholly bad, representing nothing but slavery. Love and friendship would disappear since they would be compelled and that is an oxymoron. Love and friendship are a gift freely given, or not at all.
There is direct evidence for this interpretation in the screenplay:
STALKER: (screams) “The Zone – it’s … a very complicated system … of traps, let’s call it, and all of them are deadly. I do not know what happens here, when humans are away, but if only people appear here, everything starts moving. Previous traps disappear, the new ones emerge. The safe places become impassable and the way one moment is simple and easy, the other – turns to be insuperably complicated. This is the Zone. It may even seem that it is capricious, but in every moment it is such as we made it ourselves … with our inner state. I will not hide, it has happened, that people were forced to return empty-handed from the halfway. There were also such who … perished on the very doorstep of the Room. Nevertheless, everything that happens here, depends not on the Zone, but on us!”
WRITER has lost his inspiration; his access to his RH. His trip to the Zone, is a visit to a part of himself that he has walled off through his own cynicism and fear. PROFESSOR, ironically through an act of evil imagination, has decided to eliminate free will and the imagination. He has decided to blow up the Zone because of man’s capacity for evil: for creativity and imagination to produce evil fruits. In the process, PROFESSOR would kill all that is truly human about us.
STALKER is not himself a creative artist. He is neither writer nor professor. His job is to bring people back to a mode of intense life; to rediscover their humanity, to revivify their souls, and to reinstall wonder in their perspectives. The path he advocates is always roundabout and indirect because he is leading people back to their true creative natures, and creativity is not achieved by taking a straight line. It has to be coaxed and be unforced. There is an interplay between the Great Mystery and the human soul. If creativity were to be systematized in a set of rules guaranteeing a productive result, and failure was impossible, then creativity would have ceased to exist. Writer suggests the meaning of life is the creation of art.
WRITER: Anyway, all this technology of yours … all these blast-furnaces, wheels … and other vanity of vanities, so that one could work less and could devour more – it’s only crutches, artificial limbs. And mankind exists for creating … pieces of art… It’s, anyway, unselfish, as a contrary to all other human actions. The great illusions… Images of the absolute truth… Are you listening to me, Professor?
Access to the spiritual is through the RH. It takes a capacity to suspend disbelief, for imagination, to touch on the divine. Stalker quotes from the Bible a passage where Jesus is not recognized. STALKER: (whispers) And that day two … of them… (Professor and Writer sleep side by side.) (whispers) …went to a village about sixty stadia away … (indistinctly) called … (indistinctly) and talking together about all these events, and when they were talking and discussing it together … (indistinctly) and He came up to them, went with them, but their eyes were held (Writer wakes up, looks at Stalker), so that they did not recognize Him. He asked though, what they were (sighs) all the time talking together about and why they were so sad. One of them, called…
Stalker’s wife quotes a sublime and awe-inspiring passage from the Bible: WIFE: And there an immense earthquake took place, and the Sun became dark as sack cloth, and the Moon was like covered with blood……And the stars of the heaven fell to the ground as if a fig-tree, shaken by a great wind, let its unripe figs fall down. And the sky hid itself, rolled up as a scroll; and various hills and isles moved from their places (laughs)… And the kings on earth, and the dignitaries, and the rich, and leaders of the thousands, and the powerful, and all the free hid themselves in the caves and mountain-gorges and they told the mountains and the rocks: fall on us and hide us from the face of the One sitting on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of His wrath is come, and who can withstand it?
The characters in Stalker do not smile, nor say nice things to each other. In fact, Writer and Professor express spite and contempt that is entirely mutual. But, what STALKER is trying to do is beautiful. The Zone itself is filled with color and beauty, though disturbing and alarming things too. Both WRITER and PROFESSOR are redeemed and rediscover their humanity and the hidden part of themselves. WRITER decides not go into the Room because he is convinced that his soul is so ugly that he does not want to expose the rest of us to what is hidden there. PROFESSOR reconciles himself to the fact that if goodness and love are to exist, then their opposites must remain a possibility. The human imagination must remain intact. STALKER complains bitterly to his wife about the kind of people he is forced to interact with in his calling, but he should also know that he has saved their souls, by coaxing from them Professor’s and Writer’s voluntary renunciations.
 This is the “writing on the wall” that Daniel has been called to interpret. Belshazzar has had a feast using cups looted from the destruction of the First Temple. Daniel’s interpretation is: “God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persian.” Daniel reminds Belshazzar that his father Nebuchadnezzar, when he became arrogant, was thrown down until he learned that God has sovereignty over the kingdom of men.