Plague Time Thoughts from Ingmar Bergman

The dictatorship of relativism is the governing philosophy of the empire of nothingness.

(photo: Register Files)

For homebound Catholics during the current COVID-19 epidemic, watching movies may be one way of passing time. Steve Greydanus is the Register’s film critic, so I always welcome his suggestions. The Vatican, to mark the centennial of cinema in 1995, released a list of 45 “Great Films” in “religion,” “values” and “art.”

Among the “values” films on the Vatican’s list is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic, The Seventh Seal. The images of Bengt Ekerod playing “Death,” his white face and black cape standing on the shore; Death playing chess with the Knight (the late Max von Sydow); and Death leading seven people away over a hill in a “dance of death” at the film’s end are three iconic scenes in film history. The film depicts the journey home of a Knight and his squire, returning disillusioned from the Crusades to a plague-ravaged Denmark (yes, the film is in and its director Swedish, but place references are to Denmark). On that journey home, the Knight reckons with God’s “silence” and what to make of it, as he encounters a number of people, four of whom eventually die alongside him and his squire at his castle.

The Seventh Seal is an interesting film to watch amid the COVID-19 contagion. That said, I agree with the various critics who note that, although set in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, this is not a film about those times. It is a very modern film dressed in medieval clothing: the scenes are the scenes of Esau, but the words and thoughts are Jacob’s (really, son-of-a-Swedish-state-church-pastor Ingmar Bergman’s and his unresolved issues with his father).

The Knight constantly talks about faith, but is constantly looking for more proof than faith. He prays, but he wants “knowledge,” assurances, a quest at which his nihilistic squire sneers and about which Death only stokes his doubts. One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the Knight’s confession to Death.

When the Knight stops in a church along the way and makes his confession to one he assumes is a priest but is really Death in a monk’s habit, the Knight insists: “I want knowledge. Not faith or conjecture but knowledge. I cry out to Him in the darkness, but no one seems to be there.” Death replies: “Perhaps no one is there.” The Knight rightly replies, “Then life is a senseless terror. No one can live with death knowing that everything is nothingness.”

That is the nub of the problem. But that’s where Bergman’s discussion also goes off the rails. Death implicitly acknowledges the truth that man cannot live with death if everything is nothingness but counters that people cope by putting that problem out of their minds: “Most people never reflect on death or nothingness.” The Knight parries, admitting that is true until they stand in front of it.

I claim this is a very modern film, because the preoccupation with nothingness — indeed, the attempt to accommodate it — is very modern. It started after the Middle Ages, when thinkers with a non-religious agenda tried to extrapolate from Copernicus’ heliocentric universe and especially from Darwin’s evolutionary biology a philosophical anthropology that made man, instead of “a little less than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) a meaningless blip, accidental flotsam in an accidental cosmic sea.

It’s very apparent in our day. Our “naked public square” is not just about the legal exclusion of religion from civil life. It’s bigger than that. It’s about a wholesale sealing off of the public culture in which we live and move and have our temporal being from anything outside that temporality. If you have any doubts, consider that while the mortality of COVID-19 stalks the world, we have no more ample social vocabulary to discuss publicly with each other about death and its contemporary threat to life than “be well, maintain your social distance, and think positive thoughts.” The fact that the Catholic Church seems, alongside its flight from publicly accessible liturgies, to have marginalized if not absented itself from that impaired social conversation (other than the occasional scold-bishop chiding those who might entertain thoughts of divine chastisement) also speaks volumes.

No, our impaired social conversation about what we think of life and death mirrors exactly what Death tells the Knight: “Most people never reflect on death or nothingness.” Except that, while at one time this may have been either a coping mechanism or a personal embrace of carpe diem, today it is the very essence of “tolerance” and “non-judgmental social inclusiveness.” “Tolerance” now means agreeing to keep uncomfortable topics swept under the carpet.

I also claim The Seventh Seal to be a very modern film because of where the Knight then goes with his ruminations. Grappling with “nothingness” (something which, in the end he will not concede — consider his final prayer when Death stands before him and his friends in his Castle), the Knight concludes that, if this is so, to avoid living with this senselessness “in our fear we make an idol and call it God.” This is not a 14th-century man talking; this is a 20th-century man who has read too much Freud. Modern man calls God the “idol” while trying to arrive at a modus vivendi with his real idol, nothingness. The ironical paradox is that, in the end, he tries to accommodate, he tries to live with Death.

That irony is built into this film, built into every attempt to personify Death. Death cannot ultimately be “personified.” It cannot be a person, because a person is being and being is good. As Augustine reminded us, “good” and “evil” are not coequal principles: evil is not a “thing” but a lack, an absence of good. So death cannot be a person, cannot be a thing, it can only be an absence, a nothingness in lieu of what should be there. It’s not that “life is short and then you die” as two sides of the same coin. “God not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13-15). Death is the consequence of sin. It is evil. It is nothing — which does make it any less dangerous.

Bergman indirectly proves this when you listen to Death’s lines in the movie. Death never speaks clearly, never answers a question. His answers are always subjunctive, always “if,” always conditional. “Perhaps” there is nothing there, “maybe” there is nothing there. When the Knight finally is beaten at chess, he asks if Death “reveal [his] secrets.” “I have no secrets,” is Death’s reply. This is not the Angel of Death carrying out God’s judgment; it is a very modern “Death” that “knows nothing” and makes no sense beyond itself.

Which is why I say this is a very modern film. Modern man’s ideas of what he knows are greatly indebted to the skepticism of the 17th-century Frenchman, René Descartes. Descartes denied that we can know anything by our senses, because our whole vision of the world could be one big deception, a deceit imposed on us by some unknown trickster. That’s why he built his world from the inside of his head out: “I think; therefore, I am” (not “I exist, so I think”). But as the Polish philosopher Jozef Tischner pointedly asks, while Descartes has an epistemology, he lacks an ethics. Descartes tries to tell us how we know, but has no moral world underpinning the world he knows. For if we are to assume that what we know from our senses may be all one big deceit, the moral question (that Descartes does not ask) is: “why trick us?” Something normally happens for a reason, for a purpose. But Descartes never tells us why his imaginary trickster is engaged in the very demanding work of suggesting an illusory world to all our minds. Why go to all that trouble to deceive us all? Descartes never answers that. Modern man might try: it’s senseless.

Before his papal election, Josef Ratzinger warned against the “dictatorship of relativism.” That warning remains cogent, but incomplete: the dictatorship of relativism is just the governing philosophy of the empire of nothingness. That is very much the modern project. Reason is senseless. Meaning is senseless. Death is senseless. And so, life is senseless. “Eat, drink and be merry” as the Knight’s squire or Skat the actor. But, amid these COVID-19 days, perhaps we want to ask ourselves, in the words of Peggy Lee’s famous ballad, do we really believe “is that all there is?”