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Poetic Thinking 2016 | April 2, 2020

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Bergman and Overstimulation

Andrew McLeod

Having seen The Seventh Seal once prior to this class (an experience—my first with Bergman—that led me to watch six or seven more of his films), I re-approached it this week intent on deciphering what I then found (and continue to find) so stimulating. Largely, I think the power of the film resides in its overabundance of imagery, symbolism, figuration, and allusion—or, more generally, in how pervaded it is by artistic choices that seem to hold significance beyond their immediate and most manifest implications. Which is to say that—while many of these instances of imagery, allusion, etc., succeed for me—it is the further fact that I notice more of these choices than I am able to account for within any single way of framing the film that makes it an object of endless interpretive possibilities and study.

For instance, I tend to inhabit the mindset that most of what happens in the film actually happens to its characters (although perhaps not always literally, as in the scene where Death kills Jonas by chopping down a tree; I think of him as having merely fallen to his death). But it seems possible, even appealing, to think through how our understanding of the film changes if we take seriously any of the more supernatural occurrences. For instance, as both Amir and Lucy suggested today, we can interpret Death’s arrival in the first scene as representing the genuine death of the main characters, in which case none of the scenes in the remainder of the movie need be beholden to reality. (Notice, in favor of this interpretation, that right after Death asks Antonius Block whether he’s ready to die, the screen goes entirely black since the camera is obscured by Death’s cloak for a moment.) Another possibility I find plausible is that the mute is the only character in the film that has managed to hold on to her faith, and that it’s precisely for this reason that she remains incomprehensible to the other characters as well as us viewers. And another: that Antonius Block’s wife is already dead when they get back to the castle. And all these readings have implications for how we understand the rest of the film.

In thinking about this overabundance/overdetermination in The Seventh Seal, I’m reminded of one of the books Conor mentioned in a recent post—Gravity’s Rainbow. I think the power of Gravity’s Rainbow can also be found in the vast number of ways that it tempts the reader to interpret its different sections, while ultimately frustrating any attempt to extend these local interpretations to the whole work. The Seventh Seal doesn’t seem to frustrate global interpretive attempts so much as invite many plausible framings. But perhaps in both cases, the work of art acts as a potential site for Poetic Thinking precisely by virtue of its overstimulation. By saturating our normal ways of understanding such works, we may be forced to conceive of new ways of understanding them (and relating to them) that does justice to this artistic overdetermination.


  1. This post really resonates with my own experience of the movie, Andrew. I think about overstimulation often; but mostly in the context that it frequently happens to me and I get overwhelmed and unfocused. This porosity of my attention means I have to focus especially hard on the task at hand, but also (I think) allows inspiration from my surroundings to seep in almost subconsciously, or maybe “in spite of myself” (This idea isn’t quite mine: I saw a TED talk by Tim Harford, a journalist who points to psychology studies that a little “mess” or disruption in any creative or intellectual endeavor causes us to work or think harder, and increases our creativity in our attempt to solve the problem at hand).

    The multiplicity of images and possible framings in a movie like The Seventh Seal also overwhelms me at times, and sometimes my response to that is a bit of speechlessness. But sometimes it enables my mind to hold competing and contradictory thoughts or interpretations in my mind simultaneously, constantly weighing which one feels more right, if one even does. This simultaneity can make the work seem both messier and/or more interesting, depending on how you look (maybe if you look poetically).

    (note: I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow yet, but when I think of novels that get at this overabundance, I think of Infinite Jest. The two novels are sometimes considered similar, no? I should take a look.)

  2. Andrew McLeod

    Hi Audrey—I’m also fond of this notion of holding contradictory thoughts or interpretations in one’s head to see where and how they clash. My (totally unfounded) suspicion is that most people get amazingly good at subconsciously smoothing over such contradictions in their infancy/childhood (even adulthood?), as they slowly make sense of the world by updating the concepts and expectations they attach to different objects and situations. Which makes me marvel all the more when works of art or philosophy can bring these contradictions of expectation and interpretation to the fore.

    I highly recommend Gravity’s Rainbow if you enjoyed Infinite Jest. They’re different enough that I find it hard to articulate a comparison, but they definitely belong together in my head—something about both books being encyclopedic and immersive, even to the point of obsessiveness. Even less tangibly, both books feel intensely personal to me, insofar as DFW and Pynchon both seem to be desperately trying to make sense of something that can’t really be made sense of. (As a bonus: Infinite Jest makes at least one direct reference to Gravity’s Rainbow in one of the meetings between Marathe and Steeply, when they make a “Brokengespenst-shadow out toward the city Tuscon”.)

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