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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 24, 2020

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Death and The Button Moulder

Death and The Button Moulder
  • On March 9, 2016

Thinking about The Seventh Seal, I have been thinking about how Death is portrayed. We spoke a little bit last week about the fact that Death is not Satan, not evil. He has no malice for the knight, even though he is persistent and cunning (and does seem to care whether or not the knight cares about his own mortality). He has no secrets, no knowledge.

This figure reminded me of a similar figure in a different work: The Button Moulder in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a five-act play drawing a little bit from Norwegian folk tales to make his own sort of anti-coming-of-age story. Given that Bergman was himself Scandinavian, and worked extensively in the theater, I suspected that he at least had familiarity with this play–which has been especially seductive for directors with epic or grandiose visions to undertake (for example, Robert Wilson in 2006). Some brief, very cursory research (read: Wikipedia) led me to discover that Bergman not only staged the play twice, he staged it the first time in 1957, when The Seventh Seal was made. I wonder too what brought him back to direct the same play over thirty years later, in 1991. Perhaps the play meant something else to him entirely by that time…

The Button Moulder is, like Death, a figure who rather impersonally comes to the protagonist to announce his imminent death. The Button Moulder, however, paints a very vivid portrait of what this death will look like, and gives Peer good reason (in my opinion) to flee him:

Button Moulder: I’m a moulder of buttons. You must go in my ladle.
Peer: What becomes of me there?
Button Moulder: You’ll be melted down.
Peer: Melted?
Button Moulder: You see? It’s all empty and clean.
Your grave is dug and your coffin ordered,
and worms shall feast in your skeleton.
And I have orders from the Master
to fetch your soul without delay. (197)

When Peer protests, they continue to discuss the way he’s lived his life. The reason he must be melted down, the Button Moulder says, is because he’s been neither exceptionally villainous or virtuous, but rather “half and half” (198). The Moulder’s Master (which is all he’ll refer to him as) wants to melt him down for the raw material, which will be good enough to make someone new:

“…my Master, you know, his a thrifty man
-which explains why he’s also a wealthy one.
He never throws out as completely hopeless
what might turn out useful as raw material.
Now you were designed as a shining button
on the coat of the world… but your loop was missing,
which is why you must go in the pile with the throw-outs…” (199)

The idea that Peer was somehow designed wrong, without a loop–a hook or a catch to tie him to something in the real world, is one way of describing his escapades all over the world, moving on from one non-commital lifestyle to the next over many years. But interestingly, he convinces the Moulder to go away for a day or so, to let him find a witness to prove that he has in fact lived a life where he’s been absolutely himself (202). The play ends happily, as he finds this witness in Solveig, the wife he’s left at home who willingly comes back to him and gives him refuge. This ending has variously been interpreted as naive and a sign of Ibsen’s immaturity (it was an early work of his), but sometimes as satire–that we’re supposed to suspect the saccharine tone of the final image, Solveig singing to him, in her arms. This not only correlates to our discussion of the film’s final moments, it also seems to correspond with Kierkegaard, especially his work Either/Or (Ibsen was famously silent on the subject of influences, but it does seem likely he read at least some Kierkegaard). In this text, two characters each represent one side of a debate he stages: the Aesthetic vs. the Ethical. The Aesthetic is the person who has perhaps arguably always been “himself,” but who has also failed to commit to anything–a wife, children, etc. The Ethical is the one who has done these things, and found genuine satisfaction (it would seem) in this embrace of responsibility alongside love.

It’s interesting to think about the differences between Antonius Bloch and Peer–the film doesn’t seem to portray Bloch as flighty in the way Peer does: perhaps this is partially due to the setting; amidst so much war and death, everyone is fleeing for their lives. But is there any room to see Bloch as a uniquely non-committal character, or is he meant to function more as an Everyman?

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