Fear no more the heat of the sun
**NB: This essay seeks to address the existentialist themes of The Seventh Seal, focusing mainly on the paradox of the pour-soi and Kierkegaard’s “crowd,” drawing from No Exit, The Ethics of Ambiguity, and The Myth of Sisyphus, among others. As Harry’s posts suggest, this film drew very much from existential thought. I’d argue that this is Bergman’s response to the highly individualistic focus of existentialism, bidding instead for Camus’ “southern man” of simplicity and pure sensation**
Hell is not other people. If this were the case, then one would be happy with the elimination of these people—peace of mind comes from having a room of one’s own, left to pursue one’s personal project without interference. One would imagine that The Seventh Seal’s Antonius Block, returning from the wasted years of the Crusades to the waves of annihilation of the Black Plague, would be happy to find a wealth of opportunity for introspection at his disposal. And yet, kneeling in the cold surf facing the rising sun, his silent prayer invokes nothing but a bitterness that belies the torment of this peaceful silence. The steely vault of sky above him is ominously empty.
Applying the ethics of existentialism, as proposed by Sartre and de Beauvoir, reveals a paradox. If the pour-soi can only know itself through the gaze of the other, then the pour-soi must reside in a collectivity by necessity. And as evinced by the hellish torture Sartre depicts in No Exit, there is a danger that what is reflected may not be the truth—we walk in a funhouse that distorts our image in malicious jest. But if we are to follow the method and conditions that de Beauvoir proposes in The Ethics of Ambiguity to respect the absolute freedom of the individual and commit violence only if it is a necessary and lesser evil, then how will we ever be able to make this call, if the values we use to judge are arbitrarily made in a void? How can the pour-soi be certain of its self, when every gaze, including its own, has the capacity to be an oppressor? What does it mean to will the freedom of others, when every action is refracted into an infinity of perspectives? Juxtaposing this paradox in the context of The Seventh Seal implies that a possible evolution of subjectivity that ultimately finds momentary peace in the absurd.
The Threat of the Other
Living in a collectivity requires a blind trust in the individuals that constitute it. In our cursed dependence on the reflection of ourselves that the other grants us, we lay helpless before the whim of their benevolence, indifference, hatred. So is it that Garcin, Estelle, and Inez find themselves bound at the stocks before a mob of two. “I’m watching you, everybody’s watching, I’m a crowd all by myself. Do you hear the crowd? Do you hear them muttering?” (Sartre 45). The pour-soi can only know itself through others—but these reflections can be false, contradictory, intentionally cruel. They torture each other not by reflecting a fatal truth or a malicious lie, but by throwing shards of glass that fail to provide any definitive image, save for a brief glimpse of horror. They could try to escape in solitude of their own thoughts or leave the other behind altogether, but it is impossible to sit in silence when all there is behind one’s eyes is a dark void that can provide no answers. Unable to annihilate each other or find the will to leave, they are stuck trying to wrench the ideal image they seek from the eyes of the other. Though the “lark mirror” may tell lies or simply refuse to look at the individual, “all that loveliness” of subjectivity “would be wasted on the desert air” of absurdity, if one did not to some extent submit to the tyranny of the others’ gaze (Sartre 21). Exiting the room is not an option, for the torture of interaction is better than the annihilation of nothingness—they need the blessing of the other to fill the void of their self-concepts; in jealousy and deep resentment, they choose to spite their co-inhabitants in a hell they have created for each other.
The tension of mutual negation that plays out between this trio resides in the taught string of connection binding every individual together within the collectivity. We demand truth, and are forced to lay ourselves bare in the vulnerability of our dependence; and yet, knowing that the reflection given by the other can be intentionally cruel, the only weapon we have to ward off mirrors of distortion is the violence of our own gaze. So is it that, in the face of chaos and threat to our continued freedom, we frantically isolate a victim to demonize and blame. Whether or not this individual is ostensibly guilty of attacking our freedom, if we are to follow de Beauvoir’s ethics, this ambiguity can and perhaps should be dealt with through destruction; as in the sixteen-year old Nazi, the “urgency of the struggle forbids” the “slow labor” of rehabilitation or of cutting the source of misery at the root (de Beauvoir 105). Perhaps it is noble to attempt to reconcile this individual’s oppressive gaze with our own ideal self-concepts. But the more time that is spent on deliberation and careful stratagem translates to a greater period of agony and casualty. If no one can provide a solution or offer to save us, even though we are inherently incapable of giving content to or preserving our subjectivity without external validation, our hand is moved by a vigilant desperation to pull out our hidden gun and threaten to eliminate anyone who dares to move the wrong way or make the slightest sound.
This state of terror gains an acute intensity in the context of the Black Plague, in which any and all solutions must be tried to alleviate the torment of uncertainty and dissonance. As depicted in The Seventh Seal, one such solution comes in the form of a young girl accused of summoning the devil and imposing this insidious destruction upon them. Certainly, if the “witch” were truly the source of the plague, thus making it necessary to burn her at the stake in order to stop the ravages of the disease, then, in following de Beauvoir’s ethics, they may rightly destroy her in order to save the collectivity. And certainly the collectivity, as embodied by the priests, the soldiers, and the bystanders watching her burn, have deemed this to be the rational and righteous choice. But in looking into her eyes, they see not the conjured devil they convicted her for, but the reflection of “an empty, numb fear” (Bergman). They turn deaf ears to Jons the squire: “We stand powerless, our arms hanging at our sides, because we see what she sees, and our terror and hers are the same.” She is a scapegoat, a vessel for the amorphous fear they harbor within themselves; her death sentence is a brutal solution to the oppression of death. But if it is truly this fear and emptiness that we wish to destroy, would it not be better to turn this violence upon themselves, as with the self-flagellants? She is betrayed by the priests and the soldiers who falsely reflect the image of devil on her, deceived by the empty meaning they bestowed on her terror.
The void of self-reflection
The safest possible means of survival, is seems, is to divorce ourselves from the crowd. To avoid the threat of the other and the levelling process that undermines our yet boundless freedom in jealousy or spite, we must reject the collectivity and focus solely on actualizing our personal project. And if anyone dares to thwart our struggle for authenticity or stymies our capacity to realize our full potential, we may momentarily exit our hermitage to destroy the offender. We are to live as an independent subjectivity, making meaning of the world on our own terms by turning our mirrors to within ourselves. But in doing so, we ultimately look towards a god that no longer exists, and a god that we cannot be.
So does Antonius block embark on the “individual religious isolation” that Kierkegaard describes as the antidote/safeguard to the levelling process (Kierkegaard 54). He travels with his squire but seems to be elsewhere; his gaze sweeps across the landscape, so lost in his search for intangible significations that their very lack obscures any observable reality. Being incapable of bestowing any convincing significance to the world around him, he is locked in an introspection that reaches out blindly for a priori meaning. He enters a church, hoping the designated structure will carry the holy and divine presence that the word promises. But it is nothing more than a cold building with a carving of an anguished Christ hanging over an empty room.
In this utter self-absorption, he seems to reside in a tender state of suffering of even greater potency than those who sink into the pupils of the other. “The emptiness is a mirror turned towards my own face. I see myself in it, and I am filled with fear and disgust…Through my indifference to my fellow men, I have isolated myself from their company. Now I live in a world of phantoms. I am imprisoned in my dreams and fantasies.” (Bergman). Spurning the other and turning his gaze inwards, he is horrified by the void that he sees. The knight finds himself at an impasse of simultaneously refusing to endow false meaning to existence while vainly grasping at a “mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles.” He “[calls] out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there.” But perhaps the silence suffocates him not so much through the portent of nothingness, than the waste of his futile pursuit. His agony is that though he already knows that the God he seeks is but an image fabricated from the collective fear of a sterile existence, God remains “a baffling reality that [he] can’t shake off”; he is condemned to nurture this nostalgia for “knowledge” and truth, at the expense of the full use of his freedom. He seeks something higher than the mundanity of reality, but can see only facticity.
And meanwhile, in the adjacent room, Jons and the painter are chatting in happy inebriation.
The sufficiency of pure sensation
Considering the pain that comes with consorting with nothingness, perhaps we may want to reconsider the indifference and enmity we harbor towards the collectivity. We have spurned the other in an attempt to preserve our own project, but are left floundering in the void that we have uncovered; we cannot find meaning by ourselves, and yet there is no one in the darkness that can fill this sterility with signification.
It is true that the gaze of the other has the capacity to eviscerate and destroy; and of course, the significations it provides can only be inferior to the meaning that an a priori being can endow. But if our condition of transcendental homelessness, as Lukács describes, can ever be navigated, then who would be better qualified to provide the reprieve that we seek than the individuals who share with us this life of “futile pursuit…wandering…talk without meaning” (Bergman)? Perhaps we must begin by looking up from our broken mirrors, locking eyes, and finding common ground.
To say that we must live for others seems paradoxical—for, if we were to dedicate ourselves to will the freedom of others, would we not be neglecting our own project? We would at the very least be putting ourselves in danger of being destroyed by an oppressor lying in wait. If the pour-soi cannot know itself without seeing its reflection in the other, then the subjectivity has no choice but to present itself to the other and accept its threat. But why must the stakes always be piled so high? Exactly what does it take to positively validate the pour-soi of another?
Our tortured knight finds himself sitting on a grassy hill with the squire and the family of actors. His eyes are vacant as he ponders the ephemerality of this moment of respite. The others recline and pass around a bowl of strawberries and milk. He attempts to communicate his critical question of faith and death to Mia, but in the context of this idyll, he talks in non-sequiturs. Mia, so firmly content in the present moment, persists in proffering him the bowl; in the face of her incomprehension, a change overcomes the knight. “Everything I’ve said seems meaningless and unreal while I sit here with you and your husband. How unimportant it all becomes suddenly” (Bergman). It is not that Mia and Jof are happily ignorant of the nothingness that threatens to engulf them. They are no less exempt from the sterility of no a priori meaning, and they know that this moment of peace will not last. For, what they realize is that though “one day is like another, [t]here is nothing strange about that. The summer, of course, is better than the winter, because in summer you don’t have to be cold. But spring is best of all.” Time flows as a stream of nothingness, devoid of any true significance. But they accept the interminability of existence, and find comfort in the pure sensation of living—of the warmth of the sun, the breeze on the hill, the taste of strawberries in spring. And in sharing this experience with others, these indistinguishable days are made bearable. By living so firmly in the present, they are able to relish this temporary ataraxia without the dread of emptiness.
There is no dire injunction to separate oneself from the crowd, as Kierkegaard calls upon us to do, and militantly express one’s freedom lest it be leveled. One needs only dip in “bath of the human multitude” to fill the void—for, “in the presence of the rest of men, mixed with the multitude,” we may cease to be aware of ourselves and the all-consuming demands of “I am I” (Unamuno 184). Our burning questions and terrified anguish are silenced in the wake of this gentle indifference of the open sky, the fullness of the collectivity marching around us. For this serenity is as much a revolt against nothingness as the daggers in our eyes.
And perhaps, for all of the threat we harbor against each other, it is enough to simply breathe together on a spring day. The knight drinks deeply from the bowl of milk and smiles. They turn their faces toward the sun. “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. Mikael sleeping, Jof with his lyre. I’ll try to remember what we have talked about. I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk.” The knight has found peace in this simplest of acknowledgements of the other—a pure reflection, an idyllic painting. Better to drink warm milk on a hill with friends, than kneel in cold baptismal waves in solitude.
Hell is not other people, but the void of our self-concepts. In order to find any significance or meaning in the inherent emptiness of existence, we must prostrate ourselves before the gaze of the other and accept their judgment. Our dependence is terrifying, but we have no other choice but to put blind faith on their freedom to reflect. We might come to the conclusion that the only means of self-preservation is to commit violence against these oppressors-to-be, or to spurn their gaze through silence. But perhaps it is only in the indifference of the crowd that our subjectivity can find peace, to find comfort in the notion that we do not have to wander alone, and to thrill in the pure sensation of existence with the other.
We must look up at the sun to seek not God, but to savor a heat that is meaningless and sufficient in its warmth. We must offer not our hands in prayer behind the shutter of our eyelids, but raise our fist in the air, “[feeling] the blood pulsing through it” as we gaze open-eyedly at the dazzling brilliance of life. Standing on this sterile promontory, playing a chess game with Death, we are engaged in revolt. We are alive, and we are not alone—and perhaps this can be enough