What are the tropes or models we might use to understand the character of Antonius Block? Here, perhaps, are a few ways in.
Taking cue from our discussion of Kierkegaard, a good place to begin may be with the Knight of Faith — a crusader playing a game of strategy with a personified Death seems a likely candidate for such a title. The Knight of Faith believes by virtue of the absurd in the coming to pass of an impossible possibility; he has made the leap of faith necessary to act autonomously and with conviction in situations not only where his reason cannot guide him, but where his reason positively asserts that the end he desires is unattainable. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard gives as an example a man in love with a princess he knows he can never be with, yet nevertheless fully believes that he will be both in person and in this life. In Bergman’s setting the Knight of Faith may be the one who believes that he can defeat Death at chess and thereby attain immortality, despite the certain knowledge that no man will not some day die. While Block may hold such a faith at his first meeting with Death, it soon flickers and goes out: I suspect that at least from the confession scene onwards, Block has as little faith in his ability to overcome Death as in the possibility of his acquiring certain sensory knowledge of God. By his own confession he cannot live on faith, and is driven relentlessly towards its antithesis: knowledge.
This failure of faith might lead us to compare Block instead to the Camusian hero, the ideal man of The Myth of Sisyphus. No doubt Block cannot and will not give up either his questioning or his defiance in the face of the absurd world in which he finds himself; he will never relate to the nihilistic Jons or the innocent and childlike Jof (Kierkegaard’s “slave” or “aesthete”; Nietzsche’s “last man”). But as he himself puts it, he cannot free himself of God, he cannot kill God within him, and surely this is the first step to Camusian freedom. He is always on the verge of “philosophical suicide”, and would readily commit it given a shred more evidence. And can we consider him — rolling his heavy questions again and again up the steep hill of his doubt — happy? He has failed to achieve whatever mindset or conviction are necessary for him to act authentically, in a Godless world, in this life.
Despite Block’s failure — as I see it — to live up to either Kierkegaard’s and Camus’ notion of the “hero”, it is clear that if we want to apply to him this epithet it must be from an existentialist perspective. There is absolutely no sense of his being a holy warrior fighting for God or the Good against Evil or Death (a common if somewhat outmoded crusader trope). Not even Death himself is evil: he is simply there, a brute reality, perfectly meaningless, perfectly unknowing. He provides nothing to get a moral handle on never mind struggle righteously against. Block, indeed, does not fight for an authority over and above himself, but only for and in himself, and the fact of his being a crusader — a participant in one of the largest-scale metanarratives the world has ever seen — emphasises the personal nature of his conflict to an almost unbearable level. All communal meaning has broken down in Block’s world, apparently without leaving even a trace. In that sense his condition is a thoroughly modern one. He is, in the final analysis, just one man playing the game we all play — the strategic attempt to fend off Death, one day at a time.