Monday, June 27, 2011

The Often Overlooked Influence of Soren Kierkegaard on Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

(initial notes: Excuse any sort of com-positional errors, I just had to copy this from word, if anyone knows how to directly import a word file or portable document formats, please, let me know.  Secondly, this is an independent research project I had started on my own in the Summer of 2010.  I must confess, I haven't read it in over 8 months at this point, and it still exists in an incomplete first draft stage at this moment, but regardless, I still felt like sharing it despite the incompleteness.  The essay symbolizes for me something more than any of the content that is inside of this essay even begins to express.  Both the film and the philosophy of Kierkegaard were the push that made me move toward concertizing realizations that had been building slowly in my sub conscious for quiet some time, and had only begun to manifest themselves at the time I began writing this.  They allowed me to shed certain dogmas [which WILL remain cryptic] I had been in denial about for some time and come to the full realization that...[you make up the rest].)

(second note: ...)

The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, is a film interpreted in contrasting ways by its viewers, not excluding Bergman himself .  Out of these many interpretations, one of the most common is to thematically connect the film to twentieth century existentialism, as Charles B Ketcham had done in his superb analysis of Bergman’s career entitled “The Influence of Existentialism on Ingmar Bergman” .  Despite an overwhelming focus on many 20th Century philosophers in this literature, the influence of 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had on The Seventh Seal, other than the occasional comparison, has been overlooked by most commentators.  The interactions between Antonius Block and the juggler family, namely the son Mikeal, can allow us to understand the film in a much clearer light if we take into consideration aspects of Kierkegaards highly developed philosophical system.   This will, I believe, shed a new light on the film, allowing us to interpret it in a more positive light.  Despite his inability to make his pain intelligible to others,  Block as the knight of faith, through his one meaningful deed for the family of jugglers, “renounces the universal in order to be the particular” .
In the following pages I will examine the influence of Kierkegaard on Bergman by first briefly introducing Kierkegaard and outline a work considered by many to be his defining piece: Fear and Trembling.  Next, I will introduce The Seventh Seal and outline two key scenes within the film: the confession of knight Antonius Block to Death, and Block’s later meal with the family of juggling actors.  Finally, I will detail how viewing the film through a Kierkegaardian lens allows us to understand Block’s ‘meaningful deed’ for the juggler family, as Frank Gado had in The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, in a more positive light.

Fear and Trembling: A Critique on Hegelian Universalism
Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark on May 5, 1813 and despite rarely leaving his home country, his influence spread to the point he would posthumously become identified as ‘the father of existentialism’ .  Much of Kierkegaards philosophy was instilled in him at a young age by his father Michael’s radical worldview that he was being punished by God .  Michael, whose pessimistic Christian attitude resulted from the death of five children and Soren’s mother,  was credited by Soren as giving him a horrifying upbringing.  In his diary, he speaks of his father in a very conflicted light:
From a human viewpoint, I owe my father everything.  He has made me as unhappy as possible in every way, made my youth a torment without peer, caused me, inwardly, not to be far from feeling scandalized by Christianity, or rather, I was scandalized, but out of reverence for it I decided never to breathe a word about it to anyone, and out of love for my father to represent Christianity as being as true as possible in contrast to the senseless nonsense which in Christendom passes for Christianity; and yet my father was most affectionate father and I always had and always will have a deep yearning for him whom, morning and evening, I have never once failed to remember. 

Despite the horrors he associated with his upbringing, there is no denying the influence it had upon Soren, and it was this acceptance that would juxtapose Kierkegaard not only theologically, but also philosophically, against much of European academia of the time.  One of the easiest texts to examine this radical view of Christianity inherited from his father is Fear and Tremlbing.
Fear and Trembling, a work completed by Kierkegaard in 1843, and similar to many of his other works during the period, was published under a pseudonymous name, in this case Johannes de silentio.  The text explores “Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice, upon God’s request, the son he waited so long to have” .  Three ethical questions, termed ‘problema’, are raised regarding Abrahams motives when he intended to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  In examining each of these ‘problema’, one begins to notice various consistencies arising out of Kierkegaard’s method of investigation.    As observed by Alastair Hannay in the introduction to his translation:
“First, the ethical is defined, then a consequence is drawn from this, followed by the observation that to accept this consequence is to concede that Hegel’s account of the ethical is right.  Thereupon our author claims that if Hegel’s account is indeed right, then Hegelians have no right to talk of faith or to give credit to Abraham as its father, for according to each of the consequences in question Abraham must stand morally (even criminally) condemned” .  

In the first of these, through Silencio, Kierkegaard questions if there is “a teleological suspension of the ethical?” , upon which he concludes
In the time before the outcome either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stay with the paradox which is higher than all mediation.
So Abraham’s story contains a teleological suspension of the ethical.  He has, as the single individual, become higher than the universal.  This is the paradox which cannot be mediated.  How he got into it is just as inexplicable as how he stayed in it.  If this is not how it is with Abraham, then he is not even a tragic hero but a murderer. 

In the second ‘problema’, which questions our absolute duty to God,  Kierkegaard concludes:
So either there is an absolute duty to God, and if so then it is the paradox described, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal and as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute – or else faith has never existed because it has existed always; or else Abraham is done for; or else one must explain the passage in Luke 14 in the way that tasteful exgete did, and explain the corresponding passages likewise, and similar ones. 

In the third and final of the ‘problema’, he asks “was it ethically defensible of Abraham to conceal his purpose from Sarah, from Eleazar, from Isaac?” , and concludes “either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is done for” .
One can begin to see a motif in his conclusions regarding the relation between the particular ad universal when one considers the ethical to be defined as the universal.  According to Hannay, there were three main consequences of defining the ethical as the universal:
(i) That the individual’s moral performance must be judged by its underlying social intention; (ii) that there are no duties to God other than duties that are in the first instance to the universal; and (iii) that it is a moral requirement that one night conceal one’s moral projects or the reasons one has for failing to carry them through. 

When examining these conclusions, one can begin to see there are many consistencies that arise involving the concepts of ‘the universal’ and ‘the particular’, as well as Abrahams supposition that he himself had “an absolute duty to God that overrides the ethical defined as the universal” .  
The acknowledgement of this paradox was at least in part one of Kierkegaard’s deeper purposes for writing the book.  These deeper levels of meaning grow more subtle the further one examines, because Kierkegaard felt religious truth could not be communicated directly .  Despite the subtlety, this allows us to begin understanding his purposes for writing Fear and Trembling ,  the relation between particular and universal, and the paradox’s that arise concerning the treatment of the ethical as the universal.  Examination of these issues will lead us to an understanding of Fear & Trembling that uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as a metaphor for critiquing this aspect of Hegelian system.  
In introducing each of the ‘problema’, when Kierkegaard defines the ethical as the universal, he is mot presenting his own definition, but instead Hegel’s definition.  The Hegelian system accounts for morals when a persons actions “can be linked…to the well-being of society as a whole” .  When one lacks this motive in their actions, Hegel saw a person as lacking insight into the relationship between the universal, or social whole, and the particular, or the single individual .  On the other hand, for Kierkegaard, our actions could be justified even if there isn’t “some wider benefit to the universal at stake” .  Abraham serves as an example of this, because in his actions there was “nothing that counted as doing something for the universal” , a situation termed “the teleological suspension of the ethical” .
Kierkegaard’s critique is of the consequences that arise when one regards the ethical as the supreme telos.  If it were universal, then the ethical “could not be instrumentalized or suspended for the sake of something supposedly higher” .  If we were to suspend it, it would “cease to be what it is – the highest end” , and this is precisely what Abraham does.  This leads Kierkegaard to present Hegelians with the ultimatum he concludes each of the ‘problema’ with: either reject Abraham and faith, or reject the ethical as the universal.  Because both of these ideas were foundational to Hegels system, when Kierkegaard refutes them, the entire system inevitably collapses with them.

The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal began as an exercise designed for Bergman’s acting students, growing into a one act play entitled Painting on Wood, before once again undergoing a metamorphosis into its most familiar form .  The film revolves around knight Antonius Block(Max von Sydow) and his squire Jons(Gunner Bjomstrand) as they journey home to Sweden from what seemed to be a pointless ten years of battling in the crusades.  In the early scenes of the film, Block is approached by a personification of Death(Bengt Ekerot) who tells him his time is up, to which the knight responds to with a challenge to chess, which Death accepts.  This chess match between the knight and Death, which serves as a metaphor for life itself, weaves together the many characters, progressing the various subplots within the narrative.
The Seventh Seal contains a vast array of characters, whose personalities have many subtle nuances.  Block and Jons, who differ from the traditional account given of mediaeval knights, serve as examples of this.  Block brings forth serious questions concerning the meaningfulness of life, while Jons is much more sentualistic than his traditional mediaeval counterpart .  Standing in contrast to the knight and his squire are a family of juggling actors, who collectively bring a sense of innocence to the film: Jof(Nils Poppe), the starry eyed fool with his hopeful dreams and visions; Mia(Bibi Andersson), in all her “goodness, sweetness, openness and beauty”  personifies the matriarchal figure; and Mikeal, the child to whom both of his parents see an infinite seed of potential in.  Together, after losing their director Skat(Erik Strandmark II), the family accompany the party in their journey home to the safety of Block’s castle.  
As the group forges along, unknown to his companions, Block continues his match with Death.  During the sequence depicting this match, Death and Block question one another in an attempt to rationalize the actions of their opponent.  In one of these exchanges, Block learns when the game is complete, not only his life, but the life of his companions hinge on the result.  Block’s knowledge of the others fate allows us to better understand both the questions, and subsequent answers he arrives at in the following two scenes.
In the first, Bergman places Block in the confessional with Death, who Block believes to be a priest.  In this scene Bergman introduces “many of the searching questions he himself has raised or heard others raise about man’s relationship to God”, questions whose ramifications are so profound on the narrative, the effect spills out into the remainder of the film .  These questions involve a search for God, for “knowledge”, for an escape from the meaninglessness through some sort of guarantee or proof , leading Block to his declaration that he will use his reprieve for one “one meaningful deed” .  Many of these answers will come to Block in a later scene with the family of jugglers.
In addition, this scene and those surrounding it also launch a vendetta against common Christian symbolism exemplified in Bergman’s use of words within the script to describe the crucified Christ Block prays to as “in anguish” .  Much of this has been cited as being influenced growing up as the son of a protestant minister, as well as the resulting “unfulfilled desire for proof” .  Much of this unfulfilled desire stems from his father’s transformation into “a remote figure, the embodiment of the austere, punitive God in his texts” .  This would lead Bergman to an escape in these existential questions and philosophers he could relate to, one of which will be Soren Kierkegaard.
The answer to many of the questions raised by the confession of Antonius Block come in an act of holy communion, when with the family of jugglers, he eats the wild strawberries and milk, a continuing motif of innocence in the films of Bergman .  The serenity, simple joy and innocence surrounding the family and scene “has the quality of a religious revelation for the knight” .  Block finds a manifestation of love he had been searching for in Mia and Jof as well as their son Mikeal, and the unlimited potential all see in his future.  This meal with the family is not only a meal for Block, it has a deeper and more sacramental quality as well; it is an act of holy communion.  The affect on Block is so profound that .  hen speaking with Mia, he says as he drinks the milk, that he “shall remember this moment” and “carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the rim with fresh milk” . 
As a result of these interactions, Block, “who had quested in the distant lands for the Holy Grail ironically finds the Grail’s meaning in a tranquil manifestation of human love within walking distance of his own home” .  This meaningful deed is achieved when Block momentarily distracts Death in order to give Jof, who witnesses the game from a distance, the chance to round his family and together flee the scene.  This sacrifice by the knight has profound implications on the film when it is examined as a whole.

The Connection
When examining a connection between Bergman and Kierkegaard, it is important to first acknowledge the effect that a Christian upbringing had on both their lives and their art.  While both came from entirely different eras and cultures, both were raised by fathers who were devout protestant Christians.  While Bergman’s father was a minister who became a remote and unrecognizable figure behind the pulpit, Kierkegaard’s father instilled in Soren an overly pessimistic worldview.  Despite these differences, it is hard to deny the similarities that arise when contrasting this aspect of their lives.  The shared struggle with religious heritage is the first of many relationships between Bergman and Kierkegaard that will allow both “to free the traditional religious question from its creedal chains” .
For Bergman, this freeing of the traditional religious question occurs when one considers “man’s relationship to eternity” .  In The Seventh Seal, the best example of this relationship between man and eternity, from the particular to the universal, is seen in Block’s relationship to Mikeal.  Like Kierkegaard before him, during the holy communion between the knight and the family, Bergman will lay his film with a deeper, more subtle meaning by answering many of the existential questions raised in the confessional.  Through this commitment he develops for the family, Block “overcomes his egocentricity, the prison of ‘dreams and fantasies’ created by ‘indifference to my fellow men’” , allowing Block to realize his relationship to eternity, placing the particular before the universal in order to achieve the universal.
Though Block’s ‘meaningful deed’ and the Abraham’s actions are certainly are not mirror images of one another, where the story’s overlap is their shared, metaphorical, motive: Abraham, by following nothing other than his faith, as the particular became higher than the universal; Block, by following his intuition, sacrifices himself to Death so the universal is able to be achieved through Mikeal’s unlimited potential.  Mikeal, for Block, is “the emblem of the human community’s future” .  Though Mikeal is the future, much like Abraham was to become the father of all future nations, the actions of Block had no clear benefit to the universal, only to the mall family unit of Jof, Mia and Mikeal.  Both will perish at the hands of Death, Block sooner and Mikeal later, but “love for the infant, creating a chain of renewal stretching into the unseen reaches of the future, represents a hope that defeats the despair arising from the apparent finality of death” .
In the final sequence of the film, after Death has arrived at the castle, the family watches on from the distance, and Jof tells his family what he sees:
JOF points to the dark, retreating sky where summer lightning glitters like silver needles over the horizon.

I see them, Mia!  I see them!  Over there against the dark, stormy sky.  They are all there.  The smith and Lisa and the knight and Raval and Jons and Skat.  And death, the sever master, invites them to dance.  He tells them to hold each other’s hands and then they must tread the dance in a long row.  And first goes the master with his scythe and hourglass, but Skat dangles at the end with his lyre.  They dance away from the dawn and it’s a solemn dance towards the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.

He is silent.  He lowers his hand.  His son, MIKEAL, has listened to his words  Now he crawls up to MIA and sits down in her lap.

You with your visions and dreams.


Ultimately there is no entirely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to interpret Bergman’s films, because he is “symbolizing reality in his film, which cannot be finally rationalized, logicized” .  By not placing a fixed meaning within his films, he allows them, through their ambiguity, to become more open to interpretation.  This allows Bergman’s characters to “voice the hopes and fears of men and women everywhere in every age” .
1. Bergman, Ingmar. The Seventh Seal. Mod Film Scripts Ser 12. New York: Simon, 1968. 69.
2. Donner, ???. The Films of Ingmar Bergman. ???: ???, ???. ???
3. Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham: Duke UP, 1986. 547.
4. The Great Philosophers. “Soren Kierkegaard”. London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd,???. 13-18. 
5. Green, Ronald M. “’Developing’ Fear and Trembling”. Ed. Hannay, Alastair and Gordon D Marino. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. 1st Ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. 257-281.
6. Hannay, Alastair. Introduction. Fear and Trembling. By Soren Kierkegaard. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 165.
7. Ketcham, Charles B. The Influence of Existentialism on Ingmar Bergman. Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation. Vol 5. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986. 381.
8. Kiekregaard, Soren. The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993. 255.
9. Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans: Hannay, Alastair. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 165.
10. McDonald, William. “Soren Kierkegaard”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 8 May 2009. 18 Nov 2009.
11. Zunjic, Bob. “Soren Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling, Problema I, An Outline”. University of Rhode Island. 12 Jul 2010.

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