You may judge it a curious or sobering coincidence—the great actor Max von Sydow has just died, during the worst global epidemic in a century. Von Sydow was famous for his performance in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, a Christian existentialist story of faith conquering nihilism in the time of the Black Plague, after a Crusade resembling our Middle Eastern wars.
Certainly, Bergman’s movie, pervaded by desperation, seems as different as possible from our own situation. Mankind deserves punishment for sin—this is the film’s only speech from authority, from a monk leading a procession of self-flagellators re-enacting the Crucifixion, agonized by their very humanity into violence against themselves and each other. A witch is burnt—human sacrifices regain their attraction as people lose faith in Christ’s redemption.
Compared to this vision, we are blithe about our epidemic, expert and political incompetence included. And why not? We believe science will save us. We have technology, and Bergman’s 14th-century Swedes did not. We have no need of knights playing chess with Death and praying. We have medical staff.
But neither our faith in science nor our technological shield is that strong or reliable. After all, the epidemic appeared and is spreading at the peak of globalization. It’s possible it is limited by natural rather than human factors—heat. We’re hopeful we won’t be among the thousands that will surely die, but behind our passivity, there’s an intimation of mortality—consider the panic runs on retailers. Perhaps we’re not that different from the Scandinavian peasants in the movie.
This ambiguous attitude resembles our elites’ attitude about global warming. They may be professional atheists who have replaced religion with science—they may see themselves as empowered, disruptive problem-solvers—but they are also terrified by visions of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the most privileged, elite class in history often lets us know we deserve punishment for our capitalist, industrial sins, and that environmental judgment is coming.
So far, happily, we have not had any alliance of progressive fury and end-of-the-world panics, but we should understand what it is that Bergman is trying to show us about our condition.
At the center of The Seventh Seal is the relationship between the knight Antonius Block and his squire Jöns, a master losing his faith and a servant who punishes him with harsh speeches for ever having entertained it. This is stranger than it seems: had not the youthful knight, newly married and in an ecstasy of devotion, gone to the Holy Lands to fight for Jerusalem, it’s quite unlikely they would have survived the plague at all, and the squire loves life above all. Why is he never grateful for life then?
Jöns resembles our intellectuals—a rather eloquent nihilist. Time and time again he expresses his contempt for all human hopes and desires, especially love. It’s easy to see why: the hopeful, like his master, attempt the impossible and the consequences can be dire. But nihilism is crippling. This is why Jöns is a squire—he cannot command, since he doesn’t believe in anything, he can only obey.
Worse, his lack of faith has begun to corrupt his dedication to justice. During their tortured picaresque adventure, Jöns saves a mute maiden from a rapist whom he identifies as the seminarian who had instilled fanaticism in his master. For all his hatred, Jöns does not punish the would-be rapist according to justice, which leaves this wretch free to practice his cruelties on others later.
Compared to Jöns, who starts off singing vulgar songs of lust, Antonius is impressive, but crippled as a man by the collapse of all his hopes. He’s returning home, finally able to ask himself where his real duties lie. He knows death is imminent and wants to find something worth dying for. Since he keeps searching, chance or grace offers him this one moment of nobility, sacrificing himself to save an itinerant family that recalls the Holy Family. Christ shows up again as an innocent child and Antonius tries to cheat death of this one prize.
In watching the movie again—and I recommend you watch it, too—I was struck by this reversal I have described: the nihilist squire is now the elite class that threatens utter corruption, whereas the noble knight is like the people we pray might save us—ordinary people, medical staff, providential strangers. If we dare admit we are as helpless as these protagonists, we might start thinking seriously about the hopes that ground our civilization and spur us to saving actions. Hidden from every public statement, we might find, by chance or grace, faith in our hearts.
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