Bergman themes

wild strawberry
Wild strawberries (Wikimedia Commons).   

This is a discussion of some of the central themes that Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman (1918 - 2007) returns to in his films.

Keywords: wild strawberries, the personal paradise, unconscious suffering, Eurydice, scapegoatism, vicarious suffering, Christianity.


Filmic themes have much in common with mythological products of the psyche, such as dreams and myth. That's why they must be interpreted as such. Bergman's films are dreamlike, and dreams also play a great role in the narrative. Art is a product of the soul, which is by nature mythogenic. Thus, it is bound to give expression to the soul's content, including feeling. An art which is immured in a conscious ideology, such as the 'socialist realism' of the Soviet era, is reduced to a shallow facade, void of the heartfelt kind of meaning that is capable of nourishing the soul. Regardless of the level of abstraction, art only becomes attractive to viewers when it contains a symbolic element that evokes feeling.

Therefore I reject rationalistic attempts of interpretation, such as Robert E. Lauder's book, "God, Death Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman" (1989). Lauder endorses a philosophical rationalism, a standpoint which implies that only the intelligible is real. He says about Persona (1966), for example, that it exclusively concerns Bergman's view of art. As an example of this he takes Elisabet's (Liv Ullmann) "Nothing!" (at the end of the movie) to mean an evaluation of art's importance. However, since virtually all of Bergman's films contain the notion of inner emptiness, this statement immediately suggests itself as a comment on the state of the soul. How can an artist ever evade making statements on the human soul and instead restrict himself to formulating philosophical statements like "art is meaningless"? If that was all Bergman wanted to say, it would be less costly to formulate it in everyday language.

An art which could equally well be formulated by means of intellectual words, has divested itself of its raison d'être. After all, an intellectual wording is a more exacting and effortless way of communication, less prone to cause misunderstandings. Art is a way of expression via the unconscious, coloured by feeling, instinct, and symbol. If images are used as a means of illustrating rational and conscious ideas, then it is denoted illustration. It can certainly be very useful, but it is not art. That's why art cannot be formulated solely by rational and conscious means. It cannot be wholly rational. That's why Bergman's world is a dreamy microcosm and its content can be understood symbolically, but not merely as rational statements. In fact, dreams are helpful in shedding light on Bergman's symbols. I have included dreams of my own and a few dreams contributed by anonymous members of a dream group. See also my continued discussion of film interpretation in the Addendum (here).

Wild strawberries

The Swedish title of the film Wild Strawberries (1957) is 'Smultronstället'. It really means "Wild Strawberry place". Swedes use this designation for a kind of personal paradise where they thrive, similar to the notion of "the little red cottage with white trim". It doesn't mean that smultrons (wild strawberries) grow there, but it is simply a modest place where people like to be. The wild strawberry is the fruit of the "personal paradise", which is qualitatively different than the biblical paradise. In Wild Strawberries the bowl fell over and the smultrons fell on the ground. The personal paradise was lost and that's why Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) went through life like a living dead. The wild strawberries appear also in The Seventh Seal (1957) where the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) says:

I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light...I'll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk...And it will be an adequate sign — it will be enough for me.

Antonius realizes that he has to carry this bowl with him, and make sure that it doesn't tip over. So he says that he will carry the personal paradise along with himself, keeping it close to heart, in order not to forget it, which is what happened to Isak Borg. Incidentally, 'paradise' is of Iranian origin; (pairi-daeza), enclosure; encirclement, similar to the greek word 'temenos'. A bowl also encircles and encloses the smultrons. There is a similar notion in Fanny and Alexander (1982), the long version, when Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) tells the story of the young man who left the sun-scorched parade and went into the woods to find his 'smultronställe' by the brook. I want to elucidate this theme with a personal example. Long ago, when sailing in the archipelago, I had a dream. I went ashore in the dark, set up my tent on the grass, and soon fell asleep:

I was awaken in the middle of the night by a woman (although now I'm dreaming). She wanted to show me a secret. We went into the woods and there she pointed to something under the low foliage. I saw big wild strawberries there, very red, almost shining in the dark. I had the strongest sensation of wonder and felt the most intense longing for life. It was like experiencing the sweet taste of life's nectar.

That's the feeling that mustn't be forgotten. In my dream, the woman guided me to 'smultronstället'. In The Seventh Seal and in Wild Strawberries it's a woman who finds the smultrons, just like in my dream. One curious thing is that cultivated strawberries are called 'jordgubbar' in Swedish, while the wild ones are called 'smultrons'. 'Jordgubbar' literally means "earth fellows" or "earth chaps." It's a stretch, but a bowl of smultrons would translate to a fellowship of wild, earthy men, who live under the foliage in the wood. The smultron is the wild one, the maverick, whereas the strawberry is the domesticated version. Smultrons have a more exquisite taste. In Bergman's films, there is the recurrent theme of people who are like living dead (or even vampires, as in the Hour of the Wolf). The "man-eaters" are contrasted with the kind of people who know the wild strawberry place. The theme occurs also in Summer with Monika (or Monika). She (Harriet Andersson) shows Harry (Lars Ekborg) a place where wild strawberries grow. At the end of the film we see the reflection of Harry in a window when he holds his child and is thinking about the summer together with Monika. It's like he, after all, still keeps something in his heart: the "little", or personal, paradise. This femme fatale corresponds to Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden the woman presented the fruit to the man. Comparatively, Monika showed Harry a much smaller tree with a much smaller fruit on it. It's the tree of the little paradise. The strawberry grows much closer to earth.

In Fanny and Alexander, Gustav Adolf Ekdahl (Jarl Kulle) elevates the "little world" in his final speech. Comparatively, bishop Vergerus's (Jan Malmsjö) home represents the place where the outcasts from the Garden of Eden live. But there is a way of regaining paradise, namely by finding a way back to another form of paradise, which is the little paradise or the wild strawberry place. This is what Gustav Adolf is talking about. Also, in the long version Isak Jacobi tells the story about the young man who leaves the parade of suffering people (representing the outcasts of the Garden) and finds a little paradise of his own in the wood. The notorious wild strawberries appear in Fanny and Alexander also, when the kids bring them to grandma.

In Sweden, "the little red cottage with white trim" represents the little paradise. These cottages are painted in Falu copper red, which is a very common house colour. People use to say that they would want to escape the treadmill, go live in a little red cottage, and lead a simple life. In the traditional garden grow apples, pears, blackcurrant and redcurrant. This notion is portrayed in the film The Old Man in the Cottage ('Gubben i stugan') by Nina Hedenius (here). This documentary has been quite successful outside Sweden, too. It depicts an ideal that still lives in our heart.

red cottage
Swedish cottage (photo by me).       


Bergman is notable for his depictions of women. They tend to be quite dark, not to say Cimmerian. The Eurydice theme is obvious in Bergman's films. She is a chthonic goddess, similar to Persephone. In the Greek myth, she has Persephone's permission to return to the world of the living, but Orpheus turns to look at her, and this causes her to vanish, once and for all, to the regions of the dead. In Through a Glass Darkly (1961) it's as if Karin (Harriet Andersson) has returned from the land of the dead: the lunatic asylum. But now she is finally brought back to the shadowland. There's a similar theme in the stage play about the dead princess of Castilia (within the film). So the theme of the dead woman is very explicit. David (Gunnar Björnstrand) has tried to kill himself in Switzerland, and in the play the "princess of Castilia" tries to lure the young man into death. Karin tries to drag Minus (Lars Passgård) with her (she even accuses him of rape). The god of Hades himself, the spider, comes to retrieve her. Earlier, David had intended to commit suicide. But he got engine failure, which saved him. In this case, too, it seems like his condition improved only after he was prepared to face death.

In The Touch (1971) a Virgin statue in the church crypt is discovered. But when people, in the light of day, lay their eyes on her she immediately starts to deteriorate: now she will vanish, definitely. In Torment from 1944 (not directed, but scripted by Bergman. Only the last scene(s) were directed by Bergman), at the end of the film, Jan-Erik (Alf Kjellin) goes up to the top of Skinnarviksberget overlooking Stockholm and there is a strong feeling of freedom. Before this his "Eurydice" has died.

Bergman connects this theme with emancipation. These woman figures seem to have their male counterparts under a spell. Although Minus, in Through a Glass Darkly, said that "reality cracked" he manages to cut himself loose. It's obvious that he is ready now to face the daylight world, although he expressly shrinks back from it. The spell is broken. In Winter Light the parson's dead wife still has got him under a spell. She made the church into a sombre place, according to the organist Blom (Olof Thunberg). In Sarabande (2003) the image of the dead Anna appears, too. Her widower tries to kill himself. The beautiful Virgin Mother seems to call on the living from the other side of the grave.

In the antique Orpheus story the spell is finally broken after a long laborious journey. Orpheus had to look the god of Death in the eye first. But, finally, Eurydice vanishes into the dark. So, these Bergman women are like Eurydice. It's as if the hero must encounter them in daylight in order to break the spell. She will not continue to whisper behind his back anymore. Instead the hero turns to look at her, becoming fully conscious of her nature. Bergman's take on the Eurydice theme revolves around emancipation. According to a psychological understanding, confrontation with the unconscious is symbolically a confrontation with the anima, the female personification of the unconscious. However, this notion fails to correspond with the Eurydice plots in Bergman's films. In Bergman's masterpiece, Persona (1966), Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who is playing Electra (the matricide). She suffers a mental collapse on scene and stops talking. She dies, mentally, as it were, and becomes passive and silent. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the nurse who is assigned to her, to get her back into life. Thus, Alma corresponds to Orpheus. The ending is similar to the Eurydice story: Elisabet goes back into darkness after having experienced a partial recovery. In the end, Alma rejects Elisabet and says: "I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler. I'm just here to help you!" Elisabet soon turns completely catatonic. The film ends when Alma beats her, packs her things and leaves the cottage.

Arthur Gibson (The Silence of God, 1969) takes the view that Elisabet is the superior and Alma is shallow and conceited, while she returns to her little suburban world, after having "throttled" the god-man Elisabet. But Alma has no other option than to return to life as she cannot remain in this dissolved state on an island the rest of her life. Life must go on. To me, Elisabet appears like a goddess or a priestess (Electra) while Alma is the anguished modern civilian. Elisabet is "archaic" while Alma is clearly her superior from a human perspective. Elisabet is like a priestess who suddenly realizes that her god is dead, and then she becomes mute.

In fact, Alma manages to squeeze the painful truth out of Elisabet who finally makes the concession: "Nothing at all!" So Alma is very successful. She manages to prove that Elisabet is the conceited and deceitful one, when she reads her letter. So I disagree with Gibson's interpretation. Gibson argues that if we do like Alma, throttle the god-man and return to our cozy, suburban lives, then we can only resort to our "faintly rotting strawberry beds". Arguably, if we were to complete the unification with the god-man (which, allegedly, Alma left unfinished) then true wholeness is achieved. But, in fact, the strawberry patch is an image of the earthly paradise, i.e. it is not a depreciatory image. It seems like Gibson turns the message upside-down. Bergman, in fact, says that the god-man, the priestess, the elevated, beautiful and talented actor, is merely an empty shell, a persona (= the mask which the ancient Greek actors wore).

Elisabet is a vampire who sucks the blood of Alma (this occurs in a scene). She tries to take over Alma's soul. Elisabet represents the personality who strives after greatness, and to achieve this puts on a mask (persona). But her inner soul gradually dies. Alma represents the personality that keeps to the paradigm of the "little world". Alma finally rejects the empty paradigm that Elisabet represents, and the vampirish personality sinks into oblivion. It is connected with falsehood and pretense, as Alma says in a state of agitation. It represents chimerical life, something which many people in the world are obsessed with. Alma's abandonment of Elisabet represents a victory. They are two different persons, but a merger occurs in the film on account of psychological invasion. That's why their faces merge in a scene. There is a conflict, between (1) the mask-wearing person who strives after mechanization and derives energy from outside and (2) the person whose source of life is within (see "the little fountain" dream below). However, although they are evidently two different persons in the film, they can also be seen as two aspects of the same person, since this conflict can exist in the same person.

Comparatively, in the Seventh Seal, Antonius Block throws off his ideal of heroic knighthood, and from now on he will always remember the unassuming bowl of wild strawberries. He has thrown off his mask of grandeur. It represents a victory when the paradigm of falsehood dies. In my early twenties I had a dream in which a midget approached me and said: "It's better to be a little fountain that spouts water than to be a large fountain whose source has run dry." It's a remarkably clear formulation for a dream, similar to an alchemical dictum pronounced by the midget god Mercurius. It is a saying right from the god's mouth. It is emphasized in Bergman's film that Elisabet is a grand personality who lacks motherly love for her child and whose source has run dry, whereas Alma is a simple person. This conflict in human nature, between the dried up large fountain versus the little yet living fountain, is central to Bergman.

The notion of the "living water" also occurs in the message of Jesus. "Streams of living water will flow from deep within the person who believes in me" (John 7:38 & Sermon on the Mount). Central to Jesus's message is to stand aside from delusions of grandiosity, including the kind of religiosity that revolves around idolatrous and grandiose ideas. However, the personality that corresponds to a large dried-up fountain, will use religion as a means to achieve grandiosity. In a way, such people deify themselves and gradually throttle the living fountain. It seems to be a means of adaptation to life that belongs in human nature, connected with a dark instinct. It takes much energy and focus to be a careerist, to live according to the imitative creed of pretense. For instance, a person can imitate religious life and set out on an episcopal career. As people acclaim him, much like they applause an actor, he derives energy to continue his career. So he derives energy from other people, and not from within. With time, his inner source dries up and he is turning into a vampire who must have recourse to other people in order to carry on. That's why Elisabet exploits Alma.

It seems like this imitative instinct is part and parcel of human nature, although the result is that the inner life source is throttled and a form of vampirish evil surfaces. It's a force that turns people into machinelike beings, as they become like empty shells. It is a form of addiction by which an automatic life is achieved. The psychoanalyst Poul Bjerre says that, in the human being, there is a force toward mechanization and routinization that kills the spontaneity of life and leads to the steady and lifeless state of neurosis (Bjerre, Death and Renewal, 1929). He says that this is also at work in the human collective. According to him, the circular movement of death and renewal is what human life is all about. The organism tries to accomplish a mechanized and lifeless state, but must then be born again. It seems the urge to become a machine, and to remain "comfortably numb", is ever at work in the human soul. However, a problem in psychoanalytic theory is that there are psychoanalysts who think that dependency on other people is the hallmark of psychic well-being. They think that Elisabet and Alma partake in a heartfelt "relation" that Alma refuses to fulfil. Such theorists elevate vampirish neuroticism to an ideal. They think of it as "being together" and "relating" with each other. Yet, it is nothing but psychological parasitism — think of the damaging effects in psychoanalytic institutes and in the consulting rooms!

In Through a Glass Darkly, the demise of Karin signifies emancipation from the spirit that possesses both her and the company of men, and which drags her back into the darkness of mental illness. This is the spider god. What is attained is deliverance from a stifling form of spirituality, in part associated with a stagnant and lifeless Christianity. In more general terms, Bergman depicts a false and evil spirit that humiliates and oppresses the young members of society, especially. In Torment (1944) it is personified by the Latin teacher Caligula (Stig Järrel). Jan-Erik suffers under his sadistic rule, but the demise of his beloved Bertha (Mai Zetterling) brings about emancipation. Caligula's power shrinks in connection with Bertha's demise. She is secretly involved with Caligula who is abusing her. He possesses her like the spider god possesses Karin in Through a Glass Darkly. It is as if these women symbolically represent the male's fixation on a spirit that only serves to suffocate him and keep him confined. Only when she dies, the spell is broken, and he can begin to breathe again.

Latin studies, in itself, is an apt symbol, as it seems inappropriate for the life in the world. It is used in Torment, and in Through a Glass Darkly, where Minus practices Latin. He is obviously bored by his studies since he is hiding a pinup journal in his Latin book. Minus experiences that "reality cracks", an effect of the strong tension between the suffocating spirit, symbolized by the Latin studies, and the strong allure of the world outside, symbolized by the pinup girls. Minus could have used his Latin knowledge to build a circle of illusion, a protective womb to reside within, in order to evade the painful and heartfelt encounter with reality. So this Latin grammar, sort of unadapted to harsh reality, could represent an escape into bloodless sholarship or erudition, corresponding to his father's works of illusion, that is, his novels. But Minus is torn between the Latin studies and the image of the naked woman, probably representing a deliberate melding with gross reality, something which Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) carries out in The Silence (1963), having torn herself loose from Ester's (Ingrid Thulin) intellectual circle of illusion (she actually was a scholar of some sort). This is reminiscent of Goethe's Faust where the doctor leaves his circle of theory, descends into gross reality and turns to depraved ways. In the final scene, after Anna and her son Johan (Jörgen Lindström) have boarded the train, Johan reads the note that Ester has left him: "To Johan – words in a foreign language". She is thus inviting Johan to exist in a bubble of "linguistic studies", as it were, which is her own solution to the quandary of life.

In Sarabande (2003), a career as a brilliant solo cellist has been staked out for Karin (Julia Dufvenius). The relation between Karin and her father (Börje Ahlstedt) is psychologically incestuous. He represents the careerist ideal, which Bergman connects with a suffocating life in a bubble, isolated from life. In this case it revolves around the study of notes rather than Latin grammar. Karin will be taught by the best teacher there is (at an institute in Russia, or wherever) and she will be funded by her grandfather (Erland Josephson) if she accepts this. She is regarded as a great talent and will become a star who earns fortune and fame. But she is about to break free. She wants to become one with the "sound body" of the orchestra. After she has her vision about herself playing on the podium and is reduced to a dot that disappears, she makes the decision to throw this great opportunity away. Instead she chooses a career in an orchestra ditch which pays badly and where she cannot express her creative talent. Nonetheless, she will still be able to play the simple solo cello music, represented by Bach's sarabande in the 5:th cello suite. The simple solo music is reminiscent of the theme of wild strawberries. See also my continued discussion of the psychological meaning of the Eurydice myth in the Addendum (here).

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Orphée ramenant Eurydice des enfers
Orphée ramenant Eurydice des enfers (mod.) by Corot (1861)    
(Wikimedia Commons).   

Unconscious suffering

Unconscious suffering is the foremost leitmotif. It is thematic in Ingmar Bergman's films. In one scene in Fanny and Alexander, there is a big crucifix stashed away in the attic of the bishop's house. It relates the image of a suffering Christ that has been consigned to oblivion. The theme of humiliation is recurrent, as in The Passion of Anna (1969), where Johan Andersson (Erik Hell) is wrongly accused of crimes. People in the community abuse him, bringing about his suicide. In Cries and Whispers (1972), suffering takes diverse expression. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying, whereas Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is plagued by her hollow and fake existence. "It is all a tangle of lies", she mumbles to herself. The theme of the film is anguish, anxiety, and genuine suffering. It has been argued that the picture of women that Bergman relates isn't truthful. This is not how women are generally constituted, is it? In fact, it relates a true picture. It gives us insight in the unconscious state of womankind. Bergman reveals the unconscious suffering in humankind. He makes us realize its continual presence in ourselves. It is a valuable contribution to the mental health of the collective.

If moral conflict and suffering is not carried consciously it will not vanish, instead it will persist unconsciously. Modern-day Western culture renounces suffering in all its forms. It is regarded as something very unnatural and as a fallacy of nature. A good and ideal life does not include suffering — such is the attitude of the general citizen. Poverty must be exterminated from the face of the earth, and all people should preferably live in opulence. It is surprising that such a radical change of heart has taken place. After all, traditional Christians viewed poverty and suffering as the royal road to spiritual advancement.

Indisputably, suffering is part and parcel of natural life. Death, sickness, and moral anguish, cannot be avoided in earthly life. In fact, life on earth could not exist without sickness, suffering, and death. It is an integral part of life that serves to maintain the balance of nature. Nevertheless, modern people are desperate to displace suffering from the conscious horizon. In consequence, the theme of unconscious suffering has become very central. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze our contemporary psychology from the perspective of unconscious suffering. In the unconscious of the average Westerner we can expect to find suffering, and not a cesspool of sexual desires, according to the Freudian belief. Sexuality, as well as diverse gratifications and addictions, tend to be used as screens for suffering. Hidden behind the corporeal gratificatory wishes, and the materialistic fantasies of an earthly motherly paradise, is the suffering of the unconscious psyche.

Unconscious suffering does not only revolve around the burdensome conditions of existence and the terrifying reality of death. Humiliating life-experiences play a great part. In an unconscious attempt to transfer suffering, people always subject each other to humiliation. This is the consequence of general unconsciousness: since everything unconscious must remain projected, the subject's unconscious personality is carried by someone or something else. Since conscious suffering is out of the question, the average individual is bound to humiliate his fellow beings, as soon as he/she sees a chance. All that is needed is a little hook on which to hang the projection. That's why people are very keen to remove all hooks. Nobody must suspect that he or she is a suffering person. Such people want to appear "cool". The humiliated person is probably equally prone to unconscious suffering. As a consequence, the experience will be unconsciously absorbed, and soon projected on a new victim.

Vicarious suffering

In Cries and Whispers, it seems like the two sisters (Karin and Maria) can go on with their empty and artificial lives only because of the Christlike suffering of Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Later, when Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is rejected by Maria (Liv Ullman), she is the next to carry this suffering, I suppose. Comparatively, in Winter Light (1963) Märta (Ingrid Thulin) seems to survive the vicarious suffering, in support of the cold parson Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand), as her stigmata recede. In Cries and Whispers, the soulful Agnes is wholly lacking a form to harbour her emotion and naíve love of life. With her sisters it's the other way round. Their empty sophistication can furnish the form that Agnes is longing after, to accomplish a wholeness. It's like a vintage wine is needful of a crystal glass, otherwise it must be spilled. But her sisters are cold. These unreal people, as in the scene with the diplomat couple at the dinner table, are like crystal carafes, empty of the red wine. It's a horrid condition to lead a life of mere pretence. But it's as if these people complement each other. At the death of Agnes, we see a sudden recovery. Karin and Maria start talking to each other and become close. Agnes has taken the evil spirit with her in death. In Christian theology, the Lamb of God, by his sacrifice, takes the sin of humanity away. In Autumn Sonata (1978) the suffering of Helena (Lena Nyman) supports the deceptive and cold life of the pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). It's apparent that Helena's illness has its roots in her mother's coldness and absence.

Evidently, the Eurydice theme is connected with the motif of vicarious suffering. It seems like emancipation is achieved thanks to a vicarious sacrifice. This explains why a woman has to die, or be locked up in a mental asylum, for the evil spirit to recede. The notion that it represents a spiritual presence is evinced by the late bishop Vergerus's reappearance as a ghost, in Fanny and Alexander. To Alexander this spiritual presence is not just of an intellectual kind, but it is outright reality. In every traditional culture the spirits of the dead are believed to haunt the surviving relatives, if they don't follow their expectations. The "forefather spirits" become revengeful when old customs and beliefs are forgotten. The bishop is revengeful. Alexander's family shan't think that they can get rid of him! They are fooling themselves if they believe that they can live according to the philosophy of the jester Gustav Adolf and his "little world".

Christianity was invented to, once and for all, substitute the blood of Christ for the suffering of our fellow humans. But today the Christ seems to have been emptied of blood. And so, there's no other way than to start victimizing our fellow beings again. Vicarious suffering is an important theme in Bergman. It is present in The Silence, too. Anna's (Gunnel Lindblom) way of life makes Ester (Ingrid Thulin) very sick, in fact, she may be dying. Interesting roles are played by simple people in these films. In Cries and Whispers, the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) is an integrated person, having accomplished both a form and a substance to her person. But Agnes has an eye only for her sisters, not for Anna, although she is the only one who is capable of loving. In Autumn Sonata, Eva (Liv Ullman) is not sophisticated, still she has accomplished a simpler form which harbours a feeling for life, making her capable of loving. In Winter Light this role is fulfilled by the verger Algot (Allan Edwall), I suppose. In The Silence there are the little people, the midgets, who are spontaneous and happy.

There is a recurrent theme in Bergman's films of people who are cold, empty, and dead inside. They merely uphold a facade. In Winter Light, Tomas (the parson) belongs to the living dead, while Märta, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and Algot, all suffer from diverse illnesses. Tomas effectively kills the suffering Jonas Persson. By psychological means, he pushes Jonas over the edge, who fulfils a vicarious sacrifice. It requires a psychological outlook to understand that Alexander, in Fanny and Alexander, is not lying when he claims that bishop Vergerus drove his family to suicide. The official truth is that they drowned when on an excursion, but the psychological truth is that everything living is bound to die around such a person like Vergerus, because he is himself dead inside. Psychology has much to say about narcissism, the disease which makes people live only a life on the outside, obsessed with career and surface appearances. For the purpose of social adjustment, people take part in pretense and fake role play. This gives rise to suffering as the flow of life is stifled. Personal life cannot come to its natural expression as people are forced to wear a mask, and carry a role that is contrary to their true nature.

The concealment of infamies

The modern paradigm of repressed suffering has chocking repercussions in society. According to LiveLeak, pedophilic gangs continue to drug and rape under-age girls all over the UK (here). The authorities keep it secret on account of the foreign ethnicity of the perpetrators, which seem to be Muslims, chiefly. It is consonant with the modern attitude of sweeping the most appalling suffering under the carpet. These children fulfil the roles of scapegoats as they are called "whores" by the perpetrators. They "aren't worth more than a dog", they say. It is all in order, from the unconscious perspective of the average citizen, since these girls are carrying the suffering of other members of society, by proxy. This can only go on as long as it is kept secret, which accounts for the pact of silence by the authorities and the news media. The average person unconsciously appreciates what these girls do, as they fulfil the role of sacrificial victims. It seems society is gradually returning to the age-old theme of the blood sacrifice, including the motif of the sacrificial cannibalistic meal:

"Mother of murdered girl 'put into kebabs' runs from court after gruesome testimony" (here).

"Police 'hid' abuse of 60 girls by Asian takeaway workers linked to murder of 14-year-old" (here).

A BBC documentary (Sex crimes and the Vatican, 2006) has revealed that the current Pope Benedict XVI, in his former profession as cardinal, played a leading role in a systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. According to a secret Vatican edict, nobody must talk about the abuse and victims should keep quiet. The Church's interests must be put ahead of child safety. When pedophilic priests have been exposed, they have often been transferred to other districts, which has enabled them to continue their misconduct (here).

In order for the abuse to continue it is necessary to shield it. This stratagem follows the principle of unconscious suffering. Thus, people can uphold the illusion of an earthly Eden ruled over by Papa. Smoke screens are emitted in order to shield the evil deeds. Behind the screen, the voracious monster is continually fed with children sacrificial victims. This is unconscious suffering. In a similar manner we uphold the illusion of the multicultural and motherly welfare society. By remaining unconscious of the evil presence, people can retain an immature Kindergarten mentality, and thus suffering will take place unconsciously. It means that the suffering Christ is rejected. Jesus told his disciples to lift up their cross and follow him (Mark:8 & Luke:9). It implies that suffering is accepted in one's daily life. The dark aspects of life on earth are thus acknowledged. It is the underlying meaning of the story of Simon the Cyrenian who bore the cross to the place of crucifixion. The Christ promises that he shall lift the burden from the shoulder of those who help him carry the cross, and he shall take their sufferings and sins away. All the rest shall be "cut down and thrown into the fire". It seems to imply that one may experience a true relief of suffering, provided that one resolves to carry the cross part of the way, and rejects the paradigm of unconscious suffering.

Cooking Lucifer

A young man dreamt the following.

I and my father went to a hospital where we found a little devil, a black and evil faced newborn baby. The father told me to eat the devilish looking baby. I started eating and finished eating it while walking.

Of course, it is not possible to say exactly what it means without recourse to other dreams and information about his life. But, evidently, it is a symbol reminiscent of the eating of the Christ in the Eucharist, in the form of bread and vine. The Aztec baked a bread in human shape which they ate ritually. It personified Cinteotl, the god of maize. The eating of the god is a common motif in religious history. When we partake of the Communion we are eating the god of light. Comparatively, the young man is here eating the god of darkness. The notion of eating signifies "integration of the unconscious" (to eat is to integrate). When the god is consumed the subject acquires the powers of the god, to a degree. In Western Christian civilization the ideal is to integrate the god of light. But this has created a one-sided personality in that people try to be more good than they are really capable of. This has created a gullible personality who wastes away his life's energy for the good of others, who don't really deserve it.

The eating of the dark god would compensate this one-sidedness. This deity is connected with instinctuality and with feelings of a dark, but not necessarily evil, nature. For instance, to be shrewd rather than credulous is necessary for the survival of the species and of civilization. Without an instinctual drive to strengthen the position of ourselves and of our collective, neither our biological species nor our civilization could have existed. Evidently, the capitalist system depends on a degree of eagerness and acquisitiveness. Instinctuality and feelings of dark nature is the very earth in which we are rooted. Such dreams have something to do with the integration of the capacities of the dark deity, such as 'assertiveness'. The dark deity is only evil when allowed to roam freely. To integrate him means that his powers are taken control over, and thus his powers can be turned to the good.

But this also means to carry one's cross. It means to carry suffering consciously and not to deny that dark nature exists, especially dark human nature. It implies that moral pain is allowed to exist in one's heart and that one's eyes are opened to the existence of evil. We shouldn't strive after the illusion of an earthly paradise, in terms of a global welfare society for all the people of the earth. Nor should we brush evil under the carpet all the time and pretend that it doesn't exist. The symbol is recurrent:

Cynthia Palmer, 29, and her live-in boyfriend, John Lane, 36, pleaded innocent to burning to death Mrs. Palmer's 4-year-old daughter in an oven. The two, who told neighbors shortly before their arrest that they were "cooking Lucifer," were arraigned Tuesday in Androscoggin County [Maine] Superior court. They were arrested Oct. 27 at their Auburn tenement apartment. Angela Palmer was found stuffed in the electric oven. The door was jammed shut with a chair (UPI, Nov 14, 1984).

Among the Pawnees this perception of "cooking Lucifer" was a custom. A virgin girl was taken out to be sacrificed. She was attended by warriors who each carried two billets of wood, which had been received from the girl's hands on a previous day. Her body having been painted half red and half black, she was attached to a sort of gibbet and roasted for some time over a slow fire, then shot to death with arrows. The chief sacrificer next tore out her heart and devoured it. While her flesh was still warm it was cut in small pieces from the bones. According to one source, the flesh was then reduced to a kind of paste that was sprinkled on the field (Cf. James Frazer, 1922, Ch. XLVII..3).

The victimization of the 400 British girls is the modern version of cooking Lucifer. By refusing to acknowledge the existence of evil, people believe that they are good, since their hands are evidently clean. I am sure that the Pope views himself as good, as he has striven to uphold the innocuous view of the Church, the priesthood, and of humankind. But he is not good, because he has paved the way for evil by repressing the truth about omnipresent suffering. Only by lifting up the cross and by acknowledging the presence of evil, can the individual achieve liberation from sin. The dream of eating the devil-child caused distress in the young man. However, thanks to the integration of the devil it is possible to avoid evil consequences in real life. Of course, the danger of becoming a perpetrator oneself is not so big, but the adherents of unconscious suffering is an all the greater crowd. It is these people who pave the way for evil by pretending that it doesn't exist, by emitting illusory smoke screens according to which earthly life is one great welfare society where suffering and evil is merely an unnatural presence, a speck of dirt that is easily wiped off. But the person who has integrated the shadow can never be like these sinners, who will surely be thrown into the fire.

The man of suffering

In my early twenties I had this dream:

I was standing upon a mount. I became aware that a man was moving up towards me. He came out of hell. I realized that this was Jesus Christ who was suffering. He was in pain and he had come to ask for alleviation through my help. But when he came close I was chocked to see that his face was mine! I stubbornly turned down his appeal because the implication of this was more than I could stomach. Thus, the Christ, in an expression of immense sorrow, had to go back down to hell. In hell he was being tortured by a red-faced demon whose devilish grin revealed a set of big pointed teeth. But now it was I who was being tortured. I was helpless and apathetic. The demon was manhandling me and flung me to and fro through the air.

The Christ is "a man of suffering, familiar with pain" (Isaiah 53:3). When the human subject consciously takes part in suffering, he shoulders his cross as a crucifer (cross-bearer), and accepts his role as a man of suffering, in the image of Christ. It does not imply a preposterous and inflated imitation of Christ ('imitatio Christi'). It suffices to open one's eyes to the dark sides of existence and to throw off childlike illusions and ambitions of an ideal earthly life, void of agony and pain. The mount signifies consciousness, whereas the devilish torture in hell signifies unconscious suffering. At that time I didn't understand the dream at all, because I had already resolved to follow the paradigm of unconscious suffering, like everybody else. This is the reason why the dream took this unacceptable Christological expression. But it heralded a change of attitude that was going to occur much later. It is not really about identification with the Christ, in the way of mental derangement. It is rather the opposite — in all humbleness to accept the earth-bound role as a "man of sorrows". In fact, as the dream reveals, the people who suffer unconsciously are the ones who unwittingly suffer from a grandiose identification with the Christ. It comes to expression in their conscious standpoint. The average modern Westerner holds utilitarian views and expects to lead a life in continual comfort and well-being. It is a cloaked form of hubris.

We know that human life is bound up with suffering, existential suffering, moral pain, sickness, death, humiliation, indignity, and degradation. If people, notwithstanding the distressing facts of life, partake of a life of well-being, then we can deduce that suffering is unconscious. They pat themselves on their fat stomachs, metaphorically speaking, and commend themselves for being so happy and prosperous. This attitude permeates our modern culture. We strive after welfare, both in the bodily and psychological sense. Apparently, we expect that suffering can be extinguished although it is completely undoable as it is an integral part of life. There cannot be biological life without enormous suffering. Researchers have shown that also green plants are suffering. They experience stress, and exude substances to warn other plants. They are plagued by parasites and call out for help to cooperative species. Simple organisms, like fish, are driven by fear. They can experience sheer terror as they easily panic. Certain species of aquarium fish can be so terrified that they sometimes, at a sudden movement outside the aquarium, die out of shock.

Dwarf gouramis live in matrimony, and the male is responsible for building the nest. I once observed how a female discovered her dead husband, which I hadn't had time to remove. The male had hid himself in a corner, behind the filter, and turned his belly up. The female panicked when she discovered him. She swam uncontrolledly and speedily in diverse directions and tried to swim through the glass in sheer chock. She ended up hyper-ventilating in a corner. I would like to have spared her that chocking experience. A man in Helsinki, Finland, left his ground floor apartment in a tidy state. When he came home he found a dead elk in the living room. It had jumped in through the window and, panicking, it had completely trashed the living room, including the stereo equipment. There were blood everywhere. It is a horrible death, and it amply exemplifies the monumental suffering of living creatures. Fox traps are still used to catch foxes and other animals. Foxes have been known to gnaw their leg off and linger off to a slow death. Vivisection is the cutting of, or operation on, a living animal usually for physiological or pathological investigation. Today, there are restrictions that apply, but in the 19th century it was practiced extensively.

We like to believe that suffering isn't quite real. Descartes practiced vivisection. He chuckled when the animals shrieked in pain, because they were soulless creatures, anyway. Suffering wasn't real to them, merely an automatically programmed behaviour — an imitation of suffering, as it were. This is similar to how we look at animals today. They merely follow a machinelike program, and have no real feelings, corresponding to death's anguish or sorrow. Nothing could be more wrong. They are more exposed to and more defenseless against their own terror, pain, and anguish, than are humans. A human being can always withdraw into himself, into his inner intellectual universe, but an animal is left at the mercy of his/her feelings and pains. In order to alleviate this, animals typically have very powerful bodily systems of pain alleviation, which involve endorphines, i.e., substances reminiscent of Morphin. A cat has recourse to massive amounts of anesthetics with which it can drug itself.

Biological life is brimful with suffering. Also psychological life, including human societal and social life, is connected with constant agony. By its very nature, life is a humiliating experience. Social life is a serpent's nest of falseness and pretense, backbiting and social positioning. It is denigrative to be part of it. Narcissism is ubiquitous. It is understandable why the pillar saints elected to climb a pillar and withdraw from the world. Denial is one of the foremost characteristics of psychic life. We have specialized in denial of psychological suffering. To a sizable part of humanity, it is necessary to invoke suffering in other people and animals, since it is a modus in their native psychic economy, as exemplified by scapegoatism. Torture and blood sacrifice was once institutionalized in cultures all over the world. Suffering is thus externalized, as the average individual isn't mature enough to carry his own cross. Today, people have achieved mastery in torturing each other psychologically, but we can still observe the allure of the blood sacrifice when the vulgar crowd gathers around the gory scene of an accident.

We humans are especially prone to deny the sufferings of nature, and are oriented toward the expansion of our own species. The population increase in the Third World must be sustained at all costs. The fact that the monkeys and apes are eaten as bush meat, and the rain forest is cut down, is a small matter compared with the glorious proliferation of our species. It has been denoted speciesism, an egoism focusing on the needs of our own species, to the detriment of all other life on earth. In Scandinavia, fishing vessels have demolished many coral reefs through bottom trawling, thereby destroying the capacity for regeneration of fish. There are fish species that eat corals. But they take care not to eat to much on a coral reef before swimming to another. In this way corals can regrow. So these fish prefer to risk their own lives by swimming between coral reefs, rather than staying put and destroying the conditions for future generations. The conclusion is that fish have greater wisdom than humans.

Hell torment

From what has been said, we can better understand the medieval focus on the sin of mankind and the resultant punishment in hell. From a psychological viewpoint, rather than a theological, human sinfulness consists in self-conceitedness and avarice, along with our obsession with well-being and pleasure — all of it very characteristic of modern man. Such people are sinners on account of their refusal to lift up their own cross. It falls upon their lot to be tortured in hell, as in this image from an early 15th century book.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry
Lucifer torturing souls in hell, and being tortured himself. Image from the early 15th     
century book Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Wikimedia Commons).                  

The upshot is that torture in hell signifies unconscious suffering, a consequence of the subjects refusal to carry the cross of suffering, i.e., to consciously carry the dark and painful aspects of life. But from a psychological point of view, hell torture is instant punishment. In Bergman's films we can see how people are living in an hell on earth, as it were. They are tortured by anguish, weariness of life, humiliating experiences, falsehood and conceitedness. It represents the unconscious suffering of the collective, who have been "cut down and thrown into the fire". Contrary to what many a critic has argued, Bergman relates the true picture of modern humanity. In the long version of Fanny and Alexander, people are marching in the hot sun, toward nothingness. It is a hellish march of languish and grief. But a young man decides to escape into the shade of the woodland, to find the wild strawberry place, by the purling brook. A young woman dreamt the following.

I was in a dark room, dressed in a white beautiful wedding dress, looking into a giant mirror. The man I was about to marry was watching me. I laughed and told him it's bad luck to see me before our wedding. I was walking up the aisle and my bridegroom beamed at me. I knew I loved him. (This man is a recurrent dream figure, stunningly beautiful, with perfect golden hair and green eyes). But suddenly I turned and ran to my room. I was sobbing, banging against the giant mirror until my hands bled and the glass shattered. It revealed a tunnel behind it. I ran through the tunnel until I reached a lake. It was pitch black, so I screamed for Erik (the recurrent figure of the phantom of the opera, who is physically deformed). I screamed and screamed, but he never came. So I decided to swim. I knew I was a good swimmer, but my dress was heavy and pulled me down, and I began drowning. I reached for the surface but I couldn't make it. Then a hand pulled me up and it was my bridegroom. He pulled me onto a boat, while laughing. On the boat with him was Erik. He grabbed Erik's body (who was trying to reach for me and save me), pulled up a blade and sliced Erik's wrists. The blood pulsed out and stained my dress. I tried to reach out and save him, but my bridegroom only cut deeper into his wrists while laughing hysterically. The blood poured out of Erik and onto me.

I believe that these recurrent dreams depict an inner conflict centering around adjustment to the superficial ideals of outer life versus the unconscious suffering that results when we adopt the ideals of the good life, which are fake. The successful man and the suffering man are seated in the same boat. The former symbolizes the fake life of success and well-being, which is like wearing a false mask of pretense. This means that suffering is not accepted in the conscious sphere, which implies that it will subsist in the unconscious, in the guise of the phantom. So the unconscious suffering phantom is the shadow of the successful man. They are sitting in the same boat. When she stands before the mirror in her white dress, she is like a princess, unstained by the dark and painful facts of life. But this portrays a narcissistic ideal, a fake version of life, which is intolerable, and that's why she crushes this image of herself. Her white dress becomes stained with blood, which means that it is, by its nature, unconsciously connected with suffering. It becomes heavy with water and she is in peril of drowning. It is this ideal of whiteness, and of the good life, which gives rise to unconscious suffering and bloodshed.

It is the narcissistic man who slashes the suffering man. The ideal of conscious well-being implies that all the suffering and humiliation that life entails must needs linger in the unconscious, instead. But the sufferings of the phantom must come to an end. The solution is to abandon the ideal of a life of opulence and beauty, and accept that agony, adversity, anguish, and discomfort, are part and parcel of life. "Take up your cross daily, and follow me", Jesus says (Luke 9:23). How can this conflict be resolved? If we endeavour to find the "little paradise", it results in the resolution of the conflict between the narcissistic ideal and its counterpart, namely unconscious suffering. To manage this, we should learn to tolerate suffering in our daily life, especially in its psychological form. To find the personal paradise means to discover the intimate relation to reality, when inner and outer connect, and we are situated in the present moment, here and now. In olden times, people often found these places in groves in the wood, by sacred springs, or in silent temples, where they could be alone with the spirit. But it can be found at any location, because its wellspring is in the heart. This is a lengthy process, so it is not really like a truth that one suddenly uncovers. It is a successive development, a feeling of life which is achieved little by little. Long ago I dreamt about this theme:

I had found a rare fruit whose stone was visible because it protruded from the pulp. Due to this damage it was capable of generating the most exclusive sweetness. I created a brew from the fruit and left it to ferment in the dark cellar for a long time. Eventually I went down in the cellar, and poured the brew into a thimble. Its colour was a very dark red. I drank from the thimble. It was the most concentrated and refined flavour that I've ever tasted.

This is the "moon sap", the Ambrosia, the nectar of the gods. It is the fruit of the "little paradise", which is a damaged and suffering fruit, capable of producing nectar. The acceptance of suffering, in the following of Christ, is a central theme in Christian spirituality. It is surprising that our age has turned anti-Christian in the sense that we have become so focused on well-being. Although Bergman holds a critical view of Christianity, it could be argued that he returns to the Christian beginnings for spiritual replenishment. He reactualizes the theme of suffering which has been repressed in our culture. In religious terms, it amounts to a realization of the terrible presence of Christ, which is the truthful picture of Christ. Our God is not only an untarnished white light, as we have been made to believe. He is also associated with the dark aspects of existence, as light must take root in darkness. The tree of light grows in the fertile soil of darkness. In the epilogue of Sarabande a suffering Christ appears in the form of Marianne's daughter, who is hospitalised in a lunatic asylum, a quite clinical and lonely place. When Marianne (Liv Ullmann) pays visit to her daughter she breaks through and makes a loving contact for a second. She represents Marianne's own suffering, which has been dissociated. When St Paul says that Christ now lives within him (Gal. 2:20), it means that he is now a man of suffering. To continually bleed, as Jesus continually bled from His forehead from wearing the crown of thorns, and to carry the agony of existence on one's shoulders, is what it really means to live in Christ's presence. It is not religious in the sense of imitation, it is what Christianity has abandoned in a mental hospital and tried to dissociate itself from.

Almond fruit
The stone protrudes from the pulp in the mature almond
fruit (Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Ref. Suite, 2012).


In Wild Strawberries, when Isak Borg remembers the unrequited love of his youth, he realizes the pain in his soul, but at the same time he rediscovers the wild strawberry place. A painless life is not the natural condition. Suffering and agony belongs in life. This is an important realization. It is not invariably something that we must rectify by going to the doctor, or by other means. It seems to function like a conditioned reflex when we try to get rid of the pain, by whatever means. It is unreflective. We would better learn to carry the soul's pain. Today, it is not uncommon that young people go see the doctor when they've been abandoned by their beloved. Evidently, they think that the pain must be removed, because it is humiliating and agonizing. But it is quite natural and it will never go away. It is a natural fact of life. In fact, also crows have been known to die of sorrow when their spouse has died. Symbols, also religious ones, can assist us in coming to grips with life's tribulations. He who allows the suffering Christ to live in his soul acquires a complete life. The "moon sap" will continue to brew in the unconscious. He will reminisce the strawberry patch.


© Mats Winther, 2012 (2002).


The psychological meaning of the Eurydice myth

It is necessary to say something about the psychological meaning of the myth from the perspective of depth psychology. The mythic theme of Orpheus and Eurydice has a different meaning than the corresponding theme in Bergman. The original antique fairytale ends when Orpheus loses his Eurydice for the second time. From that point the traditions diverge. Some say he committed suicide, whereas some say he went back to Thrace and composed wondrous music, etc. In Gluck's opera he was, after all, united with his Eurydice. All these versions are conscious rationalizations of a naive product of nature. The mysterious basic story is being coalesced with our conscious conceptions. This is, to some extent, true also of the antique retellers. However, all heroes must sooner or later suffer a tragic death, so this very conception carries weight.

Eurydice is not a human being. In myth, it is clearly stated that she is an oak nymph and one of the daughters of Apollo. So she is a goddess, or in modern terms, an archetype, an autonomous entity of the unconscious psyche (here). So is Orpheus. What is really portrayed is the metabolism of the unconscious (i.e., the 'divine sphere'). Orpheus and Eurydice ran faster and faster through the woods. It means that an energetic accumulation took place in the unconscious psyche, until the fateful moment arrived when the energetic level got too high, and Eurydice passed the border of consciousness. In cosmogonical terms, the oak appeared on earth at this very moment, just like the death of Narcissus meant the emergence of the narcissus herb. Eurydice's death meant that she was divided. The conscious world became enriched, but the archetype, as such, returned to the realm of the dead. So far, the myth presents no difficulties. But what follows is rather more intricate. It seems like the accompanying archetype of Orpheus sinks down into oblivion, too. It is energetically exhausted (due to sorrow) and sinks down into a deeper stratum of the unconscious. Perhaps they are the feminine and masculine aspect of the same archetype. Arguably, the division that occurred as a result of conscious integration is portrayed as the division of Orpheus and Eurydice, who are really one archetype since they have always been together.

The archetype is reinforced when it again encounters its other half, Eurydice in Hades, as if they function like the cathodes in an electrochemical cell. As a result the archetypal pair acquires energetic buoyancy and begins to rise to an higher stratum of the unconscious. However, the situation is perilous. Since conscious integration has already taken place, there is already a preparedness in consciousness to appropriate the archetype. As long as Orpheus remains unconscious of his following, everything goes well. However, when he turns to look at her, it signifies that he has passed the border of consciousness. In this moment the archetype becomes aware of his own beauty, the feminine aspect. Thus, also the masculine aspect of the archetype is integrated. It corresponds to the moment when Narcissus catches sight of his mirror image. Accordingly, Orpheus ends his days by being torn to pieces, i.e. he is being divided, too. It is a typical fate of a god. His head was recovered when it was found afloat in a river. The head as the container of spirit, represents the aspect of the archetype that is integrable with consciousness. This very spirit gave rise to Orphism, a mystery religion that involved asceticism.

Orpheus and Eurydice has an archetypal significance which is probably best represented in Orphism (here). These are dying and resurrecting divinities. Theologists often have a better understanding of archetypes than psychologists. Nevertheless, it is plausible to use this theme in a film manuscript. It could also be used as a metaphor of, for instance, "the collective male's inability to engage with the feminine". Still, it is not the real meaning of the archetype. A metaphor is one thing, the archetypal meaning another. Elisabet, in Persona, is not an archetype, but a human being. So, while Bergman's drama is reminiscent of Orpheus and Eurydice, it has a different meaning. Nevertheless, it could be argued that this is how the archetype manifests in relation to the modern psyche. It represents the difficulties that the archetype brings with it. Comparatively, psychologists often say that the story of Narcissus portrays the pathology of narcissism, despite the fact that it signifies conscious realization and ego formation. However, narcissism remains the constant companion of the ego. The formation of the ego, which is the greatest wonder of nature, also brought its shadow, narcissism, to the world. So that's why it is probably relevant to interpret the image in terms of narcissism, anyway, because this is how the archetype tends to manifest in relation to the modern psyche.

Film interpretation

The characters in Bergman's films do not necessarily denote real persons. They are also expressions of what goes on in each and everyone of us. In some cases they seem like figures in a dream. I don't think Bergman is moralizing, thinking that simple people are good and living whereas accomplished people are merely empty shells. An upper class person, living in a mansion, expresses a side of us all that is like an empty sophisticated shell, as the bishop in Fanny and Alexander (although such persons exist in reality, too). Against Vergerus, Carl Gustav is promoting the "little world". Still, it's obvious that's he is something of a buffoon. Furthermore, he says that his baby daughter will prove him wrong about the superiority of the "little world". The midgets, too, are buffoons, although happy and living. It's not obviously a morally superior position to be a truly living person. A sardonic person might argue that their puny little lives are lacking in purpose. Indeed, I tend to get that feeling, of insignificant lives, when I see the married couple in Autumn Sonata.

Personally, I never side wholly with any character in Bergman's films. Perhaps bishop Vergerus is not a completely unsympathetic person. At least, the monastic milieu of his mansion is attractive, unlike the overbearing Ekdahl house. Nothing is simple. All persons blend into each other, like in Persona. Nothing is wholly right and nothing is wholly wrong. I wouldn't be judgmental about the debauched character of Anna in The Silence. Life must be lived and sometimes there is only one direction to go. Anna in Cries and Whispers is rather uninteresting, contrary to the three sisters. It's not a morally superior condition to be uninteresting, not having accomplished much in life. Comparatively, these empty, conceited people in Bergman's films are often very accomplished: they are pianists, bishops etc. At least they've made an impression in life. They will leave something behind when gone.

Many interpreters of film and literature tend to reduce everything to bits and pieces, as in Derrida's 'deconstruction'. But it is sometimes necessary to amplify a theme instead of reducing it. Must the male member always represent sexual instinct or is it worthwhile to listen to what Indian religion has to say about the 'lingam', etc? Amplification is just this: connecting Bergman to themes in Shakespeare, Strindberg, Greek mythology, St. Paul's letters, music, and so forth. Maybe a filmic theme, like Eurydice in its simplest form, constitutes an item of 'irreducible meaning'. In that case one cannot deconstruct it. It's only possible to get a sense of its meaning by way of amplification, i.e., shedding light on it from different aspects of human knowledge: anthropology, history, religion, etc.

However, amplification necessitates a diversified knowledge, which is hard for any intellectual institution to live up to, due to specialization. There is also a difference between a metaphor and an irreducible symbol. Is the filmmaker using the "facial merger" metaphorically, or is it a symbol, i.e., something that needs to be amplified and viewed from different perspectives? Interpreters continue endlessly, from the free associations of the intellect, to deconstruct any sense of 'meaning' and to deduce, foremostly, the underlying political and social implications of a film or a text. Such people can go on babbling forever about social, feministic, political, and phenomenological philosophical concepts. Pseudo-intellectual jargon has an ability to feed on itself. But the only way to stop the intellect from feeding on itself is to present it with a symbol of irreducible meaning. At this point the intellect is forced to shut up. I'm proposing that amplification be reserved for the occasion when the interpreter stops short before a motif and accepts that this represents more or less irreducible meaning. The intellect cannot cope with it directly. You can only amplify the motif by connecting it with other motifs from different spheres of human culture. Only then the intellect begins to see interesting connections. But authors like Derrida reject such a notion of irreducible meaning.

So I'd argue that the author can, after all, provide a fixed point of reference, namely by referring to a particular symbolic content. The reductionistic philosophers dismiss such a possibility out of hand. But they have no right to do that. It's simply a dogmatic postulate that serves to give the intellect, and themselves, a position of supremacy. Such an intellectual will always feel that he is in control. It's as if he is weaving a protective cocoon of intellectual silver-threads around himself. The reason why such thinkers can produce such awkward analyses is because the text cannot reach outside itself, anyway. Such notions derive from Wittgenstein's idea that we are enclosed in our language. In that case one would expect these people to shut up, but the effect is the opposite. Since it doesn't matter what they are writing, they realize that they can just as well babble about anything. It doesn't matter that it's senseless because there is never any true reference to an external meaning, anyway. If anybody should write something seemingly deep and intelligent one can always deconstruct it and reveal that it's simply a petty bourgeoisie political motif underlying the text, or homophobia, etc.

This kind of surprising self-contradiction occurred also with the followers of Schopenhauer. He was the pessimist philosopher who said that life is meaningless, and thus it's senseless to go on. But then his followers said that we can just as well have a good time and drink our wine, etc., since life is completely meaningless anyway. So, surprisingly, the effect of his philosophy was its own opposite. Regardless of what the post-structuralists say, there do exist fixed points of meaning, because a symbol has an inner power. For example, "Woman brings around wild strawberries" is a theme that Bergman uses in several films, like in Monika, etc. I once dreamt about that very theme and those strawberries carried almost a numinous power. This image is still a generator of meaning if I think of this symbol.

There are people relating in Bergman's films. Nobody denies that this represents a social phenomenology. But his films cannot, all in all, be reduced to petty bourgeoisie neurotic trivialities. Symbols can transcend intellectual understanding, whether sociological or anything else. We can interpret them, anyway, by relating them to the phenomenology of other spheres of human knowledge. However, a political ideology cannot deal with them. Nor is a sociological or phenomenological philosophy capable of understanding them. This is because these ideologies are rationalistic products of the intellect. However, in history, religion, literature, etc., there are 'empirical entities' that are not ideological thoughts but artefacts of human nature. These are better suited for a method of amplification. For instance, one might wonder whether there is any connection between "Woman brings about wild strawberries" and what took place in the Garden of Eden when the woman presented the fruit to the man. After all, in Sweden the notion of "wild strawberry place" signifies a personal paradise.

Such investigations are fruitful and interesting and can provide us with 'pointers' as to the meaning of symbols. Still, we don't quite understand what they mean. However, we get a feel for their meaning. We must differ between symbol and metaphor. Of course, there are metaphors in Bergman's films that might have definable social implications. But there are also things that cannot be directly understood. Just because Bergman took the image of Christ from his childhood parson's home, it doesn't mean that the image of Christ merely signifies his Christian heritage in terms of mores, etc. This image is not necessarily a metaphor, always.

If we are all in a "prison of language", then we are up against a serious problem. This means that any discourse on film or literature lacks truth-value, since language cannot reach beyond itself. It means that any interpretation can be deconstructed. This deconstruction can itself be deconstructed, and so on in all eternity. This is something that Derrida realizes. That's why he says that deconstruction is a never-ending process where meaning is endlessly deferred. The intellect is fully in command, always and endlessly reducing anything to trivialities in order to deflate any sense of meaning. This is clearly a neurotic state of affairs where the intellectual feeds on himself and cannot accept that there is anything holy and untouchable that is greater than himself.

There is a good article by Richard H. Schlagel in The Review of Metaphysics 57 (2003): 'The Waning of the Light: The Eclipse of Philosophy' where he shows that the modern philosophical project has failed miserably. The offspring of Wittgenstein's philosophy have died out. Husserl's project came to naught including all the "french philosophers" who were his followers.

© M. Winther, 2012.

See also:

Winther, M. (2008) 'The Blood Sacrifice' (here).

  —————  (2009) 'The real meaning of the motif of the dying god' (here).

  —————  (2011) 'Mysterium Iniquitatis' (here).