The Seventh Moth

Here's a bit about Ingmar Bergman and Virginia Woolf. Thanks Christina Carlson!

Film and literature are blessed with different methods of attacking the reader’s unconscious. Be it through film’s ability to represent in purely visual terms the sensation of dreaming, birth and death, or through literature’s ability to directly address in the strictest and most poetic language imaginable those same phenomena; words are the most direct line to the brain when engrossed in a novel you read the words: “"I'll give it you!" he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer's area railings”. The immediacy of one vs. the other is not in question, but what is most remarkable is that death was of central importance in both the twentieth century novel and what could be thought of as the twentieth century art film, personified in this case by two of each form’s most talented poets, Ingmar Bergman & Virginia Woolf. Because while both told very different stories, the styles they chose to tell them in were incredibly similar. Death lurks behind the most-loved works of both which brings out in their works a fascination with life’s little mysteries. Woolf let her pen wander from the conversation of her two main characters to the comings-and-goings of those they shared a park with, be they perfect strangers or even insects. Bergman’s highly disciplined writing and incredibly focused direction stayed fixed on the psyche of only a few characters but his fleeting departures from their narrative help illustrate the fullness of life. In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a single day is used to show the intricacies of life, the presence of death and while it doesn’t immediately seem so how beautiful life can be.

There may be better examples of a confrontation with death in both artists’ canon. There’s a reason, after all, that both To The Lighthouse & The Seventh Seal are thought of as representative of their respective authors’ body of work and I would venture that it’s that their not inconsiderable talent is put in service of a sprawling tale with a disparate cast of characters and a very direct attitude toward death. In each work there is a moment of clarity, a passage that lets the audience know exactly what’s on the mind of the creator. In each case it’s that death unites us all. In The Seventh Seal death is a man who follows the characters throughout the movie. In the final scene day breaks on the last surviving characters, the actor and his wife and he sees that Death has finally taken his companions for good. He looks on the ridge above them, sees his deceased friends dancing in a line and says to his bride:
I see them, Mia! I see them! Over there against the stormy sky. They are all there.…And the strict master Death bids them dance. He wants them to hold hands and to tread the dance in a long line. At the head goes the strict master with the scythe and hourglass. But the Fool brings up the rear with his lute. They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.

This monologue and the phantasmagorical shot that accompanies it of the dance of the dead are unforgettable, but they don’t erase the sense that we were cheated of the characters that death has claimed. We were so certain that the cunning Antonius Block and his squire have made safe all those who have fallen under their protection during their journey. In To The Lighthouse, death similarly leaps from the woodworks in one of Woolf’s most remarkably unpoetic and memorable passages from any of her novels, the section entitled Time Passes. Woolf’s electric prose is rarely as captivating as it is here, and yet she undercuts her gift for crafting sentences by simply announcing death’s presence as if he had walked into the room as he does in The Seventh Seal:
So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—"Will you fade? Will you perish?"—scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain. (106)

As haunting and gorgeous as this is, we find this: “A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous (110).” It’s so shockingly forward it comes as a disappointment. Here was a character we’d gotten to know so well in the first part of the novel, dispatched with no romance or backwards looking or even a decent sentence; the thing’s in parenthesis for crying out loud. And they pop up all over Time Passes. To quote the film critic Mike D’Angelo’s reaction to an unprovoked murder in Badlands “…you know what, it seems disrespectful. That’s what it is.” Or in the parlance of college kids, it’s lame. It’s like death walking out of nowhere to claim the victims we thought had outsmarted him in Seal. And for that reason, both novels are both more honest than their contemporaries who grant meaning and glory to the deaths of their heroes. Woolf and Bergman have no qualms about death, they just let it happen. But what they did have was a chance to examine all the little things that do give a life, and thus a death, meaning. And they did so no more beautifully and lovingly than in Wild Strawberries & Mrs. Dalloway.
Both texts are about memory, death and about trying like hell to appreciate what you have even if circumstance tells you you got dealt a bad hand. Mrs. Dalloway’s twin narratives follow socialite and parliament member Clarissa Dalloway as she throws a party for her associates at which her two best friends who she hasn’t seen in a number of years show up. Meanwhile the shell-shocked veteran Septimus Smith tries to get through a day marked by visits to his doctor, flashbacks to a fallen friend and pervasive thoughts of the grave. Wild Strawberries follows Dr. Isak Borg on a car trip with his daughter-in-law Marianne to receive an honorary degree. The day starts with a dream foretelling his own death, is specked with shocking revelations about his son from Marianne, flashbacks and daydreams that seem to tell him he’s wasted his life or at the very least, he’s had a better one stolen from him by circumstance. But to say that Mrs. Dalloway is about a party and a veteran and Wild Strawberries is about a road trip would be to sell short the joie de vivre with which Bergman and Woolf pass the time before the conclusion.

As Wild Strawberries opens, the sweater clad Borg sits writing in his diary in the middle of an ornate and dusty study. He is quite alone and the ominous chiming of a clock before the action can only signal one thing: his time is short. “In our relations with other people we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely.” Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s heroine, has also been shut off, but it wasn’t by her choosing. “She had the Oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them… this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway (8).” Clarissa’s life has been reduced to social functions, just as Isak’s has been one of isolation. One can picture their “narrow” beds being all too similar (22). Their routines are fixed, only changed by “larks” like buying flowers on their own for a change or driving themselves to the ceremony instead of letting the maid drive (1). It is only real changes, the ones they can’t predict that bring about any kind of real shifts in their perception, fleeting though those might be.

Isak is shaken awake the morning he is to receive his degree by a “weird” dream ("weird sisters" weird) where he is confronted with a lot of bizarre imagery, all of it spelling his death, the chiming clock chief among them. When he wakes, he has decided that today is going to be different. When his daughter-in-law decides to drive with him, he is sidetracked in his reevaluation when she reminds him that his son, her husband, hates him because of the ways he’s become set in. “You’re a selfish old man, Uncle Isak.” He even misremembers the invitation he extended to Marianne a month ago when she first came to stay with him away from her husband. Her relationship with her husband, the brute Evald, is not unlike Clarissa and Richard’s, in that neither seems to understand the other, but Isak’s telling Marianne she ought to see a shrink smacks of Rezia’s cluelessness about Septimus’ condition. She and every doctor he meets thinks he just needs a little more help; he so tires of it that he throws himself out a window. Clarissa’s “dream” that awakens her comes in the form of Septimus’ death announced at her party. Her life, she realizes, is not something she herself evaluates: “Nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long. No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf, this having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living…(132)” She doesn’t think of life because she’s too busy living it. And yet she seems ambivalent at best about whether death is something she herself wants herself. She seems torn for the first time realizing what it might mean. “She somehow felt very like him–the man who killed himself…he made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” It is only with death in her mind that she sees that she must make the most of herself, something both she and Isak Borg had forgotten.

It wasn’t always so, of course, as both texts lovely flashbacks tell us. Clarissa goes back to the party to be with Peter Walsh and Sally Seton, two people whom she’s had striking and powerful relationships with in the past, but who she understands she has to remain separate from. What’s past is past. And what’s past for Clarissa is an all-too-brief love affair with Sally. She remembers being kissed by Sally (“the whole world might turned upside down”) and a time when the thought of Sally walking down a hallway naked was the most exciting thing in the world. “Sally's power was amazing, her gift, her personality (24).” And yet when she meets Sally again, time has changed her. A mother of five, no longer the spirit she once was. Clarissa doesn’t come out and say it, but she understands that those things are in the past. She must live beautifully and that’s all there is for it. Borg’s flashback is given to him in the same form as his dream of death.

In a profoundly beautiful scene, Isak revisits his childhood home and as an old man relives a time from his youth in a dream. He sees the girl he once loved, pursued in secret by his older brother Sigfrid. Embarrassed by the whole family for her secret tryst with Sigfrid she runs off and through tears confesses to her sister and an invisible Isak: “Isak is so fine and good, so moral and sensitive...And he talks about sin. He’s on such a terribly high level and I feel so worthless...And Sigfrid is so bold and exciting.” Isak realizes that he has tried and failed to be the man he wanted to be. “I was overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and sadness…” But seeing this makes him put on a much more positive attitude that extends to flirting with a passing girl, Sara and even offering a lift to her and her friends to the town where he’s receiving his degree. They also pick up a bickering couple who nearly crash the car in a heated argument; a potent reminder for both Marianne and Isak that life is simply too short to be mean-spirited or do things you regret (apologies for the semi-colon).

Clarissa realizes that her life is among party guests and that she has an all-too crucial role to play in the lives of those she hosts. Her art is being herself and even though she sees the things she’s left behind in her journey to her current self, she also sees that life is simply too wonderful to let slip by and fill with regrets and worries. Even those she leaves in her wake, Peter and Sally, see that she is right where she belongs. “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was (139).” Just as Clarissa is captivated by life anew after Septimus’ death, Isak may not have long left and precious few people to share his life with but he’s going to live what little there is to the fullest. He makes up with his maid though she rebukes his attempts at being overly familiar, just as Clarissa does with Peter and Sally, though just as he goes to sleep, Sara and her friends sing a song for him beneath his windowsill. As they part, their triangular relation reminding him of his own with Sigfrid and his one-time love. Before going Sara leans in close and says to him “It’s you I really love, you know. Today, tomorrow, always.” “I’ll remember.” He says, a look of resignation on his face. He will never hear from them again and he knows it, but he’s happy to have touched one more life before it was time. He is himself, no more, no less, and like Clarissa Dalloway, the world would be far less rich without him, now that they know what they are meant to do.

Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. Feed. Web.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Feed. Web.

No comments: