The Philosopher and the Wolf


Mark RowlandsThe Philosopher and the Wolf promises “Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness”, which was almost enough to make me put the book down before I started: was this going to be some tree-hugging, crystal-sucking sentimental self-help manual?

Fortunately not. Indeed, if it’s consolation you’re after, I suggest that you look away now:

That is how it is with us humans. We think of the time of our lives as a line; and we have a very ambivalent attitude towards that line. The arrows of our desires, and our goals and our projects, bind us to this line, and therein do we find the possibility of our lives having meaning. But the line also points to the death that will take this meaning away. And so we are simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by this line, both drawn to it and terrified by it. It is our fear of the line that makes us always want what is different … For us, no moment is ever complete in itself. Every moment is adulterated, tainted by what we remember has been and what we anticipate will be. In each moment of our lives, the arrow of time holds us green and dying. And that is why we think we are superior to all other animals.

Ouch.  This is White Fang as directed by Ingmar Bergman: the story of Rowlands’ eleven-year life with Brenin, a wolf who lived and travelled with him through Britain, Ireland, France and the US, interspersed with his philosophical analysis of the difference between wolf and man. And it doesn’t make for comfortable reading. While there’s enormous warmth and humour in his loving portrayal of Brenin, his analysis of humans is pitiless. In Rowlands’ eyes, the difference between the wolf and the ape — the original, evolutionary split between larger-brained apes and all other animals — is calculation: the endless, unstoppable force of “what’s in it for me?” This sense of choice, of planning, of ambition leads us to feel superior over every other living thing — indeed, it’s enshrined in many creation myths. But in what ways are we superior? How far does it make us happy? And how has it polluted our relationship with our surroundings? Rowlands cautions us to look again, to think again, and to see our fellow animals through different, more respectful eyes. What have we lost for all our achievements? And at what cost to ourselves? Rowlands argues this particularly powerfully in his analysis of evil:

The malice of apes — and human apes in particular — is to be found in their manufacture of helplessness. In this, human apes engineer the potential of their own evil … Just as true human goodness can manifest itself only in relation to those who have no power, so too is weakness — at least relative weakness — a necessary condition of human evil … Humans are the animals that manufacture weakness. We take wolves and we make them into dogs. We take buffalo and we make them into cows. We take stallions and we make them into geldings. We make things weak so that we may use them.

This is fierce stuff. Humans, as we know, cannot bear too much reality. We prefer reality TV. We like clear morals, goodies and baddies and satisfying happy endings. We like things that make us feel good (“Unlike humans, wolves don’t chase feelings. They chase rabbits.”). But like Bergman’s films, Rowlands’ book isn’t depressing: it’s exhilarating, a cold walk on a winter beach. In its willingness to confront the uncomfortable — a staring match with cold hard truth — this is one of the most exciting books of the year. Just not, perhaps, one for the beach. That cold dark sea might seem just a little bit tempting.

In the end the ape’s schemes will come to nothing: its cleverness will betray you and its simian luck will run out. Then you will find out what is most important in life. And this is not what your schemes and cleverness and luck have brought you; it is what remains when they have deserted you … In the end the ape will always fail you. The most important question you can ask yourself is: when this happens, who is it that will be left behind.


My Summer with Ingmar #2: Winter Light

An ongoing look at the work of Ingmar Bergman, who died a year ago.

Winter Light is the second in a trilogy of films (together with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence) in which Bergman, the son of a clergyman, asks: can there be meaning to life without God? At first sight, in our largely secular age, this may seem to render them at best inconsequential, at worst irrelevant; but watching them in a week of Iranian missile tests, collapsing economies and new reports of ecological devastation made me wonder if Bergman is perhaps more relevant than ever. 

Winter Light is about as pared-down as film-making can be. Just eighty minutes long, it’s set over one cold winter afternoon, as Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a country priest, finishes his midday service and prepares for his next, at three. In these brief hours he has three important conversations: with Marta (Ingrid Thulin), whose love he cannot return; with Jonas (Max von Sydow), whose despair he cannot comfort; and with Frovik (Allan Edwall), whose faith he cannot share. Each is based around the central fact of the film: that Tomas, if he ever truly had it, has lost his faith, and hates himself for it. He stands in front of his congregation and speaks the words aloud, but his soul is empty, and he feels lost: as Marta tells him later in the movie, “You’ll hate yourself to death”. What, then, is his responsibility — to offer hope that he does not believe in, or to confront his congregation with his own sense of despair?

In a moment that crystalises the film as a whole, Jonas, a fisherman, haunted by the thought of nuclear war, asks Tomas how it’s possible to live, knowing that everything we love hangs in the balance. “We must trust in God,” says Tomas; but he can’t hold von Sydow’s gaze. At this point Bergman cuts to Tomas’s hand as it trembles briefly on his blotter; and it’s a measure of the power of the movie that the moment is as shocking as any jump cut in a horror film. For Jonas, who has come to Tomas as the ultimate source of consolation, this is not just a blow but a betrayal, deepened even further by Tomas’s anguished confession of his true feelings about God: “Every time I confronted God with the realities I witnessed – he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider god, a monster. So I fled from the light, clutching my image to myself in the dark.” 

All of which is to say, if you’re looking for cheery escapism, try Mamma Mia. Why then, despite its gloom (and believe me, this isn’t the half of it — I’m trying to avoid spoilers) did I find Winter Light exhilarating, resonating with me for days afterwards? 

First, its formal daring. Winter Light is hardly showy film-making, but its nonetheless exciting cinema. In one scene Tomas reads a letter from Marta, the former lover whom he now rejects. Where most directors would have used voiceover, Bergman cuts to Thulin, holding close in on her face, as she speaks her letter straight to camera for six minutes. It’s an extraordinary sequence, raw and gripping, and it sums up his technique in Winter Light: we must look, look candidly at our situation, accept it for what it is, and only then, if we can find a way, progress beyond it. 

Second, its physical beauty. The film was a deliberate rejection of traditional aesthetics. Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nyqvist spent days observing Sweden’s cool clear winter light, determined to shoot as plainly and naturally as they could. The filming of the cast is unforgiving, even Thulin’s luminesence dimmed. But look at the still at the top of this post: the play of the light, the composition, the priest scrawled like a spider, clinging to the rail. This is beautiful work, in its own brutal way.

Third, its performances. This is a wonderfully acted movie: Bjornstrand, aloof and cold, gains our deepest sympathy while rejecting us at every stage; Thulin is shockingly vulnerable, particularly in the scene where Tomas tells her, in excruciating detail, exactly why he doesn’t love her; and von Sydow (whose perfomance as the father in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is my favourite of the year so far) is superb as the sailor cast off from his certainties. But perhaps the most extraordinary performance comes from Edwall, the true believer in the film, who achieves a palpable saintliness in his few minutes on screen.

Finally, its intellectual rigour. This isn’t to say that it’s an academic film. It’s not.  Its language is emotional, not intellectual, and there are no long theological debates. But there’s a fierce refusal to duck the issue, or to look away which is refreshing. Most of us, today, may not worry about the absence of God, but the questions of the film are no less relevant: in a world that feels vulnerable and threatened, how can we find meaning, and where should we look for hope? In such moods it’s all to easy to reach for artificial comfort: the artistic equivalent of hot chocolate or a warm bath. Winter Light is a cold shower, or a long walk on a windswept cliff. It’s harsh, confrontational and unforgiving, but it leaves you refreshed and stimulated, looking at the world with open eyes. 

My Summer with Ingmar #1: Wild Strawberries

Ingmar Bergman died last July, just hours before his fellow art house giant Michelangelo Antonioni. The obituaries at the time focused more on Bergman’s status and legacy than on his work, so I thought that, a year on, it would be interesting to take a fresh look at the movies themselves, without the intimidating shadow of their author. Over the next couple of months we’ll be looking at a selection of his films. Have they become irrevocably dated? Are they actually any fun to watch? And are they as pessimistic as Bergman’s public image might suggest?

First up is Wild Strawberries, the story of a retired doctor (Victor Sjostrom) who travels to Lund to receive an award for his fifty years of medicine. Which is pretty much the plot. But the journey, as so often in Bergman, is more spiritual than physical, as Dr Borg, through a series of dreams, conversations and encounters, is forced to face up to the emptiness in his soul. The film opens with one of the most successful dream sequences in cinema. I’ve written before about why movie dreams don’t feel like real dreams; this one does, because Bergman shoots it absolutely realistically:

Fifty years later it’s still shocking in its brutal confrontation of mortality, and Borg’s sense that time is running out. He wakes disturbed and shaken, and sets off for Lund with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who further disarms him by telling him bluntly not just that she doesn’t like him, but that he has passed his coldness and inability to connect with people to his son — and that they are separating. This turns out to be no surprise when we meet the doctor’s mother, now in her nineties but chilly and formal, unable to speak openly with her seventy-year old child; and when we flashback to a memory of his dead wife’s confession of adultery, on the basis of his unresponsiveness to her. Add in the cruelly bickering couple to whom Borg gives a lift and this might have been a film of irredeemable bleakness —

But it’s not. Because amid the dreams, the memories and confrontations, there’s also hope: a sense that redemption, however late it comes, is still redemption. As well as the bickering couple, Borg and Marianne pick up three hitch-hikers, two boys and a girl (Bibi Andersson), whose teasing first annoys but then engages and amuses Borg. His conversations with them remind him of his own youth, before the betrayal of his first love (also played by Andersson) and his determination to protect himself from harm; and by the end of the film he is beginning to recapture some of his former, better self. Memory, in other words, is not just a prompt of who we were, but of who we can become. 

Optimism in Bergman must be earned: there are no panaceas, no shying from the brute realities of life. But it’s all the more refreshing for it, and the end of Wild Strawberries is curiously uplifting. Hope, it seems, is hard to find, but it’s no less worth the looking for. 

The Comfort of Death

I’ve been thinking a lot about Death this week. Before you reach for your black ties and canapes, I don’t mean death, but Death, as he appears in The Seventh Seal, The Book Thief and now, at the National Theatre, Michael Frayn’s play Afterlife, based on the life of the German impresario Max Reinhardt. Afterlife interweaves Reinhardt’s life in Anschluss-era Salzburg with text from his epic production of Everyman, the 15th century English morality play, in which God, feeling that Man has neglected him in favour of material goods, sends Death to stir things up a bit. In the original, Everyman is a wealthy merchant who enjoys the finer things in life. Confronted with the reality of his own extinction, he initially tries to bribe Death out of it; then, through a series of encounters, comes to realise that all he can take with him to his final reckoning are his good deeds. Having learned his lesson, he goes on to redeem himself and earn his place in Heaven.

There’s an obvious moral parallel to be drawn between Reinhardt, the solipsistic, sybaritic director and Everyman, but Frayn has written something far richer and more complex than that. There’s the political picture, of an Austria riddled with anti-Semitism and openly flirting with the Death that lurks across the border; there’s the creative picture, of a theatrical genius confronted with the ultimate ephemerality of his work; and there’s the personal picture, confronting the audience, of how much reality we can face. Do we need to see Death conquered to sleep easy in our beds?

Frayn’s Death first arrives on stage in a play within a play within a play (I may have lost count at this point). And yet, with all the artifice of theatre stripped away, the audience still gasped in shock. For all our apparent sophistication, Frayn suggests, the old black magic retains its power. The same is also true of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, which defies decades of parody to remain as clammily compulsive as it ever was. So why, I wondered, coming out of the theatre, is Death such a perversely comforting figure?

First, the Western character of Death is himself a servant, not a master. He’s not vindictive, not judgmental, just an honest Joe getting on with the job. When Bergman’s Knight asks for clemency, Death sighs, “They all say that,” like some infernal traffic warden. Second, he’s the ultimate equal opportunities employer. There’s no glass ceiling, no class prejudice, no skills gap: as Everyman discovers, you can’t buy your way out (although I’m betting Rupert Murdoch has a back-up plan). Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief is narrated by Death. This is how he introduces himself:

HERE IS A SMALL FACT: You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the As. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT: Does this worry you? I urge you — don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair. 

Third, he often has a sense of humour: laughter in the dark. Bergman’s Death is teasing; Zusak’s world-weary, wanting to be liked; Frayn’s is silent but mocking, puncturing complacency, the ultimate satirist. And fourth, he communicates. Death in life is an event, Death in fiction a relationship. In Philip Pullman’s  trilogy His Dark Materials, your Death is fully personalised, following you like a shadow, protecting you until the moment comes. 

For many centuries in Western culture, and still in many traditions around the world, Death was a familiar character in fiction, drama and at public rituals and celebrations. But he rarely appears in our contemporary culture, which obsessively conceals the realities of death, and has abandoned long-established traditions of public mourning. And I wondered, watching Afterlife, if, by losing Death, we’re losing something comforting. Because the reason Death the character, in all his ragged humour, world-weariness and lack of judgement, is reassuring is that that Death himself, like all of us, is everyman.

No Country for Ingmar Bergman

In No Country For Old Men, when Chigurh visits Llewellyn Moss’s wife to kill her, she says, quavering, “You don’t have to do this.” to which he smilingly replies “Everybody says that”. Compare this to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, when a much more literal representation of Death appears to the knight Antonius Block:
BLOCK. Wait a moment.
DEATH. You all say that.
Bergman’s Death, with his games of chess, his dark humour and his unremitting sense of purpose, is surely an ancestor of Chigurh. The Seventh Seal was Bergman’s response to the horrors of the nuclear age, just as No Country is McCarthy and the Coens’ response to the age of terror. Both films use historical settings as parallels to the evils of their times; both, too, are reminders that evil is not unique to ours. When Ed Tom Bell goes to meet his uncle towards the end of the film, saying that the world has become too bleak for him, his uncle reminds him of equally horrendous killings from the turn of the last century. Our horror, both films remind us, is not a condition of modernity; it’s a condition of humanity.