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Friday, July 1, 2011

I WAS A TEENAGE EXISTENTIALIST

running fence by christo



Today's foreign film, WINTER LIGHT, by Ingmar Bergman, 1963. Every time I see a Bergman film, I'm reminded that his films are totally satisfying and I'd do well to give myself a Bergman film festival and see all of them together over some weeks. I want to do this with Kurosawa too. One of the aspects of Bergman as artist that is difficult for me to fathom is how he can make a film with no concessions to box office, whatsoever, and they turn out among the best films ever made, consistently. This film, in particular, has the potential to be the worst and most boring film ever. Yet, it was fascinating from the start for the psychological understandings of the characters involved. Silences were not a problem, long monologues were not a problem, adding, in fact, to the feeling of the atmosphere. It was winter outside, and winter within.



It was the story of a priest of a Scandinavian religion, perhaps Lutheran. He was a widower of 4 years, still unable to feel anything but loss. He was having his own version of the dark night of the soul, where he felt God had withdrawn from him. By this time in his thinking, he wasn't sure God had ever been with him, wasn't sure there ever was God. Scandinavian religion is austere, much on the order of the Swedish austerity the preacher (Dwight Johnson) in the church I grew up in espoused. It made my nature much like the priest's in the Bergman story, withdrawn, inconsolable and cold to some. He was dealing with the falling away of his faith. His faith didn't work for him anymore. A man in his church came to him questioning how to go on living. He couldn't counsel him, couldn't say anything about a living God. The man went out and shot himself.



In the time of the falling away of my faith, my thoughts and feelings were much the same as what the priest was going through. My awakening began when someone I knew at the time, age 21 (1963 -- the same year as this film), gave me a copy of Albert Camus' The Stranger, not long out of the church and struggling about belief, which nobody knew but me, unless someone could read it in me. I read the novel on a plane taking me to Norfolk, Virginia, where I began my two year sentence of involuntary servitude in the time of the draft. On my way to prison for two years in the Navy, my only crime being born male in a country that keeps perpetual war going. In my mind and heart I had been taken from my life against my will and was on my way to prison without committing any crime. Stupid was not illegal, so I was ok where breaking the law was concerned. Wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, I was on my way to prison for two years, reading The Stranger in a silver bird.



It was the first book I'd ever read I identified totally with, like I had written it. It was a metaphorical version of my story. It reached a place within that no person or reading had ever given me awareness of. Perhaps it was self-awareness Camus gave me. No one I knew saw anything as I saw it. Turns out there were a lot of people who saw things as I saw, but I didn't know where they were or who they were. No one in my world at the time (home, school, church) would even allow themselves to entertain such thinking as I was going through. My thinking had no structure, no education, no handles to take hold of, until I found Camus. In Camus, I found someone who thought as I thought, so much so that reading The Stranger felt like it was specifically for me. I identified with the man in the story right up to and including refusal of last rites before his execution.



In the Navy base library I found other titles by Camus, his plays, essays, philosophy, fiction. I devoured all of them. Then I started reading people he wrote about, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir, reading their fiction. Their philosophical writings were a bit much for this yoyo that got through high school barely literate. But I could read their fiction rather well. Both of them wrote a series of fairly long novels about the French Resistance during WW2. I went through the time in the Navy identifying with Resistance to the Nazis, struggling against an occupying military force, as I was doing within. They were in a struggle with German militarism as I was with American militarism, from the inside. When an Intelligence Officer was talking once about the enemy out there, I was thinking my enemy is right here; I'm in the prison of my enemy. Like they said in Civil War times, I was cannon fodder. They didn't care about me, not even as a pawn in the big man's game. I was a pawn of a pawn of a pawn, not even a consideration. A target. The bottom of the hierarchical ladder.



There was plenty of opportunity and encouragement to climb the ladder, but I never wanted to be in charge of any of the other prisoners, giving orders from government policy. I left the Navy the same rank as going in. I spent as much time reading as I could. In those two years outside my life, I was able to assess my life. The books I was reading taught me a very great deal. They were my only interest in those two years. I buried myself in books like my mother had buried herself in church. She took the kids with her. She thrived, it suffocated me. When I came up for air, I threw all my beliefs and faiths away. By the time I'd finished the Navy was when I came up for air. Surfaced into the College of Charleston. Out of the Navy on Friday, in school on Monday. I was ready. I could read. I'd learned a great deal in my reading and landed a part-time job in a bookstore. All that went before was in the past. That weekend between was my chopping block moment when the cleaver came down and rent my life in two. Before, other people made my decisions. After, I made my own decisions.



 Bergman took me back to my own beginning. I hadn't realized how much Scandinavian influence came to me through the preacher of my childhood. That Swedish manner of brooding, I'm good at. I hadn't realized that my world growing up made me an existentialist. The black sheep in the church, the one that never done right, the one that flew to the coast and stayed there until they forgot him. A decade later God found me drifting in a sailboat without a sail. He gave me a sail and it's been smooth sailing ever since. Half a century later, watching a Bergman film, I see it like I never could have understood it when it was new. Too close to it then.



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