Music of the Week — January 27, 2008
An Interesting Conversion Story

Sunday Night Journal — January 27, 2008

Ingenting: The Death Spasm of Christian Civilization

Ingenting is the Swedish word for nothing and the word which comprises what I take to be the climax of Bergman’s Persona, which my wife and I watched a couple of weeks ago. I had seen it in the late ‘60s and been both impressed and baffled by it, and was eager to see it again.

It tracks the increasingly intimate and yet hostile relationship between two women, one a mental patient who refuses to speak and the other the nurse who cares for her. It’s obviously meant to say something about the nature of self and identity, but I will be honest and say that I have no clear idea at all of what that statement might be. About ten minutes into it, after a series of disconnected, bizarre, and sometimes gruesome images accompanied by music that now seems a dated near-parody of the random whistles-and-bangs school of high modernism in music, my wife said “It’s trying too hard.”

I think that’s true, and I was, overall, disappointed in it, although as is almost always the case with Bergman’s work I found much of its imagery extremely, almost painfully beautiful. A large part of it involves close study of the faces of two of the most beautiful women ever featured in cinema, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson. The contrast between their beauty, especially that of Ullman, who is in a sense the villain of the piece, and the desolate emotional and spiritual landscape of the film is potent.

Through most of the film Andersson’s character, Alma (the nurse) seems more the victim, and Ullman’s character, Elizabeth, is dominant, precisely by her refusal to speak, which drives the other to more and more desperate attempts to make her do so. But in that climactic scene to which I referred it seems that Alma has finally gained the upper hand, and she forces out of Elizabeth the only word she speaks in the entire film: ingenting, nothing.

The previous scene had concluded with Alma seeming to have a sort of breakdown, her speech disintegrating into anguished fragments. She has progressed from a comfortable worldly complacency to torment to disintegration and arrived at ingenting. From here she seems to recover herself and resume an outwardly normal life, but the viewer is left wondering how normal it can ever be.

Alma’s incoherent efforts to express her agony reminded me of another work of art which appeared around the same time, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. Merwin is one of my favorite poets, and in a series of books in the ‘60s he appropriated some of the techniques of surrealism for the expression of a vision similar to Eliot’s in The Waste Land. Most of the poems are hardly coherent at all, but the cumulative effect of the tone and imagery produce a terrible sense of isolation and despair. This fragment is typical:

Shutting your eyes from the spectacle you
Saw not darkness but
Nothing

On which doors were opening

      (“Pieces for Other Lives”)

One of the reasons why it remains so difficult to get a firm grasp on the events of the 1960s is that more than one thing was happening. One of those things, I believe, was a sort of death spasm of Christianity as the living heart of our civilization. As we all know the faith as a formative idea for society had been in decline for a long time, but if I were going to pick one historical moment as the point where death occurred, I think it would be somewhere in the middle of the ‘60s. After that it soon became less conventional to be a practicing Christian than not to be in the culturally dominant circles of the USA and Europe.

Persona and The Lice are only two of many convulsive works of art that appeared in the 1960s, works of disorientation and despair which differ from the similar artifacts of early modernism in that they have less connection to the Western tradition. They don’t look backward, as, for instance, The Waste Land does, but rather forward, and what they see is a blank. Laurence Lieberman’s blurb on the original edition of The Lice describes it as capturing “the agony of a generation which knows itself to be the last.”

Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister. He rejected the faith but continued to grapple with it, rejecting it very definitely in a series of bleak visions of which Persona is one of the most bleak. I did not know until a few minutes ago when I looked up Merwin on Wikipedia that he also was the son of a minister, a Presbyterian. The work of both these men seems to me at once to exemplify and reveal the truth of the death of Christian culture. It is not a pretty sight. There is darkness, there is disorientation, and in the end there is nothing. In a sense nothing came after them, in that no one much younger than they has been formed by the Western-Christian tradition in the way that they were; those who have come after are shaped by a world in which that tradition is only one of many elements comprising the mental landscape of their civilization. And even if they choose that tradition the act of choice makes their relationship to it very different—very self-conscious, among other things.

There were of course a lot of lively things happening at exactly the same time that these artists were producing their darkest work—the eruption of the counter-culture and left-wing radicalism throughout Europe and America, for instance. Not all of this was bad, and some of it represented an instinctive reaction against some of the forces that were killing the soul of the culture. Speaking broadly, though, I think much of the cultural revolution of the time can be seen as a sort of release, the children of a wealthy man going wild with their inheritance upon his death. And in this light the emergence of what we now call the Christian Right seems an understandable but hopeless attempt to cure gangrene in a limb when the patient’s heart is no longer beating.

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