Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Seventh Seal Revisited I

Scott Bradley


I just recently twice watched one of my all-time favorite films, The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The second watching was with commentary, but the commentator seemed more interested in the art than the subject — death.

A knight and his squire return to Sweden after ten years of the crusades only to find themselves in the midst of the black death. Death comes for the knight and his growing retinue of companions as he makes his way back to his castle, but he challenges him to a game of chess and thus delays the inevitable — death always wins in the end.

The knight has nearly lost his faith in God and is torn between a desire to restore that faith or to rip all thought of God out of his heart. His hedonist squire never entertained such folly. They and all the several other characters must in their own way face the personification of death who now stands before them. One beautiful young woman meets it with seeming thankfulness. The knight despairingly pleads with God for answers. The squire accepts fate squarely, though not without protest. "See yourself in the mirror of your own indifference," he tells the knight. Still, they all die the same death.

Yet the knight has in some sense triumphed over Death. Initially, he challenged Death to a game of chess so that he might have a last chance to find answers — is there a God, what happens after death? But even Death tells him, "I know nothing." Then he discovers life, not so much in himself as in a young and happy couple and their infant. In delaying Death with a game of chess he allows them to escape—at least for a while. Acts of kindness somehow make life more meaningful. And it is also in their company that he discovers that it is the sweet moments of life, however fleeting, that give it meaning. Yet it is we who must make it so.

There is death because there is life; together they form a mutually arising and mutually affirming whole. They are one string and one body, Zhuangzi tells us. Seeing them as such is his way of facing death so that he might get the most out of life. Authentic living, he seems to say, is only possible when lived in a thankful awareness of its counterpart.

Reluctance to die seems an essential attribute of life; desire for death is a negation of life, at least while it can still flourish. It is the fear of death, one's own and that of others, that saps the joy out of life, and it is this that Zhuangzi suggests can be overcome in thankful acceptance of the way of things, even while repeating with Death, "I know nothing."

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