Existential Spirituality vs. Existential Profanity (Prosaicness of the soul, Emptiness, Vanity, the Meaninglessness of Life)

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Saint Paul to Corinthians*

The sky reflects the sea, and sea the sky. The glass of sky and the glass of earth mirror one another. There is no contrast between earth covered by waves and sky covered by the veil, between the human face and its reflection in the mirror. There is no way out from the reflective identity of earth and sky (the human face and its reflection in love). There is no God at this point. There is no transcendental or existential alternative. But for four human beings lost in the sea and in the sky (in front of mirror) the absence of contrast between earth covered by sea and sky covered by clouds is something like the adult “mirror phase”. While Lacanian MP of the child is mythologizing, we can say that the MP in Bergman’s film is a radical demythologization of the conventional reality of human life achieved by Karin’s intuitive deconstruction of human emotional condition. This condition is the reason for her withdrawal from human relationships: for her need in God. While the Lacanian mirror grants child the image of its glorifying wholeness which contradicts its experience of fragmented self-perception, for Bergman’s adults, the mirror of the glass, of the sea, of the sky or other person’s face rather reflects the predatory prose, conformism and vulgar facticity of our condition. Karin’s spiritual solution (the next step after her courageous disappointment in human condition) is in her attempt to re-create the childhood MP in a modified form – by making God connotatively reflected when we look at ourselves, making God our intimate interlocutor when we talk to our own soul and the people we love.

Martin is afraid of Karin, afraid of her “demonic” obsession with a personal God of her imagination and will. He masks (in front of himself) the fact that his sexual withdrawal from her is a matter of being afraid (they stopped to make love when her delirium became known) – he thinks that it is his kindness and dedication to her what’s stopped) sexual intimacy. But by physically distancing himself from her, he only helps her delirium to thrive on and unintentionally stimulates her sexual overtones in relationship with her God and also her retreat into incestuous impulses. In this shot Martin as if tries – by tenderly touching her forehead with his face – to pacify and to reason her mind. But the background of Karin’s mental distancing is the existence of a permanent rift between life and social functioning. We become semi-robots or semi-monsters motivated by the influences outside our control and will.

Husband and Wife
Here Martin looks frightened and disturbed while Karin’s thoughtful gaze shows her dedication to their relationship and even hints at her guilty feelings. This shot contradicts the content of the film – it disproves the fact that Karin is the one who is troubled mentally and Martin is the healthy one. The shot is a good example of how meaning can contradict the plot, how form in work of art can fight the content. Martin suffers amidst the chaos of disturbed marital bed while Karin is the one who is looking on at herself and their relationship with full presence and concentration.

Martin and Karin
Martin is troubled by what he doesn’t understand – Karin’s mysterious emotional needs. In front of her “psychological anarchism” he retreats into psychiatric jargon and compassionate posture of a loving husband of a sick and a crippled wife. He senses a hidden reproach in her “alienation”, disappointment in him as he is, in the very modality of his love and dedication to her. The shot is revealing: the spouses are having a conversation but husband and wife are, as if, not together. There is a split between them marked by the margin of the light curtain cutting the shot into halves. Martin is in the foreground of the curtain – he is psychologically a virgin, his world is flat: flattened by the veil of the curtain while Karin’s space is deepened by the interior’s background. Karin’s expression tells us about her torment connected with Martin’s retreat from their intimacy while his attention is short-circuited between his gaze and his hands suggesting masturbatory self-occupation, but Karin is still occupied with the destiny of their relationship. Stubbornly tightlipped, Martin is psychologically entrenched (unconsciously protecting himself from Karin).

Sibling incest (SI) is an intuitive psychological strategy to compensate for the deficit of emotional intimacy inside the family – for retarded identification with adults as a result of weak/scant emotional ties. Amateur play performed by Karin and Minus refers to the family context of SI that crowns the sister with a paper crown and transforms the brother (on the left) into a Halloween like monster. SI utopia is a vain attempt to find a way out of dead end of deaf-mute family intimacy. Martin is fascinated with play’s idealism, without grasping how close its aesthetic appeal and rhetorical pathos are to Karin’s “mental disturbance”.

The universe of incestuous obsession (IO) is split on antagonistic poles of good and evil, normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural, right and wrong, forbidden and transgressive, conformist and iconoclastic, when both extremes try to undermine one another. This makes IO like an illness.

Incestuous Obsession
Look at this parody of “sexual passion”, a painful caricature of our sexual liberation clichés inserted into our preconscious by the standards of commercial movies! From the first glance (of a person who is yearning to find in a movie a sexual situation to identify with characters’ amorous desire to get, even a secondary one, but nonetheless a real emotional satisfaction) Karin is ready for kiss and Minus is “romantically” greedy for Karin’s love. In reality Karin is near fainting while Minus is mad with worry because he doesn’t understand what’s going on with her. This shot not only represents Karin-Minus emotional predicament but analyzes the fraud of sexual scenes in commercial cinema.

Sibling incest
Minus is shaken and burdened by his discovery of sexual intercourse. Without the emotional context that could only come from a peaceful ripening of a soul-to-soul intimacy, sexuality is like an intervention of the unknown powers attacking the both protagonists.

Karin and Minus
This shot depicts not only the psychological environment of SI but also its de-existentialized environment where people badly need each other not because they emotionally chose one another but because of a desperate need for a symbiotic (dyadic) togetherness to be saved from the prose and despotism of life. Karin and Minus as if cover themselves from the world with the skirt of sex.

Shock of sexual encounter
Minus is shocked that sexual encounter means nothing personal, that it is not more than an “abstract” obsession that drove Karin to make love with him, an anonymous call for an impersonal ritual, that he is nothing in the very moment of sexual triumph, that sexual love is not love at all, but something ungraspable, belonging to somebody else, to some another world. Of course, he is not saying any of this to his father. He is just trembling before the demonic powers of life. He is as if expecting answers from his father without having the guts to ask any questions or name what happened between him and his sister.

Truth and conventional opinions
After incestuous intercourse that fell on Minus and Karin like a rock from the sky (they never even registered any erotic impulses toward each other), Martin (Karin’s husband) hides behind medical terminology. He cannot grasp or explain to himself the meaning of what has happened between his wife and her younger brother. He retreats into a conventional posture. He keeps his professorial glasses from falling down.

Karin as a Preacher
Karin had no intention of sleeping with Minus: she wanted to share with him her faith, to make him an ally. How didactic she looks while explaining to him the “doctrine” of her God. It’s only after she felt that her desire to recruit him into her religious belief has failed that she falls into despair of sexually obsessive desire.

Karin’s father and husband witness her religious ritual
David (the father) is petrified – he cannot empathize nor sympathize with what is happening inside his daughter’s soul. Why is she deserting him and her husband for an extreme (her own) version of God? Martin is compassionate but without opening himself to Karin’s mental process. David is as if blinded by Karin’s psychology in action, while Martin is blinded by his own compassion for his wife. By implying that Karin is mentally disturbed, Martin is sheltering himself to what’s going on – he has already labeled her instead of understanding what her unconscious is saying about their life, life in general and what she is trying to communicate. While David’s gaze is defensively closed from what he sees, Martin’s is as if drowning in the waters of alien and dangerous psychological environment – Karin’s emotional universe.

Between beautiful utopia and meaningless reality
Crushing injection, normalizing efforts of the two men (father and husband), Karin’s guilt over her incestuous transgression and her general disappointment with the world of “dwarfs” she has to live in, succeeded in erasing the idealistic bubble her intuition had created as her world view. Now Karin sees her utopia as a spider. She has lost her yearning for an alternative. The world is again “through glass darkly” – there is no “face to face” encounter with other human beings. She is ready to go to the mental hospital – the place between life and death, the locus of (artificial) eternity.

The more aggrandized the figure we want to bond with is (in Karin’s case the God of her creation) the more absolute its expectations and demands will be. The closer Karin gets to God the more she is split between proper and not-proper behavior. The stronger our obligations are in front of God the stronger the polarity between virtue and sin will be. The impossibility to live crucified between the despotic demands of virtue and obsessive forcefulness of sin makes Karin not a martyr of God but the victim of the very incompatibility between the human and God’s nature. She has refused life without God. She has refused life with God. This double refutation makes her an exceptional and a unique character, a forerunner of a genuinely existential culture where human beings are not serving despotic structures like conventional norms, collective ideologies or economic interests.

Karin Consoles her Father
Karin’s “rational” decision to go to the mental hospital is a gesture of compassion toward a father who is “doomed” to stay “normal” to enhance his career, success and a feeling of being “normal”. She pities him as somebody who must stay “normal” trying to correspond to society’s expectations and fulfill its demands. In this shot Karin’s generous physical touch encourages her father to stay where he is – in a “crazy” normality of everyday life with or without God and devoid of authentic human existence.

How to Live?
If Karin’s way to God is bifurcated: is simultaneously irrationally creative and rationally decided, a symptom and its rationalization and contextualization, an impulse but that also has its sense, in Minus it is a holistic reaction: the need to be saved from the abyss that is ready to engulf him. Minus needs God to be able to continue to live in this world, where, as he learned, everything, even the most terrifying things can happen with frightening matter-of-factness. What played a decisive role in his “conversion” into (quite a standard) religious belief is a real spiritual experience of the encounter with the otherness he felt present in Karin. Karin’s impulsive protest against the existing norms of human life frightened Minus to the degree of getting the need for a God who can protect him against any future insurgences of otherness. The basic function of God is again and again to defend human being from spiritual experiences.

Today, when life for the majority of people in US is reduced to financial or physical survival (to permanent worries about profit, career, job, a roof over their heads, social security, medical insurance, etc.,), the problems of the characters in Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly” seems either eccentric and excessive, or too sophisticated, and even frivolous. At first the viewers can think that the film is about madness, but soon enough “mental disturbance” topic flops – Karin’s symptoms appear to be close to just being the phantom of her imagination, a kind of mental indulgence, something of a wishful thinking. Like Godard’s Nana (“VIVRE SA VIE” – 1962) Karin wants to be “special” for the people she loves, and instead she feels that she is permanently evaluated by the existing norms, which she has to correspond to.

So, the audience is brought back to the question of incompatibility between human beings and the life we are inserted in, between human potentials and the factual reality. Ah, all the luxurious concerns of the 60’s decade – the uniqueness/non-uniqueness of the human personality, the authenticity/in-authenticity of the human identity, the extent of person’s liveliness and sensitivity, of his/her nobility and sophistication, and creative potential and the level of spirituality inside life, and the extent of one’s psychological maturity! This “liberal mythology” is barely alive in US today, outside some rare humanistic-scientific academic caves.

Competing, fighting, appropriating, consuming, possessing, advancing and retreating – have come to be the basic motivations of everyday life. By contrast the very air in “Through Glass Darkly” is full of otherness and the acceptance of it. It is a fertile silence framed by the life of the sea. The style of the film embraces otherness’ omnipresence and keeps on a positive sensitivity toward it. It is, as if, listening to the characters’ response to the mystery of the world and human relationships. The non-imposing rhythm gives the characters the chance to feel natural, spontaneous and sincere. They simultaneously belong to the film’s atmosphere that imitates being (they are ascetic, modest, truth-oriented and suffering about their shortcomings in intimate relationships) and are different from it. They are as if extras in the film, not the central personages that they are. Inside the rhythm of the film they are like ontological miscarriages. They are both the carriers and the failures of existential spirituality. They are sensitive enough to be a part of the mystery of being, but also afraid of this mystery.

When there is not enough money we Americans know right away what it means. When our life lacks meaning – we should ask Bergman to clarify what this lack of meaning means for human life. May be, it is not a big deal? What does it means to live spiritually, and not just believe in something above this life? What it means to have affective spirituality, to have an intimacy with the world? Even in comparison with the US of the sixties, today we practically live for the sake of economy and wars for global resources, our life is brutalized by large and petty calculations. We have lost the right to challenge the world as it is – the right Karin has decided to assert.

Karin, the wife of a doctor and a professor of medicine, and the daughter of a successful writer, doesn’t want to tolerate anymore the absence of love in love, of life in living and of meaning in life. Her intuition compensates (masks?) this disappointment in life by producing symptoms of sensorial hyper-sensitivity. She imagines God as a freezing soul could imagine the tropical gardens, as a fingernail could dream about becoming a skeleton, or a breath could enjoy inventing a stormy wind. Karin brings to God her frustration with the prose and ineptitude of her relationships with her husband and her father, who cannot respond to her yearning for existential authenticity and intensity. David (father) is afraid of her autonomy, and Martin (husband) of her anarchic stubbornness. David transforms it all into literature and Martin into medical diagnosis. Minus (Karin’s younger brother) is afraid of Karin’s God delirium. But he also feels that it is secondary, reaction on the emotional conditions of her life. Feeling not reciprocated Karin is “going through the walls” – expect God to come toward her, to take her somewhere else and fulfill her longing for a fuller life.

Through the metaphor of modern life, albeit in the setting referring to a meta-historical situation Bergman tries to describe the universal conditions that create the need in us to believe in God. Burdened by the necessity to adapt and to conform, our intelligence misrecognizes itself in life, and life misrecognizes itself in our intelligence. Aggrandized images of love and passion which overwhelm Karin’s imagination are compensations for being reduced to the tiniest part of a gigantic social power mechanism manufacturing its own survival.

The proliferation of psychological fragmentation and the loss of psychological wholeness is the background of loosing spiritual intimacy with each other and the world. The modern division of labor makes the condition worse. People have less time to live, all their energy is put at disposal of fragmented activities: working for success, developing a career, satisfying ambitions, hunting after pleasures meant to confirm our existence. Professions and hobbies more and more define the identity of a human being. Martin as a typical doctor is, probably, inspired Bunuel to make Severine’s husband in (“Belle de Jour” – 1966) a doctor. David is an artist who covers up his lack of existential spirituality with textual aesthetics.

When human being needs a saving God it means he/she either is spiritually underdeveloped or has lost it. Karin‘s spiritual potentials stifled by the condition of the world were able to create her theological narration that in the film signifies theological utterance as such. Spirituality, on the other hand, is alive, a living god (not a god squeezed into metaphor), not a god exaggerated by fetishism: by our desperate need to feel protected. Spiritual experience is god without the necessity to become God. Karin came closest to spirituality than most of us (she didn’t accept any of the already existing religious dogmas) because of her creative gift, but she is existentially too deprived to live without the supernatural confirmation of her existence and its meaning. She needs god’s face as a connotation of the human face.

The sky for her is a mirror that reflects us as god.

*Bergman used this quote from St. Paul as an epigraph for his film. Unfortunately, it is absent in Criterion’s DVD print (I wonder how to explain its disappearance). You can only see it on the VHS print.

For similar directorial inspirations connected with concern about the lack of existential spirituality in human beings today, viewers/readers are encouraged to check – Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960) and “Red Desert” (1966), Luis Malle’s “Fire Within” (1964), JLG’s “Hail Mary” (1983) and Margarita Duras’ “Natalie Granger” (1974).

Posted on 6 Oct 2014 –   “Through Glass Darkly” (1961) By Ingmar Bergman by Acting-Out Politics