A Review of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid

Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.

So begins the The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; a great opening paragraph which catches your eye and which in fact made me purchase this book. (Advice to all wannabe writers, including myself: write a great opening line. This is what sells books.) Unfortunately, what follows hardly measures up. In fact, Mr. Hamid lets the reader down with such a great thud that I am surprised there are no bruises to show for it!

The setting and style of the novel is – well – novel. An unidentified American has entered the district of Old Anarkali in Lahore. He is approached by Changez, the narrator and protagonist, with the above quoted line, and guided to a tea shop the “quality of whose tea is unparalleled”. There, he unburdens his heart to his apprehensive guest. He is a Princeton graduate, and has spent four-and-a-half years in America. The reason why he has come back to Pakistan is the subject of the story.

Changez narrates his tale to his invisible (in literary terms!) guest, and we listen. We can imagine ourselves in the place of the American, or as an eavesdropper on their conversation. Throughout the narration, the listener’s reactions are remarked upon by the teller; which is all we get to see of him. This shadow listener, in facts, works well as a literary device and also serves to enhance a feeling of creeping menace slowly slipping into the barmy Lahore evening.

Well, in my opinion, the positives end there.

Changez is explaining why he became disillusioned with America and became the “reluctant fundamentalist” of the title: however, his story doesn’t hold water. He is the blue-eyed boy from Princeton, top-ranked among his young fellow executives in the valuation firm of Underwood Samson and the personal favourite of his mentor Jim. He is in love with Erica, a beautiful American girl. He is slated to go far in his profession. The good ol’ American (expat) dream…

Well, with 9/11, his world comes crashing down…

…now, if you are waiting for the story of the poor Muslim boy persecuted by Big Bad Uncle Sam, well, think again. Nothing of the sort happens.

Our hero is in Manila on a mission when the Twin Towers are brought down. He watches it on TV and says “my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” because “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”! Well, as a reader, I lost whatever sympathy I had with Changez then and there. I mean, here’s a guy who has studied in America, is working in America, planning to marry an American girl and settle down in America – and he’s pleased at a wanton act of terrorism on America? He is not a reluctant fundamentalist but a closet terrorist!

As the story moves on, there are no instances of any discrimination against Changez, other than an airport search and a threatening encounter with a semi-crazed man in a car park. However, his sense of alienation grows and he starts considering himself as an outsider. But what really distresses Changez is not the status of Muslims in America post-9/11. It is the slow slide into madness of his love Erica, and the perceived threat to Pakistan from India.

Erica is a girl who lives partially in her mind with her long-dead boyfriend Chris. She is so disturbed that she can have sex with Changez only by imagining him to be Chris. Although initially she encourages him, she slowly moves away from Changez into an institution; then moves away from life totally, disappearing without a trace. This tale of Erica is Norwegian Wood with all the magic removed – a pastiche. We should be feeling for our poor protagonist, but I was only feeling bored.

The second reason for Changez’s self-destruction, the perceived war with India, is even sillier. This is the period after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 by Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaishe-e-Mohammed activists which lead to massing of troops by both countries at the border. Changez’s latent patriotism comes to fore and he flies to Pakistan against the better counsel of his parents. The thing is, while we can understand his need to flaunt his Pakistani-ness, and his displeasure with India, his anger against America is ludicrous. He becomes disillusioned with America for remaining neutral and not chastising India!

Whatever the case, from here onwards Changez self-destucts. He is sent on an important mission to Chile by Jim as a chance to rejuvenate his career, disregarding opposition from the company vice-president who accompanies him. However, Changez does such a shoddy job on purpose and refuses to continue so that the company has no option other than to fire him. The ostensible reason for this change is his realization that he is the modern-day equivalent of a Janissary (Christian youths stolen away by Turks at the time of the Ottoman Empire and used as warriors), fighting for the evil American empire. The reason I can see is that the guy is seriously screwed up.

By now, we have reached the last twenty pages or so, and we see Changez racing into his fundamentalist career with gusto (although specifics, other than a speech, are missing). The narrative then suddenly slides into an ambiguous ending which is left open for reader interpretation. It all depends on whether we accept Changez as a reliable or unreliable narrator. Obviously, it is meant to be explosive – but to me, it felt like a damp squib. I couldn’t care less.

Tailpiece:

In the West today (in India, too) Islamophobia is a serious concern. Singling out of Muslims as potential terrorists everywhere has done untold harm to religious harmony, and has resulted in many moderate Muslims embracing hardcore concepts. Many of them are reluctant fundamentalists – Mohsin Hamid has tackled a real problem.

Unfortunately, Changez cannot represent them.

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Bergman’s Two Journeys (Part II)

In the first part of this blog post, I talked about Joseph Campbell and Hero’s Journey. Campbell is deeply influenced by Carl Gustav Jung, whose theories of psychology centres around the concept of “Individuation”: the inner journey of an individual to discover his innermost being. According to Jung, this starts with dreams, and if the dreamer is allowed to follow the dream symbols to their logical conclusion (often with the help of a trained psychoanalyst), it will result in the person achieving his/ her full potential. He says that this dream journey is reflected in most of the myths and folktales across the world. (The whole of the Jungian concepts are outlined in a fantastic book, Man and His Symbols, a scholarly tome that is eminently readable. I will review that book someday on this blog. I strongly advise everyone who is interested in art and literature to read it.)

Echoing Jung, Campbell made his famous statement: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” In The
Seventh Seal, we were treated to the public dream involving Antonios Block and Death and their chess tournament: in Wild Strawberries, we enter the private mythical world of Dr. Isak Borg, a highly respected doctor and curmudgeonly old man. “Wild strawberries” as a symbol of lost innocence, first encountered in The Seventh Seal, becomes the central metaphor here: the chessboard which was central to the earlier film is passingly shown in the first scene. The movies, made only months apart, are close enough to be twins, yet strikingly different.

Fittingly enough, Bergman’s second journey starts with a dream.

Wild Strawberries: Journey Inward

The movie is presented as memoir by Dr. Borg of his journey from Stockholm to Lund, where he received his original degree. Before we start, let’s allow Dr. Borg to introduce himself, in the framing sequence, before he prepares for this trip.

In our relations with other people, we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely. My life has been full of hard work, and I am grateful. It began as toll for bread and butter and ended in a love for science. I have a son, also a doctor, who lives in Lund. He has been married for many years. They have no children. My old mother is still alive and very active, despite her age. My wife Karin has been dead for many years. I am lucky in having a good housekeeper. I should perhaps add that I am an old pedant, which at times has been rather trying for myself and those around me. My name is Isak Borg, and I am 78. Tomorrow I shall receive an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral.

This sequence is brilliant, as it introduces the character fully without resorting to too much exposition. We are shown the doctor’s study, where he sitting and writing his (presumably) diary: as he talks, the camera moves over the objects on his desk, the pictures of his son, wife and aged mother. All his near-and-dear have been objectified. There is a dog at his feet, which quietly follows him out as he calls it; even here there is no pat on the head, no sign of intimacy. In a significant detail (which I missed in my original viewing), there is a chessboard in a corner where the pieces are set. Dr. Borg contemplates a move before going out to dinner – obviously he is playing by himself. If one reads it along with The Seventh Seal, this could be seen as a premonition of approaching death.

The Start

On the eve of his journey, Isak Borg has a strange dream. He dreams that he is walking in strangely deserted and empty streets, where he has a terrifying encounter with a man with a closed face (who collapses at his touch) and a clock with no hands. Then a hearse arrives, and a coffin falls down from it. On closer inspection, Dr. Borg finds his own body… though not quite dead, because the corpse wakes up and grabs his hand.

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This sequence, shot in stark black and white frames by Gunnar Fischer, is worthy of Kafka and Dali; it gives us the goofy feeling of unidentified menace which is the trademark of nightmares. Maybe because of this dream, Isak Borg decides to drive down to Lund from Stockholm in the early hours of the morning, instead of flying, against the counsel of his long-time housekeeper, Miss Agda. He is joined on the tour by his daughter-in-law Marianne, who is living apart from her husband Evald with her father-in-law: both the housekeeper and Dr. Borg are surprised to hear that she wants to return to her husband in Lund.

So the stage is set for the journey of discovery, with one of the classic road movies of all time.

Jung has said that a significant number of the folk and fairy stories start with a king who has fallen ill, and his sons must set out to procure the magic balm or object which will restore him to health. Actually, it is the soul which is sick, and dreams tell the person that he is ready for the journey of individuation. Seen in this light, the doctor’s decision to travel by road is significant: for a man who has remained aloof from other human beings all his life, he has decided to “come down to earth”. The fact that his daughter-in-law accompanies him is also significant – as she says at the beginning of the trip, he has so far categorically refused to mediate in their marital troubles, even though she hoped he would. The enclosed space of the car forces an uneasy intimacy upon them.

Through the dialogue between Marianne and Dr. Borg, we come to learn about the mechanics of the Borg family. They are a group of people who cannot connect. Evald has taken a loan from his father, and is being forced to pay it back, by some strange code of honour; even though it is keeping Evald poor and Dr. Borg does not require the money. Even after Marianne’s explanation that this is the root cause of the trouble between them, the doctor is not willing to relent.

First Interlude

Immediately after this exchange, however, Dr. Borg decides to take a detour to the summer house where he spent many happy days of his youth. Here, as Marianne goes for a swim, he slips into a daydream where he sees Sara, his cousin and childhood sweetheart, gathering wild strawberries; and the romantic scene between her and Sigfrid, his brother, whom she ultimately married. He also witnesses a typical holiday evening of his large family, where Sara confesses that Isak is good but too highbrow for her – she is drawn to the wicked and manly Sigfrid, against her will. As this scene fades away, leaving Dr. Borg “overwhelmed with feelings of emptiness and sadness”, he encounters a hitchhiker on her way to Italy with her boyfriend and chaperon – she is also Sara (in the movie, both characters are played by Bibi Andersson), endowed with the same bubbly nature as his childhood sweetheart.

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Sara is hitchhiking to Italy with her sweetheart Anders who is studying to be a minister: their chaperone Viktor, an atheist, is also in love with her. The constant silly prattle of Sara, and the asinine quarrels of Viktor and Anders about the existence of God, are a direct link to the doctor’s youth, the lost innocence of the “wild strawberries”.

Here onwards, the memories and dreams of Isak Borg begin to mesh with the reality of the ‘Now’. On the way from the summer residence, their car nearly collides with the car of Alman and Berit, a couple who bicker continuously; and revel in hurting each other. They also join the doctor in the car, but soon get on everybody’s nerves due to their constant quarrelling. Ultimately, they are abandoned unceremoniously at the roadside by Marianne, who says she must do it “at least for the sake of the children”. The idyllic pre-marital stage of romance is contrasted here (rather explicitly) with the hellish post-marital state; Marianne and Evald are on the way to that troubled territory, while Dr. Borg is past it. As they get out, Berit says: “Forgive us – if you can.” The shot of the couple standing abandoned by the roadside is terrifying in the desolation it signifies.

Second Interlude

Immediately after this distressing incident, Dr. Borg reaches the suburb where he spent his youth, and meets his aged mother: Marianne accompanies him. But before that meeting, there is a small yet significant incident where he meets up with an old acquaintance Ackerman and his wife who runs a petrol station: they are so much in awe of the doctor that they intend to call their unborn child after him! This is a new Isak Borg which we meet here. As Ackerman refuses to accept payment for petrol, he tells the doctor: “There are some things which can’t be paid back – not even with petrol. We haven’t forgotten. Ask anyone around here. They all talk of your kindness.” Dr. Borg replies: “Maybe I should have stayed here…” not quite understanding what he is saying. But we do.

Afterwards, they all have lunch and wine, and the doctor tells stories: he is a hit with the teens. The doctor believes that they simply did not “laugh out of courtesy”. Isak Borg is thawing; slowly moving away from his world of cold, hard scientific fact to the metaphorical world where wild strawberries abound the year round. This clash of the world views is presented as an argument between the atheist Viktor (who is studying to be a doctor) and Anders, the future minister. When confronted with the question which world view he believes in, Dr. Borg deftly sidesteps and sings a hymn, in which Marianne and Anders join in. Viktor derisively calls it “a love poem”, not knowing how close to the truth he is.

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Immediately after these pleasant interludes, we meet Isak’s ancient mother, and that meeting is far from edifying. If Isak Borg is cold, Old Mrs. Borg is absolutely frozen at 96. As she opens an old box, full of her children’s toys, she keeps up a monologue.

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Here are some of your toys – I have been trying to think which of you owned what. Ten children, and all dead except Isak. Twenty grandchildren. Evald’s the only one who comes to see me. Don’t get me wrong… I am not complaining. Fifteen great-grandchildren whom I’ve never seen. I send presents for all their birthdays. I get letters of thanks, but nobody bothers to visit me – unless they want to borrow money. Oh, I know I’m tiresome… and I’ve one more fault. I don’t die. The inheritance isn’t being divided up the way these crafty young people had planned.

Mrs. Borg complains of the cold; she has been cold all her life. It is the coldness of the soul that we are encountering here. As they are about to leave, she shows them the gift she proposes to give her grandson as he turns 50: her father’s watch, without hands, which she says “doesn’t matter”.

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Dark Night of the Soul

By now it’s pouring with rain: Viktor and Anders have had a tiff, trying to decide God’s existence through a boxing match. As Marianne drives, Isak Borg dozes off, to be disturbed by “humiliating dreams”. He says “there was something powerful in these dream images which bore relentlessly into my mind”.

Dr. Borg has a classic “examination dream” (it seems we all have this in moments of crisis), where he fails every kind of examination possible: but before that he is literally made to face himself by his cousin Sara, as they hold the conversation in the garden of the old summer house, in front of a basket of spilled strawberries. She holds up a mirror to him.

Sara:    Have you looked in the mirror, Isak? Then I’ll show you what you look like. You are a worried old man who’s soon going to die, but I have all my life before me – that hurt your feelings, after all.

Isak:    No, it didn’t hurt.

Sara:    Yes, it hurt, because you can’t bear the truth. The truth is that I’ve been too considerate – and so became unintentionally cruel.

Isak:    I understand.

Sara:    No, you don’t understand because we don’t speak the same language: look in the mirror again. [as Isak turns his face] No, don’t turn away…

Isak:    I see.

Sara:    Listen to me. I am going to marry your brother Sigfrid. Love is almost a game for us. Look at your face now… try to smile!

[Isak smiles]

Sara:    There! Now you are smiling!

Isak:    But it hurts so…

Sara:    As Professor Emeritus, you should know why it hurts. But you don’t know. You know so much, but you don’t know anything.

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This realisation of ignorance is the first step to enlightenment. Going off in search of Sara, Dr. Borg is confronted by a stern examiner who behaves like a grand inquisitor and hauls him over coals. He fails all the exams, the most terrifying one being the confirmation of death when the corpse suddenly springs to life. The examiner, accusing him of guilt, incompetence, ruthlessness and selfishness, makes him witness a scene: that of an illicit sexual encounter between his wife and her lover, which he actually witnessed in the past. The most telling point of the whole episode is that his wife is angry that Dr. Borg will forgive her, ostensibly due to magnanimity, but in reality, “because he doesn’t care about anything – he’s so cold.”

The examiner tells Isak that his wife is gone forever: “Removed by an operation. A surgical masterpiece – no pain. Nothing that bleeds or trembles. A perfect achievement in its way.” And the punishment for the doctor’s crimes? “The usual. Loneliness.”

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Dr. Borg is at the lowest point of his spiritual journey: from here onwards, the only movement possible is upwards. He has been through the dark night of the soul – now is the trek towards redemption.

Having woken up, Borg is ready to confess to Marianne that his dreams seem to be “telling him things which he won’t listen to when awake – that he is dead, even though he’s alive.” This prompts his daughter-in-law to talk about her problems: she is leaving Evald, because she is pregnant and wants to have the child and he doesn’t want it. He does not want to bring life into the hellish world he inhabits – his only wish is to be stone dead. And after meeting Dr. Borg’s mother, Marianne understands, because he, his mother and Evald are all more dead than alive – in her words, “all along the line, there’s nothing but cold and death and loneliness”. It has to end somewhere, so she is leaving her husband.

At this point, the hitchhiking teenagers who have been out stretching their legs come back with a bunch of wild flowers they have picked to congratulate the doctor: calling him a very wise old man who knows everything about life and wishing that he would live a hundred years, ironically contradicting all that he himself was saying. The movie suddenly brightens. Isak Borg is riding into the light.

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Dr. Borg’s receiving of the honour, coming immediately after he “fails his exams”, is something of an anticlimax: the hollowness of the ceremony is evident to himself and the viewer, though probably not to the others. The hint that Isak is a changed man, however, comes at the end when he suggests to his housekeeper that they use first names – a suggestion which shocks her. Similarly, he broaches the subject of the loan to his son, evidently with the intention of writing it off, but Evald curtly replies that he’ll pay it without understanding what his father means. However, his travel companions have come to understand the changed Borg: as she kisses him goodnight, Marianne says: “I like you, Uncle Isak.” Also the girl Sara, who has managed to find a ride up to Hamburg, tells Dr. Borg cheekily as she leaves: “It’s you who I really love, father Isak. Today, tomorrow, always.” And he replies: “I’ll remember.”

The Final Dream

Dr. Isak Borg is preparing to sleep.

If I have been worried or sad during the day, it often calms me to recall childhood memories. I did so on this evening too.

In his memories, he is back at his summer residence, along with Sara, his cousins and parents.  The wild strawberries are all finished: it seems the season is over.  However, as Isak watches his father and mother (blurred figures in the movie) fishing by the side of the lake in a picture of domestic bliss, he is a happy man.

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The movie ends with Dr. Borg asleep, with a smile on his face.

***

The Seventh Seal was a tragic journey of disintegration; Wild Strawberries is an edifying one of integration. In the former, the events are distressing, the action is epic, and the setting dystopic: in the latter, the events are humdrum, there is no action and the setting is extremely urban and mundane. However, watching both the movies in succession, one feels that the distressing questions which plagued Bergman during The Seventh Seal have been answered through Wild Strawberries. The memory of the magical evening that Antonius Block has been trying to hold on to, as he partook of milk and wild strawberries with Jof and Mia, has finally been captured forever and enshrined.

A Review of “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the gene.

On 27 December 1831, a young naturalist by the name of Charles Robert Darwin set upon a voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle which was to last five years and take him all over the globe. He came back with a lot of specimens, copious scientific notes and an explosive theory which was to rock the world of ideas: the theory of evolution by natural selection. Suddenly, God became an unnecessary and unlikely hypothesis: man was pulled down from his high throne as the master of creation: and existence became a cacophony of chance events rather than a carefully co-ordinated orchestra. Naturally, the religious establishment rebelled. But like all ideas whose time had come, evolution hung on with great tenacity to become the widely accepted idea it is today.

I have been fascinated with the idea ever since I was introduced to it in high school. As far as I am concerned, the very argument that theists put forward against evolution is its greatest strength; viz. the complexity of the natural world. According to the believer, such a complex and “perfect” (whatever that means!) system has to have an architect behind it. But the fact is that it is not “perfect” – nature is dynamic. What we perceive as stability is homeostasis, a seething mass of life, eating one another and being eaten; and as nature shifts her stance, so does life, whole species dying out (like the dinosaurs) to make way for others.

But wait! Humans are different, aren’t we? We compete, true: but we also show altruism. People lay down their life to protect their progeny, their brothers and sisters, their countrymen… if we were selfish survival machines, why would we do this? It means we have the spark of divinity within us, doesn’t it?

Well… not exactly, according to Richard Dawkins. It only means we have the “Selfish Gene” within us.

The Selfish Gene needs no introduction. This is one of those iconic “pop” science books which everyone seems to have read, like The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. I was a bit late (well, about 37 years!) in getting to it. However, the book has lost none of the charm, and the idea any of its power, due to the ravages of time: if at all, it has become stronger.

What is a gene?

Dawkins confesses that there is no universally agreed definition of ‘gene’. We now know that the blueprint for building of each human being is coded in 23 pairs of chromosomes, one of every pair being inherited from each parent. The code inside the chromosome is written in DNA molecules, the famous ‘Double Helix’ that Dawkins terms the ‘Immortal Coils’.

The DNA molecules are replicators. They replicate themselves; they also manufacture proteins, the basic building block of life as we know it. These DNA molecules (some version of them) were the original “life” in the “primeval soup”: they reproduced themselves and competed with one another to survive. Natural selection defined which lasted and which died away.

Dawkins defines a gene (a definition borrowed from G. C. Williams) as “any part of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection”. In other words, a gene is a copier with high “copying-fidelity”: that is, it ensures that it copies itself without mistakes so that longevity in the form of copies is ensured.

So in the primeval soup, these genes went on happily competing with each other, evolving newer and newer ways of surviving in an environment which got increasingly complex. As part of survival technology, the genes built a lot of machines, bunching together to form gene complexes in the context. The machines got more and more complex, from the single-cell amoeba to the human being.

Dawkins starts the book with the question “Why are people?” This is his answer – so that the gene can survive and replicate. We are nothing but vehicles for the genes, who exist to ensure their survival.

Pretty disillusioning, isn’t it? But Dawkins is far from done. After pulling down humanity from its pedestal as the “pinnacle of creation”, he proceeds to explain all the lofty sentiments such as love, altruism, sacrifice etc. as the result of strategies for gene survival – extremely selfish strategies at that. It is very difficult to stomach for a generation which has been trained to behold human beings as somehow special, and the above sentiments as the proof of their exclusivity which separate them from the “lower” animals. As one disgusted poster said in one of the fora where this book was discussed: “So altruism is like going to the potty? Oh dear!”

But even though disheartening at first, as Dawkins begins to back up his arguments with solid scientific reasoning, it is difficult to dispute him, and difficult not to get excited when he presents his theory with mathematical precision.

Aggression and Stability

One of the most common arguments put forward against evolution is that an uncontrolled state of aggression will lead to a free-for-all and the “stable” environment we see cannot exist. Dawkins explains this with the concept of an ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy), which leads to a dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis: he posits a theoretical society populated by pure aggressors (“hawks”) and pure pacifists (“doves”), and proves logically that over a period of time, the number of hawks and doves will stabilise in roughly equal proportion. This is because it is not the survival machines which are having the final say on who will win: it is the genes. This concept is further expanded with fine variations on the behavior – ultimately, every time, a dynamically stable configuration results.

In Chapter 12, ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ (added as part of the second edition), Dawkins takes this theory further and presents a varying set of evolutionary strategies, modelled on Game Theory. It describes in detail various evolutionary stratagems he tried out on his computer (with contributions from a lot of scientists) and the outcomes. This is a fascinating analysis and in my opinion, the most interesting part of the book – but that may just be the engineer in me, who loves anything mathematical!

Altruism

Oh yes. The old stumbling block. The favourite saw of the creationists. If we are all selfish, how does altruism come into the picture? Why do parents sacrifice themselves for their children, why do siblings do the same for each other, why do we co-operate at all? Should we not be at each other’s throats, all the time?

No, according to Dawkins. If we look at it from the gene’s point of view, it all makes perfect sense.

When we are talking of genes, we are talking of gene pools here: a group of genes working together so that the survival of each is maximised. Dawkins makes a brilliant analogy to a rowing team. If a coach is choosing a team, he would over a period end up with a group who can pull in such a way that the winning chance is maximised – an individual rower, however brilliant he is, would find no place in the team if he did not contribute to the group effort. In the case of genes, natural selection plays the role of the coach. Those genes which could not co-operate simply get discarded in the evolutionary race over a period of time.

Also, one should bear in mind that a gene is not a single physical bit of DNA; it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world. A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this could be the origin of altruism. Dawkins calls it ‘genesmanship’. He spends four chapters explaining how it applies to siblings, offspring, lovers and apparent strangers. In the last chapter (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), Dawkins extrapolates the above argument to how the gene in one species can extend its reach to another species, possibly to the detriment of the latter, to explain parasitism.

One may take it or leave it, but the arguments are well thought-out and presented with great clarity; with cold, scientific logic. There are no opinions here. It makes fascinating reading, even though the mathematical analysis may put some off!

Memes

The concept of the ‘meme’ is possibly the most revolutionary one expressed in this book. Dawkins defines a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, a basic idea which gets replicated in human brains, in the ‘primeval soup’ of human culture; which, according to him, is in the same state as the biological ‘soup’ was at the dawn of life on earth. To quote the author himself:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

According Dawkins, all prevalent ideas (including the idea of God!) is a meme: the meme survives because it has a survival value in the meme pool. If we subscribe to this idea, the whole intellectual arena is nothing but a group of memes grappling for survival – not a very edifying thought. It seems Dawkins appreciates this, because he ends the chapter on memes with the speculation that man has the capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. He says “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

I, as a fan of the Jungian idea of the Collective Unconscious, could not help speculating on whether the meme could be embedded way down in the gene itself? Maybe the Collective Unconscious is nothing but little bits of consciousness, embedded inside the DNA, which guided the process of survival? If so, it could be case for Intelligent Design – or rather, Intelligent Evolution.

This is one of those ‘pop-science’ books which are enlightening and enjoyable at the same time. A must-read.

 

 

A Review of “Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, though fascinating, was a chore to get through – so it was with some misgivings that I picked up this book, the sequel; I was resigned to getting bored, but too entranced with Tudor England and Henry VIII’s court to leave the story. However, I was pleasantly surprised… no, that’s too mild a term, I was floored! Bring up the Bodies is one humdinger of a read. While Wolf Hall was ponderous, the sequel is breezy, without losing any of the beauty of the language. In cricketing parlance, Ms. Mantel is like a test batsman who, having negotiated a treacherous pitch, has got her eye in and is stroking beautifully.

Wolf Hall described the fall of Catholic England and the meteoric rise of Anne Boleyn. Bring up the Bodies describes her equally swift and frightening destruction. Having successfully persuaded the King into marrying her, Anne had bulldozed all her opponents mercilessly. Henry’s original queen, Katherine and her daughter Mary are separately under house arrest, living in fear that any day, they may fall prey to Anne’s machinations. All the clergymen who opposed the King’s marriage have been either executed (many in gruesome ways) or forced to recant. Anne is riding high, and one may excuse her for thinking that she is beyond any law; however, her enemies are watching, and they sense the opportunity when she cannot give a male heir to Henry, the carrot she lured him with. And accompanying the King is the Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, arch-plotter and kingmaker.

Cromwell has not forgiven Anne or her family for the treatment meted out to Thomas Wolsey (one-time Lord Chancellor and his mentor) for his downfall from grace and subsequent miserable death. However, he knows to bide his time and is well aware that it is the King who has to be pampered. So he has attached himself to Henry, bearing the slights of the “noble” hangers-on to the humble blacksmith’s son with fortitude. His patience is rewarded when the King falls for the plain and demure Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to the present Queen (ironically, once coveted by Cromwell himself). From then onwards, events proceed at breakneck speed. Cromwell, with the aid of the Seymour family, succeeds in casting Anne in the role of adulteress; worse, an incestuous adulteress. Both Anne and her brother George, along with four others, meet the swift “justice” of the executioner’s axe. Now Henry is free to marry the woman of his choice: and Master Secretary is now Baron Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel’s characterisation is terrific. Thomas Cromwell, who emerged as an enigma in Wolf Hall, is more clearly drawn here: his manipulator’s mind which the author inhabits most of the time, reminds one of Shakuni. The congealed ire and hatred, burning like cold fire at the bottom of his psyche which ultimately consumes Henry Norris, William Brereton, George Boleyn and Francis Weston, is at once frightening and fascinating, as he counts them off one by one in true “Count of Monte Cristo” fashion, for plotting the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and exulting in it.

‘I must take your mind back. I do not ask you to remember the manifold favours you received at the cardinal’s hands. I only ask you to recall an entertainment, a certain interlude played at court. It was a play in which the late cardinal was set upon by demons and carried down to hell.’

He sees Norris’s eyes move, as the scene rises before him: the firelight, the heat, the baying spectators. Himself and Boleyn grasping the victim’s hands, Brereton and Weston laying hold of him by his feet. The four of them tossing the scarlet figure, tumbling and kicking him. Four men, who for a joke turned the cardinal into a beast; who took away his wit, his kindness and his grace, and made him a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.

It was not truly the cardinal, of course. It was the jester Sexton in a scarlet robe. But the audience catcalled as if it had been real, they yelled and shook their fists, they swore and mocked. Behind a screen the four devils pulled off their masks and their hairy jerkins, cursing and laughing. They saw Thomas Cromwell leaning against the paneling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.

Yes, Thomas Cromwell, dressed in black like death personified. The possibility of this scene (which is originally from Wolf Hall) having taken place in reality is anybody’s guess: but the author uses it to great effect to delineate the man Cromwell in frightening clarity – a tribute to Hilary Mantel’s consummate skills as a writer.

Henry VIII comes off more and more as a petulant kid, a kid who can shrewdly manipulate his parents; ultimately believing in the lies he has made up to absolve himself from blame. It is Cromwell’s skill to manage him like an indulgent parent while at the same time enacting the role of the loyal servant that enables him to keep on the right side of royalty at all times. He manages this tightrope walk, at the same time besting his better endowed enemies one by one. A certain nonchalance and detachment seems to mark all his dealings, even when they are life and death. It seems he has taken the advice on how to joust which an old Portuguese knight once casually gave him very seriously.

You have to keep your helmet on tightly so that you have a good line of sight. You keep your body square-on, and when you are about to strike, then and only then turn your head so that you have a full view of your opposer, and watch the iron tip of your lance straight on to your target. Some people veer away in the second before the clash. It is natural, but forget what is natural. Practise till you break your instinct. Given a chance you will always swerve. Your body wants to preserve itself and your instinct will try to avoid crashing your armoured warhorse and your armoured self into another man and horse coming full gallop the other way. Some men don’t swerve, but they close their eyes at the moment of impact. These men are of two kinds: the ones who know they do it and can’t help it, and the ones who don’t know they do it. Be neither of these kinds of men.

So how shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed? These were his instructions: you must sit easily in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air. Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected. In the combat a plaisance, with its fluttering flags, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill. In the combat a l’outrance, kill as if it were a sport. Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him: he tightens his muscles, he pulls his lance arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off the mark; if you avoid one fault, avoid that. Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on the target. But remember this above all: defeat your instinct. Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all? Why not be a smith, a brewer, a wool merchant? Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die?

Why indeed?

Towards the end, when the novel becomes abysmally dark in its depiction of court-sanctioned mass murder and the helpless Anne (a fine contrast from the haughty enchantress of Wolf Hall) spending her last days in the Tower, we see the Master Secretary grown somewhat muted and philosophical.

He thinks, strive as I might, one day I will be gone and as this world goes it may not be long: what though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do for me or my friends. When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me – let us say it is Rafe, let us say it is Wriothesley, let us say it is Riche – they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

Isn’t this what happens to all of us?

***

In the afterword, Hilary Mantel says that the book is not about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but Thomas Cromwell. According to her “Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.” One wishes her all the best in her endeavours – the saga is by no means over. And I, for one, can’t wait for the next installment.

 

A Review of “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

The English are a people, I’ve found, who are obsessed with kings and kingship, whether positively or negatively (one has only to look at the media hype surrounding the birth of the royal baby and the jokes on twitter about the same). Englishmen love their kings and queens, but are also extremely critical of them – most of which is expressed as underplayed sardonic British humour. This is why, I think, writers keep on dipping into British history and coming up with erudite historical tomes, steamy potboilers and seriously written novels which shine new light on hitherto unexplored areas. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning effort, Wolf Hall, belongs to the last category.

If one wants to choose an era in British history which is guaranteed to pull readers in, what other period than the Tudor age? The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain has this to say:

The age of the Tudors has left its impact on Anglo-American minds as a watershed in British history. Hallowed tradition, native patriotism, and post-imperial gloom have united to swell our appreciation of the period as a true golden age. Names alone evoke a phoenix-glow – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Stuart among the sovereigns of England and Scotland; Wolsey, William Cecil, and Leicester among the politicians; Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hilliard, and Byrd among the creative artists. The splendours of the court of Henry VIII, the fortitude of Sir Thomas More, the making of the English Bible, Prayer Book, and Anglican Church, the development of Parliament, the defeat of the Armada, the Shakespearian moment, and the legacy of Tudor domestic architecture – these are the undoubted climaxes of a simplified orthodoxy in which genius, romance, and tragedy are superabundant.

It is this “genius, romance and tragedy” which draw chroniclers again and again into the court of Henry VIII, inhabited by a lecherous king, a scheming queen, ladies of flexible virtue and gentlemen with ulterior motives. We are all familiar with Henry and his desperate attempt to produce a male heir; the clever and scheming yet ultimately ill-fated Ann Boleyn; Sir Thomas More, man of letters and spiritual leader; the voluptuous Mary Boleyn, an “easy armful” (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words); Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s right-hand man till his fall from grace. A writer just has to dip his/ her hand in and draw out any of these characters, and the story would be already half-written, one feels.

However, Hilary Mantel does not take this easy path. She draws out a shadowy character, enters into his mind, and shows us the Tudor court through a totally unfamiliar pair of eyes. The character is Thomas Cromwell, assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A commoner without any aristocratic pedigree. The son of a blacksmith whose only strength are the bulldog tenacity of the survivor and a native cunning, honed to perfection during the period he wandered from country to country as a teenaged exile, on the run from his murderous father.

The story of Henry VIII is common knowledge to anybody with a moderate understanding of history. A lothario of sorts, this much-married gentleman went through six wives in the desperate effort to produce a male heir, to make the kingdom safe from usurpers. Out of the six marriages, the one to Anne Boleyn produced such a schism that the church was fragmented – the Church of England, with the King as its head, split off from the Pope. Almost overnight, Catholicism was dead in England.

However, the careful student of history will notice that this was only one of the many pretexts – the world was already pissed off with Popery, who appropriated the Bible as the sole property of the Church, to be read and interpreted by the clergy only. The worship of God was only possible through the mediation of these men of cloth, many of whom engaged in acts of extreme debauchery, kept mistresses, and sired bastards all over the place. The time for a change was nigh, and it was sparked off through Martin Luther’s fiery rhetoric in Germany. Henry’s personal rebellion was only a part of the big picture.

***

By early 16th Century, Martin Luther had set the Protestant Reformation in motion in Germany. He claimed that the Bible was the only true repository of divine wisdom, accessible to all; the priesthood had no role. Salvation was possible only through belief in Christ as the redeemer, and not through paying money to the clergy. Protestantism swept Europe. The Catholic Church was shaking in its foundations, when Henry decided that he wanted his marriage (a marriage of convenience) to his elder brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, annulled on the basis that it was illegal in the first place. But everybody knew the real reason: Henry wanted a male heir, which was impossible for the Queen who was now past child-bearing age, and also because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was head over heels in love.

The Church was not very amenable to the King’s demand. The pope cannot support a man who wants to cast away his lawful wife to marry his mistress! Moreover, the Spanish Emperor’s wrath was also to be considered. Archbishop Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, who was also the Papal legate, tried and failed – leading to his fall from grace and death in disgrace. Thomas More who followed him as Lord Chancellor was loath to entertain the temporal ruler’s demands over the dictates of the spiritual realm. Henry finally realised that to have his way, he would have to take control of his kingdom as no king has done before.

Enter Thomas Cromwell…

This relative nobody shot to prominence as King Henry’s right-hand man in this troubled times. All over England, heretics were being tortured and burned by the Church: in Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were going at it with hammer and tongs. Deriving the king’s power from the mythical Lucius I of England, Cromwell and the Parliament passed a series of statutes which effectively made the ruler supreme sovereign of both spiritual and temporal activities in England. It was now treason not to accept the Crown’s supremacy; those who were the persecutors in the name of God, found themselves persecuted for treason. The boot was on the other foot.

***

Wolf Hall narrates the events described in the above paragraphs, while trying to inhabit the mind of Thomas Cromwell. I say “trying to” purposefully, because I do not think Hilary Mantel has been wholly successful in her endeavor. At the end of the novel, one is still left with a doubt as to what makes this man tick – a huge minus in a narrative which is primarily stream-of-consciousness. Cromwell’s overarching ambition and manipulative capabilities are well-etched, but the man himself remains a mystery (other than his contempt of the official church and his minions, which may be a possible motive for his actions).

However, other than the protagonist, there are some fine character sketches. Henry VIII himself, pompous, idiosyncratic, sentimental yet ruthless; Sir Thomas More, cruel in his obsession with religion; the various dukes and noblemen and other royal hangers-on, intent only on self-advancement; Mary Boleyn, willing to use her feminine charms without inhibition for self-advancement; and last but not least, the seductive Anne Boleyn with her single-minded ambition to become Queen. As the novel progresses, these characters grow and obsess us, which is a sign of good writing.

But Hilary Mantel’s style is difficult. There is a pudding in our part of the world which is very tasty but sticks to the palate, so eating it is a chore: the author’s prose reminded me of it. Most of the time, Cromwell is mentioned simply as “he”, which made it difficult to recognise who was referred to, especially while a group conversation was being described. However, the stream-of –consciousness method has an advantage that reveries can be inserted at any time, and the author can speak through her protagonist. Even though not essential to the tale at hand, some such interior monologues are very beautiful. I cannot resist quoting one.

In the forest you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger. You may find a woman asleep in a bower of leaves. For a moment, before you don’t recognise her, you will think she’s someone you know.

This is the world Thomas Cromwell (and I suspect, many of our modern politicians) inhabit.

***

Even though Ms. Mantel does not do anything to redeem the image of Anne Boleyn, some words she speaks are suggestive.

Anne says, ‘I am Jezebel. You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.’ Her eyes are alight. ‘As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the Devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me…’

This passage left me wondering about the numerous political scandals in the modern world where beautiful women have played a part, and kind of attention media lavished on them, stripping and raping them through words and unspoken innuendos. No, the world has not changed that much, as far as men’s thinking is concerned.

***

P.S. While I was reading the book, the British Royal Baby came into the world at the same time as Elizabeth was born in the story. Coincidence? Maybe…

At least, the modern-day prince will not have to fear the assassin with his hidden knife – only the paparazzi with his hidden camera. Thank God for small favours.

Bergman’s Two Journeys (Part I)

I do not remember when I graduated from reading for killing time and started to take literature seriously, but I do remember when I started to view movies as a serious art form.  It was when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal during my second year at Thrissur Engineering College.

Thrissur was a vibrant centre for art and literature in those days (the status has still not changed, I believe).  There were the Sahitya Academy, the Lalitha Kala Academy and the Sangeetha Nataka Academy; frequent shows in the Regional Theatre; the well-endowed public library and the frequent book exhibitions… there was also the Pooram festival and the attendant cultural extravaganza.  Thrissur was aptly termed the Cultural Capital of Kerala.  I felt myself lucky to be living in that city.

The early Eighties was the golden age of film societies in Kerala.  In those pre-TV days, we could see foreign movies (other than English) only through them.  Thrissur also had its popular film society in “Mass Film Society”, of which my aunt and I were members.  The movies were shown in the Town Hall, in a poorly ventilated room with dysfunctional fans.  We had to sit on very hard benches, and our bottoms were hurting very badly by the time the show ended.  But for me, it was bliss.

Because I learnt from those movies that pictures could talk; that what the film showed within its small 35mm frame actually spread over a much larger canvas in the mind of the viewer; and that ultimately, the movie was Myth in its modern incarnation, and the experience inside the theatre was the sacred covenant between the worshippers (the audience) and shaman/ priest (the director).  The Seventh Seal was my initiation.

The journey is a common trope in literature and myth.  We have Odysseus’s travels in the Odyssey (which James Joyce parodied in Ulysses), Rama’s journey in the Ramayana, and Frodo Baggins’s journey in The Lord of the Rings.   These journeys are metaphorical as well as physical: the hero starts out as an initiate and returns as a wise man.  Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has suggested that the “hero’s journey” is a common motif in almost all of the world’s mythologies – he calls it the “Monomyth”.

However, a discussion of the Monomyth is not the subject of this blog post.  What I am analysing here, from a connoisseur’s point of view, are two of my favourite Berman movies: The Seventh Seal which depicts the outward journey, and Wild Strawberries which depict the inward one.

The Seventh Seal: The Journey Outward

Ingmar Bergman was the son of a Lutheran priest.  One can imagine what kind of family atmosphere he would have grown up in, with the typical sense of sin, punishment, redemption and all the accompanying religious baggage.  The Seventh Seal obviously owes a lot to this darkness.  Bergman has confessed that at a particular stage of his life, he was plagued by the fear of death; the making of this movie provided the catharsis.

The movie in part was inspired some murals in a church the young Ingmar visited with his father.  These pictures had been painted at a time when the plague was sweeping Europe, leaving death and desolation in its wake; naturally, they were frightening and pessimistic.

A common theme was the victory of death.  Death, a skeletal, grinning figure, would be shown in the company of healthy unsuspecting individuals.  Here he would be, sharing a goblet with a handsome young man: there, dancing with an amorous couple: in a third place, cutting down a tree on which a young knave is sitting – themes to remind one that “in the midst of life, we are in death”.

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[image courtesy: Wikipedia]

One picture which seems to have made a lasting impression on Bergman is the one shown above, a knight playing chess with death.  One could say that the whole metaphor of The Seventh Seal is built around this image.

The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Revelation: “When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven for half an hour.”  This is the silence of God: an apt prologue, because the whole film is about the search for God – or His absence.

Antonius Block, a knight returning from the crusades, finds himself travelling through plague-ravaged Europe.  He is searching for God: his distressing experiences have shaken his faith, but not destroyed it.  His squire, the cynical atheist Jons, believes otherwise, and couldn’t care less.  They make an odd pair as they plod across the desolate landscape, Jons replying with sarcastic repartees to Block’s profound questions.

Then Death (personified as a figure totally covered in black) enters the scene.  He has come to claim the knight and his companion; however, he gives Block one final chance.  If the knight can defeat him at chess, he will survive.  Block is confident that he can beat Death or at least hold him off until he discovers the answer to his theological enquiries.

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They continue their journey towards Block’s castle, picking up a motley crew in the process.  The most prominent are Jof and Mia (and their infant son Mikael), actors in a strolling theatre group managed by the lecherous Skat.  Jof considers himself a visionary, and he genuinely sees religious visions, but he is something of a buffoon and the others in the group make fun of him, including his wife.  Another is a servant girl whom Jons saves from Raval, a theologian turned brigand and grave-robber (ironically, he had persuaded Block to desert his wife and go on a crusade).  Their team also comprises the town blacksmith who is cuckolded by Skat and his wife, Lisa. Death follows them, appearing at intervals to continue his game with Block.

As they move across the plague-ravaged landscape, there are many encounters in true “road-movie” fashion: a young woman condemned to die as a witch; a group of flagellants marching by, flogging themselves; and Raval, now himself ironically a victim of the plague, dying miserably in front of them.  Throughout the journey, Jons is interested in helping his fellow humans any way he can, while Block is aloof, his head full of theological angst about the nonexistence of God (in a significant scene, he asks the young woman about to be burnt as a witch about her encounter with the Devil, while Jons tries to alleviate her misery and pain).

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Block knows that his life has been meaningless and futile: his aim is to hold Death off till he accomplishes “the one significant thing” even though he himself does not know what it is.  Towards the end, when there is only one move between him and defeat, Block realises what it is – to save Jof, Mia and Mikael.  He upsets the board to distract Death just long enough for the family of actors to escape (Jof, with his visionary capacity, is the only one who can see Death apart from him): so in the end, when death comes for all of them in his castle, Block dies with his questions unanswered but with the gratification of knowing he has accomplished something worthwhile.

There have been a lot of allegories, using the metaphor of the journey and Biblical imagery to depict the soul’s journey, both in the temporal and celestial regions.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy come readily to mind. The Seventh Seal creates its impact by placing this allegory on its head.  Here, the theme is not God, but the silence (death?) of God and the ultimate failure of the hero’s quest.  However, in depicting this failed quest, Bergman has managed to pack such a large mythological canvas into ninety minutes of screen time that the effect is indeed magical.

Even though the style here is unabashedly expressionistic, the story is clear and straightforward.  Unlike Wild Strawberries, this movie can be enjoyed as a Medieval Gothic tale, without looking at the subtext.  Bergman speaks with clear, black and white images which need no interpretation.  The subtext is very much there, however, in the images and more so in the crisp dialogues, delivered by the nihilist Jons.

Consider, for example, the following scene at the very beginning of the movie.  Block requests Jons to ask a man, seated by the wayside, the way to the inn.  On finding the man unresponsive, the squire shakes him, only to find himself looking at a rotting corpse.

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The scene is pretty bizarre, but it is the dialogue which follows which takes the cake.

Block: Did he indicate the way?

Jons: Not exactly.

Block: What did he say?

Jons: Nothing.

Block: Was he dumb?

Jons: No, one can’t say that… I have to say he was extremely well-spoken… well-spoken, yes; but the speech he made was dour, I have to say.

One can’t say whether this is horror, comedy or black comedy.

There is another scene where Block confesses to Death at a church, inadvertently thinking that it is a priest he is talking to.

Block: I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty; and emptiness is a mirror turned to my own face.  I see myself and am seized by disgust and fear.  Through my indifference for people, I have been placed outside of their society… Now I live in a ghost world, enclosed in my dreams and imaginings.

Priest (Death): Despite that, you don’t want to die.

Block: Yes!  I want to.

Priest (Death): What are you waiting for?

Block: I want knowledge.

Priest (Death): You want guarantees.

Block: Call it what you like.  Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses?  Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?  How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith?  What will happen to we who want to believe, but cannot?  What about those who neither want to nor can believe?  Why can’t I kill God in me?  Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way despite me wanting to evict Him from my heart?  Why is he, after all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of? – Do you hear?

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Priest (Death): I hear you.

Block: I want knowledge!  Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.  I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face, and speak to me.

Priest (Death): But He remains silent.

Block: I call out to Him in darkness.  But it’s as if no one was there…

Priest (Death): Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Block: Then life is a preposterous horror.  No man can live faced with death, knowing that everything’s nothingness.

Priest (Death): Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Priest (Death): That day…

Block: I understand what you mean.  We must make an idol of our fear and that idol we shall call God.

Priest (Death): You are worried.

Block: Death came to see me this morning. We played chess together.  The respite allows me to attend to some business.

Priest (Death): What business?

Block: All my life I’ve been searching, wondering, talking without meaning or context.  It has been nothing!  Yes, I say so without bitterness or self-reproach, as I know that almost all people’s lives are made this way.  But I want to use my respite for one meaningful act.

Priest (Death): That’s why you are playing chess with death.

Block: He’s a difficult and skillful tactician, but so far I have not surrendered a piece.

Priest (Death): How can you outwit death in your game?

Block: I’m playing a combination of bishop and knight that he hasn’t noticed yet.  I’ll expose his flank in the next move.

Priest (Death): (revealing himself to Block) I’ll remember that.

Pardon me for quoting that dialogue at length, but I consider it the most important exchange in the whole movie.  It marks out Antonius Block for a traditional tragic hero on his doomed quest.  It does not matter that this hero does not do anything particularly “heroic” in the film: rather, it is strangely apposite.  For Block’s flaw is not his lack of faith, but a faith which he cannot tear out from his heart even after experiences which prove that it is useless.  He is the photographic negative of a hero who fails by trying to challenge the gods – one who fails by not challenging what should be challenged.

Jons is the perfect foil to Block.  He is a man without any faith, who carries on because there is nothing else to do.  If Block is tragic, Jons is beyond tragedy and comedy.  He inhabits a charred and desolate mental landscape which is eerily like the plague-infested land that he is crawling through; an acceptance of a black fate that is even beyond despair (however, it is to his credit that this does not prevent him from acting in the world: it is he who saves the servant girl and in another encounter, Jof, from Raval).  In the end, when they all stand before death, Jons tells the praying Block: “In that darkness where you claim to reside, where we probably all reside, you will find no one that listens to your complaint or is moved by your suffering”.

Is there only darkness?  It is interesting that both the seeker Block and the atheist Jons fall prey to Death.  The only people who escape are Jof, Mia and Mikael.  The character of Jof is like a ray of sunshine in a story which is mostly built out of darkness.  Jof is a common man, something of a simpleton, who does not have the depths of either Block or Jons: he believes in a simple religion, loves his wife and son, and wants to live his life, that’s all.  In fact, the pastoral life of the trio are sketched in such loving detail that we feel that we are in the presence of the Holy Family here.

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When Block spends his first evening with them, he is treated to wild strawberries and goat milk (the metaphor of wild strawberries as innocence makes it first entry here; he will use it as the title of another of his famous movies, his second journey which I shall be discussing later).  Block says: “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk…And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me.”  These strangely evocative lines, taken in conjunction with his confessions earlier, point us towards the “one significant thing” – even though it is almost impossible to know without hindsight.

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By saving Jof (the idiot visionary, a sort of “God’s Fool”) and his family from Death, Block is accomplishing the continuance of innocence in a world totally bereft of it.  In the last scene (arguably the most famous in world cinema), Jof has a vision which he describes to Mia.

Jof: Mia! I can see them, Mia! I can see them! Over there under the storm-laden skies. They are all there. The smith and Lisa and the knight and Raval and Jons and Skat. And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He wants them to hold hands and dance in a long line.  And the grim master leads with scythe and hourglass, but Skat brings up the rear with his lyre. They move away, away from the dawn in a solemn dance, away to the dark country. Whilst the rain washes over their faces, cleans their cheeks of tears and salt.

Mia: (Smiling) You and your dreams and visions…

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This brief exchange rounds of brilliantly what has been a dark ride, in the same fashion Block’s confession sets off the premise at the beginning.  The movie ends with Jof, Mia and Mikael moving away towards the light.

Bergman speaks with images as well as words.  In fact, this movie is a textbook on how to meld the two.  Being adapted from a play, and because of its content, the film is necessarily wordy – sometimes even pompously so.  However, Bergman uses his camera angles brilliantly to emphasise his words (aided by the great cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer).  In fact, most of the images from this movie (like the “Dance of Death” above) have become iconic in the world of serious cinema.

Joseph Campbell said that all myth was metaphor.  Directors like Bergman have proved that art is the medium for myth in today’s world.  This is a timeless classic.