A friend once posted this excerpt from Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman on Facebook and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It helps crystallize some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head concerning the shape and telos of our 21st century American/Western culture.
First, though, here’s the Bergman quote (emphasis mine):
People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.
The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.
We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.
Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.
Bergman was obviously talking about filmmaking and art, but the spirit behind his criticism reaches far beyond those particular spheres of human activity. In doing so, it damns much of our increasingly selfish and narcissistic society.
Ours is a society in which individual autonomy is easily and frequently placed above all else, and out of that priority flows much of what is shallow and odious in our culture. Reality TV and celebrity culture, social media and online behavior, our current social and political discourse (or lack thereof)… these things both celebrate and flow from the “divine” right of individuals to be whatever they want to be, and to present themselves however they want to present themselves — and to hell with any and all critics and naysayers.
The spirit of our age is perhaps best summed up by this quote from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The quote comes from his ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and on the surface, it sounds profound and meaningful. But when taken to its logical conclusions, it’s an incredibly nonsensical, selfish, and even toxic statement.
If one truly believes he has the right to define his own existence regardless of what anyone else might think, or regardless of any external obligations and concerns, then simply consider how lonely and antagonistic a stance that is. Or, as Bergman put it, “The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.”
It sounds brave and bold — the ultimate in existentialism, if you will — but can anyone truly live like that? Nevertheless, it’s a sentiment that we as a culture have taken to heart.
Back in 2015, Vanity Fair published an article on modern dating and how technology like the Tinder dating app has changed it. The article — which got a lot a lot of attention, including a pretty hilarious Twitter meltdown/PR fail by Tinder — is full of depressing scenes as twenty-somethings describe how they hook up with each other via dating apps for quick, meaningless sex. An excerpt:
Mobile dating went mainstream about five years ago; by 2012 it was overtaking online dating. In February, one study reported there were nearly 100 million people — perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone — using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida. “It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”
The comparison to online shopping seems an apt one. Dating apps are the free-market economy come to sex. The innovation of Tinder was the swipe — the flick of a finger on a picture, no more elaborate profiles necessary and no more fear of rejection; users only know whether they’ve been approved, never when they’ve been discarded. OkCupid soon adopted the function. Hinge, which allows for more information about a match’s circle of friends through Facebook, and Happn, which enables G.P.S. tracking to show whether matches have recently “crossed paths,” use it too. It’s telling that swiping has been jocularly incorporated into advertisements for various products, a nod to the notion that, online, the act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable.
“It’s instant gratification,” says Jason, 26, a Brooklyn photographer, “and a validation of your own attractiveness by just, like, swiping your thumb on an app. You see some pretty girl and you swipe and it’s, like, oh, she thinks you’re attractive too, so it’s really addicting, and you just find yourself mindlessly doing it.” “Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive in New York. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”
Reading the above excerpt — and the article is full of similar passages — it’s hard not to hear Bergman’s words echoing in response; the above passage depicts the exact sort of individualism that he decries. It’s an individualism that reduces other people to mere options to be weighed in the pursuit of one’s own sexual pleasure and autonomy, a pursuit that can’t be bothered with things like intimacy, affection, commitment, or respect.
When you make a conscious decision to not link sex to anything greater than mere pleasure — or, in Bergman’s case, when you choose to not link art to anything greater than mere expression — you’re left with a reductive view and a diminished experience of some of the most sublime aspects of human existence.
Even a liberal writer like Damon Linker finds this development distressing, and is left wanting more for his children:
I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.
But of course all of this presumes the existence of a stable standard of excellence that tells us which goods are higher and which lower, allowing us to rank ways of life and modes of behavior. Religious traditions provide such standards. The idea of “nature,” in its older teleological sense, does something similar.
“God? Nature? Won’t the world be better off without those musty old ideas limiting our freedom, hovering over our heads, judging us, weighing on our conscience?”
Humans have an innate desire and need to worship. Regardless of whether you’re a religious person who sees it as divine revelation or an atheist who sees it as an evolutionary adaptation, there’s a “God-shaped” hole in all of us, and we will do everything we can to fill it. And we will do so by worshipping something, even if we don’t use the word “worship” to describe our actions.
The question then becomes, who or what will you worship? Justice Kennedy’s quote suggests that ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping ourselves (i.e., our own desires, pleasures, comfort, and autonomy). Additionally, we might worship power, wealth, fame, or sexual pleasure, anything that ultimately lets us get closer to being our own person.
But what happens when we make ourselves the highest goal of our own existence? If we aim for nothing higher than our own satisfaction, where do we go once we achieve that — assuming we even can? Where can we go from there? Bergman seems to suggest that the only way is to allow yourself to be subsumed, to humble yourself in service of something greater than yourself and your own whims and desires. Or, in his words, “I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”
There’s a question we all need to ask of ourselves in our increasingly shrill, intemperate, and individualistic culture: Are we striving to collectively build something greater, together? Or are we pursuing our own happiness and desire — our own autonomy — at the expense of others? It might not even be individual autonomy per se, but rather that we’re placing the good our own tribe, whatever it might be, above all else.
It’s tempting to think that we owe nothing to each other, and even less if we’re on opposite sides of some political, social, or cultural divide. It’s certainly a temptation that I fall into, that I should only care about me and mine, and it can manifest itself in various ways both gross and subtle. But I want, or at least I hope I want, “to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain.”
One of my favorite Biblical passages is found in the book of Jeremiah. This particular book was originally written to the nation of Judah after it had been defeated and scattered, and its best and brightest carted off to Babylon in shame. If there was ever a people who had cause to withdraw, to seek to preserve themselves at the expense of others (i.e., their conquerors), they would be it.
And yet, in Jeremiah 29, we read these stirring words (emphasis mine):
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
In fact, this message is so important that God even goes so far as to warn the exiles, through Jeremiah, against “prophets” who would tell them to do otherwise, to only care for themselves and not the city of their captors. Here, God is telling the exiles — whose nation, remember, had been ruined by the Babylonians — to put aside their own desire for autonomy, prosperity, and security, and instead, cross obvious party lines and “seek the welfare” of the city because “in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This idea — that our welfare might be somehow tied to the welfare of our perceived cultural and ideological foes, whoever they might be — is far more radical than any culture warrior could ever think of. And it’s an idea that, as our culture grows more fragmented, will become increasingly necessary before we all find ourselves at each other’s throats, choking each other to death while desperately pleading to be left to our own individual devices and desires.