Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly provokes questions about love and God, and if they are the same. More precisely, as the title indicates, love in this film is how we see God through the mirror of life. It may not be the exact image of God but it is what we can see in this life.
This is the conclusion of David, father of Minus and Karin. The fourth character in the film is Martin, Karin’s husband. Karin loses her mind as she begins to see God in real life. Her hearing becomes very acute and she becomes aware of things she shouldn’t be aware of, such as the form of God in the real world, and the contents of her father’s diary, which voices inside of her tell her to read.
Karin’s father takes the antipodal position on God. He cannot see or feel God in any form but can experience love, and concludes this love must be God. Is this faith? Can faith really be in something one can see, such as love? If we can see God does this mean we have no faith?
What does this say about Karin, who sees God in a spider? Is she projecting God onto the physical form, distrusting her faith, just as her father is projecting God onto a concept, distrusting his faith? They are occupying opposite ends of the sanity spectrum, one completely in reality, and utterly insane, and one completely outside it, and all too sane, but they share a projection of God, which only produces a mirror image. One cannot look at God directly. We only see God through our own world perception; through a glass darkly.
David’s other child Minus writes a play that puts David’s successful writing career to shame. David is a popular writer but he doesn’t see himself as a real artist. Real art changes society, popular art only reflects it, through a glass darkly. Such is why I’m so hard on the populists who want to further entrench class hierarchy by playing to people’s worst tendencies and supportive of socialists who seek to transform society into a utopia by organizing and educating the collective.
The conclusion of the film is that looking in the mirror is a lie. We can think we are seeing something divine but we don’t know. The divine truly comes from the love the characters feel for one another because it is tangible. The self, the idea of a coherent internal mind is elusive for Karin just as the self-represented in the public eye is not enough for David; a popular, reductive author.
Minus writes a play where he plays a king who is being summoned by death to join death, embodied in a specious way through Karin. Karin, calling from the dead, lets us in on the idea of death in the film which is that life is the inauthentic art and death is the lone heroic act. One can only become a true hero (which for Bergman is the same as true artist) by dying.
By choosing to live, one is choosing to live inauthentically and naturally, rather than artistic or heroic eternal existence. In a way, it is a false choice: the death that marks eternal real existence or life that marks an awareness of a fleeting false existence. On the other hand, the choice of death is the obvious one for anyone who is serious. In this way David regrets abandoning his family to pursue his life as a novelist because his art means nothing. Death is the only authentic art.
Is death just the absence of life? Where life is a lie and therefore the only integrity is in death? Not quite. In the play written by Minus, the king does not choose to live, but rather the character of death grows impatient of him not being able to choose between life or death. The case for death is so overwhelming that the fact that the king even has to think about it proves that the king is still wrapped up in false material goals and isn’t worth death’s trouble.
While critics say that David hated Minus’ play because David was represented in the hallow satirized character of the king, I thought David hated the play because Minus wrote a piece of writing that captured life while David never could.
Sex is a factor here too. Minus desires his sister Karin as a non-familial lover, leading to his frustration over his desire for her, as she is presently his sister. Karin’s husband Martin desires her as a daughter, but he can never be her real father, so she never wants him sexually. One would think that Karin would then be desiring her real father but she actually is only rejecting the desire of her fake father and instead desires her brother as her brother, but because her brother desires her as an unrelated lover, they can only cross paths sexually in states outside of reality.
Sex in the film seems like one step further into the mirror. Just as love mirrored God, which distorted the image but didn’t entirely part from it, sex feels like a mirror image of love that has a passionate incongruity.
How does class play into the film? On a base level this is basically a story of middle-class alienation and the lesson is that finding meaning is a bourgeois concern and that real authentic life is only in death. Indeed, finding meaning in anything other than the abolition of class relations is a false meaning and it is also true that most organized attempts to exit class hierarchy leads to death, completing the logical material circle.
On the other hand the characters do have to reckon with the fact that they have chosen life, or that life has chosen them. In this way Kantian chance just as much as Marxist materialism has brought the characters into their current state of inauthentic meaningless middle-class life. Remember in Minus’ play that death was a near encounter, one avoided by on the one hand, the Marxist class relation of king, being able to escape death, on the other hand, the Kantian chance of missing death by mistiming it. The same thing happened with David as he tried to commit suicide, the ultimate heroic act, only to have his car stall, leading him to pathetically attempt a finish to his novel.
Far from being meaningless, this insane life we live has a meaning in its own void. The lack we feel is filled by love, this love is how we understand God. This is a distorted perception, but without this mediation, we fall into nihilism represented by David or insanity represented by Karin. Of course, any mediation is merely a way to provide alienated material to grasp on to as David points out to Minus at the end of the film.
Winnie the Pooh once said: “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Karin is missing this piece of fluff, she can hear everything, and is called both an animal and a child by her husband. Winnie the Pooh’s wisdom comes from both this hyper-awareness of animal senses and perfect ignorance of childhood.
Karin is in this way hypersensitive to sounds we are not aware of and aware of things animals are aware of, like the coming of a storm. These sounds connect her to God but disconnect her from her husband, who she has to sacrifice to hear the “others”. To accept his earthly rules would be to accept the voices in her own head weren’t real. Even if she was able to control these voices, could she ever forget their reality, would they ever be less real, or only more suppressed?
Indeed if all life is a failure to fundamentally transcend itself through death then aren’t we always in this realm where perception and certainly society are mediations as far from success as any technical definition of insanity? It becomes clear that the love the characters feel for Karin does not save her from her mental illness but it does do something more heroic. It connects the characters who now see their love for Karin as God just as Karin sees God in her visions. In this way the characters do better than saving Karin, they become entangled with her.
This is the key for the political left too. Rather than nobly save society from itself we must create this sort of entanglement. Martin might be the path forward for the left here. He is bound to Karin because he loves her while father and brother remain bound to her in part as modern subjects who are at least in part interested in her present condition; and partly too, they are love bound. Martin has no interest in the present. His eyes are on the future utopia. And yet father remains a modernist, as he writes in his diary of his sick enjoyment of Karin’s illness, for it gives him a chance at heroic artistry.
For Martin the only enjoyment is the cure and in this way he is the agent of change, the socialist propelling the confrontation and inevitable revolution. He will not indulge her illness and for this he is sacrificed by his wife.
Minus and David remain more open, they want Karin to get better but they are willing to accept what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism. For Fisher capitalist realism is accepting that there is no way out of capitalism, just mediation within it. Martin can find no enjoyment in solutions that aren’t radical and for this he has no place in the sexual spiritual economy of the movie. In this way the left cannot accept sacrifice and suffering as authentic meaning but rather must formulate a way out.
To be fair it is the love all the characters feel for Karin that becomes its own spider web that gives the characters the eternal external link to something beyond life; a far more elevated achievement than saving any one person from an unsustainable perception of inherently false material reality.
For Zizek, love is not about figuring the way out, but rather by achieving proximity: “It is easy to love the idealized figure of a poor, helpless neighbor, the starving African or Indian, for example; in other words, it is easy to love one’s neighbor as long as he stays far enough from us, as long as there is a proper distance separating us. The problem arises at the moment when he comes too near us, when we start to feel his suffocating proximity – at this moment when the neighbour exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred.” For Jacques Lacan there is no desire besides the other’s: says:“Desire full stop is always the desire of the Other. This basically means that we are always asking the Other what he desires”
In this way love, like life, is a failure. If love is without its obligation to a real neighbor with real demands then it is not close enough, we have the fluff in our ears, we are not hearing God. Love in this way is the structure that binds us, as Bergman indicates, not just in an abstract romantic way, but rather in a way that is right beside us, intruding on our life, giving it meaning and purpose when we know that without the demand from the Other, without their lack that we can fill, our own lack would be too much to bare. Such may be a middle-class framing, encouraging charity, but this relationship of love is always a mutual exchange and therefore the external link is reality itself, the mirror in which we see the Other is also the mirror in which the Other sees us.
The exterior eyes upon us, those of history, of an existence outside of our own time, an existence outside of our bodies, is marked as heroic when we disavow our present earthly state for one beyond. Most of us are not so heroic and will have to settle for earthly love.
Piglet famously asks Pooh: We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” To which Pooh replies: “Even longer.” Who is to prove Pooh wrong here? Being friends forever seems like an impossible task, as it would transcend the end of time. Being friends for longer than forever on the other hand means that the end of time hits and still the friendship remains as its own measurement. Even if love is God seen through a glass darkly, a terrestrial concept in a universe beyond our conception, it still is what we have, and something worth living for.