A former student and good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound. Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868: “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”
Bergman is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows.“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.
In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.
What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel): “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.
We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but feel only animus toward all but a few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.
Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we recently learned in Japan. Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.