Building a Cathedral

In an article in the September 1960 issue of Horizon magazine, Ingmar Bergman was described as “the most widely acclaimed film director of our time.”[i]  Bergman was a clergyman’s son and grew up witnessing funerals, weddings, baptisms, and marriages. “The Devil was an early acquaintance, and in the child’s mind there was a need to personify him; and indeed, the Devil has had a central role in many of Bergman’s films as has religion itself.”[ii]

“To me, religious problems are continuously alive. I never cease to concern myself with them, and my concern goes on every hour of every day. Yet it does not take place on the emotional level but on the intellectual one. Religious emotion, religious sentimentality is something I got rid of long ago—I hope. The religious problem is an intellectual one to me: the problem of my mind in relation to my intuition. The result of some kind of tower of Babel [P-B context].”[iii]  Bergman’s insight here, albeit an unconscious one, is the problem of the intellect as a barrier (a reaction, an obfuscating tower of Babel) to the present moment (an intuitive response to life). His career as a filmmaker has been an intuitive search for an experience of the present moment, the same process we are all engaged in.

Seeing himself as a magician, a conjurer, Bergman recognized that in making a film, he was creating an illusion. “When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion: putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of images plays directly on our feelings without touching on the intellect.”[iv]

Bergman reveals that he is aiming for an emotional reaction and the intellect is involved but not in the sense of a “rational” intervention. In short, Bergman is unintentionally creating suffering for those viewing his films and the viewers cooperate by using the films as an escape or distraction from their existential anxiety. Both the filmmaker and his audience are unconsciously seeking to create reactions by entering P-B, the environment of illusion.

In a sense, Bergman has built his body of work on the survival strategy of the false self energy centers whereby we all pursue plenty, pleasure and power. He was influenced in this by reading Eino Kaila’s book Psychology of the Personality. “His thesis that man lives strictly according to his needs—negative and positive—was shattering to me, but terribly true. And I built on this ground.”[v]

Deriving our identity from P-B results in our identifying with the false self as we fail to recognize that deriving our identity from our body, mind and emotions is fundamentally an illusion. Bergman intuits the price humankind pays by insisting on gratifying what Freud called the ego. “Today the individual [false self] 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 each other’s existence. 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.”[vi]

Bergman’s films indict humankind because we cannot distinguish between P-A and P-B, between the True-self and the false self, between an act of compassion and an act of violence.

The rebuilding of the Cathedral of Chartres is used by Bergman to reveal his intention as a creative artist. “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, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, [and] burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who rebuilt the Cathedral of Chartres.”[vii]

In this story Bergman reveals the importance of the Buddhist principle of no “I” or no “ego.” To live life spontaneously, expressing his True-self in the present moment, left no room for the self-destructive false self to enter Bergman’s process of creation. This identity was of the utmost importance to Bergman as an artist. Speaking of the anonymous “artist” who helped rebuild Chartres: “He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality,’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable to his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.”[viii]

The True-self is the only true identity we have, if only we realized this. The “movie” that we create by reacting in the dark space of P-B, where we have come to escape the responsibility of expressing our gift, is an illusion. Our True-self knows better than to seek fame and recognition, let alone immortality. That would be a reaction. Bergman in his own way knew that what he wanted was to use his art anonymously as a response to life.

“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.”[ix]  That cathedral is Simple Reality.

Building a Cathedral

[i]     Bergman, Ingmar. “Why I Make Movies.” Horizon. September 1960, page 5.

[ii]     Ibid., page 6.

[iii]    Ibid., page 9.

[iv]    Ibid., page 7.

[v]     Ibid., page 9.

[vi]    Ibid.

[vii]   Ibid.

[viii]   Ibid.

[ix]    Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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