What is it to properly think about the relationship with the beloved? When asked about our love relationships, we often resort to a description of effects and affects. “S/he makes me feel joy/ anxiety/ bliss/ despair.” “I’m happy in his/her presence.” “I’m lost without my love.” “I’m better off without him/her.” This is not thinking the relationship. This is thought trapped in concern with the self. But what if proper care of the self is predicated upon the care for the beloved, for the one that is not you and is not even fully comprehensible by you? The love relationship seems to posit the notion that care of the self, the furtherance of the self, requires abnegation of the self, requires a wager, a wager that can result in loss and failure, a wager that involves the cession of the self over to the enigmatic void of the beloved’s desire.
The horror of the void depends on the fact that it can never be filled. But in the love relationship this lack becomes transformed into repletion, for the lover does not desire to have the beloved satiated. Rather, love insists upon the renewed effort, the willingness to continually engage in an act of re-commitment. Love seeks familiarity but not the cessation of the search for knowledge. Love pleads for more and in that search for more, projects itself into an uncertain but promising future. Although it is often pilloried as the death of love, the marital relationship is in many ways the epitome of love as an act of continual commitment and re-commitment. Easily dismissed, ridiculed, and satirized, the marital relationship is not so easily contemplated. While I continue to employ the term “marital relationship” in this essay, I should be understood as speaking about any relationship based on sensual love that involves commitment.
Criterion Collection’s re-release (on blu ray) of Ingmar Bergman’s wrenching six-part mini-series for Swedish television, Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973) along with the shorter version Bergman prepared for theatrical release is, to my mind, one of the finest portrayals of the complications of the marital relationship. The tragedy it presents involves the quotidian everydayness of marriage—rather than an outside incursion upon its relative stability, or an outlandish occurrence that sets everything off kilter (as featured in so many other films examining marriage). The pains and the joys of Scenes from a Marriage are of a subtler nature. The film bores down into the recesses of the marital relationship, the small slights that become too much to bear, the unforeseen surprises that inspire outlandish and inexplicable exhilaration. In this sense, Scenes from a Marriage affords us the perfect opportunity to truly think the loving relationship between the lover and the beloved.
Love that Casts Us in a Harsh Light: Contemplating Pauline Agape
Early in the first episode of Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erlund Josephson) are in their living room being interviewed by an old classmate who now works as a reporter for a women’s magazine (Anita Wall). The interviewer questions them on the nature of their successful ten-year marriage, how they manage to balance their professional careers with their home life (Marianne is a divorce lawyer and Johan a scientist and academic), how they share responsibility in rearing their two daughters, how they maintain a stable relationship. When Johan leaves the room to make a phone call, the reporter leans in toward Marianne and presses her for a definition of love. Marianne, relatively reserved and not given to wide-flung reflections on life’s abstractions, demurs at first but then begins to construct a reply.
She first alludes to the Pauline definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8. Although she merely mentions Paul’s definition and doesn’t recite it, it is worth reflecting on a bit:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. [English Standard Version].
As Marianne acknowledges, these verses are often employed as an inspirational reading in marriage ceremonies. Paul, however, clearly did not have marital love in mind in this epistle, which was meant, in part, to convince the Corinthians of the necessity of a specific form of love (agape in Paul’s Greek, translated in the King James Version with the less confusing if less captivating term, “charity”) as the foundation for spiritual achievement. The Corinthians prided themselves on attaining spiritual gifts (such as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues) but Paul insisted that without agape such gifts failed to communicate the nature of God.
Therefore, agape for Paul is a universal principle that answers a troubling concern in Christian theology. Paul claims in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” whereas in Romans 13:10 he insists that “Love [agape] is the fulfilling of the law.” Under the Old Testament law, man, according to Paul, was condemned to a living death. Being inherently sinful and corrupted, man cannot be justified by the law. Divine law is simply incommensurate with human adequacy. In one sense, agape is similarly formidable. Who can consistently love in the Pauline manner, to believe and endure all things? Just as it was impossible for a person to live according to the strictures of divine law, must we not also always fall short of divine love?
Surely, we must. However, agape is a different manner of confronting the stark ontological gap between the human and the divine. Whereas the law was intransigent and unyielding (indeed, must be in order to be the law) and thus marked the abyss between man and God, agape reached across that abyss and provided a continuity between the divine and the human. The human aspired to (literally, to direct one’s spirit toward) agape and thus participated in it because it forms a continuum that opposes the law’s insistent remove from human grasp. The old law cursed (condemned us to failure) whereas agape redeems (allows us to participate in the divine). Agape is thus one of many neo-Platonic elements in Pauline theology.
This is hardly what we would term “romantic love”, except in those marriage ceremonies that attempt to expunge from romantic attachment much that necessarily defines it. Romantic love is jealous (if not necessarily envious); it is (typically) the desire to keep the beloved to one’s self. Marital love cannot seem but to keep a record of wrongdoing (even if in a rather gentle manner) as part of the continuing functioning of the relationship. Such accounting is part and parcel of why we have the term “marriage contract”. Immanuel Kant saw this in a particularly clear and unromantic light when he claimed, in The Science of Right, that a primary end of marriage is “enjoyment in the reciprocal use of the sexual endowments” [Translation by W. Hastie]. In entering the marriage contract, I turn myself “into a thing, which is contrary to the right of humanity in his own person.” This is justified insofar as it is mutual. The person I marry also, presumably, voluntarily becomes a thing for my enjoyment. While we might chide Kant for his decided lack of romance, we must praise him for seeing that the proper marital agreement involves two equal persons both willing to sacrifice an aspect of themselves for the satisfaction of the other; that is, marriage involves mutuality. Marriage is, for Kant, the only site wherein sexual lust can be satisfied without the degradation of another (or at least with only a reciprocal and voluntary manner of degradation taking place).
But Kant would hardly be guilty of conflating romantic or marital love with Pauline agape and neither would Marianne, at least on one level. After the interviewer waxes enthusiastic over the beauty of the Pauline passage, Marianne states: “The only problem is his definition casts us in such a harsh light. If Paul is right about love, it’s so rare that hardly anyone ever experiences it… Personally, I find it’s enough to be kind to the person you live with. Affection is also good. Humor, friendship, tolerance. Having reasonable expectations. If you have all that, then love isn’t necessary.” The interviewer asks why Marianne suddenly seems upset and she refers to her law practice, where she sees people “collapse under the weight of unrealistic emotional demands.” Instead of forcing each other to play specific roles in each other’s lives, Marianne insists, we should simply act with greater kindness.
Notice Marianne rightly views the Pauline concept of agape as ultimately unattainable. Love in the Pauline sense is not a human emotion or act, it is a divine principle in which humans may participate but which only vaguely connects them to the great Unknown of divinity. Instead of theological ontology, Marianne relies upon pragmatic ethics. But it is an ethics that depends upon the integrity of the individual—be kind to the other, don’t force them into roles, tolerate them. It is a static ethics that requires standing at something of a remove from the beloved; it is an ethics that may risk the self (that is, Marianne’s self) but it lacks a deeper engagement with the beloved other. Indeed, her vision of marriage and the manner in which the married couple ought to engage each other is redolent of one of Bergman’s favorite philosophical works: Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s existential rumination on our impossible relation to an incommensurable and unknowable God informs much of Bergman’s work. If the ’70s witnessed Bergman moving away from his excavations of existential crisis toward a greater focus on more quotidian familial relationships, most notably the marital relationship, that did not mean leaving Kierkegaard behind. Indeed, marriage is a major theme of Either/Or; in that work Kierkegaard depicts marriage as the purest emblem of the ethical stance.
The Radically Individual Act of Choice: Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
Either/Or is a remarkable work that attempts to redress what Kierkegaard saw as the strange inevitability of progress in the writings of G.W.F. Hegel. Kierkegaard insisted on the crucial existential choice (the “either/or” of the title) that we must make in deciding how we are to live. This book outlines two stances, or “stages” on life’s way: the aesthetic and the ethical. In later works, such as Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard posits a third stage, the religious, that supersedes and purifies the other two.
While the three-ness and seemingly chronological trajectory of Kierkegaard’s schema is reminiscent, on the surface, of the Hegelian dialectic, it actually stands in stark contrast to the systematic thinking of Kierkegaard’s predecessor, whom Kierkegaard regarded with admiration and suspicion. Whereas Hegel viewed history as the necessary teleological drive of Thought (Spirit) coming to know itself in its perfection (so that the gradual perfection of Thought as the engine that drives history was inevitable), Kierkegaard does not see his stages as the necessary path each person (much less Thought as a whole) must follow. Moreover, and more importantly, whereas Hegel’s dialectic operates through the conceptual movement of rationality which overcomes seeming contradictions by sublating them (that is, by combining them into a higher-order unity and thus producing a cumulative “Both/And”), movement from one stage to the next in Kierkegaard depends upon the contingent and radically individual act of choice, the confrontation with an “Either/Or” that is not inevitable, that involves personal risk, and that depends upon the discontinuity involved in decision (I was living one way, and now I live another, breaking from my previous stance). It is not the case that one lives entirely within one stage (I can live in certain ways aesthetically and in others ethically) but in any given situation I confront an “Either/Or” and must make my decision through commitment based not on a rational evaluation of the situation but rather on my will to bring something of value into my existence—or, in moments of collapse and failure, to recoil from the dread that such a decision invariably brings to bear.
The aesthetic depends upon immediacy and seeks gratification in the experience of what is close at hand. It is also given to a certain fatalism; we seek out pleasure in the world and attempt to employ it for our gratification and yet we are also at the mercy of external conditions. The aesthete flees boredom by continually pursuing the new; commitments are stultifying and dull and thus to be avoided. The pure moment of joy in the ideally rich experience (Faust’s hope for a moment to which he can cry “Stay”) must console the aesthete for the meaninglessness that resides at life’s core. Indeed, the Faustian “Stay” is key to understanding the aesthetic stage. The aesthetic stage relies upon reflection on the past and the mode of representation. Thus, it tries to manifest forth the image of an ideal and therefore lost experience of the past. For all its commitment to refined sensuality, for all its insistence on forming the perfect representational image of the ideal, the aesthetic’s morbid attachment to the past makes it a fundamentally negative approach to existence.
The ethical stage, on the contrary, is characterized by a different manner of reflection that relies upon critical distance. The ethicist accepts moral responsibility for the world and her position in it. The ethicist looks toward her inner self in order to shape the life she feels she ought to live (thus, she is not simply at the mercy of external conditions) and yet she takes the objective situation seriously. The world is the site of responsibility, not mere pleasure. Life is meaningful because of the commitments we make, marriage foremost among them. In place of representation, the ethicist emphasizes repetition (see Kierkegaard’s eponymous book on that subject). The repetitive nature of marriage (of any longstanding relationship), which spells absolute boredom for the aesthete, is precisely what drives the engine of the ethical stance; repetition is an ongoing choice to commit, to recommit oneself to the beloved. It is what makes the ethical stance dynamic and concerned with future-directed action (as opposed to the static attempt of the aesthete to preserve the past through freezing it in representation, the Faustian “Stay”).
Indeed, if there is a failing in Bergman’s extrapolation of Kierkegaardian concerns, it is that he begins from a rather simplistic and schematic distribution of the two stages of life examined in Either/Or. Johan reveals himself during the interview to be an emblem of the aesthetic: “The world is going to the dogs, and I prefer to live and let live. I’m entitled to simply look out for number one. It makes me sick to hear about the latest panacea.” He later clarifies his stance: “Remaining content requires a certain technique. You need to put a lot of effort into not caring.” While he doesn’t deny his responsibility within the marriage, he absolves himself of other forms of commitment. The world is inherently meaningless and he has no compunction against a selfish concern for his own existence.
The use of the term “technique”, redolent of an artist’s technique, further solidifies the connections between Johan and the aesthetic sphere. Indeed, throughout the interview, Johan attempts to paint an extravagant portrait of his own worth and his importance within the marriage. He insists he looks younger than his age, is still sexy, and a great lover. Although he delivers all of these lines with a modicum of jocularity (the projection of the bon vivant that seems so vital to his sense of self), it is utterly clear that this is how he wishes to be seen. He declares his marriage a success insofar as “everyone sees” them as the “perfect couple”. It is the image, the aesthetic artifact, as witnessed by others that grounds his understanding of the marital relationship. But this concern is not really with others as such. Their esteem is a reflection of his standing, not a sign of connection between Johan and the world around him. Johan gives in to what Kierkegaard regards as one of the ultimate moral failings—he seeks to compare himself to others instead of committing himself to the private, inner-directed efforts involved in marriage.
Marianne, a blatant embodiment of the ethical, openly (albeit gently) disagrees: “I believe,” she declares in a halting manner, feeling her way toward the right means of expression, “in compassion… If we all learned to care about our fellow man from childhood, the world would be different.” Marianne, the ethicist, concerns herself with the objective state of suffering in the world. And yet, we can’t let Marianne off the hook so easily. Her concern, her commitment, has as much to do with the comparative impulse as Johan’s more outwardly egotistical impulses. In her mission to lead a properly ethical life, in her attempts to rectify the wrongs of the world, Marianne withholds herself from her husband (most blatantly through a lack of physical affection, which she seems to understand as yet another obligation to be doled out at appropriate intervals) and from her children (although she remains their primary caregiver, they are rarely shown, and Marianne refers to them as an obligation she meets and Johan fails to meet).
The ethicist can easily fall into the trap of directing herself so rigorously to the global that she ignores the local—for her commitment too often shades directly into obligation. But these are different things. When I commit, I claim that I value the object of my commitment, not simply because I think it is a good in the world that I must see to (as in the case of the obligation), but rather because it is a good for me. There is an element of own-ness and devotion to the commitment that is not necessary to the obligation. My commitments are mine insofar as they become part of the interior landscape of what I am; obligations remain external. When I’m obliged to do something, I must do it; there is an asymmetrical relationship between my duty and the object of that duty (obligation is something I perform). But when I commit to something, there is a reciprocal motion (even if the object of my commitment doesn’t commit to me). My motion outward toward the object of commitment is met by a transformative motion inward whereby I am changed through my contact with the object.
Marianne fails to put herself at risk. In this sense, she fails to attain the level of what Kierkegaard regards as properly authentic existence (a point to which we now turn); to a certain extent, I will argue, this is a necessary failing of the ethical stance owing to its inherent confusion of obligation and commitment. But in this moment in Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne sees her stance as properly ethical, truly committed to a better world. Her marriage, for her, is a microcosm of that well-ordered social world in which love may be unattainable (for who can fill the impossible demand of truly loving one’s neighbor, one who encroaches upon one’s integral individuality?—which is to say any other) but that can properly and equitably function based on respect and tolerance. Both respect and tolerance, however, can operate at a distance. Marianne sees obligation but fails to understand commitment. Johan smiles but in a way clearly intended to mask his disdain for what he regards as misguided social engagement in an indifferent world. At that moment, the photographer demands that they hold their pose for another shot, capturing Johan’s assured dismissal of philanthropic endeavor and Marianne’s insecurity in her desire to improve the world. In a quintessentially Bergmanian moment, the tension that created and will soon dissolve their union is captured, fleetingly analyzed, and let go.
The Ethical Marriage, or the Unhappiest Two
The second part of Either/Or presents marriage as the ideal form of ethical commitment. Proper marriage, as set forth by Kierkegaard, appropriates the notion of first love, a category he first expounded upon within the aesthetic regime. The “real constituting element, the substance [of marriage] is love—or if you want to give it a more specific emphasis, erotic love” [Either/Or, Part II, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 32]. “The first love,” Kierkegaard declared in Part I when presenting the aesthetic stage, “is the true love, and one loves only once” [Part I, 254]. The category of first here is ambiguous—it has a quantitative element (“first” in the chronological sense) and a qualitative element (“first” in the evaluative sense; that is, “first” as most perfect). The qualitative first need not be identical with the quantitative. And yet, for Kierkegaard, there is a sense in which they are insofar as “first love” has to do with a style of loving, a choice one makes (perhaps not entirely consciously) to love in a manner specific to that individual. How can it be a choice if it may not be conscious? It is a choice insofar as I stake myself on the manner in which I love. I risk what I am in my loving procedure (specific to me) of opening myself up to the other. The choice lies in its contingency and therefore its freedom. My manner of loving is a wager I make on how I want to live. And yet first love is also necessary insofar as I must love in some manner.
Now the characteristically aesthetic stance is to see that “first love” as existing in an idealized space in the past, irrecoverable, unattainable. All I can do is reflect upon it and attempt to represent it passively to myself, to preserve it in its lostness. I can reflect on aesthetic first love, but first love as such is not reflective—it is immediate and elusive. It reveals itself only partially and flees our grasp. It is fragile, static, and frozen in lost time—this is, of course, the familiar romantic myth of love as the immediate recognition of the beloved, the lightning bolt, and the attempt to believe that to be sufficient. But ethical marriage is a rejuvenation of first love (10) through action—the action required of commitment. It relies upon repetition, that is, the perpetuation of that first love into a continuing future; marriage endows the immediacy of first love with historicality. Hence, ethical marriage makes love progressive, reflective (in itself—rather than reflecting on something that is itself not reflective, as in the aesthetic), and provides permanence through a process of assimilation (97)—I will return to the importance of assimilation at the end of this essay. Marriage does not (ideally) annul sensuality; it extends it.
The distinction between these two ways of understanding first love clarifies the role of individuality and temporality in the aesthetic versus the ethical sphere. Aesthetic first love is immediate and past-oriented; it is forever foreclosed (paradoxically) in an unattainable pastness that never truly existed as the ideal it is believed to have been. The aesthetic life “disintegrates into nothing but interesting details” (11) in its concern with representation of loss. The aesthetic acts, to be sure, but those acts are on par with contingency; the aesthetic acts to achieve the beautiful moment, which must fade immediately into a pastness. The ethical approach to first love is future-oriented and concerned with duration; first love for the ethicist is projected into a continuing formation of the ideal. Instead of dispersal, the ethicist involves herself in self-formation through integration. And yet, the emphasis on self-formation is precisely what I find troubling in the Kierkegaardian vision of the ethical marriage.
The problem, to my mind, with Kierkegaard’s vision of the ethical marriage—and indeed with his vision of the ethical stage per se—is that he characteristically portrays the ethicist as an isolated figure. For all of his insistence that the ethical person must engage with the objective nature of the world, Kierkegaard regards people always at the level of the individual—not merely the individual but rather the individual in her isolation as an individual, the individual as a self-segregating whole that may be concerned with external and objective conditions but that cannot help but to see those conditions at an existential distance that leaves that individual always complete and self-sufficient (even in her deficiencies). Indeed, this vision of the individual is central to Kierkegaard’s understanding of what existence itself means. For Kierkegaard, just being in the world is a weak form, at best, of what is meant by existence. The true (or authentic) existence is not available to just any being in the world. It is only available to humans. Moreover, most humans do not truly exist, in this more stringent sense. To exist means to act as a free individual, to engage in free choice in the confrontation of alternatives, and to commit oneself to one’s choice.
In Hegel, the ultimate goal of the human being, the telos of human existence, is to transcend the particularity of the self to become part of the universal. We succeed in our purpose as human when we attain the level of the human as such; we become absorbed into the whole and are representative of the teleological and depersonalized Spirit of thought itself, in its necessary and continuous drive toward the neutral and impersonal standpoint of Absolute Thought, a total conceptual grasp of reality—but a reality shorn of existence, a reality entirely captured in conceptual thought. Thought in Hegel operates on the level of inevitable continuity (thought seamlessly and gradually realizes itself over the course of history). It relates to actual individuals only incidentally; we are, in a sense, the dupes of Thought. It has its own necessity, its own drive toward its goal; we are merely the vehicles of Thought. In short, the human race is what is important, not any given individual, because the race is the vehicle of Thought in its highest stage of completion and totality. The individual realizes her highest achievement precisely insofar as she cedes her individuality (her particularity) to the ineluctable drift toward perfection that charts Thought’s history.
Kierkegaard would have none of that. Insofar as I am a member of a group, I am not an individual. “A crowd,” Kierkegaard famously declared, “in its very concept, is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction” [The Point of View, trans. W. Lowrie (London, 1939), 114]. Kierkegaard’s valorization of existence depends on free choice executed by the authentic individual acting alone. But here is where my problem enters in. A truly loving relationship depends upon acting in concert, not alone, and yet acting in such a way that it does not reduce our sense of responsibility to a fraction. Kierkegaard himself has trouble accepting such a stipulation. Although his “married man” claims he will discuss his relationship with his wife, that discussion is always framed by an examination of the marriage’s effect on the married man—not a reciprocal effect on each other. “Every feeling, every mood,” writes Kierkegaard’s ethically married man, “gains a higher meaning for me by having her share in it” (9, emphasis mine). While the ethicist acts for the benefit of others, the effect of those acts is inner-directed, leading toward the further perfection of the individual as self-isolating individual. In this light, it is not surprising that Kierkegaard also quotes the Pauline verses on agape as an ideal definition of love—such love is ultimately more about one’s relationship to God than the beloved and insofar as the relationship to God is, for Kierkegaard, the true test of one’s individuality, one’s choice to stand alone in the face of the Absolute, that makes marital love a stage on the way toward agape (ultimately within the third sphere of the religious in Kierkegaard’s schema), which makes marital love itself a means rather than an end.
In his essay, included in the first part of Either/Or, “The Unhappiest One”m Kierkegaard attempts to reason out the most miserable manner of human existence. He postulates that the unhappiest possible person is the one who not only cannot live in the present but also treats the future as though it were the past and the past as though it were the future. In other words, what makes us unhappy, in the deepest sense, is the wrong disposition toward time. If our ideal is caught in the past and our future seems foreclosed, there is no authentic present that we can occupy. One might postulate that Kierkegaard’s ethical marriage posits something even worse—although he is hardly in a position to make such a claim. When read in a critical light, Kierkegaard’s ethical marriage may indicate a fate worse than the Unhappiest One, and that is the Unhappiest Two. The problem with marriage, one might glean from this reading, is the seemingly impossible demand that it places on the couple. On the one hand, Kierkegaard insists that the ethical marriage supports the development of the self-constructing individual. The lessons I learn from marriage are mine, my commitments serve to perfect my individuality and the individual is, by Kierkegaardian definition, distinct from being a member of any group, including a couple (shades of Alvy’s joke, quoting Groucho Marx, in Annie Hall regarding relationships—”I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member”). On the other hand, Kierkegaard contends that the ethical position requires that I subordinate my will to (or better, unite it with) the universal demand of the law (recall the impossibility of comporting oneself to the law that we saw in Paul). Thus, the ethical position involves a paradox—subordination of a will that must not be subordinated, submission to a collective that must be resisted.
As an aesthete and an ethicist, respectively, Johan and Marianne find themselves in the condition of the Unhappiest Two. Johan sees the ideal of their marriage as locked in the past. They were the perfect couple and now they are stagnant. Perfectly capable for erecting an idealized representation of what their marriage had been, Johan is incapable of constructing anew (ever and each day anew) the marriage he thinks ought to be. Indeed, Johan, in some ways, seems unable to envisage an ought and is too concerned with the image of what he feels he somehow is. He imagines himself a gifted poet, but the friend to whom he shows the poetry (significantly he does not show Marianne) declares it is mediocre. But what’s worse, she reminisces that in college everyone looked up to Johan and expected great things. Instead, he is a mediocrity—not interesting enough to be a failure, not brilliant enough to be a success. His potential (the province of the future-inflected present for the healthy mind) lies entirely in the past. Then he could have been a poet, then his wife wanted to make love to him. Johan seeks out a new lover; he longs to return to the ever-new experience, only to discover, of course, that it is really just the ever-same, for one doesn’t change one’s style of loving. The negative side of the logic of the “first love” is that you can never escape it; you can never jump out of who you are (except to average yourself down to the level of the crowd—and even that is not escape but further condemnation) and a large part of who you are is how you love, how you connect to the world. Johan abandons his wife and his children and contemplates abandoning his country—but he is not free. He is enslaved to the image of an elusive and irrecoverable past.
Marianne, the ethicist, sees the ideal of their marriage as bound up in their duty, the raising of their children, the continuation of the marital knot. But all of this is prefigured in her mind. The future is foreclosed (in the manner of the “Unhappiest One”). She doesn’t plan to live her life so much as she plans to live it out (or wait it out). The decisions have been made and now one must submit to obligation. But this is the fatal confusion of obligation and commitment that I believe haunts the category of the ethical. The true commitment, as Kierkegaard repeatedly asserts, requires the ever-renewed action. I do not commit myself to the beloved and believe myself done with it (indeed, this is what I find objectionable in some of the language associated with the wedding ceremony—”I take thee” when one ought to say “I join thee”). I re-commit with every day lived together, with every shared task, with every gentle glance, and even with every harsh (and often regretted) word. Marianne sees only obligation and believes that to be commitment. Her submission to the obligation of Law (and its impossible demand) is so complete that, while she is perfectly capable of wanting to treat others equitably, she is incapable of understanding them as truly free. She doesn’t see making love as giving herself to the other and taking from his fullness, but rather as an obligation she owes her husband—and sadly, Johan sees it in the same light from the other point of view, that is, as an obligation he is owed.
Johan and Marianne are the Unhappiest Two because they fail to comport themselves properly to time. Caught between an idealized past and a foreclosed future, they can never be truly present to each other, they can never be fully there for each other—although, to their credit, they sometimes try, sometimes perfunctorily and sometimes desperately. The lack of adequate comportment to time is, of course, already characteristic of the Unhappiest One. What compounds the direness of the situation for the Unhappiest Two is precisely the issue of first love. The person who ought to come first, comes last. What ought to resonate and echo throughout their lives together, too often sounds a hollow knock that subsides and is forgotten. The proper comportment to time is to occupy a present that resounds with the reverberation of the cherished inception of a first love ringing forth from the past and preparing innumerable possibilities for the future, to not succumb to the blandishments of an idealized past but rather to continually create anew the meaningful life to which you re-commit yourself. The Unhappiest Two are miserable, more miserable than the Unhappiest One, because not only are they caught out of joint with respect to time but they actively force each other into a temporality intolerable to themselves. Marianne’s future-directed obligation alienates Johan’s aesthetic focus on the past and Johan’s obsession with a representation of a lost ideal strikes Marianne as fatuously and dangerously indulgent.
Of course, the Unhappiest Two, the truly unhappiest pair, cannot break from each other either. It’s not simply the children that tie Johan and Marianne together even after the dissolution of their marriage—Johan is far too indifferent a father to make that connection much of a tether. The Unhappiest Two do love each other but with incompatible styles of loving. Johan and Marianne cannot resist seeing each other. Marianne finds a new lover and is sure to inform Johan that she enjoys sex now. The Unhappiest Two cannot avoid their unhappiness; it is the true bond that they share. After their divorce, Johan and Marianne remain lovers, still faithful to each other in their awkward infidelity. They suffer from what Kierkegaard calls the “unhappiest love”—”to be loved when one no longer loves” (22). I find this notion revealing. The unhappiest love is not to love someone who does not reciprocate your feelings—for then you still are alive to the presence of love, even a painful love is a call to experience, a call to further oneself, to move into a future no matter how uncertain. But to be loved by one you no longer love is to sever yourself from that vitalizing connection, to be cast adrift. For most of the mini-series, Johan and Marianne no longer love in a manner that can be reciprocated, they no longer love in a manner recognized by the other. They conflate pity and the longing that arises from loneliness with love. And yet they are loved—but they are loved in a manner that cannot complete the circuit, a manner in which the communication of love fails.
The most harrowing vision of that failure to connect appears in the penultimate episode, “The Illiterates”. Marianne and Johan meet in his office to finally sign the divorce papers. They make awkward love on the floor, get drunk, and fall into a cycle of accusation and recrimination, pleas for reconciliation and a disturbing moment of physical violence. Marianne declares that making love to Johan was akin to making love to a stranger because she is over him; but then she fears that she will succumb to his request that he might return to her. She resents him for the way he left the marriage; he resents her for what he felt was her indifference during the marriage. This is the crux of the terror of the marital relationship. In this conversation alone, Johan and Marianne seem to be utterly malleable. We don’t get the impression they are changing their minds. They hate and love each other; the want to separate and they long to unite. They resent in their striving for forgiveness; they forgive in the midst of rage. If each individual is always such a moving target, how can love ever hope to endure? If I change so utterly from moment to moment as does my beloved, how can we ever find a stable ground on which to unite? Once again, we see that love makes an impossible demand. It insists you paradoxically remain reliably stable while radically changing. Who can possibly fulfill such a demand?
Commitment to an Objective Uncertainty
I hardly find it satisfying to leave things standing in this fashion. Because in this reading of Kierkegaard and of Bergman, Marianne was right. The doctrine of love (whether Pauline agape or Kierkegaardian marital love—and we have seen that the two are not that far apart in many ways) casts human endeavor in too harsh a light. By this reading, we always fail. We cannot help but to fail. If our style of love is characteristic of our individuality, then what hope do we have of finding a compatible style within the beloved? What’s more, if, as Kierkegaard insists, our individuality is always compromised by the reduction of the self into a group (even a pair), then the loving relationship with the beloved is not a boon to our authentic realization of the self, it is a positive hindrance. Moreover, if the ethicist subordinates herself to the law, then precisely insofar as she does so, she is not an individual and hence fails by Kierkegaard’s own lights. For Kierkegaard the individual must at all times remain inviolate.
Marriage (any true act of commitment between two human beings), however, requires putting one’s individuality at risk, at least to some extent. Any act in which I reach out in reciprocal love and devotion toward another requires that I destabilize my self-sufficiency, that I open myself up to the dangers of dedicating myself to the beloved. The dangers are many: I might let the beloved down, s/he might let me down; I might reveal more of myself than I can bear or might have more revealed to me than I can withstand; I might be betrayed or become the betrayer. And yet, in that act of risking myself, of risking my individuality, my one-ness, I hope to gain a two-ness that, in Kierkegaardian fashion, not only continues to resonate with my individuality but furthers it by raising it to the level of the universal and the historical. Living a life alone, outside of the circuit of love (agape in the sense of a continuum that ties one to the unknown and unknowable) turns out to be living as a fraction. Love is not immersion in the crowd (even the crowd of two), it is the raising above the self and the crowd, the election of the one with the other that brings one outside of oneself and in doing so allows the other in. Unlike the ethicist view of marriage, this is not a relationship that becomes absorbed in the furtherance of the limiting sense of self, but rather a lifting of the self into a true, freely chosen, and utterly transformative encounter with the other, the beloved.
There is a category within Kierkegaard’s thought that might articulate such an encounter but it is not the sphere that Kierkegaard himself associates with marriage (that is, the ethical) but rather the religious. Of course, I am aware that Kierkegaard would regard much of what I will say here as sacrilegious—the deification of the beloved. And yet the beloved does share many qualities with the Kierkegaardian portrayal of the divine. In the religious stage, the individual rises above the leveling force of the Law and confronts Divinity in all its absurd contradictions—what Kierkegaard (in Fear and Trembling) labels the teleological suspension of the ethical. His example is Abraham. God requires Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac (a gift to Abraham in his old age from God himself). To accept this task is to suspend the ethical relation for there is no sense in which it is justifiable by law or through society to murder one’s loved and innocent son. And yet Abraham accepts—not because he feels that it is always right to murder one’s son (such an act cannot be a categorical imperative) nor because he believes that it is right in this case to do so, but rather owing to his leap of faith into a relation with that to whom no adequation is possible (that is, there is no ground on which God and Abraham can be considered on an equal level insofar as God is, by definition, all that a human is not—immortal, omniscient, omnipotent).
Abraham engages in a truth that is not objective but that arises from his subjective relation to the unknowable Other of divinity. This is not verifiable truth in the manner of correlation; that is, my statement that there are four books on my table can be confirmed by counting them; thus, if the statement correlates with the empirical verification, we say the statement is true. Kierkegaard concerns himself with a subjective truth that is not verifiable insofar as it consists of the outlandish encounter of the individual with God, the unfathomable enigma beyond any manner of adequation. Objective truth requires nothing of the individual aside from simple acceptance. Subjective truth operates otherwise. It requires our taking a stand, our commitment. Kierkegaard defines such truth in the following dense manner: “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual” [Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by D.F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 182].
Let’s examine the definition. Our relationship with God, according to Kierkegaard, is a relation to something we can never properly know, an objective uncertainty (not unlike Pauline agape or the other famous Pauline assertion that we see God’s reality “through a glass darkly”). We engage with that uncertainty through commitment, holding fast to it, and appropriating it to ourselves. To “appropriate” is to make something one’s own, to make it proper to the self. In other words, we assimilate that experience as an element of our existence as we ourselves are assimilated to it. Thus, commitment transmutes into conviction (the passionate inwardness). This is the highest truth precisely because it is so objectively unstable. It requires our continual effort, our continuing willingness to re-commit. This impulse to assimilate to the divine is at least as old as Pythagoras within the western philosophical tradition. It involves a raising of oneself out of the quotidian sense of self—not an alienation of the self but a movement, conducted inwardly and progressing outwardly, toward a higher self. To approximate the divine, in Pythagoras, is to become more of what you already are. In Kierkegaard, this involves momentous risk, arising from the unpredictable encounter with an objective uncertainty.
I don’t believe it blasphemous to find this search for subjective truth revealing of the relationship with the beloved. In that relationship we come into continuous, committed contact with an objective uncertainty. We can never fully know the beloved. There is always more to discover, not because the beloved withholds but because s/he cannot possibly reveal it all. This is the miracle of the void that figures as the other’s desire. This is a void not emblematic of emptiness but rather repletion. This is the void that endlessly gives forth. In this continuous encounter with the beloved, I assimilate myself to the loved one—not in the sense of losing my identity, of becoming a We in place of an I, but rather in the sense of becoming an I with a trajectory, an I that properly comports itself to the present by filling it with the eternity of the first love and continuing that love through repetition, through renewed discovery, renewed commitment, and ever-deepening conviction. And yet, this is not the same as the relation to the divine, because although the beloved is inscrutable, I recognize that on some level s/he is like me, that s/he takes the same risk, engages in the same wager, sacrifices the certainty of the stable ethical self in order to engage in a continually unfolding life of objective uncertainty. I am drawn into his or her passionate inwardness as the trajectory of my love and the beloved is drawn into mine.
Kierkegaard comes close to this understanding in a passage of Either/Or that I find particularly compelling. He is describing the existential loneliness of the aesthetic:
Alone in his kayak, a person is sufficient unto himself, has nothing to do with any person except when he himself so wishes. Alone in his kayak, a person is sufficient unto himself—but I cannot really understand how this emptiness can be filled…You should say, therefore: Alone in one’s boat, alone with one’s sorrow, alone with one’s despair—which one is cowardly enough to prefer to keep rather than to submit to the pain of healing. (84)
The point of the passage, obviously, is to convince the aesthetic of the poverty of her existence and to suggest a reason (cowardice) that the aesthetic would prefer to remain with her despair rather than make a commitment, to enter the ethical (or the religious). But what captures my attention and stirs my imagination is the implication that the love relationship involves submitting to the pain of healing.
The aesthetic may despair but it is her despair; her life is empty of relations to others but it is her emptiness—a strangely comforting reminder of her self-sufficiency. Even when the aesthetic resists fleeing into an idealized past through representation, even when she allows herself to experience that despair, she may resist leaving the space already laid out for and by her, the space of the aesthetic. Because to leave that space involves risk—including the possibility of losing the key to existence, her individuality. In establishing the marital relationship, that individuality is wagered. To love the other is to submit to a kind of pain, a registering of loss. But in opening oneself to the objective uncertainty of the beloved, one stands to gain a higher form of individuality, an individuality that is not equivalent to existential isolation but an individuality that truly engages with the individuality of another, that assimilates in passionate inwardness the love of and for the other, an individuality enriched not by dissolution into the morass of entanglement but rather by the ascension into mutuality—this is painful, but it is the pain of healing.
The final episode of Scenes from a Marriage provides a glimpse of such mutuality for Johan and Marianne. They are now both remarried to other people but they meet in a cabin as lovers. They each mildly disparage their current marriages but they reveal themselves to have remained what they have been—an aesthete and an ethicist. Marianne claims she is more independent now, but her comments regarding obligation belie her insistence that she has changed. Johan claims not to have much imagination (the province of the aesthete) but he still looks backward toward an idealized past. And yet they are together. Marianne awakes in the middle of the night with a nightmare that she narrates for Johan:
We were crossing a dangerous road. I wanted you and the girls to hold on to me. But my hands were missing. All I had left were stumps. I’m sliding around in soft sand. I can’t get a hold of you. You’re all up there on the road, and I can’t reach you.
The symbolism is fairly apparent. The dangerous road is the risk of commitment as opposed to the security of obligation and representation. She wants to touch and be touched and yet her hands are missing. There is no way to properly reach the beloved; we sink into the soft sand of solipsism, trapped in our styles of loving, trapped in our impoverished conceptions of ourselves and yet we reach out, we strive to connect—the yearning for a continuum found in agape.
Marianne fears we all live in “utter confusion” marked by “fear, uncertainty, and ignorance.” And yet she feels a connection to Johan that is new—or perhaps we should say (in keeping with our Kierkegaardian considerations) renewed: “At times I can read your mind, and I feel such tenderness that I forget myself without having to efface myself. It’s a new sensation. Do you understand?” This is the transcendence of the individual without losing individuality (not having to efface herself); or perhaps a better manner of expressing it is to say it is the sacrifice of individuality in order to regain a higher individuality based on mutuality. “To forget oneself without having to efface oneself:” I can think of few finer definitions of love.
But Marianne fears she has never loved and never been loved. Johan reassures her:
I love you in my selfish way. And I think you love me in your fussy, pestering way. We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way. You’re so demanding. But here I am, in the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in a dark house somewhere in the world, sitting with my arms around you and your arms around me.
Johan recognizes that they maintain their incompatible styles of loving. The sphere of the religious, after all, is predicated precisely upon the connection to the incompatible. Love is necessarily imperfect. How could it help but to be? To be perfect (from the Latin perficere) means to be completed. And love can never be completed. Love is the force that perpetuates, that continues, that reaches forward into the yawning abyss of the future and attempts to find solidity where there is only soft sand; and yet somehow the attempt suffices. Love is holding on to each other in the dark of night, realizing you can never quite touch the beloved, and realizing you can never stop trying.
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Criterion Collection released a new blu-ray edition of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.It includes both the six-episode mini-series discussed in this essay and the shortened theatrical version of the film. Also included is an interview with Bergman from 1986 and interviews with the lead actors from 2003. Another extra features Bergman scholar Peter Cowie comparing the two versions of the film.