‘I transform “Work” in its analytic meaning (the Work of Mourning, the Dream-Work) into the real “Work” — of writing.’
— Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
‘It’s the Demon of Fear. I’m actually scared of everything.’
— Ingmar Bergman, Bergman Island
As a writer I often feel like I’m in trouble. This is something a writer should never say or admit to. Not if they want to continue to write, and not if they want others to think of them as writers who know how to write. Writing produces constant dread and anxiety: the feeling that I have to write but can’t. That I don’t know how or never will again. This is how writing starts. This means that writing is not simply what I do, it is also what I cannot do and might never do again. Part of the solution to writing for me has been to change and combine disciplines. To not be (just) a writer anymore. To write using other forms.
In the documentary Bergman Island (2006), Ingmar Bergman makes a list of his demons and then reviews each one on camera. Bergman admitted to having many fears, but the one fear he said he had never had was the ‘Demon of Nothingness’, which is ‘quite simply when the creativity of [your] imagination abandons [you]. That things get totally silent, totally empty. And there’s nothing there.’
Bergman Island ends with Bergman describing a fear that he claims to have never had, to have never even known, the absence of which his huge body of work (sixty—three films) corroborates to some extent (the way that a corpus of work always corroborates the ability rather than the inability to work), but which nevertheless burrowed into his life in other ways: across his films characters, often artists – both men and women – grapple with their own fear of Nothingness. In Bergman’s films, characters wrestle with being abandoned and betrayed not by their imaginations (for fears produce their own fantastic fictions), but by the inability to creatively hone, represent, and endure those imaginations.
In Bergman Island Bergman also talks about the Nothingness of death. The way he thought about and was ‘touched’ by death every single day of his life. Then one day while under anaesthesia for an operation, he realised that because death is nothing (‘a light that goes out’), it did not need to be feared. The love that Bergman felt for his last wife, Ingrid von Rosen, to whom he was married (after many other marriages) for twenty-four years until she died, forced him to once again reevaluate death and the question of whether or not death effaces Nothingness. Bergman loved Ingrid, wanted to feel her presence after her death; wanted to be reunited with her, and therefore couldn’t allow himself, he says, to see death as an end to life, for that would have meant an end to Ingrid too.
I saw Bergman Island at the same time as Bergman’s 1968 gothic horror Hour of The Wolf, and considered them companion pieces. I was heartbroken after a break-up and struggling with my writing. The two films confirmed for me how difficult and elusive creative work is. What motivates one person to work, resulting in hyper productivity, is the very thing that makes working impossible – paralysing – for others. While some people work in order to avoid thinking about what is behind their work – that is, in order to not think about what is not working – others work as an attempt to fix, evade, or control what is not working. For some, work works. For others, work fails to work.
Bergman Island reveals that while Bergman (who died a year after the documentary was released) managed to kick the fear of Nothingness, as far as death was concerned, he continued to harbour the rest of his demons. Because fears free-associate and mesh – induce and house other fears, in the way one fear can unveil and morph into another – the fears that plagued Bergman through his entire life could easily have mutated into the catchall fear of Nothingness, with respect to his creativity. Yet rather than not work because he was afraid, or reject fear as a productive source of inspiration, Bergman often made films about fear and in the face of fear; made fear the subject and his subjects afraid. He did not ghettoise fear, nor did he restrict it to the genre of horror.
If you pay attention to Bergman’s list of demons in Bergman Island, you’ll find a Bergman film for every single of one of his fears. You’ll find a film in every demon and a demon in every film. For Bergman, the process of – and reason for – making a film was partly about exploring what it is to be creative without mythologising or romanticising creativity, or even proposing it as an outlet for or antidote to the anxiety which work simultaneously alleviates and produces. I don’t think Bergman believed that creativity was capable of absorbing or softening the blows of fear and doubt. He focused instead on what it means to give up the idea of mastery and control in order to explore something graver: debilitation. As Avital Ronell writes: ‘No event is at all accessible if the self does not renounce the glamour of its culture, its wealth, its health, its knowledge and memory. Let us make ourselves weak and sick, as Proust did.’ Which is what Bergman and so many of his characters did: made themselves sick.
In Wittgenstein (1993), Derek Jarman establishes a similar trajectory regarding the trauma of knowing. Of what it means to know and the ways in which knowing can disable, as well as enable one to live. In Jarman’s film, the search for knowledge does not mitigate the trauma of knowing. For Wittgenstein ‘knowledge’ results in one epistemological and ontological glitch and crash after another, which in the film makes the philosopher slide between different multiplicities and temporalities of being. He is simultaneously weak and sick, child and adult, Austrian and English (the slippages in accent; the slippages in everything), active and passive, hopeful and despairing, brilliant and stupid, gentle and tyrannical. Both Wittgenstein and Blue (1993) take activity and passivity, potentiality and finitude, as their philosophic start-up positions. Wittgenstein is a trans-subjective subject, appearing in the film as the child-philosopher because it is the child who has a view of the future. What Wittgenstein – the child – knows, he has always known. And: could not have known and will never know. While Wittgenstein – the child – knows, uncertainty and doubt belong to the adult Wittgenstein. It is Wittgenstein-the-man who writes (in the Tractatus), ‘What’s more important about philosophy is all the things philosophy can’t articulate. Can’t say.’
Despite Bergman’s assertion that his creativity never failed him, never fell silent, he made Hour of The Wolf, in which Johan, an artist, is unable to paint, and Persona (1966), in which the stage actress, Elisabet Vogler, stops speaking. It isn’t clear, however, which fear blocks Johan and Elisabet, or if the fears in these two films can even be classified. For both characters one fear leads to another, and creativity exposes one to a topology of fears that threaten it.
For Bergman, fear doesn’t always need a direct object. As he illustrates with his catalogues of demons in Bergman Island, fear simply requires a direct stake or address – the naming of that which is unnamable. Like Alma (Elisabet’s nurse), who speaks and doubles for Elisabet in Persona, Alma (Johan’s wife) in Hour of The Wolf catalogues and suffers the blows of Johan’s unspeakable fears. Alma wears the blows of Johan’s fears on her face, as women so often do. Johan’s fear is the source of Alma’s (the way she fears for his fears, fears for herself because of them, and is afraid of him because of it) and thus it is the terrified Alma who, on their way back from the party at the castle, tells Johan: ‘I’m nearly sick with fear… I can see that something terrible is happening. Just because it can’t be called anything —’
In Hour of the Wolf, both the film itself and Alma and Johan are plunged into the phantasmagoria of the eponymous moment: ‘The hour between night and dawn. The hour when most people die. The hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear. When ghosts and demons are most powerful.’ The hour of the wolf is the Void (in Repetition, Kierkegaard describes this time in the early morning as: ‘that hour when the day battles with the night, when even during the summer a cold chill runs through nature’) you fall into in the “Night of the World” because for Bergman, Night (death, doubt) is the very core of subjectivity.’ To quote Hegel, from his Jena Lectures:
The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity – an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him – or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head – there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye – into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned.
Hegel’s ‘Night of the World’ is the horror genre. We catch sight of this abyss in Janet Leigh’s postmortem eye in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).The female eye/I is also a screen for the male violence that victimises it, enters through it, and witnesses it with its body. The frustrated painter Johan has much in common with the creative neurosis and male hysteria of the writer Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), where Night (horror and insanity) descends in the form of patriarchal winter – the Dark Night of the Soul. Stanley Kubrick admitted to the enormous influence Bergman had on his work, and in many ways Hour of the Wolf (along with Bergman’s The Silence, 1963, and The Passion of Anna, 1969) is the blueprint for The Shining. The haunted castle, where Johan and Alma attend a dinner party, and that Johan later visits alone in the throes of mental breakdown, shares the gothic tropes and psychosexual furies that flood the Overlook Hotel.
Marooned together for the winter in a snowbound hotel (a seasonal winter that can be characterised as the figurative hour of the wolf), Jack and Wendy are doubles of Johan and Alma, who are stranded together on a remote Swedish island. Both Alma and Wendy are captives of male violence and creative madness. Like Jack’s possession at the Overlook Hotel and Johan’s violent breakdown, one of Bergman’s demons was his own temper. In The Shining, Jack gives up on his ability write productively, instead writing automatically, in a trance state which belongs both to art and horror. Marked by a fatalist countdown of the calendar, we see and hear Jack furiously typing – page in typewriter, a stack of pages piling up on his desk, the days of the week accumulating and appearing on screen. This is what every writer hopes for: Jack is possessed by writing. Later, through Wendy, we see the big reveal of Jack’s manuscript – the film’s monster.
What is terrifying about the discovery of Jack Torrance’s manifesto, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ is the infantilised male tautology it exposes. The Shining unmasks the mourning and horror that work simultaneously conceals and supplants, leaving only the raw and unassimilable impetus (the unusable outtakes and drafts) of creative work. It is rather like Bergman’s list of demons without the extensive filmography to referee and valorise them. Jack’s haunted manuscript is:
- Writing as failed work.
- Work that fails to look like work.
- Work that has failed to be turned into art.
- Drafts that have failed to become final.
- Life that fails to be saved by art.
- Mourning that has failed to be sublimated into work.
The Torrance family moves to the Overlook because:
- Jack cannot write under normal circumstances – in his normal environment.
- Jack cannot work a normal job.
- Jack is an alcoholic and an abusive father.
In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud cites Theodore Fontane on the necessity of auxiliary constructions. Palliative measures are principally neurotic and enable us to bear the unbearable, paralleling the overriding programme of the pleasure principle. Fontane outlines three primary measures of escape: ‘powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which makes us insensitive to it.’ As a writer and alcoholic, Jack indulges in the second and third auxiliary, rotating between the two; swapping, splitting, and doubling the deflections at various times. When he can’t write, he drinks. When he drinks, it’s not clear if he is able to write. Though an ‘illusion in contrast with reality’ that is not accessible to everyone (Freud in ‘The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming’: ‘We laymen have always wondered greatly how that strange being, the poet, comes by his material,’) Freud notes that art can be categorised as an effective substitutive satisfaction because of the presence of fantasy in our mental life. Dream-like shots of Jack typing away are revealed as the fantasy of writing a fantasy book. The fantasy of writing – work going well, which is every writer’s fantasy. The illusion of productivity is itself a fantasy. Jack is merely pretending that he can write because he can no longer cope with not being able to. Psychotic mania in the form of possession takes hold as the ultimate intoxicant. The key to happiness, Freud explains, lies not simply in the right substitutes, but in finding the substitutes that work for us. When art no longer works because it cannot give Jack’s phantasies body, deflections like sex and alcohol turn into hallucinations and ghosts. Jack’s manic possession becomes his best fiction. It is Jack at his most creative, uncensored, and inspired.
Jack’s manuscript reveals the demon underneath all creative work. The demon that is possessing Jack and that Bergman refers to as the demon of Nothingness: ‘The Demon of Nothingness, which is quite simply when the creativity of [your] imagination abandons [you]. That things get totally silent, totally empty. And there’s nothing there.’ Jack’s text is a horrific testament to the Nothing behind his work; the nothing (tedium and dullness) that cannot be sublimated or transformed through and into work despite the hundreds of pages of fastidious organisation and re-formalisation of Nothingness. All of his work (‘all work and no play’), we learn, has been in vain. But so, too, has Wendy’s silent and gendered suffering. Jack has ‘worked’ for nothing while Wendy (along with Alma and countless other wives of male artists) has stood by that hostile Nothingness (her man) for nothing. Wendy will now suffer the wrath of her husband’s idle work (work for nothing).