Friday, March 26, 2010

Sergei Bulgakov, Bergman, and the Role of the Artist

Over the last few years I’ve been reading work by and about Sergei Bulgakov, the Russian thinker and theologian who died in 1944. Most recently I completed the fascinating anthology Sergii Bulgakov: Toward a Russian Political Theology, edited by Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury.

In an essay on heroism he contrasts the hero who “cast(s) himself in the role of providence, arrogates to himself … a greater responsibility than can be borne … a greater task than a human being can encompass” with a “Christian” heroism that is “liberated from heroic posturing and pretension” and “is concentrated on (the) immediate task, … concrete obligations and the fulfilling of them.”

In a later essay this humility and clear-minded focus is deemed necessary for the artist who works amidst the “awareness of (arts) own impotence, in the appalling schism between what is revealed to it of the true splendor of the world and the concrete reality of its deformity and ugliness.” Bulgakov goes on to say that “art yearns to become transfigurative, not just pleasing or consoling; transfigurative in a real, not a symbolic sense” and invokes Dosteoevsky’s famous dictum that “Beauty will save the world.”

Bulgakov’s views reminded me of comments made by Ingmar Bergman in an essay on filmmaking in 1954:

… it is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life,
generating and degeneration itself. The individual has become the highest form
and 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 loneliness without listening to each other and without realising that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other's eyes and yet deny the existence of each other, and cry out into the darkness without once receiving the healing power of communal happiness…

If thus I am asked what I should like to be the general purpose for my films, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel or a devil - or perhaps a saint - out of stone. It does not matter which, it is the feeling of contentment that matters. Regardless whether I believe or not, regardless whether I am a Christian or not, I play my part at the collective building or cathedral. For I am an artist and a craftsman; and I know how to chisel stone into faces and figures.

I never need to concern myself about present opinion or the judgment of the posterity. I am a name which has not been recorded anywhere and which will disappear when I myself disappear; but a little part of me will live on in the triumphant masterwork of the anonymous craftsmen. A dragon, a devil, or perhaps a saint, it does not matter which.

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