Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Dreams of Distance: Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

(Published in the Summer 2008 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 3, Number 9. Walking on the hill behind the house one night I saw beams, headlights presumably, raking the air from below the horizon of a distant hill. Their cause remained unseen; it could have been nighttime harvesting or a gamekeeper out lamping, but their quantity and duration made exercises on an army range seem more likely, with the silence that attended so much visible light disturbance  strange. Suddenly, our home in the hills could be imagined as encircled and a little more fragile than hitherto, and Bergman’s Shame, which I had seen not long beforehand, was understandable on a visceral level. The piece of writing that resulted from this – Horses – I turned into a chapbook, sections of which have been interpolated here between reflections on the film.)

Shame is not about the bombs; it is about the gradual infiltration of fear.’ Ingmar Bergman

Jan, after we have already been pierced and grated by sounds of squeaks and interference on the radio, by hectoring announcements, by loudspeaker commands, by machine-gun fire and a martial drum, you begin with a dream in which you talk of you and Eva playing once more in your orchestra. You say that all you have at that moment in your lives is already behind you, and that you remember your life of contentment as a nightmare. Here is a dream for you, from another time entirely.

The firestorms spread inland from the coast. Birds blackened the sky and starlings congregated on the wires. This tired me and I sat on the bench, my arm taking the weight of my head as I waited to be consumed. When I felt the fire at my back however, I rose and moved off with the throng, knowing that I would survive.

Jan, like you I once thought that distance from conflict could be measured in kilometres, but this is something I no longer believe. Refuge is always temporary, and always conditional. Perhaps you already know that this space you have put between yourselves and the events of an unnamed war will be eradicated, at first by nothing more than sounds made fractious and unfamiliar. Your alarm clock is as insistent as a school bell, and the upward tear of your bedroom blinds and the laying out of crockery on the breakfast table are no longer sounds of homely innocence. As Eva washes herself, the second hand on your alarm clock is ticking, ticking. A wisdom tooth is starting to penetrate your gum.

These are uncertain times in this valley where we have settled. People are working conscientiously, making up for lost time. We do not want to be called to account with our work unbegun. A few tried drinking in defiance of the moment but the beer was sour and the enjoyment forced. Most have returned to their worksheds and applied themselves to old jobs: freeing seized machinery, making new handles for tools, joining wood. News comes from outside but we pay little attention. The same names are repeated, now good now bad. What have they to do with us? Our villagers have become industrious, even puritan. Our nights are heavy with sleep.

Other sounds will soon cross the distance to where you are, involving you, drawing you in. You will hear church bells on that ordinary Friday at five past six in the morning as you load lingonberries into your van; Eva will answer the ringing telephone and no one wil be at the other end; a convoy of military trucks will tow rocket launchers past your yard.

When you reach the town, with its temporary signposts and military police, you will see people carrying suitcases, heading away, they hope, to safety, and your open boxes of berries will suddenly seem just one small trip away from spillage. The stream of military vehicles rumbling through the cobbled streets will make you feel like vulnerable strangers in your own land, as later, will the raising of a door latch in a house no longer your own.  You will be dealt intimations of fragility, objects of a life so easily smashed; an 18th century Meissen music box, good wine in a bottle, a violin that has been played and cherished through one and a half centuries. Fredrik, your acquaintance who lives among his antiques, will reveal unexpected intimacies of his life to you and Eva, so that you can be witnesses that there was another time, a time when he was not discomfited by an ill-fitting uniform. Your drink together in contemplation of this place of polished, preserved stillness, as a pendulum clock measures out the time behind you, will already seem like a memory.

Two days now of violent winds. The trees sound like the sea, a booming roar through the sycamores, a dragging shingle through the firs. The winds have the rhythm of waves. A cuffing of leaves gives way to a restless worrying till the wind tears through, whipping and gusting the branches. There was a wicked storm this morning, the sky a thin and sickly yellow blushed with pink. It darkened and a westerly flung sheets of hail through the valley, arteries of lightning across the sky. It cleared but has left us on edge.

The screaming, burning rip of jets through the sky will terrify you. You will try to leave at dusk in a hastily packed van, the wind jostling the pines and spats of rain flinging against your faces. And you will be stopped, and lamps will be shone into your eyes, and you will be asked whose side you think you are on, and your confusion will be filmed, and somehow you will be spared. Did you think you would sleep after this? The bombardment that wakes you will have the sound of whip cracks and ricochets, smashing glass, dropping chains, flares, piledrivers. The attack will end with a low, lingering rumble; the thunder that signals the end of the storm. Then you will be able to hear the elements – the dripping of water, the draw of air through flame – against a backing of silence once more.

Weaver returned from the market today with stories of war. She told of a foreign city being ‘macerated’, the word apt. None of us knew how to react, though I suppose that some campaign is being fought in our name. We drifted away. We have turned our backs on anything irrelevant to our present situation – the situation that we can see in front of us and that requires hoeing, planting, cutting, making or mending. That is enough for us and that is all.

You wil feel Eva, that you are in someone else’s dream. ‘What happens when the one who dreamed this wakes up and feels ashamed?’, you will ask, after you and Jan have been herded into a primary school with other citizens suspected of collaboration. There will be no time for an answer before your names are called and you are taken for interrogation in a room with children’s drawings on the walls and their scrawls on the chair backs.

At night, the sky to the west is lit by the headlights of vehicles moving behind the hill. Through the darkness they continue with their work, eerily soundless from this distance, shifting earth, or equipment, or people. By day there are no such signs of their presence and we can once more pretend that the familiar, reassuring boundaries of these hills are our own to command.

Eva, when you are at sea, parched and abandoned in your small boat, you will no longer be able to tell what it was that you had to remember that was so important, as you watch the terrible beauty of a high wall of burning roses reflected in the water, with the daughter you believe you will never have cradled in your arms.

I was standing on a rock, watching the waves rolling in to break around and under me, the water thumping and booming in the hollows beneath my feet. I was woken at dawn by the ravens that circle the house, gulping and croaking. The low clouds were the colour of liver and snuff.

There were people in the yard.

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