Augustine and the Subtracted Collective in Winter Light Full-citation version
. . . if God never gave any answers from human temple, but only thundered out revelation from the sky.
— Augustine of Hippo, Teaching Christianity prol.6
Ingmar Bergman’s controversial 1963 film, Winter Light, outlines a hauntingly laconic world in which both a transcendent God and the cosmic coherence guaranteed by such a deity are put radically into question. The movie opens onto a sparsely attended Eucharistic service held on a wintry Sunday in the small-town church of Mittsunda in post-war Sweden. Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) recites the “words of institution” — Jesus’s words during his final meal in the narrative of the synoptic gospels — while the camera pensively lingers on those few people in attendance: fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom); Tomas’s ex-mistress, the avowed atheist and school teacher Märta (Ingrid Thulin); church sacristan Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall), who is conspicuously deformed (because of a railway accident, as we learn); the brazenly irreverent church organist Fredrik Blom (Olof Thunberg); church warden Knut Aronsson (Kolbjörn Knudsen); and widow Magdalena Ledfors (Elsa Ebbesen).
With a total runtime of 81 minutes, the film focuses primarily on the interval between the end of the first service and 3 p.m., when another service is set to begin in the nearby village of Frostnäs (Tomas evidently has pastoral obligations to both churches). Within such a contracted period, the already tenuous world of the film entirely collapses. Tomas inanely tries to comfort the suicidal Jonas, who cannot cope with the Cold-War threat of nuclear holocaust, and the latter resolutely ends his life with a rifle to the head, leaving his wife with one child on the way — in addition to the three children they already had. Märta confesses her steadfast love for Tomas, and she is met with only the coldest indifference. Algot shares his existentially burning insight into Christ’s suffering with Tomas, and he receives barely a nod in response. Invariable throughout all of these ersatz encounters is the flu-stricken and brooding pastor Tomas, who is wholly self-absorbed with both his wife’s passing four years prior and the maddening “silence of God,” as he puts it.
One of Bergman’s earlier films, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), had meditated on the rather clichéd assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and had ended up at a surprising reversal: “love is God.” Inasmuch as love “is a real force for humanity,” the film tentatively concluded, love “proves the existence of God.” That is, even if the idea of a transcendent and all-powerful deity had become not only untenable but repugnant in post-war Europe — Through a Glass Darkly, in fact, imagined this god as a terrifying spider — there remained the possibility for enacting a community of love out of the rubble of humanity. These same claims, however, are cited facetiously by the vulgar church organist Fredrik Blom near the end of Winter Light. After he apes such sentiments word-for-word, Blom taunts Märta, as if he were one of her students: “You see, I know the drill.” Winter Light, in fact, locates its viewers in this desolate space between the apocalyptic threat of nuclear destruction, the permanent scar of losing a loved one, the seeming relief of suicide, and the trauma of one-sided relationships — this void of sheer intersubjective nonsense, where love, in fact, does not exist at all. The film would thereby appear to negate the central claims of Through a Glass Darkly: love is not “a real force for humanity,” which means that love categorically cannot “prove the existence of God” (or any other transcendent point of reference for that matter). Construed along these lines, Winter Light would lead us to a sobering conclusion indeed: we are each individually alone, trapped in this universe of meaninglessness, and transcendence, whether of the divine or human variety, is forever foreclosed to us.
In the space that follows I argue — with the untimely help of the late antique bishop Augustine of Hippo (354–430) — that this seemingly coherent interpretation of Winter Light drowns out significant moments of dissonance in the film, moments that suggest rather the persistent possibility for transcendence, even after passing through the wasteland of intersubjective despair. As in Through a Glass Darkly, the possibility for transcendence in Winter Light is located not with any kind of divinity — if there is a god in the film, it is the terrifying prospect of nuclear apocalypse — but within a human collective of love. The site of such collective, nevertheless, is not where Tomas or the callous capitalist society he epitomizes expect it to be. Love does not inevitably manifest itself within the confines of a conventional bourgeois family, as Tomas’s enduring devotion to his dead wife might suggest. Nor does love coincide with the boundaries of a traditional religious community. Instead, love materializes out of the gaps of society, within the “subtracted collective,” as we might call it — that improvised assemblage of those who have no part.
Augustine and the Interpretive Community
The revised interpretation of Winter Light just sketched only becomes possible with a radical shift in perspective, one that is available neither to Tomas, the film’s narcissistic protagonist, nor to viewers that take Tomas’s point of view as definitive. Indeed, although such moments of rupture exist in the film itself, these only become more legible in light of Augustine’s conceptualization of the interpretive community in Teaching Christianity (De doctrina christiana). Read in a certain intentionally wayward fashion, this work outlines precisely the sort of “subtracted collective” as appears in Winter Light. Tarrying with Augustine, therefore, will pave the way for a more extended reconsideration of this film in the final section of this essay.
Augustine opens Teaching Christianity with a general statement of the purpose of his writing — to provide a handbook for interpreting the scriptures — as well as a response to three groups of potential critics. Some readers, Augustine notes, will not understand his advice, others will not be able to apply it, and still others will assume that they have no need for it. It is this final group that Augustine feels the need to address at length. Augustine admits that he has heard about certain individuals who have supposedly acquired the ability to interpret the scriptures instantaneously, through divine inspiration. Yet even such people, Augustine contends, still have had to rely on other humans to learn rudimentary language skills. Indeed, Augustine warns that the failure to recognize the inherently social framework of understanding could engender a profoundly misanthropic pride, one that in the context of his specific discussion would discourage Christians from attending church and hearing the gospel read aloud and interpreted publicly.
We might understandably view Augustine here as primarily exhibiting anxiety about the exercise of authority. For such a suspicious reading, Augustine would be equating the proper site of scriptural interpretation with the official setting of the church, where the authority of the clergy would be least obstructed. Augustine would thus insist on the social nature of interpretation to enforce his specific vision of a hierarchically ordered community: humans necessarily understand in a community, certainly, but only one that is carefully overseen by a firmly established chain of command. Freelance, non-official interpreters of scripture, therefore, would be forever discounted.
On closer inspection, however, Augustine does not opt for such a clear-cut vision of community, one, that is, that functions solely along inherently stratified lines. In point of fact, Augustine allows the possibility for the complete subversion of such a framework. Divine revelation, Augustine asserts, does not always and ever come down from on high, “thundered out . . . either from heaven or by means of angels” (de caelo atque per angelos personaret). Instead, “love” (caritas), which “binds humans to each other with the knot of unity” (sibi homines invicem nodo unitatis astringit), exists precisely so that “humans can learn from humans” (homines per homines . . . discerent). Although it is true that these rather generalized claims do not explicitly legislate against some humans exercising fixed authority over other humans, they do undermine any attempt to base such social arrangements on divine sanction. If God does not always respect hierarchy in delivering revelation, why should humans do so in making sense of revelation — or of anything else, for that matter? At any rate, Augustine implicitly conceptualizes the interpretive community as one that, because of the “mutual care” (caritas) of its members, remains open to the manifestation of insight from anyone at any time.
Such a social ethic of love does not only relativize any internal ordering of the interpretive community. It also works to smudge the boundaries of this community — who ultimately counts as a member, and who does not. A straightforward reading of Teaching Christianity would identify the interpretive community under discussion entirely with the local Catholic church (the Catholic church at Hippo Regius, for instance, in Augustine’s case). This reading, however, glosses over key claims made by Augustine throughout the work. For starters, Augustine is adamant that the correct interpretation of scripture always and ever has a single objective: “So what all that has been said amounts to . . . is that the completion and the point of the law and of all the divine scriptures is love” (Omnium igitur quae dicta sunt . . . haec summa est, ut intellegatur legis et omnium divinarum scripturarum plenitudo et finis esse dilectio). Augustine, to be fair, makes a crucial distinction: such “love” (dilectio) must be directed primarily towards God, “that thing which should be enjoyed” (rei qua fruendum est) in an absolute sense, and only secondarily towards our neighbor, “that thing which is able to enjoy [God] with us” (rei quae nobiscum ea re frui potest). Any interpretation that “does not build up this twin love of God and neighbor” (non aedificet istam geminam caritatem dei et proximi) has already gone astray.
Here we might pause momentarily to interrogate Augustine’s distinction between love of God and love of neighbor. Throughout book 1 of Teaching Christianity, Augustine attempts to establish that God alone is meant to be “enjoyed” (frui) in the true sense, whereas everything else in existence is meant to be “used” (uti) on the way to God. Humanity occupies a rather ambiguous place in this schema, insofar as humans must be loved (diligere), like God, but only in light of God. In Augustine’s mind, nevertheless, the word “God” does not merely point to the highest thing among other things. “God,” Augustine concedes, certainly means “whatever [humans] put above all other things” (quod ceteris rebus omnibus anteponunt), yet the word also means something more. Indeed, “God” expresses a certain supplementary “attempt to attain to something, than which there is nothing better or more sublime” (aliquid quo nihil sit melius atque sublimius . . . conetur attingere). In other words, “God” names both what humans already think to be the best thing in the universe and what humans do not yet know to be so.
How can such an elusive object — if it is even correct to call it that — be loved directly? It would seem that any attempt to love God would necessarily stop at something less than God, something, that is, that Augustine claims is meant to be used on the way to God. The only exception, of course, would be human beings, who are, in fact, to be loved, though only derivatively. Nevertheless, the nature of such derivative love is bizarre: love of neighbor appears to be the only available access point, albeit an indirect one, to love of God. To use a rather imprecise analogy, God would be the “black hole” and the neighbor the “event horizon.” God is that object whose imposing gravitational pull appears as a gap, a hole that outside cognition can never directly comprehend but can, nevertheless, motion towards. Human beings, for their part, are the only visible points of reference, the final threshold before the no-return of God. Thus, although Augustine himself does not make this radical conclusion, it would appear that, practically speaking, love of God is nothing other than love of neighbor.
We could devote quite a bit of time to exploring the peculiar dialectical structure of such love — how, that is, the impossibility of loving God directly enables a more thoroughgoing love of neighbor here and now, and how the seemingly banal enactment of the latter becomes a site of transcendence. For now, all we need to do is to recognize that, in effect, the sole import of scripture is love of neighbor. Such a recognition, as it turns out, illuminates ever-widening cracks in Augustine’s argument.
As a case in point, Augustine spends a significant portion of book 3 of Teaching Christianity discussing how to make sense of ambiguous moral “signs” (signa) in the scriptures. Humans, Augustine asserts, are wont to judge actions not according to motive but according to the prevailing customs of their time and place. This propensity can result in people becoming scandalized when reading the scriptures, which regularly narrate all manner of unseemly deeds — adultery, genocide, polygamy, incest, etc. Some of these actions, Augustine admits, are hard to interpret literally in any way that would promote love of neighbor. Figurative reading is needed in such cases. Yet in other instances, the literal meaning might still hold, even if a person is able to recognize an additional figurative layer of meaning. In such cases — Augustine uses the example of the polygamy of the patriarchs in Genesis — the characters involved still might have been acting out of love, even if their specific actions conflict with current cultural mores.
Although Augustine might seem to promote a kind of foundationless cultural relativism — namely, any social practice can become acceptable within a culture’s own justificatory framework — what he does, in fact, is precisely the opposite. While Augustine realizes that human cultures often have very different and hard-to-reconcile customs, nevertheless he identifies love, defined as a mutual agreement of non-harm, as the universal norm of justice: “‘What you do not wish done to you, do not do to another’ (Tb. 4:15) can suffer no variation through any diversity of ethnic customs” (Quod tibi fieri non vis, alii ne feceris, nullo modo posse ulla eorum gentili diversitate variari).
Here, however, is where Augustine’s argument begins to run aground — to good effect. As we might recall, Augustine claims that the primary aim of scripture is to inculcate love of God and love of neighbor, yet only the latter appears immediately accessible to human beings. At the same time, love of neighbor is construed as a universal norm of justice that “can suffer no variation through any diversity of ethnic customs.” If this last assertion is true in any meaningful sense — even if not all cultures explicitly thematize this norm — then why does love of neighbor have to be additionally revealed through the specific body of writings that Christians regard as scripture? Why, furthermore, does love of neighbor have to be articulated in these scriptures again and again, and with such seemingly bizarre and confusing metaphors and images? If certain humans in every culture already latently live according to this law of love, then why is Christ even necessary?
Augustine’s answers to these questions are uninspired to say the least. Although the scriptures contain a single, coherent message in Augustine’s view, nevertheless their great variety and obscurity are purportedly meant “to break in pride with hard labor and to save the mind from boredom” (ad edomandam labore superbiam et intellectum a fastidio renovandum). Moreover, Christ, as the complete human embodiment of divine Wisdom, merely illustrates this same path to God — that is, love of neighbor. It would seem, therefore, that for Augustine what the scriptures and Christ aim to reveal is nothing new but rather the universal scope of a justice based on concern for the neighbor. In other words, what both the scriptures and Christ reveal — this universal norm of justice — itself evinces the non-uniqueness of Christianity.
One does not have to be a Christian, of course, to love one’s neighbor, and a Christian who only loves other Christians has already ceased to live in accordance with this norm. For this reason, the boundaries of Augustine’s interpretive community turn out to be rather different than first presumed. Anyone can love their neighbor, and a person’s neighbor could be anyone (even a non-human being, such as an angel). The scriptures, when understood within Augustine’s framework, can certainly help to foster such love, though they do not appear to be the sole word on the matter. Indeed, with these considerations in mind, the interpretive community in Teaching Christianity would not at all be coextensive with the church or Christianity writ-large, for as Augustine candidly admits, the church itself currently contains both the “wheat” and the “tares” (Mt. 13:24–30) — those who practice love of neighbor and those who do not. Although Augustine himself does not draw this conclusion, it would thus seem that the true interpretive community consists of those people, whether members of the church or not, who have radically committed themselves to loving their neighbors.
The Subtracted Collective in Winter Light
Augustine’s interpretive community, therefore, is a collective that does not align neatly either with a specific religious body, say the local Catholic church, or a particular ethnic grouping. This collective organizes itself around love of neighbor, which internally bisects any and every culture. In Augustine’s mind, that is, this norm applies universally, though only some people in any time or place actually put it into practice within their particular contexts. It is such people, so it seems, that would constitute the interpretive community — even if what Augustine regards as the scriptures are no longer the focal point of collective analysis. In the space that remains I contend that a strikingly similar grouping emerges in Winter Light and that it is this strange assemblage alone that embodies meaningful existence in the film. Pastor Tomas, however, seemingly never comes to this realization and for that reason is given over to debilitating despair.
On a cursory viewing of the film, it would be easy to conclude that any avenue of love has already been blocked off definitively. The sole moment in the film in which Tomas evinces any noticeable affection involves his deceased wife. This moment, however, takes place only after a series of failed interactions with those still living. For starters, after the service has ended, Karin Persson drags her husband Jonas, who cannot stop thinking about nuclear apocalypse, to speak with Tomas. For much of this exchange, Karin does the talking, and Jonas’s face is turned away disinterestedly from both Tomas and the camera. Jonas looks directly through Tomas — and the viewers — only when he can take no more of the latter’s inane attempts at comfort. Jonas’s piercing gaze noticeably unsettles Tomas, so he and Karin agree that Jonas should return later in the afternoon for a more extended discussion.
Next, Märta checks in on Tomas, tenderly teasing him and expressing concern over his sickness. Tomas can only respond to this show of affection with a harsh interrogation: “Why did you take communion?” As an avowed atheist, Märta would be automatically banned from taking communion in most churches. Yet Märta responds wryly: “It’s a love feast isn’t it?” This conversation segues naturally into a discussion about Märta and Tomas’s relationship. Märta had recently sent a letter to Tomas, yet Tomas claims that he has still not read it, though it is sitting on his desk. Märta then raises the possibility of marrying Tomas, though Tomas shrugs off this suggestion with cold indifference. “You can't marry me, because you don't love me,” Märta half-jokingly concludes. Tomas, for his part, does not respond. Märta briefly leaves Tomas with a reproach: “You have a lot to learn. . . . You must learn to love.” To Tomas’s bitter retort — “And you can teach me that?” — Märta matter-of-factly counters that she does not “have magic powers.”
Throughout these scenes, Tomas consistently expresses a detached indifference and seems to concern himself with one thing and one thing only: “God’s silence.” He himself admits to Märta that he “could only spout drivel” to Jonas, and his interactions with Märta are jarring, to say the least. It is only after these strained encounters that Tomas sits down at his desk, exhausted from his sickness and full of despair. He pulls out a collection of photographs of his dead wife. Looking tenderly at them, he whispers, “My love.” Later, during his more extended discussion with Jonas, Tomas further articulates this lost love: “My wife died four years ago. I loved her. My life was over.” Perhaps we should conclude that Tomas’s love for his wife was so great that it has made it impossible for him to love anyone else. Tomas’s character would thus represent a wholesale endorsement of bourgeois sentimentality — love exists, but only within the conventional boundaries of the nuclear family.
Tomas himself, in fact, seems to confirm such an interpretation. After he had first been ordained, he tells Jonas, he volunteered to be a navy chaplain in Lisbon during the Spanish Civil War. Inasmuch as Portugal was semi-officially allied with the fascists, we can surmise where Tomas’s political leanings lay. Indeed, Tomas admits that his conception of God at the time fit nicely with Franco’s authoritarianism and insulated him from recognizing the face of fascistic terror: “I refused to see what was going on. I refused to accept reality. My God and I resided in an organized world where everything made sense. . . . I put my faith in a ridiculous and private image of a fatherly God, one who loved mankind, of course, but me most of all.” Such a god, Tomas admits, was utterly detached from reality and could merely “echo” back human anguish with “benign answers and reassuring blessings.” Confronted with the horrors of war, such a god “turned into something ugly and revolting.” Rather than allow this crisis of faith to inspire a more thorough-going critique of capitalist society, however, Tomas apparently sequestered himself in the inner sanctum of married life: “The only person I showed my god to was my wife. She supported me, encouraged me and helped me. . . . Patched up the holes. Our dreams.”
Tomas apparently assumes that this biographical soliloquy would provide some solace to Jonas, who is himself married with three children and one more on the way. Perhaps Jonas too might allow his family life to desensitize him to the horrors of this world. But in Jonas’s case, the threat of nuclear apocalypse was too much. He leaves abruptly after Tomas’s nostalgic and self-absorbed monologue and proceeds directly to commit suicide. The conventional bourgeois family is clearly not enough for Jonas.
On closer inspection, in fact, Tomas’s memorialization of his own marriage covers over significant moments of dissonance. Indeed, Tomas unwittingly indicates as much in the portion of monologue quoted above, in which “holes” and “our dreams” stand in an oddly ambiguous relationship. Is “our dreams” meant to be taken as a stand-alone statement of wistful longing for his wife, or is a more discordant equation being made between “holes” and “our dreams”? Maybe what Tomas remembers as a perfect loving relationship was itself fundamentally broken.
We get some confirmation of this conclusion in Tomas’s treatment of Märta. After Jonas kills himself, Tomas goes with Märta to her house so she can give him some flu medicine. Märta again questions why Tomas does not love her, and Tomas finally provides an answer: “I feel humiliated by the gossip. No one used to care much about the cleric. He was a simply a fixture. . . . Though no one knew exactly what he was good for. Then the rumors began, about you and me. All that tittle-tattle.” Märta sees right through this flimsy excuse, and Tomas admits as much: “I thought I’d figured out a good reason — I mean all that about a pastor’s reputation — but you didn’t bite. And I understand that, since it’s a pack of lies. The reason that matters is that I don’t want you.” Tomas first claims that this indifference stems from the simple fact that Märta is not his deceased wife: “I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did l.” Yet this is not quite the truth, as we soon discover. Tomas continues, “I loved her, and she was everything you could never be — but that you insist on trying to be. The way you mimic her behavior is such an ugly parody.” Tomas, in other words, does not love Märta because she is not his wife but rather because she acts too much like his wife, even though Märta did not ever know his wife.
What does all of this suggest about Tomas’s marriage? It would be safe to assume that Tomas treated his wife while she was alive with as much contempt as he treats every other living individual in Winter Light. Tomas convincingly plays the part of the mourning widower who remains as lovingly devoted to his wife after death as he was when she was alive. Yet when confronted with an uncanny apparition of his wife through the loving actions of Märta, he can find only hatred. Indeed, Tomas appears to entertain a wider animosity towards non-egocentric love in general. In her letter, for instance, Märta herself remarks on Tomas’s “peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ.” Before reading her letter, in fact, Tomas had paused in front of a crucifix, cynically remarking, “What a ridiculous image!” Tomas can love neither Jesus Christ nor Märta — nor in all likelihood could he have loved his wife — because the kind of love displayed by these people gives too much and requires too much in return. Tomas cannot wholly “live for someone else,” as Märta wishes to do, because he is an “ignorant, spoiled, and anxious wretch,” as he candidly admits to Jonas.
Tomas, therefore, cannot love, and the love that he remembers having in the past was in all likelihood illusory. As the spitting image of the “respectable” member of bourgeois society — he himself acknowledges that he only became a pastor to appease his parents’ expectations of propriety — Tomas can only love himself and half-heartedly at that. That is to say, for Tomas, the world is meaningless and love does not exist not because of a wider existential truth but rather because of who he is and the class position in society he represents: that of capitalists and their unwitting stooges.
If love does not exist within the confines of bourgeois marriage in this film, does it exist at all, and if so, where? It might be tempting to assume that Winter Light locates such love instead within the boundaries of a religious community — after all, the original title in Swedish, Nattvardsgästerna, “Communion Guests,” would seem to point in this direction. Yet this option also represents a misstep on the way to love according to this film. As mentioned above, we are introduced to each character in the film during the opening scene, which takes place during a Eucharistic service. Although this central Christian ritual is meant to signify the loving unity of those participating, the way this scene is shot requires precisely the opposite interpretation. The camera hesitates on the sharply isolated face of each character — both before and during communion — in such a manner as to intimate that they are utterly shut off from each other. Two communicants, church warden Knut Aronsson and widow Magdalena Ledfors, play little further role in the film, and most of the others appear to be largely absent from each other’s lives. Tellingly, no one felt the need to tell Karin that Jonas shot himself until Tomas visits her probably an hour after his death. So far as we know, no one shows up to comfort her — Karin herself recognizes that she is now “all alone” in this world.
Such indeed should come as no surprise, for Tomas had already acknowledged that religion can quite comfortably become a part of business as usual in bourgeois society. A pastor, Tomas had mused, might be overlooked and seen as somewhat superfluous in a capitalist society, but nevertheless he is regarded as a “fixture.” In Tomas’s particular case, moreover, religion had done anything but open him up to love. For Tomas — and presumably for the average member of his congregation — God was merely a “private” and “fatherly” being who guaranteed an “orderly world where everything made sense.” Such a deity might be said to love humanity in a vague sense, though when push came to shove, this bourgeois god would always favor Tomas and those similar to Tomas “most of all.” Like bourgeois marriage, the film thus suggests, the bourgeois religious community is unable to foster any kind of truly self-transcending love.
So where is love located in Winter Light? The final scene of the film takes place right before the start of the service in Frostnäs. When Tomas and Märta arrive at the church, the partially disabled sacristan Algot is already there. Märta lingers in the sanctuary, and Tomas goes to the back to prepare. The church organist Blom is the only other person in attendance. Two conversations take place before the service, both of which portray the possibility for love, on the one hand, and a misrecognition of this possibility, on the other.
In the first of these conversations, Algot approaches Tomas and asks to have a word with him (he had already tried to do so after the service in Mittsunda to no avail). Tomas reluctantly agrees, and Algot proceeds to relate his recent reflections on Christ’s crucifixion. In light of his own bodily agony over the years, Algot hazards that the typical focus on Christ’s physical suffering during his crucifixion is misguided: “It couldn’t have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me — but in my humble way, I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather?” Christ’s real suffering, Algot contends, started before his crucifixion, when all of his disciples abandoned him and Peter, one of his closest friends, denied that he even knew him. Moreover, none of Christ’s followers ever truly understood him: “They’d lived together day in and day out — but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone.” On top of all of this, however, during his crucifixion, Christ “thought that [even] his heavenly Father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.” We see the slightest twinge of recognition come over Tomas’s face, as he murmurs “Yes, yes.” Märta herself, of course, had continually shown Tomas love in tangible ways and had accompanied him everywhere, though she would regularly tease Tomas for his brooding bewilderment over God’s silence. Algot, for his part, reveals that Tomas could, in fact, be understood as well. Yet we have no indication that Tomas actually perceives these possibilities for love in his life: he seems to be absorbed once more in silent self-pity when we see him next, right before the start of the service.
Meanwhile, in the sanctuary Blom and Märta are having a conversation of their own. The camera focuses on Märta’s face, and Blom positions himself behind her right shoulder, almost as if he were her personal devil (tellingly, Märta has no guardian angel other than her own conscience). Blom encourages Märta to “leave this place . . . get out as quickly as you can.” Everything in both Mittsunda and Frostnäs, Blom goes on, “is in the grip of death and decay.” Blom takes himself as a primary example. He apparently used to give concerts, but those days had ended long ago. The chuches, too, Blom asserts, used to be well-attended, but Tomas’s “wife was his undoing. . . . He only had eyes for her. He was utterly smitten.” Blom does not elaborate on this claim, though he seems mainly to relish in the noticeable anguish that it causes Märta. At any rate, it is at this point that Blom mockingly quotes, “God is love and love is God. Love proves the existence of God. Love is a real force for humanity.” Whereas Tomas represents the person who is too self-absorbed to love, Blom embodies a more self-consciously cynical stance towards love, one that assumes that all love is illusory.
Neither perspective on love, Winter Light ever so subtly suggests, is correct. After Blom leaves Märta, the camera cuts back to Algot and Tomas. Earlier, Blom had remarked on the sparse attendance to Märta: “No service today! Not a soul turned up. You don’t count.” Now Tomas asks Algot if they should have the service. “There’s only Miss Lundberg [that is, Märta] out there,” Algot replies. In contrast to Blom’s sarcastic dismissal of Märta, however, Algot immediately revises his statement: “I shouldn’t say ‘only.’” The bells start to ring to signal that the service will indeed begin, and we see a dark silhouette of Märta kneeling and mouthing something close to a prayer, one that pays no heed to Blom’s cynical mocking: “If only we could feel safe and dare show each other tenderness. If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.”
In both Algot and Märta, therefore, we see the vague outlines of what might become a collective of love. Only their characters step outside themselves to show loving regard for others, and the love they embody is one that is not easily confined to any preexisting social formation (whether the family or the church). Algot, the partially paralyzed devout sacristan, and Märta, the atheist school teacher, recognize both each other and Tomas in ways that no other characters do in Winter Light. In their own specific ways, both Algot and Märta have been subtracted from bourgeois society — Algot is living off the pension he got for the injuries he sustained while working on the railroad, and Märta is the pastor’s freethinking ex-mistress. Neither Algot nor Märta, that is to say, have a part in a society organized around the negligent pursuit of profit and the insistent preservation of patriarchy. Because of this, both Algot and Märta necessarily find themselves confronted with an imposing choice: either accept the negation of their existence and give in to despair or create the space for love out of nothing. It is the latter of these options that Algot and Märta opt for. They themselves constitute a subtracted collective of love, one that is coextensive neither with the bourgeois family nor with a traditional religious community. Like Augustine’s interpretive community, both Algot and Märta have devoted themselves radically to love of neighbor, any neighbor. Yet neither Tomas nor Blom can recognize such love, for, as the atheist Märta intimates, it is ironically they themselves who refuse to believe.