Montaigne, Part II. On knowing others (again) and some comments on The Seventh Seal

Some weeks ago, in the grip of a fever, I wrote a pointless little article called ‘On Knowing Others’. This is a continuation that aims to retroactively add some substance to that. It’s also a tangentially related quick analysis of Bergman’s 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, for some reason.

Because Montaigne’s Essays only share personal information when necessary, and as a result can be a quite mysterious document if you don’t know his life story, the Essays are very similar to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls. As in, the video game.

Montaigne and Dark Souls share a defining characteristic that should ideally attract proponents of one to the other: when they tell you something outright, they do it in tiny chunks, often less than a sentence. Otherwise, Dark Souls remains focused on the physical utility of what you find, and Montaigne remains focused on whatever point he was making at the time. Little contextual details slip out almost as if by accident, just enough to let you ground yourself in either Montaigne’s argument or what exactly it is you’ve found and what it’s for in Dark Souls.

Dark Souls uses intentionally sparse item descriptions to communicate its story, and Montaigne just assumes his audience already knows the context of his work and who he is. These two frameworks work in similar ways to immerse us in the experience. We’re drawn further in by the lure of ‘What did Montaigne think about this?’ or in the case of the game ‘what relation does this place/creature have to all the others?’

It doesn’t matter if you’ve already memorised Montaigne’s life story, and you know the exact steps to complete Dark Souls before you even start playing, because in both cases there’s a world beneath that surface – Montaigne’s inner world, and the frankly excessive amount of lore in Miyazaki’s masterpiece.

Both might be addicting as a result of that slow discovery, that emulation of how the real world works. When you meet someone for the first time, they don’t tell you their life story. They let bits out over time. This is part of the reason Montaigne’s Essays can be considered more a portable friend than just a book. No one gets a complete picture of the thing until the end, and sometimes not even then (Dark Souls having two endings necessitates that you play through it a minimum of two times to see everything).

Visual media are naturally superior to written content for this, because there’s always visual stimulus we’re going to miss on a first time through a film or game. But you’re unlikely to skip the words in a book, unless you’re impatient or a reviewer for the New York Times. In that case, even on a first read you’ll be aware of some deeper significance.

But in a film there are elements that can easily pass you by. I watched Bergman’s The Seventh Seal yesterday. I caught the contrasts between the knight and squire in terms of their characters and role, but (having little experience with analysing visuals) I missed how the monochrome added that contrasting framework to the whole film. In other words, having the whole thing be in monochrome forced Bergman to be creative with his shots, and created a few striking moments with starkly contrasting images, as when the knight talks to Death in the confession booth, or at the conclusion with the danse macabre set against a grey sky. The whole thing, thematically, is obsessed with contrasting pairs: a pair of fighters joined by a pair of traveling players, joined by a pair of villagers (a blacksmith and wife) – and they split off into their own pairs. The squire coerces a village girl to become his maidservant, another pair. The knight is frequently visually paired with Death, as in their chess game in the woods. And so on and so on. The contrast isn’t just visual or plot-based, however, but also represented through character.

The knight in The Seventh Seal is a spiritual man, who barely involves himself in secular and physical affairs. He leaves that to his squire, a somewhat lax, less serious character who drinks, fights, sings bawdy songs, threatens thieves, and so on. Nonetheless, the squire possesses a far more hopeless view about the afterlife. Despite his worldly disinterest and seeming seriousness, the knight is unable to stop madly hoping for a proper afterlife – while the squire has given up hope and essentially abandoned himself to the tangible realm. When the witch burns on the stake, however, they both gaze at the sight with the same all-encompassing, terrible fear of death, because we’re all the same in the end, says Bergman.

Where was I?

Ah yes. With a video game there’s far more potential for hidden images and messages, because it’s very easy to design a game so that the player doesn’t see everything in one go. Case in point, Ash Lake in Dark Souls, a whole secret area which most players didn’t know about until they went on the Internet, that nonetheless had tremendous story significance.

To tie all this back to the old ‘Knowing Others’ post, what I’m saying is that Montaigne is the exact opposite of David Foster Wallace. And yet, he’s somehow far more candid; perhaps as a result of doing things in his life, instead of endlessly worrying over his own textual veracity. He didn’t think about every individual word he put down, because he wasn’t writing a story, he was writing essays. And those hadn’t been invented yet, essentially, so he could write whatever came to mind.

The candid nature of Montaigne’s thought is far more honest than Wallace, whose ceaseless agony over the honesty of his word choices was his precise problem. And there were two reasons for that; one, Montaigne had done quite a few things in life, and two, he had a point to make independent of his honesty. Apparently that’s the secret to letting people get to know you – actually doing something. No faith without works and all that.

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