Thursday, January 22, 2015

Peter Toohey

Peter Toohey, the author of Boredom: A Lively History and Melancholy, Love and Time, is professor of classics in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary with a special interest in the nature and history of the emotions.

His latest book is Jealousy.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Toohey's reply:
I’m rereading Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern. I try to read his autobiography every year. Sometimes it’s more than once. This helps make sense of his films. But that’s not the main reason I keep on reading the book. The Magic Lantern is such an uncompromisingly honest and inspiring vision of a great creative mind. Bergman is very hard on himself (he calls his The Serpents Egg “an embarrassing failure”). But he never gave up (“I do not regret for a moment making The Serpent’s Egg; it was a healthy learning experience”; he was 59 when the film came out and he was still learning). All of the themes from his movies are there in the vivid fragments of his autobiography: the indifference of the artist to their family and friends (Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata or the knight at the beginning of The Seventh Seal), the love of childhood (Fanny and Alexander) and families (Wild Strawberries), marriage, its difficulties, its solace (Smiles of a Summer Night or much later in the mesmeric TV of Scenes from a Marriage), and of course the silence of God (the best is Through a Glass Darkly: the schizophrenic Bibi Anderssen sees God – a spider crawling through a crack in the wall paper). But there are also the wrenching portraits of women. Do you recall Ingrid Thulin’s six-minute soliloquy to the camera on her love of the indifferent pastor, Tomas, in Winter Light? Bergman’s mother and grandmother, everywhere in The Magic Lantern, seem to be behind these performances. Was Ingrid Thulin playing his mother in this scene from Winter Light? Was Tomas his father? The biography is not sequential. It highlights, in an order important for Bergman, key moments and events in his life. This is the logic of the narrative in the 1972 film Cries and Whispers. For most of my unsequential life whenever anything unexpectedly fortunate has happened to me, someone has been quick to say: “why you of all people”? I don’t believe this happened much to Ingmar Bergman. He wasn’t like us, though he tried hard to be. Who’d have dared to ask him that question but a tax agent? He said in his autobiography that he felt that he had a volcano inside himself. To keep it in check he had to be, in his life and behaviour, as orderly as possible. He doesn’t really seem to have succeeded well in many areas of his life, especially when it involved money and love and his family. But he did with cinema and with its prism-like revocation of his childhood. He was 85 when his last film, Saraband, appeared. “Why you of all people?” Read The Magic Lantern, inhale a little of its nourishing brimstone, and you can answer why for Ingmar Bergman. Then think of Märta’s soliloquy in Winter Light and you will gain the confidence to answer – “why not me?”
Learn more about Jealousy at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Boredom: A Lively History.

--Marshal Zeringue