Further Reflections on the Trauma of Return

1 August 2012


The Swedish knight Antonius Block returns from crusading in the Holy Land to play a game of chess with death and to find the plague ravaging his homeland.

In the classic Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, a Swedish knight, Antonius Block, returns to his native Sweden after ten years of crusading in the Holy Land. Upon his return he encounters the figure of Death, which whom he engages in a chess match, and as the game of death proceeds, the knight and his squire, which latter has become so disillusioned as to be cynical, see the ravages of the Black Death, see a witch burned, and see flagellants whipping themselves in a frenzy of religiously-inspired self-mortification (curiously parallel to the religiously-inspired violence in which the crusading knight himself as participated). The knight has returned from a traumatic experience to find not respite but further trauma. All in all, this is not the sort of homecoming for which one would wish.

Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification.

The knight has been on crusade, but what is a crusade but an armed pilgrimage? At the same time that knights were traveling on crusade, others were traveling the same roads as unarmed pilgrims. The knight going to the Holy Land to do battle with the infidel is as much a pilgrim as the friar with this staff is a pilgrim. It was commonplace in the middle ages for religious officials to offer absolution of sins to knight for fulfilling their religious duty to go on crusade to liberate the Holy Land.

Pilgrimage was sometimes undertaken voluntarily, as a religious duty, and in other cases under duress, as penance.

The experience of return after many years of absence, whether due to crusade or pilgrimage, would have commonly been as unsettling as Bergman’s knight coming home to the plague and a chess match with Death — though not likely as dramatic. In that other famous case of a return after ten years’ absence, The Odyssey, Odysseus on his return to Ithaca must deal with the unruly Suitors of Penelope — but after dispatching them all, he is eventually accepted by his wife and then by his father. In other words, Odysseus experiences a kind of closure and resolution; the only closure for Bergman’s knight is that of death.

Odysseus also had a difficult homecoming, but eventually he got his life back. In other words, you can go home again.

Can we go home again? Is it even possible to go home again, to the same home, as one’s selfsame self, after having walked abroad in life (as the ghost of Jacob Marley puts it)? Or is it impossible to step twice into the same river because new waters are always flowing upon us? Kierkegaard devoted an entire book to this question, Repetition. Kierkegaard frames the question like this: is a repetition possible? Homer says yes. Bergman says no.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, 05 May 1813 – 11 November 1855, asked if a repetition is possible. In other words, do we get a second chance?

Kierkegaard had a personal stake in the question, since he had tossed over Regine Olsen after having proposed to her, and after her acceptance. He ran. In other words, Kierkegaard was a cad, and it bothered his conscience. He wanted to know if he could make up for it. In a way, he did, though he probably didn’t know it. A friend of mine who studied Kierkegaard much more intensively than I ever did, told me that in her later married life to another man, Regine Olsen and her husband spent their spare time reading Kierkegaard’s devotional treatises to each other. Strange, no? But life is full of strange occurrences.

Regine Olsen, once engaged to Kierkegaard.

Is a repetition possible? Do we get a second chance? Can we go home again? The questions are inter-related, but they are not the same. Rather, they are same for some, but not for all. And I think we can formulate it like this: those for whom defamiliarization is the more traumatic have a second chance upon return; those for whom refamiliarization is the more traumatic do not regard homecoming as a second chance, but look forward to their next departure as their second chance. In either case, a repetition is possible, but in no sense guaranteed. So I must side with Homer as against Bergman, but I must also observe that the difference in an individual’s response to defamiliarization and refamiliarization marks the ground of a distinction: if you are not on one side, you are on the other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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