Playing chess with Death

I’ve been “social distancing” now for six days, which means I’ve had time to watch several movies. One of those movies was Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal, which I found surprisingly uplifting, despite taking place in Europe during the Black Plague (fitting, I know). Besides thematic parallels between the Black Plague and today’s Covid-19 pandemic, the movie offers a simple lesson about how we might live our lives with death weighing so heavy on our minds.

In the opening scene, war-weary knight Antonius Block challenges Death incarnate (a mysterious man in a hooded black robe) to a game of chess. The stakes are high: if the knight wins, Death will let him go, otherwise he dies. The movie proceeds to follow Block as he travels across the country to re-unite with his wife, all the while his metaphorical chess match with Death continues in the background.

We learn a lot about Block on his journey. He questions God, lacks faith in anything, and struggles to find meaning in life. Faced with the sudden prospect of dying, the nihilistic Block confesses to a priest (who is actually Death in disguise) something most of us probably feel on some level: he wishes to perform one meaningful deed before he dies, which would ostensibly give his life significance. Like most of us probably do, he initially imagines this deed should be a grand one because, in his calculus, only a deed of truly heroic magnitude could counterbalance the profound existential torment he feels living in a plague-stricken, Godless and careless world. What good is planting one tree while the whole forest burns?

But he learns, eventually, that’s not how life works. Existential dread is not counterbalanced any more effectively by dramatic gestures or heroic performances than by the small activity of living everyday life. It is life’s seemingly trivial moments that best soothe our deepest anxieties: simply laughing with a friend can effectively ward off the specter of death, at least temporarily. In a moment of explicit optimism, Block picnics with a young couple and their child. He finally stops distressing over big questions relating to God and death and faith and happily embraces the present communion:

I shall remember this moment: the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be an adequate sign to me, and it will be enough for me.

Block continues on his journey to see his wife, with Death following close behind. Block of course finally loses the chess match with Death. But before he does, he briefly cheats Death: he purposefully knocks over the pieces on the board. Distracted by putting the pieces back in place, Death fails to notice that Block has just given his friends the opportunity to escape Death, for the time being. “What did you gain by this reprieve?” Death asks. “A great deal,” says Block.

And that’s it. That’s the lesson. We are all playing a losing game of chess with Death. We can strategize all we want, and we can look 3, 4, 5, 20 moves ahead. But it always ends the same. For all of us. We can play to gratify our own sense of competition, hopelessly trying to outwit Death. We can agonize over the unanswerable questions Death raises, callowly believing knowledge somehow functions as a soothing cosmic ointment. Or we can cheat Death one day at a time, little by little.

Cheating Death can take many forms, at different times, some of them heroic but most of them banal. Right now, cheating Death is simple: it means staying in, so you’re not a vector of transmission. Even if you’re not worried about losing your chess match soon, staying in means others might escape Death for a bit longer. It’s a small reprieve, staying in, but right now there’s a great deal to gain in doing it.