Midsommar: an analysis

Dear T,

Before getting along with this essay I want to give my recommendation.  If you're a devout Christian, or a grandma, or a respectable person in general you need to see the Horatio Hornblower series.  It's full of great morals, top-notch acting, lovable characters, and lessons about life.  For the rest of you, the Christians-in-name-only, the teenagers with no direction, the jaded hipsters, the people who saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show without wincing, and other people who don't like their souls spotless, I recommend Midsommar*.  The rest of you can stay away, and if you dare to disregard my warning, you deserve what you get.  This thing is filthy and disturbing, and if you watch it you can lay the blame anywhere other than my feet.  Blame Satan.

But if Satan did make this movie he did a terrible job at it.  It's the best case for religion I've seen from a non-Christian, and in a post-Christian society, the best case for first-century Christendom.  Consider what it means.  That Dani, whose bipolar sister had been dragging her through crisis after crisis, suddenly loses both sister and parents to a selfish act of murder-suicide.  Dani's boyfriend didn't love her.  It was a fling gone sour that he was too weak to end.  So he stuck with her, out of a spineless duty, and his godless college friends didn't love her, and she had nothing to hang on to except him.  She was with others, but got no love.  She had no hope, no family, and no future.

Then comes Pelle.  This man, a well-meaning, kind-faced, and generous pagan, takes them off to back-woods Sweden for a festival -- a place where happy people refer to each other as brother and sister, and where you can see, at first glance, that they love one another wholeheartedly.  This love is most startling among the men, who, unlike Americans, can embrace one another and look right into each other's eyes and not say anything without wondering if anyone is gay.  The Americans, like many scrawny and dumpy college students, are dressed without respect for themselves.  The cultists are wearing white homespun clothing.  The Americans are individualists, and totally lacking in ritual.  The cultists are happy and acting in unison**.

The constant rites come off as bizarro, but what do they mean?  Essentially, that you and others are part of a team, and headed in the same direction with the same purposes.  Death, the joy-wrecking dread of the non-believer, is embraced here as a necessary evil in the path to more life.  As something to be gotten through, but not the end, and certainly not the worst evil.  Sex is viewed as procreation -- and thus taken reverentially, wholly, as an act of divine mystery and thus almost worship.  It brings a new life into the community, so the community takes part in the making of a new life.  There's no pornography here, or promiscuity without meaning.  Sex and death are embraced instead of hidden and feared.  Children are watched after by the community, and call each other siblings regardless of their parents. 

Not that any of this isn't weird as it's presented in the film, but I argue it's less weird than we act now -- where sex, many times, means union without regard for our makers; where coitus is aborted and avoids making children; where men are afraid to love each other like David loved Jonathan; where people wear sweat pants around strangers at Walmart; where we go through life, most of the time, without doing things in unison -- without songs, without dance, without embracing sex and death and the great mysteries of life together; where words aren't holy and traditions aren't sacred; where there's college without wisdom; where a friend means a good time but not necessarily a good soul; where the old are largely segregated from the young; where people lose track of their life-cycle because of this; and where a rainbow flag means more to people than a tree of our ancestors, or a cross.

Thus when the film ends and Dani becomes the May Queen and burns her boyfriend to death, I wonder: was it really so horrible?  Hadn't she finally found her family?  Wasn't she trading her sweatpants for white linen?  Wasn't she trading her dead-weight boyfriend for a tall-standing lover?  Wasn't she trading "going through the motions" to joining in a mass-dance?  Wasn't she trading liars for a beautiful lie?  The common for the sacred?  The status of unwanted baggage for the title of the May Queen?

I answer yes -- and maybe this makes me a psycho, or a cultist in budding.  Maybe my standards are too low -- or maybe they're so high I'm willing to overlook murder and madness to reach them.  Or maybe it just makes me want the days when Christians would die for one another, and held each other close, and everyone was a brother and a sister, and everybody else said they were cannibals.

I want more rituals than the Catholic Church.  I want a religion that's older than nation-states.  I want the brotherhood and love of a cult.  I want to be close to nature and sex, and to walk into death willingly.  I love reason and appreciate science -- but I would throw them away in an instant to be a starry-eyed pagan

Your father,

*My recommendation of Midsommar, aside from its outright attack on modernity, is equally because of its art.  This film is beautiful, even in its ugliness.  Ari Aster is our Stanley Kubrick.  We're in an age where film is peaking and we're just now getting our Beethovens.  We're feeling things we can't explain in words.  I can describe the plot here, but the vibe can only be experienced.

**Just as sunrise is the first and shortest part of the day, I suspect a healthy cult-life experience is born and lost quickly.  This happens, first of all, because the same instinct that created the cult is working in people to change it.  There will be new approaches to old things.  Old rules that won't work in new circumstances.  Some people will get bored with the old rituals.  Others will be more charming than the leaders.  The sayings of the fathers will be misinterpreted, and when interpreted correctly, sometimes applied unwisely.  The brotherhood will give way, in an influx of me-too cultists, crowding to catch the first rays of dawn, to a whole horde of strangers and mistrust.  A religion is what a successful cult becomes, and what it must become.  But to turn it back into a cult requires a rebellion.  To be a great worshipper, at this stage of civilization, you have to be ready to burn things down.

I'll add here that my rosy outlook on cult life is probably a result of the time I live in, and that the individuality I'm tired of -- an individuality which is probably an extreme overreaction to the overreaches of family, and churches, and government -- was probably an exhilarating prospect to people who felt too controlled by people who didn't love them, or didn't deserve to control anybody.  Those of us who are too "free" miss community.  Those of us too trapped in community are looking for freedom.  We've oftentimes heard that people who love Ayn Rand need Jesus.  But I believe people who've had too much Jesus need Ayn Rand.  We need community and autonomy -- and if we're always seeking the balance, we rarely find it.

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