The Magic Lantern

Did you know that Ingmar Bergman first thought to make films as a consolation for punishment? If you’ve seen any of his films, like The Silence or Virgin Spring, perhaps that characterization does not surprise you. When he was a young child, and would (without much incident apparently) incur punishment from his Lutheran minister father, Bergman was locked into a kind of closet under the stairs of his family’s home. To make matters worse, a slightly older cousin told Bergman at one time that the closet was not only horrifyingly dark, but full of small, vicious animals whose function was to gnaw the toes of mischievous children. At one point, though, he was given a somewhat crude film projector, otherwise called a magic lantern, which he wisely thought to store in the depths of his little cell under the stairs.

“At the age of 9, he traded a set of tin soldiers for a battered magic lantern, a possession that altered the course of his life. Within a year, he had created, by playing with this toy, a private world in which he felt completely at home, he recalled. He fashioned his own scenery, marionettes, and lighting effects and gave puppet productions of Strindberg plays in which he spoke all the parts.” (Mervyn Rothstein, New York Times, 31 July 2007)

See the terrific Swedish television documentary, Bergman Island, and hear an 87 year-old, and still charming, Ingmar Bergman tell the story of how he got the lantern in the first place. In short, his brother was given the lantern at Christmas, to his brother’s great disinterest, and Bergman’s immediate and crippling heartbreak. Eventually, after a few months of strategic planning, Bergman “traded [his] entire army [of toy soldiers] for the magic lantern. Swords into ploughshares indeed.

All of this is to say that Ingmar Bergman, who died at age 89 in 2007, has some great, if simply unusual stories from his long and storied life. The Magic Lantern, his autobiography from 1988, is one great story of many, many smaller stories. I’ve read it several times, and return to it often.

There are a many autobiographies out there by similarly luminous thinkers, in other arts and professions. In most of the examples to follow, the autobiographies serve doubly as personal narrative and historical survey. Sometimes, as with Bergman’s The Magic Lantern, the stories contain philosophical treatises, artistic theory, and a healthy measure of gossip.

Here are some other books from people who couldn’t help but talk about everything they did, felt, thought about, or otherwise:

The Scent of Roses, by Mary O’Hara   Mary O’Hara is an Irish soprano and harpist. She recorded and popularized many traditional Irish songs in the early days of the folk revival in the 1960’s in the U.S. and the U.K.

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, by William Carlos Williams  Not only was WCW a medical doctor with a home-based practice in Paterson, NJ. He also utterly revolutionized American and possibly all poetry with his rhythmically metered, colloquial books of verse. He also wrote several novels, an experimental collection of essays on American history, and a book of personal stories from his medical practice.

Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Commonplace, by Tom Clark and Robert Creeley  This autobiography is furnished with several interviews between poet/essayist Tom Clark, and American poet Robert Creeley. Creeley’s way of speaking is utterly inimitable and the book is as good as the poem copied below:


What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not – but still
not chanted enough –

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory –
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness –
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
“Taught them not this –
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . .”

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