Be a Man
Lessons from Three Literary Priests
And below are a few lines (some of which are borrowed and lightly dusted in the AQ piece) I wrote at the death of Max von Sydow two years ago, who of course famously played the part of one of these three priests in the movie made from one of the novels. (We start our discussion of The Exorcist—the novel, not the film—in my conservative thought course today).
Father Lankester Merrin and Religion in American Popular Culture
Max von Sydow, one of the outstanding screen actors of his generation, and perhaps of any generation, passed away on March 8 at the age of 90. The towering, gaunt, intensely emotive Swede is perhaps best known to world cinema fans as the crusader knight Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal, one of the greatest films ever made. His many collaborations with the director of that film, Ingmar Bergman, were the centerpiece of his acting career, to be sure, but his formidable acting talents can be seen in many other films and roles. Indeed, it is not even clear that Block was his most culturally weighty role. For von Sydow also portrayed one of the greatest religious roles to appear in a Hollywood film, Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist.
William Friedkin’s terrifying 1973 cinematic adaptation of the massively underrated novel by William Peter Blatty about the demonic possession of a 12 year old girl is widely recognized as among the most singularly unique and emotionally powerful films of the past half-century. Its place in American popular culture is deep-rooted, and just a few years ago a television series based on the Blatty storyline brought the franchise to younger audiences.
Von Sydow’s portrayal of Merrin was iconic, and the still of him in the eerie light of the streetlamp before the house where the possessed girl awaits his arrival is known to every film buff. But the character of Merrin, and what it communicates about Christian faith and the mortal struggle against sin, has received much less commentary in the analysis of the film’s cultural meaning. Blatty created the Merrin character as a complex priestly archetype, a heroic warrior for God against evil who was nonetheless himself struggling with serious internal contradictions. Von Sydow brought this literary figure to life in a riveting manner that has rightly entered cinematic mythology.
In the film’s foreboding first scenes, we see Merrin, a priest-paleontologist engaged in a dig in Iraq, at the research site, making a striking find: a small graven image of an ancient Near Eastern demon, one he recognizes immediately as a foe he has encountered previously. Sitting resigned and exhausted in a café, he takes medication for his heart condition, his hands trembling, while all around him symbols of the coming war make their presence known: a blind man hammers at an anvil, the personification of the unending labor with which God burdened man as the price of his initial transgression, and the cacophonous sounds of bustling human traffic burst forth in the form of the cart, bearing a leering old crone, that nearly tramples Merrin. Then, a signature image: the priest stands opposing the ithyphallic Pazuzu, the demon whose image he has just unearthed, as stray dogs viciously fight in the street, the harbinger of renewed strife perpetually unleashed on the earth by man’s sin.
The novel depicts the character of Father Merrin with great acuity. The film unfortunately omits much of the brilliant dialogue that illustrates the demon’s effort to psychologically undermine the priest, retaining only the obscenities. The most powerful insights into Merrin’s character concern his struggles with a moral weakness that he shares with a goodly number of his intellectual tribe, perhaps with many readers of this article, and certainly with its author. It is his pride, the demon knows, that has played a central role in driving his intellectual career, his inability to easily mingle with other men who are not scholars and writers, with their mundane interests and their incomprehensible lack of concern for intellectual matters. Merrin understands that this is the part of his personality that most inclines him to his own ruin, and so the demon uses it as the efficacious and deadly weapon it is for him. “Your abode is in a nest of peacocks, Merrin! your place is within yourself! Go back to the mountaintop and speak to your only equal!” the demon thunders at him.
In the novel, Merrin is depicted as struggling mightily with this sin. He knows, despite his pride, that he is called to find a way to act in affirmation of his fellows, in magnanimity toward them even if he of necessity mostly lives apart from them. They are children of God, of moral worth equal to his own. Pride is a widespread human failing, of course, and Blatty sketches both priests in the novel as suffering from it. Like Merrin, the psychiatrically-trained Karras has a foot in the world of science, but he is experiencing a crisis of faith that makes it nearly impossible to properly equilibrate his elite status as an intellectual with his humble spiritual calling. He knows only too well that had he rejected the priesthood and followed a purely medical career path he might have saved his ailing mother from the grim fate that has befallen her, dying abandoned and alone in rotting tenement housing. The film reproduces Blatty’s chilling depiction of Karras’ encounter with a filthy, alcoholic beggar, who implores him “Could ya help an old altar boy, Father? I’m a Catholic.” Karras recoils in disgust. The demon jeeringly recalls this to Karras several times over the course of the film, and each time Karras winces at the direct hit on one of his chief moral defects.
What a shame that von Sydow was not given the relevant elements of the novel with which to fully weave this gnawing pride into the role of Merrin, as he doubtless would have done marvels with this additional material. But even without it, he gives us a fully human Merrin, frail and weak in some ways--his heart condition, his brief outburst of frustration during the exorcism scene, when it seems the priests might fail--but at root so firm in his conviction of God’s reality that he fairly glows with spiritual power. Chris, Regan’s mother, who is a confirmed atheist, senses it too, and she looks at him with undisguised reverence. Both he and Karras are male figures of authority for the divorced career woman fearful that her daughter might be acting out psychological distress caused by the rending of her family.
The movie’s most compelling scene is also its most deeply Christian one. As the exorcism is taking place, the possessed girl levitates off the bed. This is visually stunning, but the scene’s real force comes from what Merrin does in response. Or, rather, what the Catholic Rite of Exorcism does, since Merrin’s response is simply to continue its recitation. His tone is magisterially authoritative as he begins a cadence, each line punctuated by a sprinkling of holy water. The first line—“The power of Christ compels you”—is intoned several times in unison by both priests, then Merrin continues alone: “It is God himself who commands you, the majestic Christ who commands you, God the Father who commands you, God the Son who commands you, God the Holy Spirit commands you, the mystery of the cross commands you, the blood of the martyrs commands you.”
The scene is not in the novel, which is replete with other examples of Catholic orthodoxy. It is the film’s most unabashed depiction of Catholic theological principle, and the effect is transcendent both visually and dialogically. Von Sydow’s delivery and presence here are positively ethereal. What American film, before or since, has so purely spoken the language of Christian faith?
Merrin’s effect on Karras, the renewed vigor he gives to the faltering faith of his brother, is another element of the film that owes much to von Sydow’s acting. The dialogue between them is brilliant, even if here again the novel is richer in content than the film, but von Sydow’s demeanor, tender, concerned and yet stern and masterful at once, does the work. The tone of his voice, and the accompanying gaze, when he responds to Karras’ insistence that there are three main personalities manifested by the girl with the utter certainty that “there is only one” are moving beyond description. The viewer senses that, now, finally, the problem is adequately understood, and so the battle can proceed. That moral clarity is perhaps Merrin’s greatest contribution to the narrative, and von Sydow communicates it magnificently with but few words.
Some students in classes in which I have used this film insist on calling its conclusion, in which both priests die, Karras in gruesome fashion after a plunge from a high window, ‘tragic.’ This reading could not be more wrong. Tragedy requires the destruction of the hero through his unhappy destiny, which he can do nothing to change. The Fates are the authors of tragedies, ultimately, and they choose human destinies for reasons we cannot fathom. The Exorcist ends with Father Karras acting heroically to put the demon to flight, recovering his faltering faith, and making confession in his last minutes of life. The child Regan is saved. Merrin’s death does not change the fact of his irreplaceable role in putting the demon to route, and we feel confident, given his righteous actions and clear faith, that his post-death trajectory will be upward. It is evident that Merrin’s death, and Karras’ fury in reaction to it, are essential to Karras finding the power to vanquish the demon. If Merrin had not died, the girl and Karras might well not have been saved. His passing is an act of martyrdom that saves two other souls.
Death can be the source of tragedy only if it reigns triumphant, if its void cannot be fathomed and bridged. In tragedy, good people suffer dreadful fates, and this is unrelated to any question of their moral guilt, as there is no precise equivalent to the notion of sin in the Greek world that created tragedy as a genre—though in hubris, the Greeks approximated the Christian sin of which Merrin was most guilty. The only triumph in tragedy is Oedipus’ triumph: the ability to look at one’s awful destiny and accept it unblinkingly. But death is unaffected by this tragic heroism.
However admirable such a response to the abyss is, this is a very different kind of narrative than that given by Christianity, where the individual always has the choice between Good and Evil and, though the individual dies, if the right choice is made, death loses its terrible sting. In The Exorcist, Catholic faith is accepted as the means of transcending the mortal condition. The deaths of Karras and Merrin could be victories for evil if they were not redeemed by their faith, and certainly so if they were so lost as to willingly do the work of evil, but they cannot be tragedies because—and though the point is unfathomable in today’s Hollywood, it was nonetheless true in 1973—the cultural backdrop of the film is thoroughly Christian.
In speaking nearly a decade before his own death about his longtime friend and collaborator, Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow credited the great director with helping him resolve his own struggle with the question of death. He expressed his skepticism about the immortality of the soul to his friend, who was having none of it. “I will prove it to you by coming back to you after my own death,” Bergman told him. The television interviewer laughed at the story and then gave an account of a variation on it from his own life, in which one of his friends had come to disbelieve in the afterlife when her deeply faithful mother failed to make her presence manifest to her from beyond the grave. Von Sydow quickly interjected: “But I have heard from Bergman. Many times.” “Tell me about it,” asked the startled interviewer. Aptly, laconically, mysteriously, the man who played Father Merrin responded, with a warm smile, “I can’t.”