Guilty of Guilt

2011-0087 Cinematheque Wild Strawberries Poster

In a haunting dream sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, an old professor is arraigned before the bar of justice. When he asks the charge, the judge replies, “You are guilty of guilt.”

“Is that serious?” the professor asks.

“Very serious,” says the judge.

But that is all that is said on the subject of guilt. In a universe where God is dead, people are not guilty of violating a moral law; they are only guilty of guilt, and this is very serious, for nothing can be done about it. If one had sinned, there might be atonement. If one had broken a law, the lawmaker might forgive the criminal. But if one is only guilty of guilt, there is no way to solve the very personal problem.

And that states the case for a nihilist, for no one can avoid acting as if moral values exist and as if there is some bar of justice that measures guilt by objective standards. But there is a bar of justice, and we are left, not in sin, but in guilt. Very serious, indeed.

–James W. Sire,
The Universe Next Door