What do you do when the Satanic Temple endorses your film?
Well, if you’re Robert Eggers—scholar of 17th-century social protocol and animal husbandry that he now is—you know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.
At Sundance 2015, the first-time feature director debuted a period horror film called The Witch. Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” the film takes place in 1630, and follows a Puritan family as they are exiled from their community and subsequently terrorized by a witch. It’s a classic “cabin in the woods” horror scenario with a theological twist, all rendered with painstaking historical accuracy. Much buzzed about as the scariest film at Sundance, The Witch got picked up by A24, a distributor that has been steadily building a reputation for excellence—its roster is usually stacked with the year’s most original indies. (Other 2016 A24 releases include Green Room, The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, American Honey, and Moonlight).
A24 had been planning to hedge its bets with a limited run and simultaneous VOD release, but the mounting festival-circuit hype (and the perennial marketability of horror films) emboldened them to go all-in and release The Witch wide in February 2016. On its social media accounts, A24 alternated between serious quotes from critics vaunting the film’s frights and edgy, irreverent jokes about the witchcraft element (a cheeky #hailsatan hashtag, a GIF of Winnie the Pooh bowing to Baphomet, and the Twitter account I suspect A24 set up for Black Phillip, The Witch’s diabolical goat). But the pièce de résistance for The Witch’s marketing campaign was “The Satanic Revolution,” a collaboration with the Satanic Temple, in which the temple worked with A24 to organize a series of screenings followed by interactive performances. For horror fans with iconoclastic leanings, nothing could be more “metal” than an official endorsement by Satanists.
It’s important to note, though, that the Satanic Temple (unlike theistic Satanists) doesn’t actually advocate Satan-worship. The Temple describes itself as “a non-theistic religious organization” that “understand[s] the Satanic figure as a symbol of man’s inherent nature, representative of the eternal rebel, enlightened inquiry and personal freedom rather than a supernatural deity or being.” For members of the Satanic Temple, Satan is a metaphor; they’re not pro-devil, they’re anti-“theocracy.” So when Jex Blackmore, National Spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, describes The Witch as a “transformative Satanic experience,” she doesn’t mean that the film inspires or replicates devil-worship; she means that she believes that it lines up with the Satanic Temple’s secular humanist values. In Blackmore’s official statement endorsing the film, she describes it as follows:
With the discipline of a historian and the voice of a rebel, award-winning filmmaker Robert Eggers celebrates the sociocultural roots of the witch as a consequence of a parasitic, puritanical worldview. The Witch examines theocratic patriarchy in microcosm, documenting the pathology of a religious hysteria that is still influential in politics today. […] In its call to arms, [the film] becomes an act of spiritual sabotage and liberation from the oppressive traditions of our forefathers.
Whenever he’s asked about the Satanic Temple endorsement, Eggers has only this to say: “It’s nice to have fans!”
The Satanic Temple interpreted The Witch as a deeply ideological piece of art, and they weren’t alone. The witch in early American history is a loaded political symbol, located at the nexus of religion, sexuality, and power; there’s a reason high schoolers across the country do The Crucible every year. It’s only natural that a new film featuring a religious teenage girl who decides to join a coven of witches would inspire politically-minded criticism. Bustle ran an interview with Eggers with a feminist angle, focusing on women’s oppression in 17th-century America. Scott Pierce at Wired suggests that the film “[blends] old-time religion with modern feminist ideals.” Marie Claire ran a rave by Diane Cohen, who argues that the film wants us to see that “being ‘a witch,’ just like being a feminist, is just another term for believing in self-determination.” At Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen offers a primer on the semiotic elements at play in The Witch, including ideas of abjection, the “monstrous-feminine,” and the theory of religion as a tool of social control.
But Eggers doesn’t describe thematic issues as driving his creative process. When asked if he made the film with a moral in mind, he responds, “No. I mean, I was [assuming aristocratic voice] trying to tell it objectively without judgment. But things come out. Almost every interview, we're talking about feminism. But that's just exploding out of the pages of history.” Eggers is clearly savvy to the issues his script raises, and the years he spent researching for the film have provided him with lots of insight into the meaning of the witch as a symbol. But he’s adamant that he didn’t make the movie to make an ideological statement: “I don’t say, ‘This is an idea that I am thinking about, that I want to explore using the past’—I don’t do it like that. Often, it’s just a series of images and an atmosphere that is compelling to me, and then in doing my research, the story emerges.”
(This answer seems to be an echo of the way Stanley Kubrick has answered questions about what attracts him to his projects. Kubrick responded to Alexander Walker’s question about what he “hoped to achieve with [a film]” thus: “These are the questions I always find impossible to answer. [...] Somehow, the question [...] presumes that one approaches a film with something resembling a policy statement, or a one-sentence theme, and that the film proceeds upwards like some pyramid. Maybe some people work this way, but I don’t.” In an interview with the Chicago Tribune around the release of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick spoke of how an idea comes to him: “A film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”)
One has to peel back a few layers of accreted cultural criticism to get to what The Witch actually is, as a film. If you get through talking about whether it’s feminist or anti-Christian or, in fact, not feminist enough, there’s another debate behind that one: is The Witch even a real horror film? The Guardian ran a piece on the underwhelmed audience reaction to the film—some wondered whether The Witch “tricked” mainstream audiences into seeing an art film with too few scares.
Eggers, for his part, is testy on the subject. As he told Observer:
Because modern horror is usually this masochistic titillation bullshit, a lot of people in interviews will tell me [The Witch] is not a horror film, it’s a “psychological suspense thriller with supernatural elements.” And I’m like, “O.K., that’s cool.” But then fucking Edgar Allan Poe isn’t horror, either. What’s important to me about horror stories is to look at what’s actually horrifying about humanity, instead of shining a flashlight on it and running away giggling.
Eggers’ take on horror is actually a good place to start if you want to figure out what he’s up to as a director. Since he’s made his debut with a horror film, Eggers is having to do a lot of talking about the genre and his place in it, but I think that it would be wrong to talk about Eggers as a “horror director.” In an interview with the AV Club, Eggers talks about feeling out of step with horror as a subculture: “I don’t fetishize bad movies and bad acting, so that part of contemporary horror films, the part that has to do with in-jokes and meta references—I don’t really care. I don’t mean any disrespect, but this is not my bag.” He admits to not really getting Dario Argento: “Obviously there’s so much powerful imagery in Suspiria, but look at Suspiria versus Fellini’s City of Women. I would love to see a Fellini horror movie. Well, ‘Toby Damnit.’ That’s close in some ways. Someone’s going to say ‘What the hell are you talking about?’”
Eggers is referring to the short Fellini contributed to 1968’s Spirits of the Dead, an Edgar Allen Poe anthology film. It’s an obscure reference (even the AV Club didn’t know how to spell the title, properly “Toby Dammit”), and Eggers knows it, but he can’t help himself. From the way Eggers talks about his work and his interests, you can tell that he’s pacing himself for the long game, and that he’s measuring himself against the greats. When asked about his influences on Indiewire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Eggers shoots straight to Ingmar Bergman, as if it’s the obvious—the only—answer:
For me, Bergman’s the holy grail in so many ways, because the technique is so rigorous, and yet you don’t notice it. You don’t think, like, “Wow, we’ve been in a oner for all this time!” You’re just in the scene. And that’s because of his compassion for the characters, and Sven Nyqvist’s [Bergman’s cinematographer] as well.
In praising Bergman’s subtlety, Eggers reveals one of the insecurities that seems to plague him at the start of his career: he’s painfully self-conscious about how to be committed to craft without being, as he calls it, “a tool director type.” He’ll often lapse into a jokey, pompous-sounding voice when he says something he knows could be perceived as pretentious, as he does when he continues talking about The Witch’s influences on the Indiewire podcast: “But you can see, obviously, Kubrick and Lynch and blah blah bleeh bluh blah in their own ways. I think I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again: I’m embarrassed by the stench of The Shining on this movie.” Most directors—especially first-time feature directors—would be thrilled to have critics invoking Kubrick when writing about their work, but Eggers isn’t most directors.
Eggers’ pompous joke-voice makes sense as a kind of defense mechanism, because the way he talks about craft and theory does seem remarkably assured for someone so young and relatively inexperienced. While he’s quick to make fun of his own arty taste in cinematography (pompous joke-voice: “Look how cool this shot is, look how smart this is, heh heh heh!”), he has strong opinions on how not to make a film: “I’m not interested in coverage.” (This shows in The Witch. The angles he took are, often, very clearly the only angles he ever meant to use.) “I hate, I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate seeing a movie that feels like it’s just shot like a TV show.”
Eggers comes from a production design background, and he insisted on using period-correct materials and practices for constructing the sets and costumes for The Witch. He researched the period for four years before production started: “I read everything from Puritan prayer manuals and real accounts of witchcraft; I read the Geneva Bible from beginning to end,” he told Filmmaker Magazine. On the Indiewire podcast, he spoke of how, “years before anyone was giving us money, Jarin [Blaschke, The Witch’s D.P.] and I were in [...] the recreation of 1627 Plymouth in the houses with a light meter.”
I suggested earlier that one has to cut through layers of superimposed cultural meaning to get down to what The Witch is. And this interlude in which I’ve described Eggers’ fastidious focus on craft might make it sound like I’m about to assert that The Witch is a tightly controlled aesthetic exercise rather than an ideological statement—a painting rather than a thesis paper. But I don’t think Eggers is a “formalist,” if we’re defining formalism as privileging the aesthetic over the thematic. He uses craft as a conduit for empathy. It’s telling that Eggers praises Bergman’s technique in the same breath as he praises Bergman’s compassion—and Sven Nyqvist’s. To call a cinematographer “compassionate” is to assert that the camera’s gaze can be loving, dignifying; it is to assert that the act of photographing people, and portraying them honestly and generously, carries moral weight.
I don’t think that Eggers is tight-lipped about the Satanic Temple’s endorsement because he thinks they’re wrong about The Witch, per se. But I think he probably thinks that their read on the film—that it’s a story of feminist, anti-religious radicalization—is too mired in a contemporary perspective to fully appreciate what the film is doing. In an interview with The Verge, Eggers describes his frustration with the popular narrative about the Salem witch trials:
It wasn’t until I did the research that I really understood how this could happen. In school, it just seemed like, “Oh, superstitious people were stupid and backward, and how terrible is that?” But it’s much more interesting than that. What’s so interesting to me about history—what’s interesting to anyone—is how humans are the same. [...] They had different metaphysical truths than we do. And yet we’re the same.
Eggers really does mean to “tell it objectively without judgment.” But to tell a story about people from the past—deeply traditionalist, religious people—without passing judgment on them is a radical artistic choice in itself. And perhaps counterintuitively, Eggers elicits compassion for his characters by means of a strict commitment to craft and form. If he had been any looser with period-accurate design, any freer with dialogue, any more manipulative with his camerawork, we might have taken the cue that this was a contemporary interpretation of the past, and felt free to judge its characters, slotting them into our preconceived category for “Puritans.” But the members of the family in The Witch aren’t symbolic Puritans—they’re actual Puritans. They’re human beings who crossed the Atlantic to practice Reformed Calvinism in the New World. The Witch forces us to meet the members of this family on their own terms, and to enter fully into their world for the length of the film—to want what they want, and to fear what they fear.
The first shots of The Witch are medium closeups of all the members of the central family— the children (teenage Thomasin, preadolescent Caleb, and young twins Jonas and Mercy) shot from straight on, the parents (Katherine and William) in profile. We watch their faces as William is locked in a standoff against some kind of town council, in which William takes a hard, unspecified theological stance that forces the council to banish his family from society.
Similar compositions recur throughout the film. Eggers and Blaschke frequently place the camera on the axis of action or at 90 degrees to it, favoring stark profiles and frontal angles where more conventional filmmakers would feel safer with unassuming three-quarter angles and over-the-shoulder shots. (Eggers’ style contrasts most clearly with conventional filmmaking practice in The Witch’s dinner table scene, brusquely cut together from frontal, centered, locked-off clean singles.) This gives The Witch a kind of kinship with the films of Wes Anderson and Takeshi Kitano—fellow practitioners of what David Bordwell calls “planimetric” shooting and “compass-point” editing—and with the fearful symmetries of Stanley Kubrick. Kitano frequently use this technique to convey a sense of ennui or deadpan humor; Anderson’s compositions often give us a feeling of childlike whimsy. Kubrick’s are famously said to be cold, calculating, clinical.
In The Witch, such a stolid style helps us look at the wilderness through the eyes of Puritan stoicism and asceticism. These long, hard views rarely pan or tilt an inch without good reason. This strict stillness, unrelieved by the gentle shifting and shuffling we moderns usually allow ourselves, feels like kneeling in prayer on a hard floor. And in a world where a sense of sprezzatura is de rigeur for indie camerawork—whether jouncy vérité-inspired handheld shots or swooping Malicky steadicams exploring space in three-quarter time—Eggers’ decision to lock off his tripod feels as independent and stubborn as William’s insistence on making a home in the wilderness. Like the patriarch, the camera is quite literally stiff-necked.
Much of the dialogue in The Witch was taken directly from period sources, and Eggers has gotten his cast to deliver it with utter plausibility. When 12-year-old Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) says to his father, “God give you good morrow. All are still abed, save Mother,” there’s not a hint of artifice or difficulty in his voice. These are simply the words that it occurred to Caleb to say in the order it occurred to him to say them. The archaic language might, at first, seem like a way to distance the viewer from the characters; it takes a while to get into its rhythm. But the refusal to smooth out or modernize the dialogue actually helps us see the world the way the characters do. When characters in historical dramas speak and move like contemporary people, but we see them espousing antiquated beliefs we disagree with, it’s much easier to judge them as stupid or backward. The commitment to period-correct language reminds us that we are getting a glimpse into a different world, where people spoke and saw and thought of things differently than we do.
The commitment to accuracy in the production design and lighting functions the same way. When Eggers talks about his obsession with historical accuracy, he argues that we need specificity in order to feel with the characters. “We have to be in their minds, and this has to be a Puritan’s nightmare. [...] And if I’m going to articulate this to an audience, this has to be so personal to me. This has to be my memory of childhood when I was a Puritan, the way my dad smelled in the cornfield that day.”
It’s convincing, and it’s beautiful. The daytime interiors look like Vermeer, the misty exteriors like Caspar David Friedrich, the nighttime candles and fires like Goya. The actors look as if they’ve been chopping wood and firing muskets and milking goats all their lives. We hear the sounds of dirt and twigs crunching underfoot, the creak of timbers, the angry clatter of wood boards being nailed. Getting the mundane details of this family’s physical world right sets the foundation for us to believe in the more implausible elements of their world—which brings us to the witch.
One of Eggers’ boldest choices is to let us know, before we hit the ten minute mark, that there is an actual witch in the woods. We don’t see her steal the family’s infant child, Sam, but we do follow her back to her hovel to watch her mash the baby into a pulp. This is not a dream or metaphor; this is a real flesh-and-blood crone, naked, filthy, an animalistic servant of the devil himself. The characters aren’t making her up, and they’re right to be afraid—and the film makes us afraid with and for them. (This is in contrast to the more cynical, modern vision of Arthur Miller, who suggests that “the witch” was only ever an idea, used to silence and control. Eggers offers no such euhemeristic relief.)
After Sam is presumed dead, there is a scene where Caleb is hunting with his father in the woods, and William is catechizing Caleb about his corrupt nature; Caleb recites that he is “bent unto sin, and only unto sin, and that continually.” They go to visit a rabbit trap and find it empty; Caleb snaps it back open, and the cruel click punctuates his question about Sam: “Is he in hell?” William’s response sounds cold to our modern ears, but Ralph Ineson’s performance radiates care for his son: “Look you. I love thee marvelous well. But tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Fain would I tell thee that Sam sleeps in Jesus—that thou wilt, that I wilt—but I cannot tell thee that. None can.”
In this moment, we feel the whole spectrum of complicated feelings that The Witch is capable of calling up. We feel grief for the boy who has lost his brother, and for the father who doesn’t allow himself to grieve openly. We feel discomfort with the harsh doctrine William is teaching Caleb. Many viewers have seen William as the patriarch-villain of The Witch, but this seems too simplistic a reading to me—as played by Ineson (whose face I swear I’ve seen framed in some museum’s Northern Renaissance gallery), William is flailing and frail beneath his muscular frame and croaking basso profundo. We feel the sincerity of his belief, and the genuine love that he has for his son, despite the way his theology tempers his expression of it.
If The Witch were a straightforward liberation parable, as the Satanic Temple believes it is, there would be no point in Eggers’ granting the patriarch the humanity that he grants him. There would be no point in making the witch repulsive and murderous. If Eggers had wanted to use a film to make a clear statement about sexism and repression in today’s society, then The Witch would be a failure, because it makes things needlessly complicated on the ideological front. In The Witch, Calvinism seems evil, but so does witchcraft; society is threatening, but so is nature. The world of the film is built on this dualistic cosmology, and it forces its characters to accept these terms and pick a side, which proves to be their undoing.
When things start going south for the family, their accusations naturally fall on Thomasin because of the ways they’ve been socialized to fear a sexually developing young woman. Thomasin’s rebuke of her father’s hypocrisy is cathartic—but her acceptance of the devil’s offer to “live deliciously” and join the witches in the wood far from triumphant in Eggers’ handling (pace the viewers who saw the female empowerment narrative they so wished to see). After Thomasin is left alone in the forest, she’s left with no real choice but to sign her soul away— after being accused of witchcraft and forced to commit murder in self-defense, she figures she might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, as the saying goes. And as Thomasin rises into the night in the final shots, the atonal wailing of the chorus and the clacking percussion remind us of the sounds that underscored her infant brother’s murder at the beginning of the film, at the hands of one of the very witches she’s now become.
It’s quite simply not the story Eggers would tell if he wanted us to come away confident or certain about anything.
One clue to what’s going on here is the subtitle of the film: “A New England Folk Tale.” Perhaps The Witch is not a parable or a metaphor or a manifesto, but rather Eggers’ vision of a story that actual Puritans might have told one another. One can imagine them whispering the tale in the wee hours of the night, spreading rumors round the fire about the awful thing that happened to a family in a neighboring town. This reading of the film simplifies much, interpretively—we don’t have to bother as much about what everything means or stands for if we accept the premise that this is just the story we get. It’s “an inherited nightmare,” as Eggers puts it.
But to accept the story of The Witch as a “folk tale,” as merely the thing that happened this time to this family, is to be made profoundly uncomfortable. If we release the film from the duty of symbolizing or covertly preaching anything, and let the experience simply be what it is, we find ourselves rattled by it. If we stop asking the characters to stand in for people in our time, and instead ask ourselves to live in theirs for an hour and a half, they cease to be types and suddenly feel like living, breathing people. If we have a genuine encounter with these people from the past without indulging in smugness at having been born four hundred years later, we find a terror at things we didn’t know enlightened people like us could be afraid of.
Eggers presents, convincingly and accurately, a group of people who believe a thing that contemporary society largely finds repugnant, and asks us to invest emotionally in them. In doing so, he demonstrates what Keats calls “negative capability,” and asks the same capability of his audience. Keats coined the term to describe the state in which “a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” To allow The Witch to work on you—to enter into an unprotected experience of a world that is not our own—is to engage in negative capability.
“Irritable reaching after fact & reason” is a phrase that could readily apply to the contemporary critical climate. Nature abhors a vacuum; the internet abhors a mystery. Criticism has redefined itself, democratized, and proliferated in the information age. Our increased processing speed is powered by a kind of crowdsourcing, delegated amongst an unprecedentedly large, diverse, highly-educated online intelligentsia, armed with a razor-sharp array of critical tools, which are continually getting sharper. We can skeletonize an artwork within thirty-six hours of its release. Good postmodernists and poststructuralists all, we understand that there are ideological arguments in everything, and that these can be latent, subtle, unspoken, even unconscious and unintended. Attempting to reach the heights where Roland Barthes has trod, we try to write the essay that will reveal the thing under the thing, the thing even the creator did not realize was there, the thing the public is blind to because they are all unwittingly complicit in it.
But critics can take this semiotic sleuthing too far, to the point where we suspect that everything is secretly code for something else. We all want to be the first to “crack” a text. If we just scrub at the text hard enough, its “true” message will reveal itself. [New release] is actually classist; [old classic] is actually a progressive anti-capitalist parable; [Oscar contender] isn’t as feminist as it thinks it is. Often, we’re right, and often, this work is valuable. But today’s critics seem increasingly confident that criticism’s primary mission, raison d'être, and crowning glory is to unmask texts, humiliate them, wrestle them to the ground. The critic too often aspires to mastery over the work—a problematic term on the face of it—and makes an exclusive claim to the correct ideological interpretation—over audiences, and often over the artists themselves.
But this kind of criticism—the kind that attempts to expose and explain what a work of art is really saying—can become its own kind of witch-hunting. And it simply doesn’t work on everything. If an artist makes something sufficiently simple, or sufficiently complex, or sufficiently self-contained, any attempt to explain what the work is “really saying” will be missing part of the picture. If a piece of art holds its ideas in sufficient tension, it will not yield to the critic’s attempt to pull it apart.
Kubrick spent his career producing films that appeared to be puzzles but in fact were not. He described being attracted to The Short Timers, the source material for Full Metal Jacket, because it “offered no easy moral or political answers; it was neither pro-war nor anti-war. It seemed only concerned with the way things are.” Though no one can claim to have a truly objective perspective on anything, I do think that it’s possible to create art rich and opaque enough to function like an inkblot test for the viewer—as history itself tends to, as well. It has to do with rendering things accurately and placing them in their proper tension. And it has to do with holding one’s cards close to the vest as an artist, as Kubrick did, as Eggers does, no matter the temptation to explain yourself to your admirers or your detractors.
Literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin uses the word “polyphony” to describe a literary technique in which a writer writes in “many voices.” Bakhtin coined the word when writing about Dostoevsky, an author with the uncanny ability to write convincingly from the perspectives of characters who differ wildly in their beliefs and experiences. Shakespeare’s work is full of polyphony. Polyphonic writing is a kind of ventriloquism—“throwing one’s voice” to believably animate multiple fictional personalities. In a truly polyphonic work, it can be difficult to suss out the author’s own view among the many sensitively-rendered perspectives. And it’s enormously difficult to pull off, because it requires as much empathy as it does critical thinking; it requires as much passion as it does cool remove. Artists who aim to create polyphonic work must be able to pass a kind of Ideological Turing Test for each of their characters— some part of the author has to understand and sympathize with each character they impersonate.
Bergman made polyphonic films; so did Fellini; so did Kubrick. The Coen brothers can do it; so can Paul Thomas Anderson. To be able to pull off this ideological high-wire act is the mark of one of the greats. Robert Eggers has demonstrated he can do it in his very first feature—and I’d like to put my bet down right now that he’s going to become one of the filmmakers we’re still talking about in twenty, even fifty years.
Eggers has gone on record saying that he’s only interested in making period films. In the Indiewire podcast, he revealed that his next project is going to be an adaptation of Murnau’s Nosferatu—“This is going to be the same approach as The Witch, where 1830’s Biedermeier Baltic Germany needs to be articulated in a way that seems real.” The project that he has undertaken, and plans to undertake again, is to research an era so rigorously that he can write as if he really lived in that time and place, and really thought as people thought. It’s a craft that requires scholarly discipline, an empathetic imagination, and the will to do the physical, aesthetic, and administrative work that will bring that richly-imagined past to life.
Eggers won’t exclusively direct horror films much longer—he’s slightly embarrassed that he exclusively directs them right now—but I predict that all of his films will be, in some way or another, uncomfortable for viewers. To genuinely encounter a character from the past is to encounter the Other—a person who thinks differently from you, who emerged from a different world. History is, by definition, a time when people had not yet arrived at the ideological conclusions we have today—and yet the people of the past were just as human as we are now. It’s much simpler to write historical characters with a bit of a postmodern twist—to give them a few contemporary values, or to subtly mock the ways in which their views and practices are antiquated. To attempt the kind of accuracy that Eggers attempts in The Witch requires an enormous amount of discipline, self-awareness, and generosity. He had to be generous enough to get out of the way of these people—to let them speak for themselves, and experience the world in their own way, without his commentary or interference.
C.S. Lewis published a collection of lectures on medieval history called The Discarded Image, in which he tried to explain not just what medieval Europe was like politically, but also what it was like to think like a medieval person. In his preface, he acknowledges that this will not be interesting to everyone:
There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conception; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its “quaintness,” and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I was writing for other sort.
This is painstaking, thankless, hopelessly unsexy work, and if cultural critics ever catch wise to Eggers’ disinterest in allegory and mythologizing, it could make him an easy target for accusations of political apathy, social negligence, reckless unwokeness. This may be why the critics’ embrace of The Witch as feminist allegory seems to make Eggers a little diffident and careful in interviews—despite Eggers’ own bonafide progressive beliefs, I wonder if he may fear that his future experiments in radically objective historiography may be less likely to meet with the same warm reception. But I would like to assure him that his vocation is more politically urgent than it may appear. A rigorous, empathetic, indefatigable imagination about what it might be like to have lived a very different life is going to be indispensable in civic discourse in the coming years. I welcome any art that forces us to exercise this spiritual muscle, and I venture to guess that Eggers will be providing us much more of it over the course of his career.
Lauren Wilford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room.