Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shaviro, Melancholia, Warwick

I like Steven Shaviro's post on the von Trier movie Melancholia. And I like Henry Warwick's comment—Henry gave me permission to reprint it here.

This is a somewhat cleaner version of a response I wrote on Steve Shaviro's excellent blog, The Pinocchio Theory. I wrote it in response to his excellent and insightful preliminary review of the film Melancholia by Lars von Trier, which can be read here:

I sent my review to Tim Morton because I pointed at one of his books in the review. He asked if he could republish it here on his blog, and I agreed, but I wanted to "clean it up a little bit". I wrote the review on Shaviro's blog very late at night (1 AM) and in retrospect feel it could use some detailing. I am honoured that Tim wants this on his blog.
- Henry Warwick

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Steve, I agree with your points. I would like to add my own perspective, which is that Melancholia is also an allegory of the end of western civilisation.

Justine is the romantic depressionist. Like her namesake she dies in an instant by an implacable act of "nature". She is kind of an embodiment of the anti-rationalist pessimism of Schoepenhauer et al. Her sister, Claire, is simply trying to understand what the hell is going on. Claire = Clear. Clair's primary concern is her son, whom she loves dearly. She is the “normal human”, living in extremely abnormal circumstances, and her limitations and frailties distort her actions and responses, even as she does her best to cope. She has feelings - complex feelings ranging from panic to devotion - and is free to express them. She is basically an optimist, and even when things are going very poorly, it is only at the end when she truly gives up hope and then tries to come up with an honourable exit from this mortal coil. Her child is The Child. The father (her husband) is Science – rationalist, positivist, Science. As he is a true rationalist and dedicated to his own “enlightened self-interest”, it only makes sense why he suicides.

It is HIS estate they live on – they live in luxury thanks to Science. It is a wealthy estate – wasteful, pointless, and finally dysfunctional and suicidal and completely incapable of protecting them from Melancholia.

The Arrival of Melancholia is the realisation that the World is coming to an End. And the World is socially constructed - especially the World they live in. Hence, to really get the point of the World Ending, von Trier couldn't have the “World” ending – it has to be The Planet Itself Ending. The utter bullshit of the “science” displayed in the film re: Melancholia’s path to Earth's destruction, is so thin that any high school student who studied rudimentary gravitational physics can demonstrate how utterly wrong the movie is. As that is so, the destruction of the planet Must Be not the end of the Planet but the end of the World, and the only world we see in the movie is the world of the bourgeoisie… the Western World.

For me Melancholia is a philosophical surpassing of Avatar. Avatar was very clunky in its critique of Western Industrial Civilisation. Melancholia is quite the opposite. Avatar said “We’re ruining the biosphere with industrialism. We have to stop industrialism cuz… it’s like... really bad.” Melancholia comes from a more sophisticated “Dark Ecology” position – there is no solution. There is no “way out”, the World (western industrialism) is coming to an end, and we have no idea what will replace it or how or when.

Now, it appears that Melancholia is about the size of Uranus, only rocky. That’s MASSIVE. If it had passed by the earth as close as it seems (well within lunar orbit) it would have tossed the moon out of orbit, and blown the earth into a much more eccentric orbit around the sun. It would not have gone “around the earth” and then come back for an impact. Something that huge and that dense would have tossed the earth around like a toy and dragged it about. The looping manoeuvre in the movie would/could not have happened. IF the earth did strike Melancholia head on, it would have blown a big chunk of Melancholia away – it would not have been simply absorbed, and this would create a smaller Melancholia and several large moons of Melancholia. Or, if Melancholia was somewhat less dense, or struck with a more glancing and harder blow, the Earth's impact would have blown it to pieces and created another asteroid belt around the sun. The density and mass of this asteroid belt would be so great that the orbits of Mars and Venus would be massively disrupted. None of this happened or was even suggested in the film.

Which is why I suggest the movie wasn’t about the science of planet impacts or the end of the Planet at all. Trier says it is about humans acting in a difficult and depressing time, drawing on his own experiences of clinical depression. I see that as a humanist handle to a larger story, as described above - the end of Western Industrial Civilisation - the end of the "World" as we know it - the vapourisation of the capitalist system by the utterly implacable and vastly larger forces of our planet's ecology.

Of course, I could be totally wrong. But that’s my story and I’m stickin with it for now….


Adeline Luna Bladon said...

I loved this film and am happy to see my own reflections - that Melancholia is an allegory for Western civilisation - supported here. I agree that Justine is pre-modern/intuitive/mythical, Claire is like bourgeois normality, her husband science/rationality and so on. I thought it was interesting that Justine cannot cope when trying to construct normality, with the consensual illusions that this is built on, that she 'knows things' that can't be explained, and that she seems to speak through images and art. She is also the progeny of what seem like mythical parents - a Dionysus like father, though I don't know enough to suggest a figure for her mother - Hera? At the end, those that are still alive have to construct an imaginary 'cave' to hide in to make it bearable, an illusion that we can see through (and doesn't prevent the disaster).

Henry Warwick said...

Great minds think alike?

vegemini said...

I rather see the "dark ecology" of "Melacholia" to be a sort of excuse, the classic Hitchcockian "MacGuffin" where this seemingly major, important narrative element is just a means or a portal to explore and define the characters' states; in "The Birds," arguably Hitchcock's closest brush with Sci-fi, the berserk birds are the means by which two conflicting personality types, Melanie and Mitch, may or may not overcome the conflicts and come together. The damn birds are just there to force the issue. The Nazi thugs and smuggled uranium in "Notorious" are just the means for Cary Grant to overcome his jealousy and become a real man and hero to Ingrid Bergmann. Like Hitchcock, "Melancholia" exists as a metaphorical narrative. The planet Melancholia is an excuse to explore the dynamics and opposed, Ying Yang, Sun/Moon aspects of two personality types. Depressed Justine is the one who suffers from too much clarity. She is at her most alienated estrangement from seeing too clearly the bullshit substrate of the constructs that oppress her; as a newlywed and as an advancing career woman. She is so distracted and outraged by her societal trappings, she can only inevitably blow them off. She finally gains a peaceful, contented spirit when she knows she is imminently doomed. (I must disclose that the nude image of Ms. Dunst bathed in the blush white light of Melancholia is forever imprinted on my mind!) Melacholia is her goddess, her nakedness is her gleeful sacrificial offering, her clarity grown up. Justine is one with her goddess. She IS her goddess. Justine's vision is one of utter clarity.

Claire, on the other hand, embraces a mindset, indeed an interpellation of justice. What is a tragic sham to Justine is Claire's own just goddess: conformity. As Justine transitions from depression and outrage to wisdom and serenity by the advent of Melancholia, Claire goes from the complacency as wife, mother, Lady of the Estate, of her happy societal role, to her own depression and outrage at the same advent. Claire's outrage is at the injustice, the unfairness of Melancholia. The same phenomenon that gives unto Justine taketh away from Claire. Thus the prolonged, sublime role reversals. Planet Melancholia is just there to force the issue.

Finally, I had to be amused at Mr. W's grappling with the science of Planet Melancholia. No shit it doesn't hold up. But that's like complaining that Astronaut Dave Bowman should have been spaghettified into a string of atoms as Discovery's spacepod passed though the Stargate wormhole, or that his final confinement in a Victorian hotel room could not exist in the gaseous environment of Jupiter. Ain't the point. "2001: A Space Odyssey" surrenders it's plot to pure metaphor in that film's final reel. Go with it. This is much how "Melancholia" is to be savored and "grokked."