Von Trier’s Melancholia

A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.

Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.

So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.

With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).

But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)

From Boethius to Blake

“The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

Embedded in this quote from The Consolation of Philosophy, beautiful to contemplate in its own right, is a code that solves all of Boethius’s philosophical problems. Writing just as the classical period gave way to the medieval (late 5th/early 6th century), while he was personally awaiting execution, Boethius struggled with many common questions: (1) how do we explain fortune’s wheel, which turns up and down quite irrespectively of what one deserves; (2) how do we deal with the problem of evil; (3) can we justify our belief in free will when everything seems logically predetermined by external and pre-existing forces?

Boethius views Fate and Providence as descriptions of the same reality but from different orientation points. From the point of view of one who exists in time, events often seem to follow each other by chance, with no rhyme nor reason to rewards and punishments. But the point of view of the eternal sees the full history of the universe simultaneously. The question of how one thing leads to another is irrelevant, as time has evaporated and the whole of eternity lies before one like a unified tapestry with all threads woven as they should be.

If we accept the premise of these two orientation points, this solves problem # 1 directly. Problem # 2 he solves with the supplemental argument that all men strive for happiness, that true happiness is consonant with goodness, and evil is never actually rewarded, as evil people mistake their goal and must always fall short of happiness by virtue of their own evil. Problem # 3 is a bit more indirect. From the point of view of Providence, from the still point in the middle, all things are simultaneous. In Boethius’s sometimes theological diction, all things are “foreseen.” But from the point of view of people moving along the circle, they need to make decisions every day with practical and ethical implications. To Boethius, foreseen is not the same thing as fore-ordained. The omniscience at the center of the circle in no way mitigates the urgency of making the right decisions for those of us in motion.

Although one can detect concerns here that would occupy the Christian age, Boethius remains classical in a couple of key ways. His intellectual guide is always reason, his moral compass moderation and tranquility. Combine these with the sense of Providence and Plato’s metaphysics, and you have the basic framework of Christian Platonism that looms over the next millennium.

One could argue that John Milton’s Paradise Lost takes this medieval Christian worldview into the Renaissance. Milton’s Satan is the great Renaissance humanist, the high achiever who thinks it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan’s villainy, and his undoing, is his all-too-human pride, his tragic belief in his own self-sufficiency.

Whereas in this (necessarily simplified) line of reasoning, Milton smoothly transitions to the Renaissance, just as Boethius had smoothly bridged from classical to medieval, there is nothing smooth about William Blake’s emergence at the beginning of what would be called the Romantic period. Here we get a real rupture. Blake praised Milton for his concrete vision of divine reality, a panorama that rang true to Blake’s own visionary experience. Milton’s only flaw, to Blake, is that he misnamed the characters. The character Milton calls “Satan” is actually the Messiah, and the character Milton called “the Messiah” is actually Satan.

Shock value aside, there is a method to Blake’s madness. Milton’s Messiah represents reason and restraint, the chains that bind the human spirit in Blake’s cosmology. Milton’s Satan represents passion and excess and unrestrained will, all the redemptive forces that enable maximum human achievement and self-actualization.

All great writers, each with something to offer the questing spirit, but after Blake it’s suddenly a long way back to Boethius.

Sheila and Michael’s Refrigerator

I’m back from Germany and I may want to post some German journal entries in between other entries. Since I still haven’t written that journal, I will throw forth this opening gambit for your amusement…

Sheila and Michael’s Refrigerator (Stadecken-Elsheim,Germany)

They say that when you penetrate the event horizon surrounding a black hole, you become subject to extreme gravity, from which not even light can escape. But if you can skim past the event horizon and veer away from the black hole without being pulled in, you hardly notice at all. I believe Sheila and Michael’s refrigerator operates on the same principle. Perhaps you’ve experienced this with your own refrigerator or that of a friend. When you try to open it, the door won’t give, so you pull harder. But by the time you’ve pulled hard enough to bring the door to its escape velocity, you’ve pulled too hard and the door flies open, jeopardizing the jams and jellies and rattling the mustard.

Inside Sheila and Michael’s refrigerator sit several items of note: zucchini, celery, tomatoes, cherry cheesecake, and spargel (fresh white asparagus). Addie (age 9), CC (age 7), Eva (age 4), and I remove the veggies to make garnishes. CC especially has been waiting for this. We make a tomato crab, an apple swan, and a flower pot from a sliced column of zucchini with celery leaves thrusting themselves up and out and over the top. Our apple swan is precise, elegant, classical, as a swan should be. Our flowerpot sculpture is wilder, overflowing, even extravagant. A romantic counterpoint. Our tomato crab is hard to plot into the classical and romantic coordinates. It somehow lacks the gravitas of our other, more formidable plantae. Its black peppercorn eyes give it a mawkish, unsophisticated look, its tomato body a squishy joke, all in all a mere cartoon of a garnish. We eat it first.

With no such aesthetic qualms, we tear into the bright red and soft yellow of the cherry cheesecake. Or in the vernacular, the kirschkäsekuchen. This was a real tongue-twister for me, so I thought I should push it as far as I could. “I can cook the church’s cherry cheesecake,” or “Ich kann die Kirches Kirschkäsekuchen kochen.” This is too much even for the girls, and they are the household experts in the German language, trying to teach their parents and me as we fitfully retreat into our own mastered tongue.

Oh, the spargel. One is reminded at every restaurant, every weingut, every market: Germans are crazy for spargel. Especially in spring time.