Darkness and Melancholia

Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness

I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.

The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.

So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.

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.)

Coppola’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) demonstrates nicely why film directors should never stay “true to the book.” Film and literature are different media, each with its own characteristic strengths and limitations, and directors ignore that at their peril. A film cannot compete with a novel on the novel’s own terms and vice versa.

Coppola’s Dracula is at its weakest when it tries to stay too close to the book. For example, Coppola retains all five protagonists. Other film versions of Dracula trim this configuration down to achieve the greater unity and focus that is required for basically a two-hour experience in the theater. Coppola would have done well to do the same.

On the other hand, Coppola’s film succeeds spectacularly when he takes the greatest liberties with the story. The first ten minutes of the film is all Coppola’s invention, and it sets up a uniquely interesting Dracula (Gary Oldman). Don’t get me wrong. Each director, wittingly or not, plays on particular facets of the character. E.g. we saw in the Bela Lugosi character (dir. Tod Browning) a kind of metaphysical threat commensurate with the black-and-white medium, we saw in the Jack Palance character of the 1970s (dir. Dan Curtis) more of a flesh-and-blood cruel masculinity, and we see in Gary Oldman’s character a perfect conflation of romantic hero and gothic villain. Despite the title of Coppola’s film, Oldman’s romantic count, who courts the women he loves and is capable of sacrificing his eternal interest for them, is a far cry from Stoker’s character. And this is what makes Coppola’s film great. When Coppola’s Dracula provides a foil for Jonathan (Keanu Reeves), Mina (Winona Ryder) faces a choice much richer and more dramatic than the one faced by the novel’s Mina. Dracula offers the romantic figure, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. Jonathan offers the sentimental Victorian figure, morally safe, genuinely kind and trustworthy, but utterly lacking in passion.

This also allows Coppola to put more pressure on female choice in the film, whereas the novel removes choice from women in an exaggerated manner, as Dracula’s power turns women into helpless somnambulists over whose bodies good men struggle against bad. And this unique element of Coppola’s film lends much power to the entirely invented final scene, with Dracula and Mina/Elisabeta in the chapel, where Mina’s power is real power and not just the traditional female power of passive goodness that we see in so many Victorian novels like Dracula.

Now I’d love to go into some of the quirkier visions of Stoker’s brooding count, who exercised such power over the 20th-century imagination – e.g., Andy Warhol’s Dracula (dir. Paul Morrissey), which has the best opening credits ever set to Dracula, but then, after its 15 minutes of fame, becomes either the worst or the most interesting Dracula ever made (or both). Certainly Warhol’s conception of the character is unlike any other. But this is beyond the scope of my own present title, so I’ll save that for another day.

(For further thought, see my comparison of Coppola’s Dracula to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.)