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.)

O’Connor’s Misfit and Christian Existentialism

In a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandma and Red Sam (“the fat boy with the happy laugh,” as he proudly posts on the signs for his barbecue  joint) lament how hard it is to find a good man nowadays. But from these two master manipulators of the older generation to the self-centered brats (John Wesley and June Star) of the younger generation, it’s safe to say that O’Connor’s point is that it always has been and always will be virtually impossible to find a good man in this world. (SPOILERS ahead, so you may want to click the link and read the roughly 10-page story first.)

But the dearth of good men does not prevent O’Connor from giving us a truly interesting man in the villain of the piece, the Misfit, who gets all the best lines as he pours out his bio and hodgepodge philosophy to the grandma’s family when he stumbles upon them after their car wreck on a rural Georgia back road.

When the Misfit’s father says of the Misfit, “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters,” he divides people into two groups – those who live out their whole lives without ever breaking the surface and those whose penetrating intelligence constantly pushes them toward a deeper understanding. The former would include the family, whose comically superficial attitude toward life and death and violence occupies the first half of the story. The Misfit is in the latter group, which leaves us with a knot: the Misfit is in the “good” group, but is clearly not a viable hero.

This brings us to the Misfit’s shrewd response to the grandmother’s comically self-serving claim that he’s a good man: “’Nome, I ain’t a good man.’ The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, ‘but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.’” This clearly divides people into three groups: the “good,” the “worst,” and some third group to which the Misfit must belong. Understanding the three groups requires unpacking the epigraph (which, unfortunately, is omitted from some editions of the story):

 The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.

                                                                                                — St. Cyril of Jerusalem

The dragon represents the existential crisis – the recognition that the world is irrational, morally absurd, and that the lives we live are utterly meaningless. There are three tracks of human existence relative to the dragon. The “worst” off would be those people who coast along from one superficial event to the next and die without ever realizing that their whole lives were lived out on a glassy shallow surface (witness Bailey’s famous last words: “I’ll be back in a minute, Momma”). These never even reach the dragon. Then there are those who do face the dragon/crisis. This requires a deeper intelligence and the Misfit has certainly made it this far. But this by no means gets you home free. At this point one is faced with the only real dilemma that will ever count: irrational faith or despair.

The Misfit has obviously reached the dragon/crisis (thus is “not one of the worst”), but how does he respond? He responds by committing himself to reason and balance. He is driven insane by the fact that “I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Regarding Jesus’ claim about raising the dead, we are told, “’I wisht I had of been there,’ [the Misfit] said, hitting the ground with his fist. . . . ‘If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’” He wants moral balance, rational certainty. And he is shrewd enough to recognize that this is the path to despair. Indeed, I suppose the unacknowledged ghost in the Misfit’s world view, Kierkegaard, would define “despair” as precisely an insistence upon rational, moral balance in the world. “Beware lest he [the dragon] devour you.”

O’Connor’s point of view is existentialist because it insists that the world is irrational and morally absurd, no matter how many little tricks we use to impose a rational order upon it. And it is decisively Christian existentialism. Jesus, as the Misfit, says, “thown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or . . . .” Jesus throws the whole rational game off balance. We have absolutely no reason to believe anything he said. Indeed, seeking a reason to believe leads us to the Misfit’s path of despair. From the Christian existentialist position, we must conclude that any Christian who believes he or she has good reason to believe must be in group one, among the “worst” who have never truly broken the surface and faced the dragon/existential crisis. Any Christian who seeks a reason to believe, but is smart enough to know that s/he can’t really find one (group 2), has faced the dragon but is continually being devoured by it (as the Misfit). The true Christian (group 3) must choose faith with the full knowledge that such a choice is, in the face of the dragon, absurd.

The story is a bit shaky, despite O’Connor’s overt Christian intentions, on demonstrating the final option – those who have faced the dragon and chosen the irrational leap of faith. The grandmother is supposedly a last-minute exemplar.

“His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him.”

Presumably, the grandmother finally breaks through her petty self-interest and chooses a redemptive act. The fact that it’s the grandmother, the heretofore exemplar of manipulative self-interest, reinforces absurdity, unpredictability. The fact that she’s shot in the chest three times in the next sentence reinforces the idea that the point of faith is not to achieve balance in this world (such an objective would be a variant of despair).

Finally, the famous penultimate line of the Misfit: “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Again, the Misfit very shrewdly sees that the only thing that ever made grandma crack the surface was a gun in her face. This is typical Flannery O’Connor. We need some violent shock to thrust us into crisis – lest we live out our lives in that dreamy, surface complacency. Granted, it’s not pleasant, but it’s the only way: “We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” Thus O’Connor crafts her own recipe for Christian existentialism, like a Waffle House version of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, cut, reshaped, and chicken-fried to the order of the Southern redneck.