Friday, 14 October 2011

Melancholia and the Dance of Death

By Sebastian Gaete

I recently went to see Lars Von Trier’s latest film “Melancholia” at the Rio in Dalston. It was my friend’s idea. Without wanting to give away too much, it’s about the end of the world: a stray planet, “Melancholia”, collides with the Earth, putting an immediate end to life (and the film).

The film is divided into two parts. The first part works a bit like an extended “This is your Life” for our beautiful heroine Justine (Kirsten Kunst). It is her wedding reception and we meet her family, friends, boss, and of course her new husband. One by one, and collectively, they are spectacularly dissed by our increasingly melancholy heroine. Finally, her husband can’t take any more humiliation and leaves without her.

The second part is more like “This is your (impending) Death”. The strange “star” we caught a glimpse of in part 1 is actually a planet, and it’s getting bigger (ie. closer). Soon it dominates the sky (and the film). All we can do is watch and wait with them in fascinated horror the slow approach of the inevitable.

My friend had assured me that the film wouldn’t be too depressing, and to be fair, it wasn’t a patch on the last film I saw, Iñarrítu’s masterpiece “Buitiful”, an extraordinary and extraordinarily harrowing meditation on all things depressing, especially death. By bizarre coincidence, a friend had just told me about “The Death Cafe”, a place where people meet to talk about death, only hours before sitting down to this latest dose of melancholic apocalypse. Not to mention I just started a course in bereavement counselling on Monday. Spooky!

“Melancholia” is one of those films that can’t fail to haunt you. Powerful hyper-real images invade your consciousness and your dreams and unsettle your sense of normalcy for days afterwards. What more powerful and unsettling than the Death, the End of the World, the Death of Life Itself?

This horrifying thought – The End – is what von Trier invites us to contemplate. And he gives us plenty of time to contemplate it. And what follows, as night follows night, is melancholia. What’s the point? What’s it all for? I’m going to die one day. The Earth is going to die one day. Life is just a blip in eternity, and I’m just a blip of a blip. I might as well just have an existential crisis right here and now.

The thought of death can either spur us on to live more fully, to make the most of the little life we have (“carpe diem” and all that), or it can cast a pall of meaningless futility over everything (“X factor” and all that). The thought of death puts life in the dock. We avoid thinking about death, because we don’t really want to think about life. What if it really is a pointless exercise signifying nothing? Or what if it is actually a precious gift we’ve taken for granted and wasted on inconsequential rubbish? But then again, what if everything is inconsequential? From the point of view of being dead, so what?

Scientific materialists, who worship at the altar of the hard sciences, think that they are “hard” because they can stare unflinchingly at the black abyss of nothingness which awaits us all. But this attitude often goes accompanied by a certain hardness of heart. Indifference to death implies indifference to life. And vice versa.

Taking the life out of life by explaining it in materialist terms certainly takes the sting out of death. But oh, the melancholia! It’s so depressing! Again, it’s best not to think about it too much. Just stay positivist and get on with it.

Is there hope in our post-modern, post-religious, desacralised world? God is dead, if not buried, as Nietzsche pointed out, and the comfort blanket of the afterlife is strewn in shreds across a secular wasteland. So, are we adrift without a paddle between the Scylla and Charybdis of antiquated faith and melancholia?

Perhaps the way out of this predicament is through the “hard problem” of science: consciousness. Consciousness is a hard problem because, although we can identify observable physical correlates of particular conscious states in the brain and nervous system, we cannot scientifically account for the phenomenon of consciousness itself. There is clearly a close relationship between consciousness and the brain, but it is impossible to reduce one to the other. So what?

So this:
Consciousness is not produced by material processes, yet it is not separate from them. Scientific materialism on the one hand and Cartesian dualism on the other are impossible. The only persuasive philosophical position in the body/mind debate is “property dualism”, that is, consciousness is a property of matter, like mass or charge. (This view is traditionally known as “panpsychism” or “pantheism”). 

At the simplest molecular levels, consciousness is too slight to be discernable. However, through further evolution, the combination of all the infinitesimal points of consciousness into ever more complex networks (“organic functionalism”) creates an amplified and generalised consciousness, which takes a “quantum leap” with the emergence of the cell. 

“Life” can thus be understood as consciousness amplified and localised at the cellular level of existence. As cells then interact and form their own networks, consciousness continues its expansion until a new entity becomes the locus for a higher consciousness, viz. the organism. With the evolution of species, organisms’ nervous systems and brains increase in complexity with a corresponding increase in their degree of consciousness, which we generally refer to as “mind”, culminating in the extraordinary complexity of the human brain. 

However, evolution does not stop here, but repeats the same networking pattern through “cultural evolution”, both in our own species and to a lesser extent in the social behaviour of primates, higher vertebrates, and in fact all the way down the scale to the social insects and ultimately even the plant kingdom. All of life on Earth is connected in a complex web of ever more complex interconnections and networks, which has reached its apotheosis in modern human culture. So, just as consciousness has already taken successive leaps in its long history from “matter” to “life” to “mind”, there is no reason why it shouldn’t take the next step: planetary consciousness.

The panpsychist has no cause for melancholia. Evolution has direction and purpose, and our own little dramas are integral and essential parts of a much larger cosmic drama, the endless unfolding expansion of consciousness, possibly no less than the becoming conscious or enlightenment of the universe itself.

Since consciousness is all pervading, it should be theoretically possible to shift our consciousness from identification with this body and mind, to identification with the whole planet. This would explain the experience of mystics the world over, including the experience of immortality or “everlasting life”, since the life-span of the Earth is so much greater than our own. Then personal death is nothing. In biological terms, death is not really the end of life, but simply an efficient means of re-generating life through genetic transmutation and natural selection. Life uses death for its own advancement. From the point of view of Life, death has no sting. And for those who transcend themselves and identify with Life, death has lost its sting. 

Perhaps Jesus allowed himself to be crucified to show that death wasn’t such a big deal in the greater scheme of things. He was identified with the “Father”: so what if he died? He lived on in the Father, in the all-pervading consciousness of Life on Earth.

But what if the Earth’s life-span was itself tragically cut short, by a rogue planet like “Melancholia” perhaps. Then what? Well, luckily there is no “Melancholia” on the horizon. As if waking from a bad dream, I found myself stumbling out onto Kingsland Road way past my bedtime on that fateful melancholy night thinking, “Phew, thank God that was only a film!” 


  1. An unbelievable ominous signs of demolish. The capricious monotone of predicament that numbs minds and body. The magic cave which bears an all pervading compressive emotions of life( being and becoming) but couldn't right here. It's possible but more than a possible fact.

    Monish Roy

  2. You wrote:

    The strange “star” we caught a glimpse of in part 1 is actually a planet, and it’s getting bigger (ie. closer). Soon it dominates the sky (and the film).

    Not exactly. In part 1 we were introduced to the red star Antares (it really exists, btw). The "antagonist" is not this star, but the fictious planet Melancholia, which, while nearing to the Earth, obscures Antares, getting in the way between Earth and it. You can see that clearly in the film opening sequence. It is suggested in the film, that Justine character somehow knew it may happen - from the very beginning (kind of like she had watched the opening sequence with us). Justine asked John about the "red star" - and when she later could not see it anymore, she was sure, that everything in the opening sequence will proceed to happen.

    1. I think that's a hint to us that this movie is really about Kyrstin, and that we are inside of her head, watching her bask (as she did naked during a night scene in the movie) in her own depression. She was only happy when she was being depressed. The movie hints to us again that we are inside her head when she guesses 678 beads. She is aware of all of the doom and gloom, because its all in her own head. I felt like the entire movie was about a severely depressed girl and how everyone around her is off put and eventually leaves her because of her melancholy. The planet is not real, it's just symbolic of her depression. She again hints to this when she says that she is dragging a grey cloth behind her all of the time, which is a very similar description of depression that many clinically depressed people describe.

  3. Love! This is a nice complement to the Nietzsche reading I've done this year, and right as Melancholia is released in the US. I was super excited to read this and love the way you word the "worshipping at the altar of science." When we think about the word "hard" it doesn't actually imply truth at all but materialism. If its hard, we can touch it as humans, if its soft, we can touch it with our hearts (if we still have them)! Love your writing!

  4. I saw this movie, too depressing.... amoral .... destructive...
    It is my opinion...just...

    Andrew , Belfast - Vilnius - Kaunas


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